NEW YORK (JTA) – Amid the haystack of laudatory prose evoked this week by the death of one of the titans of Russian literature was this far less flattering needle: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was dogged, particularly in his later years, by charges he harbored deep anti-Semitic prejudice.
Natan Sharansky, who along with Solzhenitsyn is among the most famous inmates and chroniclers of the Soviet labor camp system, says those charges should be understood in context.
“I don’t think that he has any special prejudice,” Sharansky told JTA. “He had a big interest in defending the Russian nationalism, the Russian pride. Also he wanted to unmask the evils of the empire. While studying it, he discovered – it was very easy to discover – that among the architects of this gulag system, meaning this system of imprisonment, were many, many Jews.
“So for him these Jews became the symbol of the worst” types of Jews, those Jews who lost their own identity and tried to take away the identity of others, said Sharansky, whose own struggle became a symbol of the Soviet Jewry movement before he immigrated in 1986 to Israel, where he has served in the national government.
(Listen to a JTA podcast with Sharansky on Solzhenitsyn).
Solzhenitsyn first came to prominence in 1963 with the publication of “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a short novel describing the harsh conditions of a Soviet labor camp. He went on to publish “The Gulag Archipelago,” his best-selling work, and is credited with some of the worst indictments of Soviet depredation to appear in print. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.
For nearly two decades, Solzhenitsyn lived in exile in the United States, taking up residence on a secluded farm in Cavendish, Vt. He returned to Russia after the fall of communism, and in his later years embraced President Vladimir Putin, whom he saw as a figure capable of restoring Russian greatness.
Solzhenitsyn died Sunday in Moscow at 89.
Sharansky, then known as Anatoly Shcharansky, met Solzhenitsyn briefly in the early 1970s, though he describes himself as more firmly in the camp of another dissident writer, Andrei Sakharov.
Nevertheless, Sharansky recalls traveling hundreds of miles from Moscow to read underground copies of Solzhenitsyn’s work. And he credits the writer with helping the Soviet Jewry effort by laying bare the brutality of the Soviet regime.
It became much easier for the Soviet Jewry movement “to mobilize the support of the world for us” because “the world already knew, thanks to Solzhenitsyn, that it was an evil empire, and it was much easier for us to make our case,” Sharansky said.
“So whether he agreed or disagreed – and there were some tactical disagreements between us and him – his contribution was enormous. In fact he helped us to build our struggle.”
In his later years Solzhenitsyn wrote a two-volume history of Russians and Jews titled “Two Hundred Years Together,” in which he described the prominence of Jews in the Bolshevik revolution. Others have found traces of his animus toward Jews in the portrayal of Jewish characters in his novels.
But as the Independent in England reported, the issue was more complex given that his second wife was Jewish and their three sons from that marriage were raised as Jews.
For Sharansky, Solzhenitsyn’s view on Jews was peripheral to his legacy.
“Definitely he’s not objective,” Sharansky said. “Definitely he tries to justify things which one shouldn’t try to justify. But I have to say, having said all this, with all these prejudices, they played in fact no role in his influence on the world. They were really so marginal.
“Whether he had some prejudices against Jews or not – and he had some – it wasn’t really the meaning of his influence on the people of the world.”