Nick Paton Walsh in
Saturday January 25, 2003
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who first exposed the horrors of the Stalinist
gulag, is now attempting to tackle one of the most sensitive topics of his
writing career - the role of the Jews in the Bolshevik revolution and
latest book Solzhenitsyn, 84, deals with one of the last taboos of the
communist revolution: that Jews were as much perpetrators of the
repression as its victims. Two Hundred Years Together - a reference to the
1772 partial annexation of Poland and Russia which greatly increased the
Russian Jewish population - contains three chapters discussing the Jewish
role in the revolutionary genocide and secret police purges of Soviet
But Jewish leaders and some historians have reacted furiously to the
book, and questioned Solzhenitsyn's motives in writing it, accusing him of
factual inaccuracies and of fanning the flames of anti-semitism in Russia.
Solzhenitsyn argues that some Jewish satire of the revolutionary period
"consciously or unconsciously descends on the Russians" as being
behind the genocide. But he states that all the nation's ethnic groups
must share the blame, and that people shy away from speaking the truth
about the Jewish experience.
In one remark which infuriated Russian Jews, he wrote: "If I would
care to generalise, and to say that the life of the Jews in the camps was
especially hard, I could, and would not face reproach for an unjust
national generalisation. But in the camps where I was kept, it was
different. The Jews whose experience I saw - their life was softer than
that of others."
Yet he added: "But it is impossible to find the answer to the
eternal question: who is to be blamed, who led us to our death? To explain
the actions of the Kiev cheka [secret police] only by the fact that two
thirds were Jews, is certainly incorrect."
Solzhenitsyn, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, spent
much of his life in Soviet prison camps, enduring persecution when he
wrote about his experiences. He is currently in frail health, but in an
interview given last month he said that Russia must come to terms with the
Stalinist and revolutionary genocides - and that its Jewish population
should be as offended at their own role in the purges as they are at the
Soviet power that also persecuted them.
"My book was directed to empathise with the thoughts, feelings and
the psychology of the Jews - their spiritual component," he said.
"I have never made general conclusions about a people. I will always
differentiate between layers of Jews. One layer rushed headfirst to the
revolution. Another, to the contrary, was trying to stand back. The Jewish
subject for a long time was considered prohibited. Zhabotinsky [a Jewish
writer] once said that the best service our Russian friends give to us is
never to speak aloud about us."
But Solzhenitsyn's book has caused controversy in Russia, where one
Jewish leader said it was "not of any merit".
"This is a mistake, but even geniuses make mistakes," said
Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
"Richard Wagner did not like the Jews, but was a great composer.
Dostoyevsky was a great Russian writer, but had a very sceptical attitude
towards the Jews.
"This is not a book about how the Jews and Russians lived together
for 200 years, but one about how they lived apart after finding themselves
on the same territory. This book is a weak one professionally. Factually,
it is so bad as to be beyond criticism. As literature, it is not of any
But DM Thomas, one of Solzhenitsyn's biographers, said that he did not
think the book was fuelled by anti-semitism. "I would not doubt his
sincerity. He says that he firmly supports the state of Israel. In his
fiction and factual writing there are Jewish characters that he writes
about who are bright, decent, anti-Stalinist people."
Professor Robert Service of Oxford University, an expert on 20th
century Russian history, said that from what he had read about the book,
Solzhenitsyn was "absolutely right".
Researching a book on Lenin, Prof Service came across details of how
Trotsky, who was of Jewish origin, asked the politburo in 1919 to ensure
that Jews were enrolled in the Red army. Trotsky said that Jews were
disproportionately represented in the Soviet civil bureaucracy, including
"Trotsky's idea was that the spread of anti-semitism was [partly
down to] objections about their entrance into the civil service. There is
something in this; that they were not just passive spectators of the
revolution. They were part-victims and part-perpetrators.
"It is not a question that anyone can write about without a huge
amount of bravery, and [it] needs doing in Russia because the Jews are
quite often written about by fanatics. Mr Solzhenitsyn's book seems much
more measured than that."
Yet others failed to see the need for Solzhenitsyn's pursuit of this
particular subject at present. Vassili Berezhkov, a retired KGB colonel
and historian of the secret services and the NKVD (the precursor of the
KGB), said: "The question of ethnicity did not have any importance
either in the revolution or the story of the NKVD. This was a social
revolution and those who served in the NKVD and cheka were serving ideas
of social change.
"If Solzhenitsyn writes that there were many Jews in the NKVD, it
will increase the passions of anti-semitism, which has deep roots in
Russian history. I think it is better not to discuss such a question
now." Source: Guardian Newspapers Limited