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The Jews and the Devil

Today the “Third Emigration” is in the news, the third to take place under Soviet rule, the third in fifty-seven years. So far, the overwhelming majority of these émigrés are Jews, who are being allowed out relatively easily. But if everyone were allowed to leave, no one knows which nationality would predominate: Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians, or Ukrainians. It is a good thing that the Jews, at least, are being let go; not simply because it is the migration of a people to their historic homeland, but above all because it is a flight from Russia. It means that Russia has grown unbearable for them; it means they can’t take it any more. Some of them go out of their minds when they break out into freedom; some of them lapse into poverty as they look for a suitable niche for a Russian in the vast, unfamiliar, stifling outside world. But still they leave. One day, Mother Russia, you bitch, you will have to answer for these children of yours, whom you brought up and then shamefully flung onto the rubbish heap….

Russia, of course, will manage without Jews, just as she has managed without a Church, without a nobility, without an intelligentsia, without literature. She has, in the end, the strength and the means to make good this latest loss too. It is still an empire, with countless different peoples: Tartars, Chuvash, Greeks, and even Assyrians. What will it be like without Jews? It will be boring, monochromatic. And who then will be the scapegoat for our familiar sins?

This is perhaps the right place for me to say a few words in defense of Russian anti-Semitism. By that I mean: what good is concealed, in the psychological sense, in the unfriendly Russian attitude (putting it at its mildest) toward the Jews? The Russian is incapable of admitting that any evil can derive from a Russian, because deep down (like everyone else, no doubt) within his soul he is good. He cannot conceive that in the Russian state Russian people can be made unhappy through the fault of other Russians or by his own fault. A Russian is one of us, ours (svoi, svoisky, sovietsky). Nothing bad ever comes from our people, always from others. Russian anti-Semitism is a way of externalizing evil, a way of thrusting our own sins onto a scapegoat.

Obviously this is not much comfort to the Jews. But in this instance I would ask you also to consider the moral problem of the Russian, who, having done so much harm to himself and to others, simply cannot work out how it all happened—unless it is owing to interference by some kind of “wreckers,” “spies,” and “saboteurs,” who have secretly seized power and have turned everything that was good in the Russians into bad. In prison camps, for instance, simple peasants (especially among the long-term prisoners) are convinced to this day that the entire government of present-day Russia, all the judges, all the state prosecutors—and above all the KGB—consists entirely of Jews. To explain to them that nowadays a Jew simply cannot reach such heights, that the Jews themselves are having a hard time, is impossible. The decisive argument goes as follows:

Don’t tell me you believe a Russian could give a twenty-five-year sentence for nothing, do you? Only a Jew could do that.”

It is pointless to stress the purely Russian names of the country’s rulers. “We know them—they have all changed their names to disguise themselves. Ah, those Yids—I hate ‘em!” It is equally pointless to show the portraits, printed in Pravda, of members of the Politburo, the Central Committee, or the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, where the dominant features are the fat, snub-nosed, ingenuous mugs of typical Great Russians.

Huh—hook-nosed Yid. Just look at him—a typical Yid.”

Lest I be accused of defamation, I shall not mention the names of those respected, 100 percent Russian comrades to whom those comments referred.

References to the Soviet Union’s policy, known to everyone from the newspapers, of supporting the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli war, do no good either. “We know—they’re secretly helping Israel all the same! You don’t know what snakes they are!” And yet at the same time—during the Six-Day War, for instance—all their sympathy was for Israel: it’s nice when a little guy gives a beating to a big one….

This is not primitive ignorance or lack of culture, as many Jews think. It is an effort to shield oneself against an all-penetrating, ubiquitous specter. It is the urge to renounce evil. There is no point in being naïve and hoping (as some Jews hope) that anti-Semitism in Russia is something entirely imposed from above by the powers of the state, a seed planted in the soil of blindness and ignorance. Ah, but your Russian peasant is not quite so ignorant and he is definitely not blind. He has known for a long time that Lenin was a Jew, as was Stalin (a Georgian Jew), and even Leo Tolstoy (yes, I have actually heard this said). Some perplexity is admittedly caused by the examples of Ivan the Terrible and his oprichnina1 Genghis Khan, and Mao Tse-tung, who, despite all the trouble they have caused, cannot with the best will in the world be classified as Jews (still, you never know). In other words, in the popular consciousness the Jew is an evil spirit. He is the devil, who has covertly invaded the virtuous body of Russia and has made everything go wrong. The Jew is an objectivization of Russia’s original sin, from which she forever longs to purge herself but cannot.

It must not be thought that this derives only from memories of the revolution, the Twenties or Thirties, when Jews played a far from minor part in Russian history. The theme is a larger one, of much wider import, even, than the Soviet regime. It is, if you like, a metaphysical quality of the Russian soul, which tries time and again (and the revolution occurred because of this) to return to a primordial state of paradise. And it never works: there is always some “Yid” to disturb and mix up all the cards. The “Yid” is at large somewhere among us, behind us, and, as sometimes happens, within ourselves. The “Yid” squeezes and worms his way in everywhere and ruins everything. “Don’t act the Yid!” is a heartfelt saying, made with the implied assumption that a Russian ought not to be, cannot be, bad. “We’re infested with Yids!” people will say, as though talking about lice or cockroaches. If only we could get rid of them!

