August 3, 2008


Alone Together: SOLZHENITSYN AND THE JEWS, REVISTED (Richard Pipes, 11.14.02, New Republic)
Recently Alexander Solzhenitsyn published a long book called Dvesti let vmeste, or Two Hundred Years Together, the first of two volumes devoted to the history of Jews in Russia from the third partition of Poland in 1795, when Russia, until then effectively without Jews, suddenly acquired one million Jewish subjects. It covers the years between 1795 and 1916. The follow-up volume will bring the story up to the year 1995.

One cannot help but marvel at the intellectual energy of a novelist who in his seventies undertakes research on a vast and tangled historical theme with which he has only the most superficial familiarity. In his introduction, Solzhenitsyn says that during his work on the Russian Revolution he had frequently run into the problem of Russo-Jewish relations but found no history that illuminated the subject in a balanced matter. His book is an attempt to remedy this lacuna. He makes a conscious effort to show empathy for both sides, calling on Jews and Russians to display "patient mutual understanding and an acknowledgment of their share of sin"--the ultimate sin being the 1917 revolution that brought Russia untold miseries.

Someone familiar with Solzhenitsyn's treatment of Jews in his historical novels cannot escape the feeling that, at least in some measure, this undertaking is an effort to rid the author of the reputation for anti-Semitism. Although Solzhenitsyn has always indignantly rejected this accusation, it was not entirely unmerited. In Lenin in Zurich, he depicted the Russian Jew Alexander Parvus-Helphand as a slimy, sinister, almost satanic figure as he attempted to hire the exile Lenin to work for the Germans. In The Red Wheel, when dealing with the assassination of his hero Peter Stolypin by Dmitry Bogrov (whom he named "Mordka" or Mordechai, lest anyone miss his nationality), Solzhenitsyn attributed to the assassin, without any historical warrant, a desire to prevent Stolypin from reforming Russia, since what was good for Russia was bad for the Jews. In fact, Bogrov came from a thoroughly assimilated family--his grandfather was a convert and his father a member of the Kievan Nobles' Club--and he had no Jewish interests in mind.

Solzhenitsyn's new book (which is not yet available in English) helps to clarify the writer's attitude toward Jews. He draws a sharp distinction between religious Jews and assimilated Jews, notably those assimilated Jews who joined the revolutionary movement. For the former he has admiration that verges on mystical reverence. "The preservation of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years in diaspora," he writes, "arouses amazement and respect": "The role of the small but energetic Jewish nation in the vast and expansive history of the world is undeniable, powerful, persistent, and even salient. Russian history included. But it remains an historical mystery for all of us. For the Jews as well. This strange mission by no means brings them happiness either." He also respects Zionists and expresses esteem for Israel. But his attitude toward assimilated Jews is ambivalent, and he seems uncertain about whether or not they contributed to Russia's well-being. His difficulty is due to the fact that he is a nationalist; nationalism in general--and Russian nationalism in particular--is not readily compatible with tolerance toward Jews, partly for religious reasons, partly because they refuse to dissolve without a trace in the ethnic community in the midst of which they live.

When the history of the Cold War is written, by a generation that didn't live through it and have an opportunity to misunderstand it themselves, two writers will tower above all others in terms of the clarity with which they comprehended their times and wrote of the evil at the core of the Soviet Union. In this review, one of them, Richard Pipes, writes about the other, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Savor the moment. [originally posted: 2002-11-21] Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 4:43 PM

Robert Conquest?

George Orwell?

Posted by: Harry at November 21, 2002 8:21 PM

Orwell in particular didn't get it--he thought the Revolution began good but was corrupted later. Pipes and Solzhenitsyn understood that the Revolution itself was evil.

Posted by: oj at November 21, 2002 10:43 PM

True. Orwell flattered Lenin to the end, though not in a haze of religious adulation.

Robert Conquest, though, deserves mention.

Another Russian author of the Cold War worth reading is Boris Pasternak. His Dr. Zhivago
personalizes the tragedy of Bolshevism lucidly.

When it comes to prescience, though, no one can beat Dostoevsky. Demons
(or The Possessed
) describes perfectly what the revolutionaries would do if they got power.

Also, one last author: Albert Camus, his The Rebel
is an excellent dissection of both Communist and fascist terror. He doesn't flatter Lenin, and this got him excommunicated from the Lefter-than-thou French intellectual circles.

Posted by: Derek Copold at November 22, 2002 10:53 AM

Conquest is superb.

Posted by: oj at November 22, 2002 12:39 PM
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