If you ask most people who was the greatest criminal of the twentieth century, nine times out of ten Adolf Hitler would top the list and with very good reason. Scott Manning argues that the Nazis were responsible for around 21 million deaths. I have no reason to dispute his figures. As for Stalin, it seems a bit more complicated. Manning has nearly 59 million but that is for the whole period of the Soviet Union, though it is fair to assume that Stalin was responsible for most of them but obviously not all. The Democratic Peace Blog goes for 43 million while Necrometrics quotes various figures, from 20 million up. The sad fact is that no-one really knows though it does seem highly likely that Stalin was responsible for far more deaths than Hitler. (Note that, according to Manning, China is responsible for even more deaths than Stalin, putting Hitler in third place.) How many Jews were killed by Stalin? As with the overall figures, we really do not know. It is estimated that there were around 3 million Jews in the Soviet Union before World War II. No doubt this number would have increased with Jews fleeing Hitler from Poland. We also know that the Nazis killed a large number of Jews in the areas they occupied, possibly as many as two million. In Stalin’s general purges as well as his purges against anyone who was not considered a true Russian, many Jews would have been murdered without specifically being identified as Jewish. We do know that Stalin’s attacks on what he called cosmopolitanism (a code-word for Jews), led to many thousands of Jewish deaths. However, the point of this article is not to go into detail into who killed how many. We can all agree that huge numbers of Jews and non-Jews were murdered and that, as far as monsters of the 20th century go, Stalin was at or near the top of the list.
It may seem almost trite to focus on a few writers when so many millions were slaughtered, both ordinary people but also people who were skilled scientists, doctors, artists and other intellectuals but, nevertheless, I intend to do so. It is prompted by my last blog post, where I commented (briefly) how the quality of Russian writing had dropped dramatically in the 20th century primarily because of Stalin and the Soviet system. There is no doubt that the loss of many Jewish writers is a factor here. It was also prompted by the post on my website about Vasily Grossman and reading about him and other Jews in the Soviet Union. Grossman was not killed in the camps (he died of stomach cancer) but his literary career was curtailed by the fact that he was Jewish, as his magnum opus was not published in the Soviet Union and, thus, not in his lifetime. Indeed, we are very fortunate that Vladimir Voinovich smuggled it out of the Soviet Union. The following, therefore, is a brief overview of some of the Jewish writers whose writing careers were curtailed by imprisonment, death and/or restrictions placed on them by the Soviet system. The Yivo Encyclopedia has been an excellent source for some of this information.
- The best known may well be Boris Pasternak. Pasternak Jewish? Wasn’t he Russian Orthodox? Yes, he was and he even suggested that Jews should convert to Christianity but it seems that he descended from a Jewish family that assimilated.
- The only reason that Isaac Babel (see photo left) is not on my website is because he never wrote a novel. His short stories are brilliant and Red Cavalry, in particular, is well worth reading. In 1939, he was arrested, taken to the Lubyanka and, under torture, confessed to a host of spurious charges. He was tried, condemned and executed. Had he lived, who knows what he would have written? We do know that many manuscripts of his were confiscated and they have never been found.
- There were many great poets whose creativity was stifled by the Soviet system. One of these was Osip Mandelstam (see photo right). He wrote many fine poems. You can read some in translation here but also wrote several prose works, such as Journey to Armenia, which I can thoroughly recommend. He was arrested in May 1938, sentenced to five years in a labour camp and was never seen again. He officially died of an unspecified illness. He was married to Nadezhda, nee Khazina, who, after his death, worked hard at preserving her husband’s legacy and wrote two superb memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. (Nadezhda is the Russian word for hope.)
- Yevgenia Ginzburg spent eighteen years in the Gulag. She was only able to write her memoir Journey into the Whirlwind after the death of Stalin and it was only published in Russia after the fall of Communism. She is the mother of the writer Vassily Aksyonov.
