Solzhenitsyn’s Chapter 5 (“After the Murder of Alexander II”) recounts the important period after the assassination of Tsar Alexandar II in 1881. (See here.Donations for the translators are much needed.) The assassination inaugurated a period of anti-Jewish pogroms, restrictions on Jews, and an upsurge of Jewish involvement in revolutionary activities. Solzhenitsyn’s treatment is highly reminiscent of Albert Lindemann’s treatment in Esau’s Tears and in his The Jew Accused in its dismissal of the apologetic accounts written by Jewish historians and in his portrayal of the very real difficulties faced by the Russian government in dealing with its Jewish population. In general, the tensions between Jews and non-Jews recounted here reflect traditional anti-Jewish themes, particularly Jewish economic domination, but there are also themes peculiar to the rise of the Jews as an educated elite that were widespread in Europe at the time. We also see here the theme of Jewish involvement in revolutionary political radicalism which culminated in the revolution of 1917.
Apologetic accounts of the period by Jewish activist historians and organizations have painted the Russian government as the epitome of evil. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration that the entire organized Jewish community in Western Europe and America acted to thwart Russian interests throughout the entire period from 1881 to 1917—most notably the role of Jacob Schiff in financing the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905.
Solzhenitsyn points out that there was no government complicity in the anti-Jewish actions, although the government response was limited by the small number of Russian police at the time. Indeed, the official government view was that pogroms were the result of agitators bent on revolution and therefore naturally viewed negatively by the government. Alexander III is quoted in reaction a report of leniency toward pogromists by the authorities that “This is inexcusable.” Records unearthed after 1917 revealed that Alexander III “demanded an energetic investigation.”
Nevertheless, the myth that the Russian government had organized the pogroms was propagated and can still be found in Jewish publications — along with the slander that Alexander personally hated the Jews.
Jewish sources also exaggerated the number of victims — one “frequently published” source claiming the “rape of women, murder, and maiming of thousands of men, women, and children.” These sources claimed that “these riots were inspired … by the very government [that] had incited the pogromists and hindered the Jews in their self-defense.” Goldwin Smith, a prominent 19th-century historian with decidedly anti-Jewish views (not cited by Solzhenitsyn), noted that a publication distributed by the Jewish community in England contained claims of many atrocities for which there was no evidence. (The publication was influential in swaying British opinion.) These alleged crimes included roasting infants alive and mass rapes, including some in which Christian women held down Jewesses being raped by Christian men. The leaflet claimed that entire streets had been razed and entire Jewish quarters put to the torch. Smith states that based on reports of British consuls in the area, “though the riots were deplorable and criminal, the Jewish account was in most cases exaggerated, and in some to an extravagant extent. The damage to Jewish property at Odessa, rated in the Jewish account at 1,137,381 rubles, or according to their higher estimates, 3,000,000 rubles, was rated, Consul-General Stanley tells us, by a respectable Jew on the spot at 50,000 rubles, while the Consul-General himself rates it at 20,000” (Goldwyn Smith (1894). Essays on Questions of the Day, 1894, 2nd ed. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press; reprinted in 1972, p. 243).
The agitators were motivated by Jewish economic domination. A well-known leaflet from 1881 read:
Who seized the land, forests, and taverns?—The Yid—From whom, muzhik (peasant), do you have to ask for access to your land, at times hiding tears?…From yids.—Wherever you look, wherever you ask—the yids are everywhere. The Yid insults people and cheats them; drinks their blood”…and it concludes with the appeal: “Honest working people! Free yourselves!
Another leaflet explained that the pogroms were “not against the Jews as Jews, but against Yids; that is, exploiter peoples.” Rather than simply rejecting this explanation, Solzhenitsyn presents a sympathetic portrayal of I. S. Aksakov, a contemporary defender of the pogromists, who ascribed their actions as stemming from “a kind of simple-hearted conviction in the justness of their actions”; the question is “not about Jews enjoying equal rights with Christians, but about the equal rights of Christians with Jews, about abolishing factual inequality of the Russian population in the face of the Jews.”
A government minister, Nikolay Ignatyev, described the problem:
“Recognizing the harm to the Christian population from the Jewish economic activity, their tribal exclusivity and religious fanaticism, in the last 20 years the government has tried to blend the Jews with the rest of the population using a whole row of initiatives, and has almost made the Jews equal in rights with the native inhabitants.” However, the present anti-Jewish movement “incontrovertibly proves, that despite all the efforts of the government, the relations between the Jews and the native population of these regions remain abnormal as in the past,” because of the economic issues: after the easing of civil restrictions, the Jews have not only seized commerce and trade, but they have acquired significant landed property. “Moreover, because of their cohesion and solidarity, they have, with few exceptions, directed all their efforts not toward the increase of the productive strength of the state, but primarily toward the exploitation of the poorest classes of the surrounding population.” And now, after we have crushed the disorders and defended the Jews from violence, “it seems ‘just and urgent to adopt no less energetic measures for the elimination of these abnormal conditions…between the native inhabitants and the Jews, and to protect the population from that harmful activity of the Jews.’”
