Solzhenitsyn on the Jews and Soviet Russia, Part 4 Vol. 2



By F. Roger Devlin

This is the final online installment of F. Roger Devlin’s review-essay on volume 2 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together: Jews and Russians during the Soviet Period. The author’s review of volume 1, Jews and Russians before the Revolution, is available here in PDF format.

Most of Solzhenitsyn’s Jewish sources concede that the Soviet authorities did a commendable job of evacuating Jews from the western regions of Russia at the beginning of the German invasion of 1941, given the constraints upon transport and the other urgent demands being made upon it. About 2,226,000 Jews were successfully evacuated. Another 2,739,000 Jews, mostly from borderlands recently reacquired following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had to be left to face the German occupation (p. 375).

“During 1941–42,” writes Solzhenitsyn, “the Soviet authorities gladly allowed the synagogues of Moscow, Leningrad, and Kharkov to fill up and the Jewish Passover to be celebrated” (p. 379). Yiddish newspapers were published again. A Jewish Antifascist Committee was set up to publicize anti-Jewish atrocities committed by the invaders: “the effect produced in the West surpassed all Moscow’s expectations. . . . In allied countries, Jewish organizations were created to gather funds for the Red Army” (p. 383). The Soviet regime even cooperated with the Zionist movement for several years.

Popular anti-Semitism increased during the war years. It was commonly asserted, e.g., that Jews avoided service at the front. Solzhenitsyn goes through the statistics carefully and concludes that such accusations are unfounded. He presents evidence that some 430,000 Jews fought in the Red Army during the war, with 270 Jewish Generals and Admirals among them (pp. 388–98).

Part of the German plan of occupation was to get the local populations to initiate pogroms. This was intended to create the impression that anti-Jewish actions were undertaken spontaneously by the nations which Germany had “liberated from Jewish Bolshevism.” In their reports to Berlin, however, SS officials reported that this task was “quite difficult” in Lithuania, “much more difficult” in Latvia, and impossible in Byelorussia. Neither did they have success when they reached Great Russia. In Ukraine, the German plan enjoyed some success, especially among the Ukrainian separatists, but the SS had to take matters into their own hands eventually. Only the Crimean Tatars proved zealous in massacring the local Jews. On the whole, the German attempt to hide behind proxies was a failure (pp. 403–408).

There is nothing in Solzhenitsyn’s pages which could serve as grist for the mill of “holocaust revisionism,” nor does he ever suggest that German National Socialism was preferable to Soviet Communism.

As is widely recognized, the postwar years up to the death of Stalin were marked by an official campaign against the Jews. This was the responsibility of the dictator himself, as Solzhenitsyn explains:

[T]he very structure of the totalitarian regime meant that the weakening of the Jewish share in the leadership of the country could only be initiated by Stalin himself.

But neither Stalin’s devious character nor the hardened character of Soviet propaganda allowed an open course of action. The first transformations in the composition of the State apparatus occurred—almost imperceptibly, it is true—after the rapprochement of Stalin with Hitler in 1939. The Jew Litvinov was replaced by Molotov and “purges” took place in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. And military and diplomatic academies were closed to Jews.

From the end of 1942, actions were taken to remove Jews from artistic institutions such as the Bolshoi, the Moscow Conservatory, [and] the Moscow Philharmonic. Later there were attempts to initiate a prorated repartitioning of [Party] cadres according to national origin, which in practice amounted to removing Jews from decision-making positions. Over the course of the years and according to circumstances, Stalin sometimes encouraged and sometimes hindered these initiatives. (pp. 424–25)

An important turning point was the arrival of Golda Meir in Moscow as Israeli ambassador. She received a triumphal welcome from the entire Jewish community, and petitions for emigration to Israel began pouring in to the authorities. Meanwhile, as Stalin was preparing for a possible war with the United States, the Israeli government was sending out pro-Western signals. Jews arrested around 1950 are said to have been confronted by their interrogators with their alleged unwillingness to fight against Israel’s ally America.

Undoubtedly frightened by the effervescence reigning among the Jews, Stalin—beginning at the end of 1948, and for the rest of his life—drastically changed his policies with regard to them. But in his own manner: acting drastically but without announcement, radically but by little steps, and in apparently secondary domains. (p. 430)

In January 1949, Pravda published a long article entitled “On an Antipatriotic Group of Theater Critics.” These theater critics, it was reported, hid their true identity behind pseudonyms. Thus, the critic Kholodov was really Meierovich; Yasny was Finkelstein; Svetov was Scheidman, and so forth. Shortly thereafter, Pravda launched a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.” At first, no one had any idea who the “rootless cosmopolitans” were. Eventually an official list of them was published, and every name was recognizably Jewish.

At the same time, the regime started making bizarre claims that Russians had been responsible for various advances in civilization. For example: Soviet textbooks began teaching that Russian scientists had invented the radio and the automobile. Those taken in by published accounts of “Solzhenitsyn’s Great-Russian chauvinism” may wish to note his curt dismissal of this “imbecilic and ludicrous glorification of Russian ‘superiority’ in all domains” (p. 434).

