Hailed as the greatest Russian writer of the 20th century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn went from avowed Communist to Gulag prisoner and outspoken advocate for the destruction of the Soviet empire. His writings exploded the myth of the Communist ideology and set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Fr. Seraphim Rose greatly respected Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and frequently mentioned him in his writings and talks. In the first edition of Not of This World, we read: “When Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago came out in 1974, Fr. Seraphim not only read it, he studied it as a textbook.” (p. 615).
Solzhenitsyn is greatly esteemed in Orthodox circles, primarily in the Russian Church, as well as within convert circles who have been influenced by Fr. Seraphim Rose’s teachings. His books are on the recommended list for Orthodox Christians. In 2003, he published a controversial book which has been banned in some countries, Two Hundred Years Together. It was written as a comprehensive history of Jews in the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and modern Russia between the years 1795 and 1995, especially with regard to government attitudes toward Jews. It is viewed by most historians as as unreliable in both factual data and ideological approach, as well as anti-Semitic. It is hailed as a masterpiece in traditionalist, as well as, nationalist Eastern Orthodox circles.
On Russia and the Jews
Although Solzhenitsyn has often been accused of anti-Semitism, there is sharp division on whether or not the charge is valid. According to proponents, Solzhenitsyn was a Russian ultra-nationalist and anti-Semite in the mold of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Those who reject accusations of anti-Semitism insist that Solzhenitsyn merely held the Jewish people to the same standard of repentance and self limitation as he held other nations.
In his 1974 essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations”, Solzhenitsyn called for Russian Gentiles and Jews alike to take moral responsibility for the “renegades” from both communities who enthusiastically created a Marxist-Leninist police state after the October Revolution.
In a November 13, 1985 review of Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914 in the New York Times, Polish-American historian Richard Pipes commented: “Every culture has its own brand of anti-Semitism. In Solzhenitsyn’s case, it’s not racial. It has nothing to do with blood. He’s certainly not a racist; the question is fundamentally religious and cultural. He bears some resemblance to Dostoyevsky, who was a fervent Christian and patriot and a rabid anti-Semite. Solzhenitsyn is unquestionably in the grip of the Russian extreme right’s view of the Revolution, which is that it was the doing of the Jews”.
Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel denied this claim and insisted that Solzhenitsyn was not an anti-Semite: “He is too intelligent, too honest, too courageous, too great a writer.” He added he wished Solzhenitsyn were more sensitive to Jewish suffering, but believed his insensitivity to be unconscious.
In his 1998 book Russia in Collapse, Solzhenitsyn excoriated the Russian extreme right’s obsession with anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories.
In 2001, however, Solzhenitsyn published a two-volume work on the history of Russian-Jewish relations (Two Hundred Years Together 2001, 2002). A bestseller in Russia, the book triggered renewed accusations of anti-Semitism.
The controversy was fueled by the similarities between Two Hundred Years Together and an anti-Semitic essay titled “Jews in the USSR and in the Future Russia”. According to the historian Semyon Reznik, textological analyses of the essay indicate Solzhenitsyn’s authorship.
Solzhenitsyn responded by saying that the essay was written using manuscripts stolen from him by the KGB forty years before. They were then carefully edited as part of the Soviet State’s “active measures” against him.
Although Two Hundred Years Together has never been published in the United States, long excerpts from it appear in The Solzhenitsyn Reader. The book began with a plea for “patient mutual comprehension” on the part of Russian Gentiles and Jews. Solzhenitsyn explained that the book was conceived in the hope of promoting “mutually agreeable and fruitful pathways for the future development of Russian-Jewish relations”.
In Chapter 9, Solzhenitsyn that, “…it would be quite wrong to say that the Jews ‘organized’ the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, just as it was not organized by any other nation as such.”
At the end of chapter 15, Solzhenitsyn expressed a belief that, “every people must answer morally for all of its past — including that past which is shameful.” In this spirit, he urged the Jewish people to answer, “both for the revolutionary cutthroats and the ranks willing to serve them.” It is not, he insists, a matter of answering “before other peoples, but to oneself, to one’s consciousness, and before God.” He explains that Russian Gentiles must also repent “for the pogroms, for those merciless arsonist peasants, for those crazed revolutionary soldiers, for those savage sailors… To answer just as we would answer for members of our own family. For if we release ourselves from any responsibility for the actions of our national kin, the very concept of a people loses any real meaning.”