Solzhenitsyn's Big Fist

October 8: On this day in 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize. In his 1975 memoir, The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn describes his failed attempt to use his Nobel Prize as a knock-out blow to Soviet repression. "During my time in the camps," he writes, "I had got to know the enemies of the human race quite well: they respect the big fist and nothing else; the harder you slug them, the safer you will be." His Nobel moment would be the opposite of Pasternak's reneging and knuckling-under: unconditional acceptance of the Prize, a rousing speech in Stockholm, no concessions come what may. Then it gradually became clear that the Academy, wanting his presence but not his politics, planned to keep him clear of the demonstrations and off the soapboxes: "Fine! The very reason why I trudged my way from work camp parades to the Nobel Prize—to hide in a quiet apartment in Stockholm and flee with a carload of detectives from a lot of pampered young ne'er-do-wells."


Then came strategic doubts: once out of the country he would likely be kept out, thus losing the ability to fight from within. Compounding these reasons—this is not in the memoir but a 1984 biography by Michael Scammell—was a personal situation not unlike Pasternak's: an extramarital affair that had his mistress pregnant, his wife suicidal, and all concerned vulnerable to counter-attack from the authorities. Having failed to talk the Swedish authorities into a satellite ceremony at their embassy in Moscow, Solzhenitsyn finally decided to stay home, sending only a seven-sentence message to be read at the banquet.


Home at this point was the borrowed Moscow dacha of his new friend, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Here Solzhenitsyn and a few friends gathered on the night of the Nobel banquet to celebrate and listen to whatever Nobel coverage came on the radio. They eventually heard Solzhenitsyn's speech—blurred and full of static, but clear enough for everyone to realize that the Swedish presenter, afraid of the political implications, had cut Solzhenitsyn's last sentence: "…So let none at this festive table forget that political prisoners are on hunger strike this very day in defense of the rights that have been curtailed or trampled under foot."

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at

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