In the 1930s: Chapter 19 of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s “200 Years Together”

The project of translating Alexandr Solzhenitisyn’s 200 Years Together into English continues apace. The 18,000-word Chapter 19, “In the 1930s” is now available (see here). The decade of the 1930s was tragic almost beyond description. The main idea advanced by Solzhenitsyn is that all segments of Soviet society suffered, including Jews who had been members of the elite. However, the suffering of Jews pales in comparison to the suffering of the Ukrainian and Russian farmers undergoing forced collectivization. Moreover, Jews were never targeted as Jews, and in general Jews remained vastly overrepresented in elite positions throughout the period, even after the purges.

Solzhenitsyn emphasizes the culpability of the West. The brutal process of industrialization was carried out with the cooperation of Western merchants and bankers eager to do business with the Soviet Union. Such commercial cooperation had been prohibited under the Czars because Jewish activist organizations had pressured governments not to do business with Russia because of its treatment of Jews — much as there are now sanctions against trading with Iran because of the concerns of the Israel Lobby. As we also see today, financial and commercial interests were not concerned with ideological commitment to capitalism or with human rights but simply sought to expand their profits.  Trade was allowed because there was the perception in the West that “Soviet power would not oppress the Jews, but on the contrary, that many of them would remain at the levers of power.”

And indeed, many Jews did remain in positions of power. As usual, Solzhenitsyn is at his trenchant best when he skewers the historical blind spots of Jewish apologists. This one is particularly outrageous: “In the 1980s we see assertions like this: in the Soviet times, the Jews in the USSR were ‘practically destroyed as a people; they had been turned into a social group, which was settled in the large cities as a social stratum to serve the ruling class.’”

The outrageous claim that Jews were mere pawns being manipulated by a nefarious ruling class is ridiculous because, as Solzhenitsyn notes, in fact “Jews were to the large extent members of the ‘ruling class.’” While the rest of the country suffered from mass murder, starvation, and political oppression, the government’s efforts were directed at “improved provisioning, furnishing and maintenance” of the urban areas where Jews predominated.

This reminds me of an example from my chapter on self-deception in Separation and Its Discontents. The problem for the apologist is how to depict Jews as oppressed when they are obviously vastly overrepresented in terms of wealth and other positions of influence:

This self-deception of Jews as oppressed can be seen in a recent work by Tikkun editor Michael Lerner (Lerner & West 1995) in which he argues that for Jews in contemporary America “there is a level of spiritual and psychological oppression that is as real and as fundamental as any other form of oppression. . . . It’s the oppression and pain that comes from denying our human capacity” (p. 237). Jews are outsiders in American society because American white society as a whole does not conform to a specifically Jewish ethical ideal despite the fact that Jews are highly overrepresented among all the indices of economic and cultural success in American society, including ownership of large corporations. In Lerner’s perspective, this high-income economic profile of the Jews occurs because Jews are passive victims of the non-Jewish “ruling elite” that uses them as helpless servants to further its own interests just as it did in traditional societies: “Jews have been put into an intermediate position, in between the ruling elite who own the major economic institutions and the American majority, which has little real economic power. Jews become the middlemen—the lawyers, doctors, government bureaucrats, social workers, school teachers, and college professors. They appear to the vast majority of the population as the public face of the ruling elite” (p. 232)

No matter how obvious this sort of self-deception is to any impartial observer, it resonates with other Jews. Quite simply, such examples appeal to the Jewish self-image that their behavior cannot be other than exemplary. Any putative exceptions are interpreted as due to the machinations of the “non-Jewish ruling elite.” It’s the same problem now with images of Israeli brutality, oppression, ethnocentrism, and ethnic cleansing. Activist Jews easily dismiss such images as anti-Semitism or self-hate. Dialog is impossible.

