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



Deux siècles ensemble
Volume 2: Juifs et Russes pendant la periode soviétique
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Paris: Fayard, 2003


By F. Roger Devlin

Editor’s Note: This review-essay on volume 2 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together: Jews and Russians during the Soviet Period will appear online in four parts. The author’s review of volume 1, Jews and Russians before the Revolution, is available here in PDF format.

Early in this second volume of Two Hundred Years Together, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explains why the book is a necessary supplement to his principal work on the Revolution, the novel cycle entitled The Red Wheel:

I described the revolution literally hour by hour, and never ceased encountering episodes and discussion of the Jewish theme in the sources. Would I have been right to put all of it into the pages of March 1917? It would not have been the first time in history that a book and its readers succumbed to the facile and crude temptation to throw all the blame on the Jews, their actions, their ideas, to allow oneself to see in them the principal cause of events and thereby avoid the search for the real causes.

To avoid letting the Russians fall for this optical illusion, I systematically muted the Jewish theme throughout the entire Red Wheel, at least in comparison with the way it resonated in the press and hung in the air at the time. (pp. 45–46)

Solzhenitsyn is emphatic that “the February Revolution was not made by the Jews for the Russians; it was certainly carried out by the Russians themselves. . . . We were ourselves the authors of this shipwreck” (pp. 44–45).

Even if not the instigators of the Revolution, the Jews were the subject of its first cascade of “liberating” decrees. The Pale of Settlement, practically nonexistent since the great Russian retreat of 1915, was formally abolished; numerus clausus regulations were dropped; restrictions on the Jewish practice of law and on entry into the officers corps were lifted, etc. Measures were taken against public expressions of anti-Semitism amid widespread false rumors of pogroms in the provinces. All this occurred amid a mood of euphoria soon to dissipate.

The fundamental political fact of the eight-month period between the February Revolution and the Bolshevik coup d’état of October was the uneasy coexistence of two political authorities. A Provisional Government was formed by a group of former Duma deputies and won widespread recognition, if no deep loyalty. At the same time, the “workers’ councils” (or soviets) of the Revolution of 1905 were revived by a small group of socialist intellectuals. They proclaimed themselves the “Executive Committee of the Council of Workers’ Deputies” before any actual council was formed. And their so-called Executive Committee remained a more important body than the council it called into being and in whose name it spoke: plenary sessions of the two- to three-thousand member “Petrograd Soviet” were mostly a forum for empty speechifying.

There were no constitutional rules to define the respective spheres of authority of the Provisional Government and the Soviet’s Executive Committee. What actually happened was that the Executive Committee assumed a “supervisory” role in relation to the Provisional Government, thwarting its purposes at will but refusing to take upon itself the responsibilities of governing. In Solzhenitsyn’s words: “The EC was a shadow government of the worst sort: it deprived the Provisional Government of all real power while criminally avoiding the direct and open assumption of power itself” (p. 46). The result was paralysis at the center and the perfect conditions for an eventual takeover by a determined and ruthless minority.

For several weeks the membership of the Executive Committee was not even divulged:

. . . several of the members hide behind pseudonyms and for two months refused to appear in public: no one knew exactly who was governing Russia. Later it came out that there were ten stupid soldiers in the EC for show, kept at arm’s length. Among the rest—the thirty active members—more than half were Jewish socialists. There were Russians, Caucasians, Latvians, and Poles, but the Russians amounted to less than a quarter of the whole. A moderate socialist, Stankevitch, noted that “the most striking thing about the composition of the EC was the number of foreign elements . . . out of all proportion with their numbers in Petrograd or in the country.” (p. 47)

These men were chosen to represent neither their own nationalities nor the people of Russia, but the various socialist parties: Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and so forth. After June, the EC was replaced by a smaller Central Executive Committee of nine persons: five were Jewish, only one Russian (p. 67).

In view of subsequent events, it has largely been forgotten that most politically active Jews in Russia that year were not involved with these socialist parties at all:

In the course of the summer and autumn of 1917, the Zionist movement continued to gather strength in Russia: in September it had 300,000 adherents. Less known is that Orthodox Jewish organizations enjoyed great popularity in 1917, yielding only to the Zionists and surpassing the socialist parties. (p. 54)


Furthermore, most Jews who did belong to socialist parties were not Bolsheviks: “during the year 1917 Jews were proportionally much more numerous in leading positions among the Mensheviks, right Socialist Revolutionaries, left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchists than among the Bolsheviks” (p. 65). Shortly before the Bolshevik Putsch, however, the Jewish socialists “Natanson, Kamkov, and Steinberg formed an alliance with Trotsky and Kamenev in the name of the left Socialist Revolutionaries” (p. 81). This brief alliance was useful to Lenin in creating the false appearance that the new “Soviet” government was more than a front for the Bolshevik Party.

