May 22, 2009

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Solzhenitsyn on the Jews and Soviet Russia, Part III

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. Read part 1 here and part 2 here. The author’s review of volume 1, Jews and Russians before the Revolution, is available here in PDF format.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

In the first years of the new regime there existed a “Jewish Section” within the Party, “more fanatical than the Soviet authorities themselves, and sometimes ahead of them in their projects.” But there seemed to be contradictory tendencies to the Jewish Sections’ activity:

On the one hand, an intense activity of communist propaganda in Yiddish, a pitiless war against Judaism, traditional Jewish education, independent Jewish organizations, political parties and movements, Zionism and Hebrew [“a reactionary and counter-revolutionary language”]. On the other hand, a refusal of assimilation, support for the Yiddish language and culture, the organization of a Soviet Jewish system of education, Jewish scientific research, and action to improve the economic condition of Soviet Jews. (p. 271)

Many members of the Jewish Section were former Bund members. One Jewish author remarks approvingly that “under the proletarian sauce, [the action of the Jewish section] carried the clear mark of Jewish national identity” (p. 272). For a time, important works on pre-Revolutionary Jewish history were supported by the Jewish Section; Solzhenitsyn makes use of some of this material himself in his first volume. There was also a very active Yiddish Theater scene, which lasted into the 1930s, and heavy Jewish involvement in early Soviet Cinema that went far beyond the well-known works of Eisenstein.

The Jewish Section took a special interest in combating its ideological rival, Zionism. They lobbied the regime to take a hard line with an ideology so incompatible with Marxist internationalism, but for several years the upper echelons of the Party showed unwonted leniency in the matter. Zionists maintained a Central Bureau in Moscow until 1924. One Zionist party, Poalei-Zion, was officially permitted to exist until 1928. Harsh punishments for Zionist activity were relatively rare, in part because the Zionists had so many friends abroad.

The Jewish religion was not (as is sometimes asserted) spared persecution during these years, but the regime’s policies were certainly milder and less consistent here than in regard to Orthodox Christianity. The fanatics of the Jewish Section called upon the Party to adopt a policy of “equal persecution” for Judaism, but this took a long time to happen. Synagogues are said to have been more numerous at the end of the 20s than in 1917: two new Synagogues were constructed in Moscow. Prayer books and religious calendars continued to be published. The authorities occasionally even permitted unleavened bread to be imported for Passover celebrations.

The central Synagogues of Vitebsk, Minsk, Gomel, Karkhov, Bobruisk, and Kiev, however, were all closed. Others were plundered: although Synagogues typically contained fewer valuables than Christian Churches, menorahs were frequently made of silver. In 1921, the Jewish Section of Kiev organized a bizarre “public trial of Judaism,” culminating in a “death sentence” handed down by Jewish Communists. This “trial” was later repeated in other towns. Heders and yeshivot were ordered closed, but continued to operate clandestinely for many years. The Jewish Sections arranged things so that Jews’ days off work never fell on the Sabbath. On the high holy days, they sometimes entered Synagogues to disrupt services.

Solzhenitsyn concludes: “in those years, we all wanted to chase out God” (p. 287). He says surprisingly little about the brutal campaign against the Orthodox Church or any Jewish role in it.

In 1926, the Party downgraded the Jewish Section to a Jewish Bureau. In 1930, it was altogether abolished. (Other national “Sections” were suffering the same fate around the same time.)

Despite their unfortunate history as agriculturalists, many Jews obtained high positions in the Commissariat of Agriculture. There are bizarre stories of peasants being ordered by these authorities to shear their sheep at the onset of the Russian Winter or receiving roasted Sunflower seeds for planting (p. 243). Eventually, Commissars with Jewish names such as Schlichter, Epstein, and Kritzman were to preside over collectivization, destroying the independence of the peasants who constituted 80 percent of the Russian population (pp. 292–93).

In summarizing the situation of Jews in the Soviet Union of the 20s, Solzhenitsyn writes:

A myth is in course of formation: “the Jews were always second class citizens under the Soviet regime.” And rare indeed are those who are willing to admit not only the participation of Jews in the deeds perpetrated by the barbaric young State, but also the virulence which certain of them demonstrated.

In the 1990s, a Jewish author [G. Shurmak] declared: “For decades, Jews were proud of their compatriots who made a brilliant career out of the revolution, without much reflecting upon what that career cost the Russian people in real suffering. . . . It is striking with what unanimity my compatriots deny any responsibility in the Russian history of the twentieth century.”

