Back to Solzhenitsyn index
Back to article index

TWO CENTURIES, 1772-1972

The 'two centuries' of Solzhenitsyn's book on Jewish/Russian relations, Two Centuries Together,  are the period from 1772-1972. (1) 1772 was the year of the 'first partition' of Poland, the carving up of a substantial part of Polish territory between between Russia, Prussia and Austria. 'It is from this year that we can date the first important encounter between Jewish and Russian destinies.' (p.36). Russia got the Eastern part of what is now Belarus together with, according to Solzhenitsyn, some 100,000 Jews. With the second and third partitions (1793 and 1795) Russia got most of the rest of modern Belarus, a large part of what is now Western Ukraine (with Brest Litovsk sitting on the border with the area taken by Austria) and (again according to Solzhenitsyn) about a million Jews.

(1)  Alexandre Soljénitsyne: Deux siècles ensemble, t.1, Fayard, 2002 (first published in Russian 2001). Actually, to be pedantic, the first volume of the French edition gives 1795 (date of the third and final partition of Poland) to 1995 (apparently the year when Solzhenitsyn finished writing the book). The second volume however gives 1917 to 1972 as the dates.

1972 may not mark the end of the encounter between Jewish and Russian destinies but it was an important date in the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union: 'Although a small number of Soviet Jews were granted exit permits in the years 1945-68, and 4,300 in 1968-70, substantial emigration began only in March 1971. In 1971 a total of 14,300 Jews left the USSR for Israel; in 1972, 31,500; in 1973, 35,300 ... In the period 1968-76, 132,500 Jews emigrated from the USSR on Israeli visas, of whom 114,800 went to Israel.' (2) This, and the strange fact that it occurred in the midst of a ferocious anti-Zionist propaganda campaign on the part of the Soviet government, will be discussed in a later article. But for the moment let us return to 1772. What sort of Jewish population was it that Russia received with the partitions of Poland?

(2)  Lukasz Hirzowicz: 'The Soviet-Jewish problem: internal and international developments, 1972-1976' in Lionel Kochan (ed): The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917, Oxford University Press, 1978 (3rd ed), p.367.

There had been a native Jewish population in the area through the conversion of local peoples mainly in and around what is now South Eastern Ukraine and Georgia, most famously the Khazars. (3) From the tenth century, there was a large (Solzhenitsyn tells us largely Khazar) Jewish population in Kiev at the time of the conversion to Christianity of its King, Vladimir, the beginnings of the story of Orthodox Russia, in 988. Kiev, seen by Russians as the cradle of their civilisation, fell to the Mongol invasion in 1240 and was afterwards disputed mainly between the Tatars, successors to the Mongols, Lithuanians and Poles while the centre of gravity of the Slav Russian Orthodox culture moved northwards to Novgorod in the West and Vladimir more Eastward, eventually centring on the principality of Moscow. A Jewish population continued in Kiev through this period.