They are indeed hard to get rid of. A Tartar, for example, or a gypsy—you can recognize them a mile off and you can treat them in your own Russian, more or less simple, comprehensible (i.e., Soviet) way. But a Yid looks almost like a Russian…. Almost? You can’t always spot him at first sight—you may even take him for Ivan Ivanovich. The Yid is crafty and evasive (what else can he do?); you have to be able to sniff him out and recognize him for what he is. The Yid is the hidden irritant in the peaceful life of Russia, which, were there no Yids, would all go smoothly. And if those demons would only go away, we should be in paradise….

The present anti-Semitic policy of the regime is based to a great extent on the popular conception (and for that reason the policy cannot be called “anti-popular”) that you only have to reject evil and anathematize it in the guise of “bourgeois,” “right-wing,” or “left-wing” deviation, or by calling persons “fascists,” “enemies of the people,” “murderers in white coats,” or more simply, “Yids,” and then the era of peace and bliss will come, because within ourselves, among “our own kind,” we are all good, civilized people—and only the “Yids” are preventing this from coming to pass.

If in a prison camp the political officer says to a young man, imprisoned as a “specially dangerous state criminal” for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” (and says it sincerely, with pain in his voice):

How dare you not go to political lectures when such an intense ideological struggle is going on all over the world at this moment?”

If an outside lecturer, visiting a prison camp, turns to his audience, consisting entirely of spies, saboteurs, terrorists, and fervent anti-Soviet agitators, and says in a near-whisper:

Our relations with China are now extremely complex and tense. Only I must ask you to keep this between ourselves…”

—then these remarks imply that we are all on “our” side, all “Soviet” people (what else could we be?), and quarrels must be kept in the family. “Imperialists,” who live in unattainable outer space (all this is excellently mapped out and explained by Kozma Indikoplov in his Topography), are simply hankering after our country and our souls: those “imperialists” are the Yids, the whole of the outside world is made up of Yids, but we shall never give in to them at any price!

Once, it seems, Saltykov-Shchedrin2 made a joke at the expense of the “enemy within.” Nowadays in Russia it is the Yid who is the chief “enemy within,” who is best expelled beyond the perimeter (the casting out of demons) and then (it is much more easily done “outside”) crushed by tanks. And to this end, presumably, we are meanwhile sending our tanks to the Arabs for good measure.

You ask me what all this has to do with Russian literature, particularly since I declare that, apart from artistic concerns, I have no claims to make whatever. A legitimate question: and I, barking like a dog and down on all fours, will try to answer it.

First, the Jewish question has the most immediate, direct connection with the literary process—because every Russian writer (of Russian origin) who at the present time refuses to write to order is a Jew. He is a black sheep, an enemy of the people. I believe that if they now (at last) start killing Jews in Russia, the first people to be murdered will be writers and intellectuals of non-Jewish origin, who for one reason or another do not come into the category of “our man.” In a broader sense, too, every writer—be he a Frenchman, Englishman, or American, who are under no threat—is a Jew who should be beaten up (and then, perhaps, he might write something).

Secondly, the current Jewish exodus from Russia coincides to a great extent with the steady outflow of manuscripts from Russia. Just think of those manuscripts crossing the frontier. Each one is running a risk. Each one of them is already entered in the list of things to be destroyed, like these Jews who disturb and ruin our lives. Imagine how those manuscripts feel as they escape from Russia and have no idea what to do with themselves outside. Everything has been left behind in Russia: all the pain, which enabled us to write…. Jews! Brothers!—how many of us are there left? A mere handful.

When we left Russia—we left quietly, among a party of Jews—I noticed my books bouncing about on the plank floor of the truck taking us to the customs house. The books had been tied up in bundles, and as they bounced I caught glimpses of their titles: Poets of the Renaissance, The Art of Ancient Pskov. At that moment I had mentally rejected them all. But they still went on bouncing. The complete works of Saltykov-Shchedrin, whom I do not like and never have liked, given to me by a friend of my youth, from whom I had parted company after a confrontation in court. My books, too, were emigrating, whether they wanted to or not. The houses and streets of Moscow, where my books and I had spent all our lives, rolled past. We sped past the new monument to Lermontov, in the pose of a smart young officer. But the books in their bundles continued to bounce around me and repeated: “Farewell.” I was taking these books away on my own responsibility, not knowing what awaited them, promising them nothing. I was only glad, as I looked at the package of little brown volumes, that Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin, muffled up to the ears, was leaving with us.

The truck bounced violently: the floor beneath us and the books swayed and bumped. We were leaving forever. Everything was over, everything forgotten. And only one of us, whom I had never liked, Mikhail Yevgrafovich, was hanging back, although he was bouncing too.

We drove out to Kalanchyovka. The far distance opened out to our future adventures. The books bounced. And getting out, hunching his ears into his coat collar, was Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin himself, in person….

Paris, June 1974

—translated by Michael Glenny

  1. 1

    The oprichniki were Ivan’s Praetorian Guard, an early version of the Russian secret police.

  2. 2

    Saltykov-schedrin (1826-1889), satirist best known for his novel The Golovlyov Family.

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