Words like these could be salvation for our two peoples if they were not so hopelessly rare. Because it is the truth: in the course of the twenties, numerous were the Jews who rushed to serve the Bolshevik Moloch, without thinking of the unhappy country which would provide the field for their experiments any more than of the consequences which would result for themselves. (pp. 298–99)

By the end of the 1920s, the New Economic Policy had served its purpose. Stalin, now an unrivalled dictator, inaugurated a policy of collectivization and industrialization. This required an influx of technical expertise from abroad, most especially from the United States. Ignoring Marx’s inconvenient teaching that capitalism was always the deadly enemy of socialism, the Soviet Union traded enthusiastically with the West, most often getting equipment and technical expertise in exchange for raw materials.

Before the Revolution, American financiers had refused, at considerable cost to themselves, to have dealings with the “barbaric” Russia of pogroms and Jewish Settlement Laws. But the Soviet campaign against Zionism and Judaism met with little indignation in the West. The general impression was that the Soviet regime was not oppressing the Jews—and was maintaining them in positions of power. The regime did what it could to reinforce this impression. In 1931 Stalin issued for the foreign press a special statement condemning anti-Semitism. And in 1936, Molotov delivered the following tirade (as Solzhenitsyn calls it) to the XVIIIth Party Congress:

Our fraternal sentiments with regard to the Jewish people come from their having given birth to the genius who conceived the communist liberation of humanity [Marx], from their having given the world eminent men in the domain of science, technology, the arts, and valiant heroes of the revolutionary struggle and, in our country, they have produced and still produce new directors and remarkable organizers whose talents are exercised in every branch of the edification and defense of the cause of socialism. (p. 304)

These words may have been intended to mark off the Soviet regime from Hitlerism in the eyes of the West, says Solzhenitsyn, but they also correspond to reality.

Today, the author asserts, it is often stated in Russia that the Jews were chased out of key positions in the 30s and had no further part in the direction of the country. Solzhenitsyn, however, denies that any significant decline in Jewish power occurred before the Great Purge of 1937–38, and provides statistics to back up the claim: e.g., the participation of Jews in the Party’s Central Committee held steady at one-sixth from 1930 to 1934. In the Commissariats of Commerce and Provisioning, Jewish participation hovered between one-third and one-half. A contemporary historian, L. Krichevsky, has written that “the first half of the 30s is marked by an increase in the role of Jews within the security organs [the secret police]. On the eve of the most massive repressions [1937–38], 407 high-level Chekists received decorations: among them, 56 (13.8 percent) were Jews” (p. 314).

The author famously included pictures of six Jewish Chekists of the 30s as an illustration in The Gulag Archipelago. This is what first gave rise to the legend of “Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Semitism.” In the present book he tells us the story behind these pictures: he did not collect and assemble them himself, but copied the set of six directly from a self-glorifying album the security organs themselves published in 1936! (pp. 317, 363).

We must not leave out the story of Isaï Davidovich Berg, inventor of the gas chamber on wheels. Frustrated at the inability of the execution squad to keep up with the numbers of “counter-revolutionaries” his men kept bringing them, this dedicated Chekist developed a vehicle which could deliver victims ready for burial. It was disguised as a bread-van. In spite of his inventiveness, Berg himself was shot in 1939.

The author reviews more than one attempt to portray the Jewish Communists of the 1930s as victims. Solomon Schwartz asserts that “under Soviet conditions, [the Jews] had no chance to survive except State service,” to which Solzhenitsyn responds:

One is ashamed to read this. What sort of situation of oppression and despair is it which leaves you no other chance of survival than to occupy positions of privilege? What about the rest of the population? They enjoyed full liberty to wear themselves out on collective farms and in prison camps, digging ditches with pickaxes, carrying loads on the sites of the five-year plans . . . (p. 335)

Jews, being so prominent in the Party, were numerous among those killed in the Great Purge of 1937–38. Before it, they had been at the head of 50 percent of the principal services for internal affairs; by January 1, 1939 they occupied only 6 percent of these positions (p. 320). It is remarkable that no one seems to assert a specifically anti-Semitic motive behind the purge, although Stalin certainly had no fondness for Jews.

