By the time the reader begins the second volume of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together, he’s aware of a complex yet fragile balance established by the author in volume one. Jews and Russians have shared the same empire and language for centuries, but not without conflict brought about by their different natures and the exigencies of history. Solzhenitsyn takes pains to remain objective despite his clear sympathy for the Russian point of view. Often, when he reveals the misdeeds of Jews, he demonstrates how Russians are not without sin either. The first three chapters of the second volume (thirteen through fifteen), however, smash this balance and reveal Solzhenitsyn almost desperately trying to maintain it as if reconstructing a house of cards while it crumbles. These chapters span the two revolutions of 1917 and mark the culmination of changes among Russian Jewry which began in the 1870s — a change that took Russian Jews from calculating self-interest and detachment to assimilation, radicalism, and ultimately wanton destruction. The historical material is too damning to view it any other way. It embarrasses any attempt at evenhandedness. Solzhenitsyn never stops making them, of course. But knowing what’s coming in the years ahead — the Russian Civil War, the terror famines, the gulags, and the Great Terror, among other things — it becomes impossible to walk away from Two Hundred Years Together and not lay disproportionate blame for the catastrophe that was the Soviet Union upon the shoulders of Jews.
Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that one of the first orders of business for the victors in the February Revolution was Jewish equality and a ban on anti-Semitism. Anyone who showed even the slightest fealty towards the Tsar, Christianity, the old Russian Empire, and, by extension, Russian culture, history, or identity, was at the very least suspect. Right away, things improved for the Jews. With so many of them already in the cities, and with so many of them sympathetic to the Revolution, it should come as no shock that a multitude of professional opportunities opened up for them practically overnight. Jewish groups proliferated in the cities and the military. Jewish enthusiasm ran high, especially abroad, where financiers such as Jacob Schiff, the Rothschilds, Baron Ginzberg, and others gave millions to the cause. Tens of thousands of Jews returned to Russia to take part in the Revolution. At the same time, however, the fledgling government began hunting known judeophobes, including the prominent men who presided over the infamous Beilis trial from several years earlier.
The Right, in general, was also targeted for cultural annihilation. Rightist newspapers were forced to close down for accurately reporting the links between the Bolsheviks and the Germans during World War I. Even more insidiously. . .
[t]he chairman of the Union of the Russian People, Dmitry Dubrovin, was arrested and his archive was seized; the publishers of the far-right newspapers Glinka-Yanchevsky and Poluboyarinova were arrested too; the bookstores of the Monarchist Union were simply burned down.
And, of course, Jews were everywhere. Solzhenitsyn describes how, during his exhaustive studies of the February Revolution and the memoirs of its participants, many Jewish names leaped out at him. He provides several eyewitness accounts that corroborate this observation, including one from V. D. Nabokov (the novelist’s father). An American pastor named Simons, who was in Petrograd during the revolution, testified before the US Senate that
. . . everywhere in Petrograd you could see groups of Jews, standing on benches, soap boxes, and such, making speeches . . . There had been restrictions on the rights of Jews to live in Petrograd, but after the Revolution, they came in droves, and the majority of agitators were Jews.
Solzhenitsyn also produces numbers to support these claims. Among the thirty active members of the Executive Committee of the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in Petrograd immediately after the Revolution, more than half were Jews and fewer than one quarter were Russians. Solzhenitsyn also points out that at the Socialist Revolutionary Congress of May and June 1917, thirty-nine of the 318 delegates were Jews (over twelve percent). Of the Central Committee elected during that Congress, seven out twenty were Jews (thirty-five percent). In April 1917, Jews made up a third of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks. They also comprised a majority of the revolutionaries in those two trains which sped through wartime Germany towards Russia after the Tsar’s abdication. One of those trains contained Lenin. In October 1917, when the decision was made to launch the Bolshevik Revolution, Solzhenitsyn lists six Jews among the twelve conspirators. After the Revolution, a young Lazar Kaganovich destroyed the photographic evidence of the Council of the Assembly of Leningrad, explaining that “the vast majority of the presidium at the table were Jews.” And, of course, Jews made up a clear half of the first Soviet Politburo. It must be remembered that at that point in history, Jews made up less than five percent of the Russian population.
A small pile of Bolsheviks had now come to power and taken authority, but their control was still brittle. Whom could they trust in the government? Whom could they call on for aid? The seeds of the answer lay in the creation in January 1918 of a special People’s Commissariat from the members of the Jewish Commissariat, the reason for which was expressed in Lenin’s opinion that the Bolshevik success in the revolution had been made possible because of the role of the large Jewish intelligentsia in several Russian cities. These Jews engaged in general sabotage, which was directed against Russians after the October Revolution and which proved extremely effective. Jewish elements, though certainly not the entirety of the Jewish people, saved the Bolshevik Revolution through these acts of sabotage. Lenin took this into consideration, he emphasized it in the press, and he recognized that to master the state apparatus he could succeed only because of this reserve of literate and more or less intelligent, sober new clerks.
Thus, the Bolsheviks, from the first days of their authority, called upon the Jews to assume the bureaucratic work of the Soviet apparatus — and many, many Jews answered the call. They in fact responded immediately.