Solzhenitsyn writes: “It must be stated clearly that the October Putsch was not led by the Jews (except for the glorious Trotsky and the young and dynamic Grigori Chudnovsky)” (p. 80). He remarks that there were also some Jews in the Winter Palace defending the Provisional Government from the Bolsheviks, and recalls meeting one of them in a Soviet prison himself.

The new government’s first challenge was a mass strike of service personnel in support of the deposed Provisional Government. Ministry buildings barred their doors against the new “Soviet Commissars”; Trotsky got laughed out of the Defense Ministry. Most importantly, banks refused Bolshevik demands for funds. In 1919, Lenin specifically credited his Jewish followers for keeping him in power at this point: “immediately after October, it was the Jews who saved the revolution by breaking the resistance of the civil servants” (p. 105).

Lenin’s team claimed at first to be a mere caretaker government pending the convocation of a Constituent Assembly. Elections for such an assembly had been scheduled by the Provisional Government for November 12th, and the Bolsheviks reluctantly allowed them to go ahead in the hope of dominating the resulting body. But their rivals the Socialist Revolutionary Party won a large majority. Most Jewish voters supported Zionist parties. The Constituent Assembly was forcibly dispersed the night after it convened, January 6, 1918, and all Bolshevik pretenses to democratic legitimacy were scrapped.

During these critical first months, Lenin had no reliable Russian troops; his only armed force was a Latvian rifle brigade which he assigned to the Jewish commissar Nachimson.

The author discusses some of the arguments used by Jewish apologists to excuse or palliate Jewish involvement in Bolshevik rule. He accepts the common argument that the Jewish Bolsheviks were renegades, i.e., “not Jews in spirit.” He points out, however, that the same was true of Russian Bolsheviks and denies that any nation may simply disown its renegades: “for if we release ourselves from all responsibility for the actions of our national kin, the very concept of a nation loses any real meaning” (p. 132).

There are many Jewish authors who to this very day either deny the support of Jews for Bolshevism, or even reject it angrily, or else—the most common case—only speak defensively about it. The matter is well-attested, however: these Jewish renegades were for several years leaders at the center of the Bolshevik Party, at the head of the Red Army (Trotsky), of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee (Sverdlov), of the two capitals (Zinoviev and Kamenev), of the Comintern (Zinoviev), of the Profintern (Dridzo-Lozovsky), and of the Komsomol (Oskar Ryvkin, then Lazar Shatskin). (p. 91)


Marxists are officially “internationalists,” of course, and Trotsky was especially emphatic in rejecting his ethnic heritage. But does it necessarily follow that he was not influenced by it? “To judge by the appointments he made,” Solzhenitsyn observes, “Jewish renegades were closer to him than Russian renegades” (p. 92). Particularly striking was his appointment of the incompetent Jewish doctor Sklianski to a high post in the Commissariat of War.

The author goes on to discuss the roles of the Jews Uritsky, Drabkin, and Sverdlov in dispersing the Constituent Assembly, concluding with one of his strongest formulations: “by these sorts of operations the new Jewish form of government was sketched out” (p. 93).

He reproduces the remarks of some contemporary observers:

  1. F. Nazhivin records the impressions he received at the very beginning of Soviet power: at the Kremlin in the administration of the Sovnarkom “you see nothing but Latvians upon Latvians, Jews upon Jews. I have never been an anti-Semite, but here there were so many it leapt out at you, and each one younger than the next.”


[The writer Vladimir] Korolenko himself, liberal and hypertolerant as he was, entered into his Journal in the Spring of 1919: “Among the Bolsheviks there are a great number of Jewish men and women. Their tactlessness, their self-assurance are striking and irritating. . . . In their ranks, and above all in the Cheka [the secret police], you constantly see Jewish physiognomies, and this exacerbates the still virulent traditional feelings of Judeophobia [among the population].” (p. 99)


Another witness quoted by Solzhenitsyn specifies that most of the heads of prisons were Poles and Latvians, while “the section charged with combating black marketers—the least dangerous and most lucrative—was in the hands of Jews” (p. 94). Jews are also said to have been unusually noticeable in the organs charged with provisioning (p. 97). Solzhenitsyn lists the names of ten Jewish bankers who provided important financial services for the Bolsheviks (p. 115).

