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THE STORY SO FAR

The main argument of Solzhenitsyn's Two Centuries Together is that the 'Jewish problem' - the problem Russia faced when it incorporated a large Jewish population with the partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century - was a real problem, not just a fiction got up by anti-Jewish prejudice. That is to say that without necessarily ascribing badness to either side (though without denying the existence and importance of badness) the two peoples had interests which, perfectly legitimate in themselves, brought them into conflict. 

Something like this approach seems to have become generally accepted in the English language literature on the subject since the pioneering research of Hans Rogger in the University of California, Los Angeles and John Klier in University College London. Klier in an obituary for Rogger, sums up the approach Rogger (himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany) was challenging as follows:

'It is important to remember the overwhelming consensus that ruled the realm of Russian Jewish history in 1973 when Rogger published a short article in the Wiener Library Bulletin entitled 'The Jewish Policy of Late Tsarism: A Reappraisal'. The established view was shaped by the work of the great Russian Jewish historian Shimon Dubnov, whose History of the Jews in Russia and Poland (3 vols, Philadelphia, 1916-20) was to be found in every academic and popular library. Dubnov's depiction of Russian rule over the Jews was a perfect illustration of what Salo Baron would later decry as the lachrymose interpretation of Jewish history. According to Dubnov, Russian policy towards the Jews had been hostile from the very start of Russian rule over the Polish Jews, who came into the Empire as a result of the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The initial begrudging toleration was no more than a cruel Muscovite face hidden behind the mask of 'enlightened St Petersburg'. Russian policy was dominated by 'traditional Russian religious anti-Semitism', which was intent on the destruction of Jewish religion and culture. The first objective was pursued by a concerted policy of coerced conversion to Christianity, exemplified by the recruitment law of 1827, which drafted under-age recruits into the Russian army and then, by force and guile, converted them to Christianity. The second objective - assimilation - was pursued through a policy of sham Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement which sought the rapprochement of Christians and Jews in a neutral society. The educational policies pursued by the Russian state sought to strip the Jews of any national feeling and - ultimately - to convert them.' (1)

This is also of course the consensus Solzhenitsyn was challenging.

(1)  John D. Klier: Hans Rogger, 1923–2002,  https://doi.org/10.1080/13501670208577968

According to a review of John Klier's own book Russia Gathers her Jews: 'Contrary to traditional assessments, Klier argues that the Jewish Question arose as a secular socio-economic problem and as relatively uninformed by religious intolerance or Judeophobia. ... Klier concludes that the Russian tendency to attempt to reorder Jewish life, based on then modern ideas of reform and enlightenment, along with attempts to restrict Jewish activity to protect the peasantry were the animating force of Russia's Jewish policies in the years 1772-1825.' (2) 

(2) Review by Lynne Viola, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 62, No 1 (March 1990), pp.211-214.

Solzhenitsyn's old enemy Richard Pipes reproaches Solzhenitsyn with not knowing the English language literature - he never really got a command of the English language and so far as I know he never used Rogger or Klier as sources. But he might have found them interesting if he had known about them.  

Solzhenitsyn's ambition is to give due expressions to both sides in the conflict but, as might be expected, he understands the Russian side better, a feeling strengthened by the fact that in terms of Russian society itself, he has more sympathy for the peasant farmer than for the businessman. With regard to the Jewish interest he seems torn between an admiration for Jews who identify fully as Russians of the hebraic faith, and for Jews who remain faithful to their religious idea in all its integrity, awkward as that might be for a host nation. The solution is to be found in the distinct Jewish state, in Israel. His enthusiasm for Israel (and apparent absence of any sympathy for the native Arab population) is a redeeming feature in the eyes of those who, as we have seen in previous articles, were keen to accuse him of anti-semitism.

The last article in this series discussed the position of the Jews in Poland, prior to their incorporation into the Russian Empire. In Poland, they had a recognised status as a distinct people with its own law, culture and principles, a system perhaps analogous to the 'milliyet' system in the Ottoman Empire. To a large extent they ruled themselves, organised in distinct communities - the kahals - under the direction of the richest, most influential members of the community acting in conjunction with the Rabbis. They also had an economic function that was recognised and appreciated, at least by the ruling class, the aristocracy. It was essentially the role of a middle class, of a bourgeoisie, without pretensions to political power. The economic functions, supply of goods and services, necessary to the functioning of the society were in the gift of the aristocracy who leased them out. The literature I've seen seems to suggest, improbable as it might seem, that they were leased almost exclusively to Jews. To quote Hans Rogger:

'When the Russians in 1772, 1793 and 1795 took from Poland the provinces that were later to form the bulk of the Pale of Permanent Jewish Settlement, they found large numbers of Jews living as merchants and traders in the countryside, playing a part in nearly every transaction that peasant and lord had with the outside world and with one another. Only thirty per cent of Polish Jews in the eighteenth century were engaged primarily in trade and commerce, but nearly all retail trade was in their hands, as was buying up of agricultural produce and the sale of liquor in the countryside. They were the nobles' agents and sometimes the managers of their estates; and so frequently did landowners lease or farm out to them the subsidiary branches of the manorial economy - fish ponds and grain mills, distilleries and taverns, dairies and orchards, forests and ferries, the sale of salt, vodka, and other gentry prerogatives - that in some regions the word leaseholder, arendator, had become synonymous with Jew.' (3)

(3) Hans Rogger: 'Government, Jews, Peasants and Land in Post-Emancipation Russia: The Pre-Emancipation background: stirrings and limits of reform', Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique, Vol 17, No 1 (Jan-Mar, 1976), p.5

This system may have suited Catholic landowners and Jews but it hardly suited the mainly Orthodox peasantry. There may be a comparison to be made between the Orthodox peasantry in Poland and the Catholic peasantry in Ireland both having being out of religious sympathy with their own landowning class. The mid seventeenth century Khelmnitsky rising, a Cossack-led Orthodox revolt, took the form of a massacre of both Poles and Jews and resulted in the incorporation of Kiev and a large part of what is now Eastern Ukraine - after a spell as a 'Cossack hetmanate' - into the Russian Empire. As I argued in my last article it also saw a degeneration of the position of the Jews in Poland itself, including the areas taken by the Empire in the late eighteenth century. Essentially they had lost control of what might be called the 'commanding heights' of the capitalist economy. The communities were much poorer than they had been and consequently more anxious to exploit what resources remained to them to the utmost.

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