As typical in Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn provides names — and these go well beyond the famous ones such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. Here we have the Jewish second tier. Under normal circumstances, minor figures such as Arkady Rozengolts, Simon Nakhimson, Zorach Greenberg, Yevgeny Kogan, and many others would hardly be worth remembering except for historians. But in Two Hundred Years Together, they become pawns on the great Jewish Question chessboard.
Throughout these three chapters, however, the reader can see Solzhenitsyn struggling to maintain his evenhandedness. His efforts get more strained as time goes on. At first, he simply denies the Jewish role in the February Revolution. “[N]o, the February Revolution was not something Jews did to the Russians, but rather it was done by the Russians themselves, which I believe I amply demonstrated in The Red Wheel.” Of course, there is much truth in this. The shortsightedness, corruption, laziness, and incompetence of the Russian leadership at the time is impossible to deny. But rarely does Solzhenitsyn attribute this downfall to outright malice. The Russians, such as Alexander Kerensky, who contributed to the first Revolution were atypical Russians, while the Jews who became revolutionaries were typical Jews.
The February Revolution was carried out by Russian hands and Russian foolishness. Yet at the same time, its ideology was permeated and dominated by the intransigent hostility to the historical Russian state that ordinary Russians didn’t have, but the Jews had.
Often in this part of the work, Solzhenitsyn remarks on the dominant “foreign element” among the revolutionaries aside from Jews — Poles, Latvians, Georgians, even Chinese. Solzhenitsyn seems to argue against himself even further when he discusses the ethnic makeup of the shadowy Executive Committee (mentioned above) which was formed only hours after the February Revolution and was indeed the real power behind the Provisional Government. The Committee’s first act was to seize control of the Russian Army. This organization was over half-Jewish, although it attempted to obscure this fact through pseudonyms. At the time, no one knew who was really ruling Russia. Despite this, Solzhenitsyn wavers between laying blame upon the foreign element, which was acting behind the scenes after the February Revolution, and the Russian element, which should have prevented the Revolution in the first place. Ultimately, he punts on this quandary, refusing to ascribe definitive blame in either direction.
This is unconvincing, largely due to Solzhenitsyn’s profound understanding of the Jewish Question and his genius for argument. This emerges during his discussion of otshchepentsy (отщепенцы), which can be translated to mean “traitor to one’s blood and heritage.” Looking back to the revolutions of 1917, many Jews no longer deny their shamefully disproportionate participation. Instead, they endeavor to slip themselves off the hook by claiming that Trotsky and the others were otshchepentsy — not real Jews, but renegade Jews. As evidence, they will point to the not insignificant number of Jews who were also victims of the Bolsheviks. Solzhenitsyn, for argument’s sake, accepts this, but then wonders why these same Jews hesitate to apply the otshchepentsy excuse to non-Jews, and Russians in particular, for similar misdeeds.
Solzhenitsyn also notices a pattern. Jews just happen to produce a lot of otshchepentsy, don’t they? Yes, there were Russians like this, but proportionately far fewer. Solzhenitsyn also asks the delicate question of how these otshchepentsy were received by their own people at the time, and not years later when embarrassed historians find the need to make excuses for their deceased countrymen. And, sadly, the majority of Jews during the time of the 1917 revolutions did not renounce their so-called otshchepentsy. Quite the opposite, actually. Solzhenitsyn states that there are modern Israeli historians who interpret the October Revolution as a great triumph of Jewish spirit and identity.
So much for otshchepentsy.
It seems that Solzhenitsyn’s fighting spirit gets the better of him towards the end of chapter fifteen. The same author who halfheartedly exonerated the Jews vis-à-vis the February Revolution now states that they were the driving force behind the October Revolution. Further, he reminds us that the clearly pro-Jewish stance of the Provisional Government made this second revolution entirely unnecessary for the welfare of Russian Jews. They had already achieved equality and were on track to surpass the former Russian elites in power and influence if they hadn’t already. Why did they need the October Revolution if not for unlimited power or the annihilation of Russia? In a powerful passage, Solzhenitsyn quotes a Jewish author who believes that the Jewish Bolsheviks “willfully destroyed their own souls.”
Solzhenitsyn ends this powerful chapter with a direct call for Jews everywhere to take responsibility for their past, and to renounce their “revolutionary thugs” and their “endless ranks who went into Bolshevik service to commit mass murder.”
How do we Russians take responsibility for the pogroms, for those merciless peasant arsonists, for the mad revolutionary soldiers and sailor beasts, and the Jews get to spread their hands in blameless innocence over the countless Yiddish names among the commissar-butchers who commanded the whole wretched business?
Solzhenitsyn has absolutely no time for this blatant double standard. Still, he wants nothing more than to meet the Jews halfway in this repentance and self-limitation of nations . But he insists that it be mutual. And why not? If the Jews don’t hold up their end of the bargain, then the Russians (or anyone else) have no reason to hold up theirs. And this would be a tragedy, because, according to Solzhenitsyn, without the obligation of responsibility and a true understanding of the past, all sense of national identity will be lost.
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