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."

This sweeping exoneration is puzzling. As an example of Solzhenitsyn's reverence for traditionalist Jews, Pipes quotes his assertion, "The preservation of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years in diaspora arouses amazement and respect." Yet he omits the not-so-flattering next lines: "However, if we take a closer look: in some periods…this unity was achieved by the oppressive methods of the kagals [Jewish self-governing bodies], and one no longer knows if these methods should be respected simply because they stemmed from religious tradition. At least, for us Russians, even a small dose of such isolationism is treated as a repulsive fault."

Even stranger is an essay in the November 2002 History Today. There John Klier, a historian at London's University College, describes the charges of anti-Semitism as "misguided." Then he writes that in his account of the pogroms of the early 20th century, Solzhenitsyn is far more concerned with exonerating the good name of the Russian people than he is with the suffering of the Jews, and that on occasion he accepts the czarist government's canards blaming the pogroms on provocations by the Jews themselves.

And that's not anti-Semitic? It's doubtful that an American writer who took a similar attitude toward the lynchings in the South would be absolved of the taint of racism.

How to explain this leniency? Perhaps it is simply too painful to consider that the great moral beacon of the communist days might be tainted with bigotry. But while the writer's role in Soviet-era history undoubtedly deserves respect, that does not require blindness to his flaws.

Solzhenitsyn's anti-communism, it is increasingly clear, was never a defense of individual freedom. It was a defense of a different kind of collectivism: ethnic, religious, and traditionalist. This is far from the only time that such a mind-set—anti-secular, anti-modern, anti-individualist—has been linked to prejudice against those who don't fit into the collective. r