The Israeli writer Yu. Margolin is another who tries to engage our sympathy for the Jewish Communists, “victims of the Soviet dictatorship, used and then liquidated without pity when they were no longer useful.” Solzhenitsyn is not buying it:

A lovely explanation! But were these persons really used for twenty years? Did they not pour all their zeal into being the engine of that same dictatorship, and before being “no longer useful,” did they not take a vigorous part in the destruction of religion and culture, in the annihilation of the intelligentsia and several million peasants? (p. 323)

For the same reasons, he has little pity for purged Jewish Chekists: “one cannot agree—it would not be decent, not honest—to include among the persecutions of the Jews the fact that they were chased out of the organs of repression” (p. 322).

The years following the Great Purge saw the continued decline in Jewish Party membership, as well as the closing of many of the remaining synagogues. In 1939, the numerus clausus system was reintroduced for Jews in Soviet Universities. Nevertheless, “up to the war, the great majority of Soviet Jews remained sympathetic to Soviet ideology and in agreement with the regime” (p. 348). And the sympathy of European Jews for the Soviet Union experienced a new upsurge in these years, courtesy of Hitler. During the period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, following the German invasion of Western Poland, some two million Jews fled east into the Soviet Union.

At this point in his narrative, the author includes a chapter on the Jews’ situation within the Gulag, the “archipelago” of prison camps scattered across Soviet Russia. He begins:

If I had never spent time there myself, I would not have been able to write this chapter. Before camp, I thought like everyone else: one must not notice nationality; there are no nations, just humanity. But they send you to camp and you learn that if you belong to a good nation you are lucky, you can rest easy, you will survive. But if your nation is that of everyone—there is no use blaming anybody for the consequences. (p. 357)

In the Soviet camps, the Russians were the “nation of everyone.” More compact or tribally-minded peoples managed to look out for one another in the harsh conditions of camp life, and so stood a better chance of survival.

Readers of The Gulag Archipelago will recall the “trusties,” prisoners who collaborated with their keepers in return for favors which to outsiders may seem ridiculously small, but which often meant the difference between life and death. (The young Solzhenitsyn, still a believer in Communism, actually served as a trusty in the early part of his time in the camps—a story he relates at length in The Gulag Archipelago.)

Trusties were often chosen on the basis of nationality:

Any old prisoner who has had the full experience of camp life will confirm that certain nationalities were much better represented among the trusties than among the general prison population. Thus, you found almost no Balts, although they were quite numerous among the prisoners. There were always Russians, of course, but in a small proportion compared to their numbers in the camp (and they had often been recruited among the bien-pensants of the Party). On the other hand, there were many Jews, Armenians, Georgians; also a lot of Azerbaijanis and Caucasian mountain people. (p. 357)

On this subject Solzhenitsyn writes something which has evoked more outrage among Russian Jews than anything else in his thousand-page work:

If I had wanted to generalize by saying that the Jews in the camps had a particularly harsh life, no one would have stopped me, and I would not have been covered with reproaches for having generalized unjustly. But in the camps I knew it was different: insofar as one can generalize, the Jews lived there with less hardship than others. (pp. 358–59)

He relates the story of a Latvian with the convenient name Bernstein, one of his informants in writing The Gulag Archipelago, who believes he only survived the camp because in the most difficult times he could turn to the Jews for help (p. 360).

Once again, Solzhenitsyn digs up an example of a Jewish author writing of the Jewish collaborators with sympathy rather than shame: a certain unfortunate named Belinkov “got cast out among the most despised category, the ‘trusties.’” The author comments: “one must have lost all sense of humor to write [such a thing]. Cast out among the trusties—what an expression! ‘Lowered to the masters?’” (p. 359).

Solzhenitsyn also tells us about the Jews Vladimir Efroimson and Yakov Davidovich Grodzensky who refused to become trusties when they could have. Efroimson wished to dissipate the animosity toward Jews in the camp resulting from so many being trusties. The Jewish trusties mocked him and resented him for making them look bad. The rest explained his behavior by saying that he was not a “real” Jew, or was a “degenerate” Jew. Solzhenitsyn comments:

Animated by the highest motives, Efroimson and Grodzensky did the noblest and most just thing any Jews could do—loyally share the common fate . . . and they were not understood by either side! For it is always this way in History: the paths of self-limitation, renunciation of oneself, are arduous—they lend themselves to sarcasm—but they are the only paths which can save humanity.


As for me, I shall never forget these examples, and shall put my hope in them. (p. 365)


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