Alexander Solzhenitsyn died yesterday at the age of 89. Much of the press coverage, obviously, focuses on Solzhenitsyn’s dissection of the Soviet Union. As Cathy Young once put it, “he probably deserves more credit than any other person for stripping away communism’s moral prestige among Western intellectuals.” On a personal note, reading The Gulag Archipelago was like a religious experience to me, and it may indeed be the best work of non-fiction of the 20th century as Time magazine once argued.
But as Young noted in the article I swiped that quote from above, there was a darker side to Solzhenitsyn that is being ignored by all the glowing obituaries and commentary, and that was his anti-Semitism,
Accusations of anti-Semitism are not new for Solzhenitsyn. Critics have long pointed to passages in The Gulag Archipelago that selectively list the Jewish last names of labor camp commandants. And Solzhenitsyn’s historical novel August 1914, published in English in 1972, emphasizes the Jewishness of Dmitry Bogrov, assassin of Russia’s reformist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin.
Solzhenitsyn has claimed that he was merely telling it like it was, but August 1914 embellishes history considerably: While Bogrov was a thoroughly assimilated revolutionary from a family of third-generation converts, Solzhenitsyn saddles him with a Jewish first name, Mordko (a diminutive of Mordecai), and the fictitious motive of trying to undermine the Russian state to help the Jews.
Then came the news that Solzhenitsyn was writing a major history of the Jews in Russia. The first volume of Dvesti let vmeste (Two Hundred Years Together), covering the period from 1795 to 1916, appeared in 2001; the second volume followed in 2003. According to Solzhenitsyn, the work was intended to give an objective and balanced account of Russian-Jewish relations: “I appeal to both sides — the Russians and the Jews — for patient mutual understanding and admission of their own share of sin.” This comment seems suspicious in itself, given that, for most of their history in Russia, Jews were victims of systematic oppression and violence. To talk about mutual guilt is a bit like asking blacks to accept their share of blame for Jim Crow.
Young describes how Western intellectuals tended to ignore or downplay Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Jewish statements, and Christopher Hitchens follows form in his obituary for Solzhenitsyn in Slate. But I think Young was on to something when she concluded her 2004 article thusly,
How to explain this leniency? Perhaps it is simply too painful to consider that the great moral beacon of the communist days might be tainted with bigotry. But while the writer’s role in Soviet-era history undoubtedly deserves respect, that does not require blindness to his flaws.
Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communism, it is increasingly clear, was never a defense of individual freedom. It was a defense of a different kind of collectivism: ethnic, religious, and traditionalist. This is far from the only time that such a mind-set — anti-secular, anti-modern, anti-individualist — has been linked to prejudice against those who don’t fit into the collective.