- I am not sure whether Ilya Ehrenburg belongs here. He was certainly Jewish, along with Grossman, he was one of the main editors of The Black Book. But, though briefly arrested, he remained a loyal Stalinist and Communist propagandist and his writings now seem rather too Soviet for Western tastes. So just a brief mention.
- I know very little about Eduard Bagritsky. He seems to have been a very fine poet, who wrote a Russian version of Till Eulenspiegel (scroll down for the actual poem in translation) and who died of an asthmatic related condition.
- Lydia Chukovskaya (see photo left) was of Jewish descent. Her father was a famous children’s poet, himself the illegitimate son of a Jewish merchant. Lydia Chukovskaya married the Jewish physicist Matve Bronstein who was arrested and executed in 1938. She only escaped arrest as she was absent from Leningrad at the time. In later life she befriended various “enemies of the people” such as Anna Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. She is best known for her story Sofia Petrovna, later published as Опустелый дом (The Deserted House) though she wrote poems, memoirs and books on her relationship with Akhmatova. But there could have been more…
- Leonid Kannegiser should get a brief mention. Though he was a poet, he was not published till after his death. He is best known for having assassinated the Head of Petrograd Secret Police, Moisei Uritsky, himself a Jew. Kannegiser’s work has not, as far as I can tell, been translated into English though his poems are available in Russian.
- Valentin Parnakh may best be remembered for introducing jazz to the Soviet Union but he was a poet and translator and wrote about music and dance. He was exiled to Chistopol during the war and worked as a doorman. While there is no direct evidence that he suffered overt anti-Semitism, he clearly did not fit in with the Soviet way of doing things.
- Lev Lunts (photo right above)is known for being part of the Serapion Brothers,a group of Soviet writers, some of whom would fall out of favour with the Soviet authorities. Lunts came from a wealthy Jewish family and started writing early on and soon had considerable success with his fiction, drama and essays. However, he gradually found his work banned and he moved to Germany, where his family had already emigrated but died the following year. His works have been collected in translation in Things in Revolt.
- Veniamin Kaverin (real name Zilber) is known for four novels though only two are available in English. He should be better known and will, sooner or later, appear on my website. While he managed to survive the Soviet system, he seemed to have retained his basic human decency as he did not attack Pasternak over Doctor Zhivago.
- Elizaveta Polonskaya (see photo left) was also associated with the Serapion Brothers (the only woman member) but was far more focused on earning a living than on politics or writing. However, she produced several books of verse and was also a translator. She later wrote sketches, becoming a full-time journalist. She also wrote a novel (never published) and works for children. She had trouble with the Soviet authorities in the late 1950s when anti-Semitism was in full force. Little of her work is available in English but there is a study of her.
- Arkady Shteynberg was another poet who spent some years in prison but who managed to survive. Though he was a competent poet, he is best known for his translations of poetry.
- I am including Sofia Pregel as a representative of the post-Revolution emigration. She went to Paris before going to the United States where she edited an émigré journal. She also wrote poetry herself and translated poetry. None of her work seems to be available in English
- Sophia Dubnow-Erlich is not included as a representative émigrée just because I like the name Sophia (though I do). She was very politically active, particularly in Jewish politics in Vilna (now Vilnius). She managed to escape both the Soviets and Nazis and ended up, like Sofia Pregel, in the United States. She wrote essays, history, a biography of her father and three volumes of symbolist poetry. Her memoir Bread and Matzoth (cover of Russian text above right) and the biography of her father The Life and Work of S.M. Dubnov are available in English.
This should more or less cover the major Jewish writers who were victims of the Soviet system. There are, however, many more lesser known and, sadly, probably a large number who disappeared before leaving any writing behind. Thanks to Yivo Encylopedia staff, An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry and similar works, we can at least remember some of the achievements of these authors. However, it should not be forgotten that Stalin wiped out entire generations of scientists, artists and writers and it is for this reason alone that the tradition of the 19th century Russian novel did not continue into the 20th century.