Between 1948 and 1953, Jews were kicked out of the higher circles of production, administration, cultural and ideological activities en masse; access to a whole series of higher education establishments was limited or simply refused them. Responsible posts in the KGB, the organs of the Party and of the Army were closed to them. (p. 437)

By the fall of 1952, Stalin was acting against the Jews openly. A show trial of an innocent group of Jewish doctors was inaugurated with great fanfare in January 1953. On February 9th, a bomb exploded outside the Soviet embassy in Tel-Aviv and the Soviet Union broke off relations with Israel.

Then, suddenly, it was all over. Stalin suffered a debilitating stroke at the end of February and died on March 6, 1953.

It has often been asserted that only Stalin’s death at this juncture saved the Jews from mass deportation to Siberia or the Far North the following summer. Solzhenitsyn reports:

In a recent study, the historian G. Kostyrchenko, a great specialist in Stalin’s Jewish policy, refutes this “deportation myth” with very solid arguments, showing that no fact either then or now has come to light confirming it; and that in any case, Stalin did not have the means to put such a deportation into operation. (p. 442)

We simply do not know what further developments there would have been in the anti-Semitic campaign had Stalin lived longer. Following his death, the Jewish doctors, whose trial had been filling the newspapers for weeks, were quietly released. The official anti-Semitic campaign lost steam.

Solzhenitsyn devotes the last five chapters, totaling one hundred twenty pages, to the twenty years which followed Stalin’s death. The principal circumstance of interest during this period is the gradual withering of Jewish support for the government.

At the end of the 1960s [says Solzhenitsyn] one observation which strengthened me in the conviction that the jig was up for the Communist regime was to what an extent the Jews had turned their backs on it. And without them, Bolshevik fanaticism—which was showing its age and ceasing even to be a fanaticism—was seized by a very Russian nonchalance and a peculiarly Brezhnevian inertia. (p. 475)

Solzhenitsyn notes the prominence of Jews among the dissident movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Four of the seven men who staged an unprecedented (for the USSR) protest on Red Square following the invasion of Czechoslovakia were Jewish. The Jew Semion Gluzman paid with his freedom for his campaign against the political use of psychiatric hospitals (pp. 483–84). Solzhenitsyn writes:

In this wasted country, still subject to repression, the Russian Social Fund to which I turned over all world rights to The Gulag Archipelago [after creating it himself!—FRD], began its aid to the persecuted, and Alexander Ginzburg, competent and devoted, was its first administrator. Among its benefactors have been many Jews and half-Jews (which has given occasion in certain Russian circles, blinded by their extremism, to stigmatize the fund as “Jewish”). (p. 513)

But Jewish abandonment of Communism was too frequently accompanied by the belief that the Communist regime was something uniquely and wholly Russian—in other words, that the Jewish people bore no responsibility for it. Solzhenitsyn cites a number of recent Jewish authors who have characterized the early Soviet regime as nothing more than another chapter in the long history of Jewish persecution. According to a certain Yu. Stern, “Soviet history is marked by a consistent will to break and exterminate the Jews.” V. Boguslavsky tells his readers that “the Soviet regime ruined the Jews, deported them, destroyed families”—all of which was “just a normal disaster for the majority of the Jewish population.” F. Kolker says that “among the numerous nationalities populating the Soviet Union, the Jews have always been considered apart, as the least ‘trustworthy’ element,” to which the author replies in amazement “what sort of amnesia must one have suffered to write such things in 1983?” (pp. 478–79). Even the dissident Jewish songwriter Alexander Galich sings:

Never, Jews, shall you be chamberlains . . .

Never shall you sit in Synod or Senate.

Your seat shall be the Solovetsky Islands,[1] the Butyrka Prison.

“They have forgotten,” marvels the author, “quite sincerely—they have entirely forgotten. How difficult it is to remember the evil one has done!” (p. 490).

These blind assertions of national innocence are matched by a host of vitriolic remarks about Russia: “a country of slaves, a troop of traitors, informants, and hangmen,” according to Arkadi Belinkov (p. 497). N. Shapiro tells us that “in the labyrinthine depths of the Russian soul there invariably hides a pogromist . . . a slave and a tramp as well” (p. 498). The country is “a human pigsty,” according to G. Kopylov (p. 495). “They were crawling on all fours and bowing down to trees and stones, while we gave them the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” said Yakov Yakir, safely arrived in Tel Aviv, of his former fellow-countrymen (p. 498). “[Russian] Orthodoxy is a religion of savages,” according to M. Grobman. According to N. Shulgin, the Jewish involvement in early Communism prevented it from becoming much worse than it actually was (p. 494). Solzhenitsyn comments:

Let us note that none of these malevolent judgments upon the “Russian soul” provokes protest. If someone does not like anything Russian, holds it in contempt, or even says “Russia is a garbage dump,” this is not immoral in Russia. Here, no one addresses Presidents, Prime Ministers, Senators, or Congressmen to ask anxiously “what do you think of this incitation to hate a group of human beings because of their nationality?” (pp. 498–99)

Solzhenitsyn also remarks upon the following confusion in the Jewish attitude toward nationhood:

I have noticed that Jews more often than others insist that no attention must be paid to nationality. “What does it matter, one’s nationality?” they repeat; “national ‘traits,’ national ‘character’—do these even exist?”

