#1 - JRL 7033
The Guardian (UK)
January 25, 2003
Solzhenitsyn breaks last taboo of the revolution
Nobel laureate under fire for new book on the role of Jews in Soviet-era
Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow
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
Soviet purges. In his 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 Russia.
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
In one remark which infuriated Russian Jews, he wrote: "If I would care
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
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 merit."
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
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
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
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."