Solzhenitsyn shows that there were fewer Jews in the party elite after the purge of Trotsky and his predominantly Jewish followers. However, the purge was “absolutely not anti-Jewish.”  There remained very powerful Jews, notably Lazar Kaganovich who played such an important role in the mass murders of the period. While comprising less than 1% of the population, Jews were around one-sixth of the Communist Party membership and around 33%–40% of top party positions. Stalin assigned a Jew, Yakovlev-Epshtein, to the top administrative position in charge of collectivization (labeled by Solzhenitsyn “the destruction of the way of life of the people”), and notes several other Jews who worked under him. After listing dozens of Jews with high-level positions throughout the economy, Solzhenitsyn concludes that “Soviet Jews obtained a weighty share of state, industrial, and economic power at all levels of government in the USSR.” Similarly, in diplomacy, “Just as in the 1920s diplomacy attracted a cadre of Jews, so it did through the early and mid-1930s.” Indeed, even after the purges, when Molotov took over the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs in1939, he publicly announced during a meeting with diplomatic personnel that he “will deal with the synagogue here,” and that he began firing Jews on the very same day.

Jews had a substantial representation in the secret police. Solzhenitsyn refers to the increasing presence of Jews in the state security apparatus in the mid-30s. “On the eve of the most massive repressions” Jews comprised nearly 14% of the senior positions and were well-represented at the highest levels, including Genrikh Yagoda who headed the NKVD from 1934–1936. In December of 1936, 7 of the 10 heads of the sections of the NKVD were Jews. Similarly in the GUlag. Solzhenitsyn recalls the outrage that greeted his simply including a photo with the (predominantly Jewish) names of the heads of the camps in his Gulag Archipelago.

However, presumably because of their elite status, Jews suffered disproportionately in the purges of 1937–1938. Solzhenitsyn cites figures indicating that Jews comprised “50% of the main structural units of the central apparatus of the [NKVD], but by 1 January 1939 they headed only 6%.” Although Solzhenitsyn rejects the idea that the purge was specifically anti-Jewish, the displaced Jews were not replaced by other Jews, indicating a decline in Jewish power.

Solzhenitsyn provides long lists of Jewish victims of the purges and again rejects apologetic interpretations by Jewish writers. For example: A Jewish apologist argued that Jews “were used by [the Soviet government] and then mercilessly discarded when their services became redundant.” Solzhenitsyn responds: “What a great argument! So for twenty years these powerful Jews were really used? Yet weren’t they themselves the zealous cogs in the mechanism of that very dictatorship right up to the very time when their ‘services became redundant’? Did not they make the great contribution to the destruction of religion and culture, the intelligentsia, and millions among the peasantry?”

What’s amazing is that the Jewish author is only able to see Jewish suffering. Never mind that the purged Jews had been pillars of the most murderous regime in history. The only injustices that matter were directed against Jews.

Another apologetic account by an author who was well aware of the horrors of collectivization wrote that “awkward attempts to establish ‘socialism’ in Russia took the heaviest toll from the Jews”; “the scorpions of Bolshevism did not attack any other people with such brutal force as they attacked Jews.” Solzhenitsyn’s reply is the emotional centerpiece of the chapter:

Yet during the Great Plague of de-kulakization, it was not thousands but millions of peasants who lost both their ‘right of living’ and the ‘right to live’. And yet all the Soviet pens (with so many Jews among them) kept complete silence about this cold-blooded destruction of the Russian peasantry. In unison with them, the entire West was silent. Could it be really out of the lack of knowledge? Or was it for the sake of protecting the Soviet regime? Or was it simply because of indifference? Why, this is almost inconceivable: 15 million peasants were not simply deprived of entering the institutes of higher learning or of the right to submit a dissertation, or to occupy nice posts — no! They were dispossessed and driven like cattle out of their homes and sent to certain death in the taiga and tundra. And the Jews, among other passionate urban activists, enthusiastically took the reins of collectivization into their hands, leaving behind them an enduring memory of evil. Who had raised their voices in defense of the peasants then? And now, in 1932–33, in Russia and Ukraine —on the very outskirts of Europe, five to six million people died from hunger! And the free press of the free world maintained utter silence… And even if we take into account the extreme Leftist bias of the contemporary Western press and its devotion to the socialist “experiment” in the USSR, it is still impossible not to be amazed at the degree to which they could go to be blind and insensitive to the sufferings of even tens of millions of fellow humans.

If you don’t see it, your heart doesn’t cry.

Holodomor Victim

For Jewish apologists, the victimization of a few thousand Jews (not even targeted because they were Jews) merits deep concern while millions of non-Jews were being murdered. Jewish involvement with Bolshevism is perhaps the most egregious example of Jewish moral particularism in history. The horrific consequences of Bolshevism for millions of non-Jewish Soviet citizens were not an issue for Jewish leftists not only in the USSR but also in the US. In America during the 1930s, the CPUSA was promoting specific Jewish interests including opposing anti-Semitism, supporting Zionism, and advocating the importance of maintaining Jewish cultural traditions (see here, p. 36 ff). American radicals glorified the development of Jewish life in the Soviet Union as “good for Jews.” American radical Jews —a substantial percentage of the entire Jewish community at that time — saw the world through Jewish lenses.

