Behind the Headlines: Solzhenitsyn’s Ouster Bodes Ill for Soviet Jewish Activists

The deportation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn last Wednesday bodes ill for the future of Soviet Jews campaigning for the right to emigrate. The arrest and expulsion of the Nobel Laureate was the climax of a fierce campaign against him sparked by his latest book. “The Gulag Archipelago,” which deals with the Soviet prison camps and Stalin’s plot to exterminate Soviet Jewry. According to an announcement by Tass, the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet stripped Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship “for performing systematically actions that are incompatible with being a citizen of the USSR and detrimental to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

Last Friday, two days after the expulsion, there was an announcement in Washington that a group of Soviet officials will be visiting various cities in the United States as guests of leading business executives. This visit, arranged after Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev was here last June, is an effort to win community support for expanding commercial deals between the two nations as a means of pump-priming their economies. (The 20-member delegation headed by Soviet Foreign Trade Minister Nikolai Patolichev will arrive in New York next Sunday and go directly to Washington for a meeting of the Soviet-American Trade Council on Feb. 26. Afterwards each member will be accompanied to a specific community by his American business host.)

The expulsion and visit, seemingly disparate events, may be viewed as intertwined–if not in point of time then certainly in terms of intent. Neither of the two events take place in a vacuum. There is a basic motivation which links the two together: detente. Both the USSR and the U.S. are impelled toward this end by their respective domestic crises and the international political scene. In the U.S. there is mounting unemployment, an energy crisis, an Administration trying to extricate itself from the Watergate imbroglio and a large section of population suffering from inflation. In the Soviet Union the agricultural sector is in trouble, there is an undercurrent of discontent in some sections of the working class over the inordinate expenditures for military hardware for Russia’s Arab clients, there are signs of growing friction between the Communist Party leadership and the military establishment, and difficulties with China. Both the U.S. and USSR are involved in a mutual undertaking to help resolve the Middle East crisis, expand their international markets, find ways to cooperate in scientific ventures and try to limit their military hardware.

Detente requires first and foremost peace within each camp: stable governments capable of dealing with these problems. The expulsion of Solzhenitsyn may be an effort on the part of the Soviet regime to show that it is in complete control of its social structure. In order to achieve detente with the U.S., the Soviet leadership has to prove that there is a stable and solid leadership, not one embarrassed and humiliated by critics. There is some feeling that the deportation of Solzhenitsyn, rather than confining him to prison, is a sop to detente. If so, then the distribution of sops has a double standard if one considers the fate of the Panovs and the more than 40 Prisoners of Conscience. There is some similarity between the ouster of the dissident author with the situation in the 1930s regarding both detente and the suppression of dissent in the USSR. During the 1930s “detente” between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was also impelled by domestic problems in each country and by the world situation.

In the U.S. there was unprecedented unemployment, massive strikes, left and right-wing movements threatening to topple the government, rampant hunger and starvation. In the USSR the five-year plans were failing to reach their projected goals, forced collectivization of agriculture was creating pockets of resistance against the government, there was widespread famine, and there was mounting organized opposition led by Leon Trotsky to the leadership of Stalin-Kamenev-Zinoviev. Internationally, Nazism was taking hold in Germany, there was a war in the Far East, a civil war in Spain, Italy was attacking Ethiopia, and the League of Nations was impotent in dealing with these events.


The deportation of Solzhenitsyn has no exact parallel in Soviet history but there are examples that may be useful to recall. In 1929 Trotsky was exiled, the last exile until now. Five years later, following the assassination in 1934 of Leningrad’s Communist Party chief, Sergei Kirov, a series of purges, arrests, trials and executions began, and lasted for four years. The trials, parenthetically began one year after the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the USSR. The four years of terror can be viewed not only as an attempt to liquidate the Left Opposition led by Trotsky in order to make the USSR more politically acceptable to the West, but also to strengthen the Stalinist regime internally by eliminating critics, thus making it appear a stronger ally for the West. (While the trials against the Left Opposition were taking place a parallel trial against Zionists was also occurring. In 1936 several Jewish officials of Biro-Bidjan were executed.)

The exiling of Solzhenitsyn is ominous beyond the immediate act of silencing a critic by expelling him from his native soil. It is ominous because it tends to reveal the extent to which the Soviet leadership is willing–and capable, even in face of international protests–to go to terminate its own “Watergate” scandal: the revelations about the prison camps. It is ominous especially in terms of Jewish activism because the basis for Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion–”performing systematically actions that are incompatible with being a citizen of the USSR”–can be used as a precedent against the activists.

Solzhenitsyn’s deportation appears to indicate that the threshold of tolerance for dissidence has been crossed. For the past several years the most organized expression of dissent has been that of Soviet Jews. By their very actions and demands the right of the Soviet government to determine the fate of its citizens has been challenged. The demand for emigration rights created a crack in the Soviet armor and led to world-wide public outcries. The demand for the right to emigrate is also less abstract than the ponderous writings of Soviet intellectuals like Solzhenitsyn. Roy Medvedev and Andrei Sakharov and has had more impact on other Soviet minorities. But the Jews. by the very nature of their demand, cannot be exiled because exile would be tantamount to giving them their freedom. It is inconceivable at this time to expect that the Soviet government will open up the labor camps and permit the more than 40 Jewish prisoners of conscience to be exiled “for performing systematically actions that are incompatible with being a citizen of the USSR.” More likely, what appears to be in store for those Jewish activists not already in labor camps is imprisonment and or banishment to the far corners of the Soviet Union itself in order to isolate and atomize their struggles.

In addition, there is some feeling that the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn may serve as a warning to Jewish activists that from now on demands for emigration will be viewed more openly as anti-state activity and therefore be subject to greater restraints and reprisals. Moreover, the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn may also be a test case for the future of detente: if high Administration officials remain silent about this, can a discreet and growing silence about the fate of Jewish activists be far behind?

In the efforts on the part of both countries to extricate themselves from their internal difficulties and cope with international problems, the plight of Soviet Jews becomes a negligible and dispensable factor–in fact, an Irritant in the body politic of both countries. There is growing apprehension that the future of Soviet Jewry may be sacrificed on the altar of detente. There is also a gnawing feeling in some quarters that the economics of detente are more basic to the social well-being of both the U.S. and USSR than the moral issues involving freedom and the right to criticize.