This is an excellent encapsulation of the traits of Jewish groups in traditional societies: Tribal exclusivity, religious fanaticism, and group cohesion (ethnic networking) resulting in economic domination, especially over the poorer classes and often in collusion with elites. Together these traits amount to a group evolutionary strategy. In this case, however, the Russian government refused to ally itself with the Jews and attempted “to protect the population from that harmful activity of the Jews.” Hence the conflict between the Russian government and the international Jewish community from 1881 to 1917.
Solzhenitsyn vigorously defends the claim that the motive of the government was to protect the rural population from the Jews. The May Regulations instituted in the wake of the pogroms prevented further settlement of Jews in non-Jewish towns (the ones already there could remain) and restricted Jewish economic activity, particularly the wine trade. The government’s protective motive is clear: “The government stood before a difficult choice: to expand the wine industry in the face of peasant proneness [to drunkeness] and thus to deepen the peasant poverty, or to restrict the free growth of this trade by letting the Jews already living in the villages to remain while stopping others from coming. And that choice—restriction—was deemed cruel.” Indeed, “today these May Regulations are portrayed as a decisive and irrevocably repressive boundary of Russian history.”
Notice particularly the claim by the minister (and supported by Solzhenitsyn) that Jews “directed all their efforts not toward the increase of the productive strength of the state, but primarily toward the exploitation of the poorest classes of the surrounding population.”Jewish economic activity was exploitative and destructive, resulting in impoverishing the peasants and exploiting their weakness for alcohol. A common Jewish attitude is that Jews made great contributions to the economic well-being of the society wherever there were large numbers of Jews. Whatever the plausibility of such a view in different times and places, it was certainly not the case here. As I noted elsewhere,
many examples of historical anti-Semitism involved animosity resulting from the oppressive nature of economic relationships between the ethnic groups—from a perceived need for greater reciprocity and less exploitation. Having merchants and moneylenders may be necessary, but lowering the fraction of total income of moneylenders and their aristocratic patrons would be in the interests of debtors and may also conform to normative notions of economic justice (especially if these are well-paid occupations). Historically, Jews were often concentrated in ethnic niches such as moneylending, tax farming, and estate management—occupations that were exploitative. In traditional societies these activities were not part of a market economy but an aspect of exploitation by elites. … In the Middle Ages and down to the twentieth century in much of Eastern Europe, the great majority of loans were made to people living at or near subsistence, and they were made at exorbitant rates. There was often no free market in moneylending; typically, moneylenders obtained the right to engage in these activities as a result of being granted a franchise by a nobleman or a city which received a portion of the profits. The moneylenders then charged whatever they thought they could obtain from their customers, with the exception that interest rates were sometimes capped because of complaints by ruined debtors.
Loans made at interest rates common in the Middle Ages (oftentimes 33%–65%) are simply exploitative, and there is little wonder that they caused hatred on the part of ruined debtors and deep concern on the part of the Church. Moneylending under these circumstances did indeed benefit moneylenders and their aristocratic backers, but, as with loan-sharking today, it simply resulted in destitution for the vast majority of the customers—especially the poorer classes—rather than economic growth for the society as a whole. Loans were made to the desperate, the unintelligent, and the profligate rather to people with good economic prospects who would invest their money to create economic growth; they were made “not to the prosperous farmer…but the farmer who could not make ends meet; not the successful squire, but the waster; the peasant, not when his crops were good, but when the failed; the artisan, not when he sold his wares, but when he could not find a market. Not unnaturally, a century of such a system was more than any community could stand, and the story of Jewish usury is a continuous alternation of invitation, protection, protestation and condemnation.”
