Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Anti-Semite?

Roundup: Talking About History

Cathy Young, in Reason magazine (May 2004):

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....

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