Some Jews were also implicated in the murder of the Imperial family, notably Sverdlov (who transmitted the order from Moscow) and Urovsky (who led the execution squad), but Solzhenitsyn believes the point has been exaggerated in recent years by certain Russian nationalists “who take a morbid pleasure in this agonizing thought” (p. 100). Most of the executioners were Hungarian prisoners of war; final responsibility for the crime rested, of course, with Lenin.

The Bolshevik Putsch led to a split in Jewish parties such as the Bund and the Zionist-Socialists. Those who would not support Lenin either emigrated or were suppressed. But the left wings of two Zionist-Socialist groupings joined the Communist Party en masse in 1919 and 1921. And the left wing of the Bund simply dissolved, with many of its members joining the Communists. According to an internal Party survey of 1926, 2,500 Bundists had become Party members. Many Mensheviks, Jewish and otherwise, did likewise. Most of these persons would face persecution under Stalin (pp. 118–19).

There were Jews who resisted Soviet power. “But,” writes Solzhenitsyn, “they did not have any way of making themselves heard publicly, and the present pages are naturally filled not with their names but with those who guided the course of events” (p. 123). He relates the stories of two Jews who are known to have sacrificed their lives fighting the new regime. Leonid Kannegiesser assassinated Moisei Uritsky, a Jewish Chekist, explaining in a letter to his sister that (among other motives) he was ashamed to see Jews helping to install the Bolsheviks in power. Alexander Abramovich Vilenkin, four-times decorated cavalry officer, was shot in 1918 for belonging to a clandestine anti-Bolshevik Organization.

“These combatants of Bolshevism, whatever may have been their motivation—we honor their memory as Jews. We deplore that there were so few of them, just as the White forces in the Civil War were too few” (p. 125).

In 1918 [writes Solzhenitsyn] Trotsky, with the aid of Sklianski and Yakov Sverdlov, created the Red Army. Jewish soldiers were numerous in its ranks. Several units of the Red Army were composed entirely of Jews, as, e.g., the brigade commanded by Joseph Forman. Among the officers of the Red Army, the share of Jews grew in number and importance for many years after the Civil War. (p. 135)


According to one of the author’s Jewish sources, “the proportion of Jews in the position of Political Adjuncts was especially high at all levels of the Red Army” (p. 136).

Of special interest to students of Communism is the Cheka, the secret political police who carried out the Red Terror and eventually built the Gulag. In their early phase, national minorities composed almost 50 percent of the central apparatus of the Cheka, and nearly 70 percent of the responsible posts. An inventory on 25 September 1918 reveals, besides a great number of Latvians and a not insignificant number of Poles, a good showing by Jews. And of the judges assigned to the struggle against counter-revolution—by far the most important section in the structure of the Cheka—half were Jews (pp. 142–43).

The Ukrainian Cheka, in what used to be the Pale of Settlement, was composed about 80 percent of Jews (p. 150). In Kiev, which was 21 percent Jewish in 1919 (p. 156), key positions in the Cheka were “almost exclusively” in Jewish hands. Of the twenty members of the commission which decided people’s fate, fourteen were Jews (p. 148).

The Kievan Cheka even published a newsletter, The Red Sword; it offers an unusual glimpse into the minds of those who carried out the Terror. In an article by its Jewish editor-in-chief Leon Kraini we read: “For us there cannot be any question of encumbering ourselves with old principles of morality and humanitarianism invented by the bourgeoisie.” A certain Schwartz echoes his sentiments: “The Red Terror which has been proclaimed must be carried out in a proletarian fashion. . . . If in order to institute the dictatorship of the proletariat in the whole world it is necessary to annihilate all the servants of tsarism and capitalism, we will not hesitate to do so” (p. 141).

Vasily Shulgin, an old political ally of Stolypin, witnessed an enormous exodus from Kiev on October 1st, 1919 as the town was about to be occupied by the Bolsheviks. Some 60,000 Russians, according to his estimate, left on foot with nothing more than they could carry. At the time, there were some 100,000 Jews living in Kiev. “But there were no Jews in this exodus; you could not see any among these thousands of Russians. They did not want to share our destiny.” Even the wealthiest “bourgeois” Jews preferred to take their chances with the Bolsheviks (pp. 149–50).

Sergei Maslov, author of Russia after Four Years of Revolution, reports: “In the towns of southern Russia, especially the Western half of the Ukraine which changed hands several times, the advent of Soviet power gave rise to ostentatious sympathy and the greatest joy in the Jewish quarters, and often nowhere else” (p. 150).



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