An important aspect of the suppression of this information in the West was the “utter silence” of the media. As discussed here (p. 38), the New York Times was owned by a Jewish family and was much on the mind of American patriots like Charles Lindbergh concerned about Jewish media influence. During the 1930s, while it was highlighting German persecution of Jews and pushing for intervention into World War II against Germany, the Times whitewashed the horrors of Soviet rule, including the Ukrainian famine, even though the story was covered extensively by the Hearst newspapers and even though the leadership of the Times had been informed on numerous occasions that its correspondent was painting a false picture of Stalin’s actions. The Times has never renounced the Pulitzer Prize given to it reporter, Walter Duranty, for his coverage of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.

Solzhenitsyn notes that foreign Jewish groups continued to see the USSR as good for Jews and that Soviet Jews saw the government as a bulwark against popular anti-Jewish attitudes. A Jewish author claimed that “If the Bolshevik dictatorship falls, no doubt there will be wild anti-Semitic ravages and violence. …The fall of the Soviet regime would be a catastrophe for the Jews, and any friend of the Jewish people should reject such a prospect with horror.”  Feelings were particularly deep in the Ukraine where Jews were seen as implementing the starvation of the farmers as revenge for centuries of anti-Jewish attitudes.

Jews were concerned about any possible revival of Russian patriotism: Alarm about Russian patriotism “did not leave the minds of Jewish publicists for the next half century” despite the fact that the war “saved Soviet Jewry.” Solzhenitsyn is struck by the lack of gratitude: “Looking back at that war of 1941–1945, let’s admit that this is a highly ungrateful judgment.”

As indicated by these comments, anti-Semitism continued to be an issue. Jews were often the public face of hated government policy. Solzhenitsyn scoffs at a Jewish author who wrote that Jews had no choice but to work for the government: “This is so shameful to read. What oppression and despair! See, they had almost no other sources of livelihood, only privileged ones. And the rest of population was absolutely free to toil on [the collective farms], to dig pits, and to roll barrows at the great construction projects of the 5-year plans.”

Finally, Solzhenitsyn is concerned to show that even after the purges Jews were overrepresented among the elites, taking issue with a Jewish author who claimed that “without exaggeration, after Ezhov’s purges, not a single prominent Jewish figure remained at liberty in Soviet Jewish society, journalism, culture, or even in the sciences.” Solzhenitsyn shows the abundance of Jewish names in all areas of culture: performing arts, propaganda, the movie industry, science and technology. For example, Jews were a majority of filmmakers, while the real victims were the audience: “So, who was really the victim – deceived viewers, whose souls were steamrolled with lies and rude didactics, or the filmmakers, who ‘forged documentaries, biographies and produced pseudo-historical and essentially unimportant propaganda films,’ characterized by ‘phony monumentality and inner emptiness’?”

Solzhenitsyn concludes, “No, the official Soviet atmosphere of 1930s was absolutely free of ill will toward Jews. And until the war, the overwhelming majority of Soviet Jewry sympathized with the Soviet ideology and sided with the Soviet regime.” Indeed, he cites a Jewish source noting that “At the end of 1930s, the role of the Jews in the various spheres of the Soviet life reached its apogee for the entire history of the Soviet regime.”

The bottom line is that although Jewish power declined in some areas, such as in the NKVD, in general Jews retained their elite status on the eve of WWII. (Later chapters chart the decline of Jews in the post-World War II era.) The reputation of the USSR as good for the Jews meant that “Polish Jews, and the Jewish youth in particular, met the advancing Red Army with exulting enthusiasm” (as they had during the Soviet invasion of 1919) — a phenomenon that certainly angered Polish patriots and became a major aspect of Polish anti-Jewish attitudes in later years.

Finally, a fascinating tidbit: The method of gassing victims by piping exhaust fumes into passenger areas of trucks was invented not by the Germans but by a Soviet Jew, Isai Davidovich Berg, in 1937 while working for the NKVD.

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