But, with my hand on my heart: it is precisely Jews who scrutinize and strain to discern national peculiarities more jealously, more attentively, more secretly than others: those of their own nation. (p. 502)

A new era was ushered in by the Six Day War, which

. . . shook the entire Jewish world as well as Soviet Jews with a violence of biblical proportions. Jewish national consciousness resurged and erupted like an avalanche. After the Six Day War, a lot of things changed. . . . An impulse to action had been given. Letters and petitions flooded into Soviet and international bodies. National life recommenced: on High Holy Days it became difficult to get into synagogues they were so crowded. Clandestine circles were formed to study Hebrew, Jewish history, and Jewish culture. (p. 476)

The ultimate effect of the Israeli victory upon Russian Jews was to inspire the emigration movement of the 1970s.

For many Jews, despite a material situation clearly more favorable than that of the great mass of the population, the feeling of being oppressed was quite real (p. 518). From the end of 1969, Jews by the dozens and by the hundreds began signing petitions addressed to “foreign public opinion.” They demanded that they be allowed to leave for Israel. (p. 523)

They met with widespread sympathy. “To this day,” marvels the author, “it is hard to believe how much publicity they enjoyed” (p. 531). The American Senate refused to ratify most favored nation trading status to the Soviet Union without adding the Jackson Amendment, requiring total freedom of Jewish emigration.

And there was no one to say out loud and clear: Gentlemen! Fifty-five years ago it was not tens of thousands but millions of our compatriots who could only dream of escaping from the hated Soviet regime. No one here was given the right to emigrate. And never once did the politicians, the public men of the West protest or propose to punish the Soviet Union even if only by commercial restrictions! Fifteen million peasants were exterminated during “dekulakization,” six million were driven to famine in 1932, not to speak of mass executions and the millions who ended up in camps. During this time you were glad to sign treaties with the Soviet leaders, grant them loans, shake their hands, seek their favor. And it was only when the Jews in particular had their rights infringed that the entire Western world was seized with a burning compassion and began to understand what this regime was made of. (p. 529)

Large scale Jewish emigration began in 1971, mostly not from the Russian center but from Georgia and the Baltic Republics: 13,000 the first year, 32,000 the second, and 35,000 the third. At first nearly all the Jews went to Israel. By March 1973, 700,000 requests to emigrate had been received.

The Yom Kippur War in the fall of 1973 damaged Israel’s prestige, following which emigration slowed to 20,000 in 1974. By 1975–76, nearly 50 percent of emigrants went to countries other than Israel, principally the United States. After 1977, between 70 and 98 percent went directly to the United States (pp. 532–33).

“Only the first wave was motivated by an ideal,” admits one Jewish author (pp. 534–35).

During the Gorbachev period, by about 1987, all restrictions upon Jewish emigration were lifted.

Henceforth, a radically new epoch in the history of the now free Russian Jews and of their relations with the new Russia has opened. This period has brought rapid and substantial changes, but it is still too short to anticipate the long-term results. . . . The development of this new theme would go beyond the span of life allotted this author. (pp. 567–68)

With these words, the work closes.

* * *

The themes of national repentance and mutual understanding resonate throughout Two Hundred Years Together. Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that they presuppose an effort of historical understanding. This outlook, no doubt, is due to memories of the Communist regime under which he grew up. The Bolsheviks sought to make a clean sweep of the past, and systematically falsified history in the pursuit of a “classless” or conflict free society. Such a mindset can still be found in Russia; many reviewers warned that any study of the Russian-Jewish past would only lead to the revival of old hatreds.

In this context, the reader of Two Hundred Years Together may wish to ponder the following exchange from an interview Solzhenitsyn granted Moskovskiye Novosti (January 1–7, 2003) in connection with publication of the second volume:

Interviewer: The main premise of your wide-ranging work is this: the truth about the Russians’ relationship with the Jews is morally vital. To whom? To history? To both nationalities?”

Solzhenitsyn: Any truth is morally vital to a person. Any truth in principle.

Solzhenitsyn also has some words for the academic critics who have caviled at the sparseness of his archival research. The type of historical understanding our age requires, both in Russia and in America, is at heart an act of the imagination, in which specialized research plays an important but limited role.

Interviewer: You have addressed a subject wherein you yourself often invoke such concepts as “spirit,” “consciousness,” and “historical fate.” Were these nebulous notions not an impediment to your well-researched work, based on solid facts?

Solzhenitsyn: Far from being an impediment, they were, to a very large extent, a part of my underlying concept. My book aims to go deep into Jewish thoughts, feelings, ideas, and mentality—that is to say, the realm of the spiritual. In this sense the objective of my book is not, in fact, scientific, but artistic. It is basically an artistic work. Except that there are not two or three characters, but a great many characters, with various, most diverse feelings and ideas. Facts alone are not enough to understand them. . . . I went to them and felt an affinity with them, as one does with characters in a work of fiction. . . . Generally speaking, I regard the spirit and consciousness as the most substantial elements of history.

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