Another exploitative Jewish economic niche was the arenda system in Eastern Europe, in which Jewish estate managers were motivated to exploit their subjects as much as possible during the period of the lease. In the arenda system, a Jewish agent would lease an estate from a nobleman. In return for a set fee, the leaseholder would have the right to all the economic production of the estate and would also retain control of the feudal rights (including onerous forced labor requirements) over its inhabitants:
In this way, the Jewish arendator became the master of life and death over the population of entire districts, and having nothing but a short-term and purely financial interest in the relationship, was faced with the irresistible temptation to pare his temporary subjects to the bone. On the noble estates he tended to put his relatives and co-religionists in charge of the flour-mill, the brewery, and in particular of the lord’s taverns where by custom the peasants were obliged to drink. On the church estates, he became the collector of all ecclesiastical dues, standing by the church door for his payment from tithe-payers, baptized infants, newly-weds, and mourners. On the [royal] estates…, he became in effect the Crown Agent, farming out the tolls, taxes, and courts, and adorning his oppressions with all the dignity of royal authority.20
Such a system approximates slavery, the only difference being that serfs are tied to the land while slaves can be freely bought and sold. In such systems, there is little motivation to work, and productivity is relatively low.21
The May Regulations resulted in Jewish hatred toward the government and an upsurge in Jewish revolutionary activity culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution. “Although the pogroms originated mainly with the Ukrainian population, the Russians have not been forgiven and the pogroms have always been tied with the name of Russia.” Jewish organizations in the rest of the world therefore opposed Russia, often resulting in charges of disloyalty because the Jewish desire to improve the treatment of Russian Jews conflicted with the national interests of several countries, particularly France, which was eager to develop an anti-German alliance in the wake of its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In England during World War I, Jews who had immigrated from Russia often refused military service because England was allied with Russia (see here, p. 67). Loyalty issues, which in our own day are centered on the neocon push for wars in the Middle East on behalf of Israel, are certainly not simply canards, as typically claimed by Jewish organizations.
Solzhenitsyn also points out that the government wanted more control over the Jewish population because of the “constant shortfall of Jewish conscripts for military service; it was particularly noticeable when compared to conscription of Christians.”
Although Jews avoided the draft, they were highly overrepresented in higher education, and the government was concerned about the rise of revolutionary sentiments among students, especially Jewish students. Quotas of 5–10% were established in universities, motivated partly by concern about Jewish revolutionary activity.
Finally, Solzhenitsyn correctly rejects the idea that the May Regulations were the main cause of mass emigration from Russia. More important was Jewish overpopulation. Jews had the highest rate of population growth of any European group in the 19th century, and they simply overshot their economic niche, resulting in a great deal of poverty among Jews.
This increasing economic domination went along with a great increase in the population of Jews. Jews not only made up large percentages of urban populations, they increasingly migrated to small towns and rural areas. [The May Regulations were designed to limit this.] In short, Jews had overshot their economic niche: The economy was unable to support this burgeoning Jewish population in the sorts of positions that Jews had traditionally filled, with the result that a large percentage of the Jewish population became mired in poverty. The result was a cauldron of ethnic hostility, with the government placing various restrictions on Jewish economic activity; rampant anti-Jewish attitudes; and increasing Jewish desperation.
The main Jewish response to this situation was an upsurge of fundamentalist extremism that coalesced in the Hasidic movement and, later in the nineteenth century, into political radicalism and Zionism as solutions to Jewish problems. Jewish populations in Eastern Europe had the highest rate of natural increase of any European population in the nineteenth century, with a natural increase of 120,000 per year in the 1880s and an overall increase within the Russian Empire from one to six million in the course of the nineteenth century. Anti-Semitism and the exploding Jewish population, combined with economic adversity, were of critical importance for producing the sheer numbers of disaffected Jews who dreamed of deliverance in various messianic movements—the ethnocentric mysticism of the Kabbala, Zionism, or the dream of a Marxist political revolution. (See here.)
In conclusion, Solzhenitsyn’s views are well-documented and fit well with the work of historians like Albert Lindemann. There is definitely an edge to his views. He portrays Jews as an exploitative class over the peasantry, defends government actions, and notes that Jews presented invidious portraits of Russian actions which they used to rally their own people and influence Western governments against Russia. In taking on the biased statements by Jewish commentators, the emotion comes through, as in his reaction to the idea that Jews were forced to emigrate because of the May Regulations:
Wait a second, how did they throw the Jews out and an entire million at that? Didn’t they apparently only prevent new arrivals? No, no! It was already picked up and sent rolling: that from 1882 the Jews were not only forbidden to live in the villages everywhere, but in all the cities, too, except in the 13 guberniyas; that they were moved back to the shtetls of “the Pale”—that is why the mass emigration of Jews from Russia began![i]
Well, set the record straight. …
Like his intellectual opponents, Solzhenitsyn is an ethnic nationalist — but one with the facts on his side.
[i] Yu. Larin. The Jews and Anti-Semitism in the USSR, p. 52-53.