Traditional Prejudices

The anti-Semitism of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Controversy rages as charges of anti-Semitism dog a beloved cultural icon. No, not Mel Gibson: The man at the center of this debate is the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, was once a revered symbol of moral resistance to the Soviet state. He probably deserves more credit than any other person for stripping away communism's moral prestige among Western intellectuals.

Exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzhenitsyn alienated some erstwhile admirers with his Russian nationalism and his antipathy toward Western-style democracy; after his return to Russia 20 years later, the public's reverence soon faded to polite indifference. Still, he retains his special status among the older intelligentsia and many Western anti-communists.

Accusations of anti-Semitism are not new for Solzhenitsyn. Critics have long pointed to passages in The Gulag Archipelago that selectively list the Jewish last names of labor camp commandants. And Solzhenitsyn's historical novel August 1914, published in English in 1972, emphasizes the Jewishness of Dmitry Bogrov, assassin of Russia's reformist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin.

Solzhenitsyn has claimed that he was merely telling it like it was, but August 1914 embellishes history considerably: While Bogrov was a thoroughly assimilated revolutionary from a family of third-generation converts, Solzhenitsyn saddles him with a Jewish first name, Mordko (a diminutive of Mordecai), and the fictitious motive of trying to undermine the Russian state to help the Jews.

Then came the news that Solzhenitsyn was writing a major history of the Jews in Russia. The first volume of Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), covering the period from 1795 to 1916, appeared in 2001; the second volume followed in 2003. According to Solzhenitsyn, the work was intended to give an objective and balanced account of Russian-Jewish relations: "I appeal to both sides -- the Russians and the Jews -- for patient mutual understanding and admission of their own share of sin." This comment seems suspicious in itself, given that, for most of their history in Russia, Jews were victims of systematic oppression and violence. To talk about mutual guilt is a bit like asking blacks to accept their share of blame for Jim Crow.

What does Solzhenitsyn see as the Jews' share of sin? Mainly, their participation in revolutionary activities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then in the Soviet government. He rejects claims that communism in Russia was the result of a Jewish plot but asserts that Jews played a "disproportionate role" in the creation of a terrorist state "insensitive to the Russian people and disconnected from Russian history."

Just what does "disproportionate" mean? Jews were overrepresented among the socialist revolutionaries, but as the historian Richard Pipes points out in The New Republic, they were also overrepresented among Russian capitalists. What's more, says Pipes, "the ranks of the revolutionaries were certainly dominated by Russians." A three-part series by Mark Deitch in the Russian daily Moskovskiy komsomolets last September noted that there were 43 Jews among the 300 major players on the Russian political scene in 1917 -- and only 16 of them were Bolsheviks.

Solzhenitsyn asserts that "the population of Russia, as a whole, regarded the new [revolutionary] terror as a Jewish terror" -- and seeks, if not to validate, then at least to excuse this perception. Deitch subjects Solzhenitsyn's account to a withering analysis. After quoting historian Lev Krichevsky's statement that "in 1918, at the time of the Red Terror, ethnic minorities made up about 50 percent of the central staff of the Cheka [the secret police]," Solzhenitsyn adds that "Jews were quite prominent" among those minorities.

But he omits Krichevsky's actual data, which show that Jews made up less than 4 percent of the Cheka staff and held 8 percent of executive positions. On other occasions, though, Solzhenitsyn is not averse to exact numbers: He points out, for example, that six of the 12 Cheka investigators in the "department for the suppression of counter-revolution" were Jewish.

An even more devastating critique of Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre appeared in the U.S.-based Russian Jewish weekly Vestnik. The author, émigré journalist Semyon Reznik, analyzes a curious work self-published in Moscow in 2000 by one Anatoly Sidorchenko, a collection that includes two essays by Sidorchenko himself and one attributed to Solzhenitsyn, "Jews in the USSR and in the Future Russia."

In a June 2000 interview in Moscow News, Solzhenitsyn dismissed the publication as "a vile stunt by a mentally ill person." Yet he failed to explicitly disavow his authorship -- and a comparison between the essay (dated 1968) and Two Hundred Years Together reveals astonishing similarities, including entire paragraphs that are virtually identical.

