Two Hundred Years Together

After meeting with Solzhenitsyn in the spring of 2001, the Israeli statesman Shimon Peres announced the stunning news that the Nobel Laureate had completed a major historical work on Russia’s “Jewish Question.” As Solzhenitsyn himself declared, this was a subject he would have preferred to avoid. It had given rise to “mutual reproaches” and fierce polemics on both the Russian and Jewish sides. Many Jewish commentators reduced the essence of Russian history to a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism, while extreme Russian nationalists blamed Jews for all the calamities that afflicted their homeland in the twentieth century. And some of Solzhenitsyn’s fevered critics were all too eager to confuse his patriotism and Orthodox faith with a badly concealed anti-Semitism.

But Solzhenitsyn’s work on The Red Wheel had convinced him that the “Jewish Question,” however difficult to navigate, was a topic which could not remain “taboo” and which should not be left to the distortions of irresponsible extremists. He had only touched upon this question in The Red Wheel because he wanted to avoid giving any encouragement to fringe elements who blamed the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 on the “conspiratorial machinations” of Jews. But since no fair-minded historian had jumped into the breach, Solzhenitsyn felt obliged to embark on this monumental project.  Instead of “ever-increasing reproaches and accusations,” there needed to be a “quest for all points of understanding, and all possible paths into the future, cleansed from the acrimony of the past.” Two Hundred Years Together aims to understand the past accurately, equitably, while paving the way toward mutual understanding and full reconciliation between Russians and Jews.

The first volume of Two Hundred Years Together (published in Russian in the summer of 2001) treats the encounter between Russians and Jews from 1772, when 100,000 Jews were first allowed to enter the Russian empire, to the eve of the revolutionary conflagrations of 1917. The second volume (published at the very end of 2002) covers the period from the revolutions of 1917 until the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews for Israel and the West in the early 1970s. The first volume aimed primarily “to report” events and was generally marked by a restrained tone; the second, more passionately written, volume describes events that Solzhenitsyn either knew firsthand or had spent decades investigating and writing about in The Gulag Archipelago and The Red Wheel.

Critics of Two Hundred Years Together have often failed to come to terms with the larger intellectual and moral concerns that inform Solzhenitsyn’s analysis. Some commentators have perversely gone out of their way to read the book selectively, keeping scorecards of “good” and “bad” Jews in its pages and prying quotations egregiously out of context. These critics treat Solzhenitsyn’s expressed goal of encouraging mutual understanding between Russians and Jews as a subterfuge. They accuse him of minimizing the Russian state’s responsibilities for pogroms in 1882, 1903, and 1905-1907. And some have mendaciously claimed that Solzhenitsyn holds Jews uniquely responsible for the criminal totalitarianism of the twentieth century. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Solzhenitsyn in no way minimizes the damage the pogroms did to the lives and liberties of ordinary Jews, to the “reasonable evolution” of the Russian state, or to Russian-Jewish relations. He establishes that, with one notable exception, the pogroms were not government-sponsored but instead were instigated spontaneously from below. But a “scandalously” weak Russian state did little to protect Russia’s Jews or to bring the culprits to justice. However, Solzhenitsyn refuses to distinguish between good and bad forms of lawlessness: Peasants burning the homes and estates of landowners after the revolution of 1905 unleashed “pogroms” as unjustifiable as the mass violence against Jews in Moldavia, Ukraine, and southwest Russia. A strong, self-respecting, law-based state was the most sensible response to both forms of “incendiary” violence. The powerful excerpt from chapter 18 provides a particularly grim tally of the murderous anti-Semitism that gripped the Ukraine during the Civil War. Much of this violence was instigated by Whites, and some by Ukrainian nationalists and by marauding elements of the Red Army. These pogroms took the lives of up to 200,000 Jews and inflicted untold spiritual and psychological damage on survivors.

In particularly emphatic passages, Solzhenitsyn declares that none of the Russian revolutions can be blamed on a “malicious Jewish plot.” The Russian writer freely mocks those fanatics who think they have discovered “the root cause that explained it all: the Jews.” They mistakenly maintained “Russia would long ago have ascended to the pinnacles of power and glory were it not for the Jews!” It was in truth the full panoply of “Russian failings,” which Solzhenitsyn so powerfully explicates in the concluding paragraphs of chapter 9, that “determined [Russia’s] sad historical decline.”

While “it is quite impossible to say that the Jews ‘organized’ the revolutions of 1905 and 1917,” Solzhenitsyn believes that all parties must take responsibility for their “renegades,” those who collaborated with an essentially totalitarian and terroristic regime after 1917. For Solzhenitsyn, though, it is always a question of collective responsibility and never of collective guilt. It “is not a matter of answering before other peoples, but before oneself, before one’s conscience, and before God.” In decisive respects, Two Hundred Years Together renews Solzhenitsyn’s high-minded defense of “repentance and self-limitation” in the life of nations.

In chapter 21, Solzhenitsyn does justice to the singularity of the Holocaust on Soviet territory. He clearly acknowledges the monstrousness of the war against the Jewish people, without ever minimizing the comparable evils that were Gulag and collectivization. Solzhenitsyn refuses to “privilege” one form of murderous totalitarianism over another or to set the sufferings of Russians and Jews against each other. The “totality of suffering” experienced by both Russians and Jews at the hands of the National Socialist and Communist regimes is “so great, the weight of the lessons inflicted by History so unsupportable” that it is imperative that it produce good and not only bitter fruit. It must give rise to mutual empathy, understanding, and reflection on the part of both Russians and Jews. In making these appeals, Solzhenitsyn never loses sight of our common humanity or the rigorous demands of the moral law. And transcending all polemics, he affirms that a “mysterious Design” continues to connect Russians and Jews in their third century of cohabitation. Fidelity to it requires a strenuous effort to do justice to their common past.

– by Edward Ericson and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader2006