The major difference is that the essay abounds in passages that verge on overt Jew bashing. The second volume of Two Hundred Years Together mentions a band of "'militant atheists' led by Gubelman-Yaroslavsky" who trashed Russian Orthodox churches. The name Gubelman is the only reference to the man's Jewishness. The corresponding passage in the 1968 essay reads: "The man who trashed Orthodox Christianity was Yemelyan Yaroslavsky -- a Jew, Minei Izrailevich Gubelman." It contains another line about Jews tramping through Christian churches with cigarettes in their teeth.

Almost none of this has received any attention in the Western press. The first volume of Two Hundred Years Together, which has yet to be translated into English, has drawn mixed commentary, invariably accompanied by the qualification that Solzhenitsyn is obviously not anti-Semitic. "Solzhenitsyn, in fact, is not anti-Semitic; his books are not anti-Semitic, and he is not, in his personal relations, anti-Jewish," David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker in August 2001.

In The New Republic, Pipes wrote that while Solzhenitsyn is too eager to exonerate czarist Russia of mistreating its Jewish subjects, and as a consequence is sometimes insensitive to the latter's predicament, "at least he absolves himself of the taint of anti-Semitism."

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    What a ridiculous piece, a typical attempt to whitewash the jews' role in the Bolshevik regime.

    You write that "But he omits Krichevsky's actual data, which show that Jews made up less than 4 percent of the Cheka staff and held 8 percent of executive positions."

    I assume you mean the total number of Cheka staff. Jews were much better represented in the top staff.

    For ex., the jewish author Yuri Slezkine writes in "The Jewish century":

    "By 1934, when the OGPU was transformed into the NKVD, Jews `by nationality' constituted the largest single group among the `leading cadres' of the Soviet secret police (37 Jews, 30 Russians, 7 Latvians, 5 Ukrainians, 4 Poles, 3 Georgians, 3 Byelorussians, 2 Germans, and 5 assorted others)." (p. 221). "In January 1937, on the eve of the Great Terror, the 111 top NKVD officials included 42 Jews, 35 Russians, 8 Latvians, and 26 others." (p. 254).

    "the NKVD was “one of the most Jewish of all Soviet institutions” and recounts the Jewish leadership of the Great Terror of the 1930s (pp. 254 and 255). On p. 256, he writes that in 1937 the prototypical Jew who moved from the Pale of Settlement to Moscow to man elite positions in the Soviet state “probably would have been living in elite housing in downtown Moscow…with access to special stores, a house in the country (dacha), and a live-in peasant nanny or maid.…At least once a year, she would have traveled to a Black Sea sanatorium or a mineral spa in the Caucasus” (p. 256). "

  • bad||

    "As Slezkine notes, most of the Soviet elite were not Jews, but Jews were far overrepresented among the elite (and Russians far underrepresented as a percentage of the population). Moreover, the Jews formed a far more cohesive core than the rest of the elite because of their common social and cultural background (p. 236). The common understanding that the new elite had a very large Jewish representation resulted in pervasive anti-Jewish attitudes. In 1926, an Agitprop report noted “The sense that the Soviet regime patronizes the Jews, that it is ‘the Jewish government,’ that the Jews cause unemployment, housing shortages, college admissions problems, price rises, and commercial speculation—this sense is instilled in the workers by all the hostile elements.… If it does not encounter resistance, the wave of anti-Semitism threatens to become, in the very near future, a serious political question” (p. 244). Such widespread public perceptions about the role of Jews in the new government led to aggressive surveillance and repression of anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior, including the execution of Russian nationalists who expressed anti-Jewish attitudes. "

  • bad||

    These public perceptions also motivated Jews to adopt a lower profile in the regime, as with Trotsky, who refused the post of commissar of internal affairs because it might lend further ammunition to the anti-Jewish arguments. From 1927 to 1932 Stalin established an ambitious public campaign to combat antiSemitism that included fifty-six books published by the government and an onslaught of speeches, mass rallies, newspaper articles, and show trials “aimed at eradicating the evil” (p. 249)."

    The Stalinist persecution of jews is another myth. In fact, Slezkine shows that when you move away from the élites, Jews were under-represented among those arrested for political crimes: 1% of Jews, compared with 16% of Poles and 30% of Latvians; and in the Gulags the proportion of Jews was 15.7% below the proportion of Jews in the Soviet Union.

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