A new version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's famous novel "August 1914," being broadcast by the Voice of America into the Soviet Union, has the Soviet-watching community in an uproar over charges that parts are subtly anti-Semitic.
The book has not been printed in English, and the flap is largely in the form of clashing analyses. One analysis, broadcast in August over Radio Liberty, was attacked itself as anti-Semitic, and the dispute escalated.
Mark Pomar, chief of VOA's Russian Service, called allegations that the novel is anti-Semitic "absolutely ludicrous." He added that Solzhenitsyn would be "furious" at the suggestion. Efforts to contact the publicity-shy writer failed.
At heart, the debate continues an ancient quarrel over the implications of ethnic Russian -- as distinguished from Soviet or communist -- nationalism and its suspicions toward Jews and other minority groups.
But it also involves longstanding feuds within the Russian emigre population over the accuracy of Solzhenitsyn's view of the world, particularly his account of the origins and nature of the communist regime.
It is, in short, a very Russian dispute, convoluted and steaming with nuance and grudge invisible to non-Russians.
The new part of the book, in which the chief controversy lies, concerns the 1911 assassination of Piotr Stolypin, foreign minister to Czar Nicholas II, by Dmitri Bogrov, a Jewish anarchist and police double-agent.
Solzhenitsyn depicts Stolypin as the only moderate with any power under the czar, the only one who might have stimulated czarist reforms that would have staved off the communist revolt and so saved Russia. His death, therefore, is depicted as a pivotal event that helped make the 1917 revolution inevitable.
Thus, Solzhenitsyn is, in effect, pinning the communist victory on Bogrov. "These bullets had already killed the dynasty" in 1911, the novel said. Bogrov's motives, therefore, become the reasons the communists won.
Critics of the book contend that Solzhenitsyn finds Bogrov's Jewishness to be the key, which, in effect, makes Jews responsible for the communist revolution. Others say that argument has no basis.
"Solzhenitsyn goes into Bogrov's mind for the reasons for what he did, and the reasons are entirely Jewish," said Richard Pipes, a Harvard University history professor who was director of eastern European and Soviet affairs on President Reagan's National Security Council staff in 1981 and 1982.
"Solzhenitsyn does not say anything that is explicitly anti-Semitic. It's not overt in any way, but to a Russian audience it's very clear in the way he dwells on Bogrov's Jewishness that he is blaming the revolution on the Jews," Pipes said. "He decides to kill Stolypin, Solzhenitsyn says, because Stolypin is good for Russia and therefore is bad for the Jews."
Pipes and others say subtle anti-Semitic overtones can be found in some of Solzhenitsyn's other works, notably "Lenin in Zurich," published last year.
Others disagree. University of Maryland professor of Slavic languages John Glad, who translated parts of the disputed section of "August 1914" for The Washington Post, said he found "no grounds for accusing Solzhenitsyn of anti-Semitism." Glad said that as an artist, Solzhenitsyn tries to make Bogrov comprehensible to readers as a dedicated but misguided figure who brought about a tragedy and happened, like many other revolutionaries, to be Jewish.
In what all sides agree is a key passage, Bogrov is considering whether to kill Stolypin:
"Was it not true that Stolypin had not undertaken any measures against the Jews? Still, he had created the general depressing state of affairs. It was precisely the Stolypin period . . . that marked the point at which Jews were overtaken by a mood of despondency and despair, that they began to feel that normal human existence in Russia was impossible.
"He Stolypin put forward Russian national interests, Russian representation in the Duma, the Russian state too insistently, too aggressively. He was building, not a generally free country but a national monarchy. Thus, the future of the Jews was not dependent on a friendly force, and the path of development shown by Stolypin promised no renaissance to the Jews."
Some scholars said that appearances of anti-Semitism in this and other passages are merely a reflection of the fact that deep in the nationalistic, Slavic soul of Russian Orthodox Christians, of whom Solzhenitsyn is the best-known living example, there is a streak of absolutism that sees not only Jews but any other non-Russian ethnic group as an evil threat.
"It's complicated. It's this great Russian nationalism that -- if you push it -- would hold that the Ukraine should be a slave state, that central Asians should have no voice, that Jews can't be trusted," said Ellendea Proffer, co-founder of Ardis Publishers, which is the largest publisher of Russian literature outside the Soviet Union.
"But Solzhenitsyn would say he's pro-Russian, not anti-Jewish," she continued. "He would never be for labor camps or persecution or anything like that; he would only say that Jews were more loyal to certain ideas than to the Russian national structure."
Some scholars say the entire argument is irrelevant because Solzhenitsyn's interpretation is bad history, "a feat of imagination, not of scholarship," in the words of Princeton history professor and Russian studies director Richard S. Wortman.
Stolypin's influence was declining when he died, not rising, Wortman said, and he would have been washed away in the tide of events anyway. Bogrov is generally thought to have acted not as a revolutionary Jew but as an agent of the czar's police, who were afraid of reformist ideas and jealous of Stolypin's access to the czar, Wortman said.
Others note that pogroms occurred under Stolypin and that "Stolypin necktie" was slang for "noose."
But the debate sizzles on. On its "From the Other Shore" program on Aug. 19, Radio Liberty's Russian service broadcast from Munich a discussion of the new "August 1914" that adopted Pipes' interpretation.
According to an English version of the transcript, commentator Lev Lossev, a Russian emigre, said Solzhenitsyn depicted Bogrov as "a sickly young Jew . . . a snake" while Stolypin is "the pillar of the fatherland . . . under the sign of the cross." Lossev said the book makes Bogrov's "viperousness" seem "an inherited phenomenon."
"In the image of the snake, which has fatally stung the Slavic knight, an anti-Semite may easily find parallels with his favorite book, 'Protocols of the Wise Men Elders of Zion,' " Lossev said.
Although Lossev called the Protocols a "well-known vile anti-Semitic forgery," this broadcast outraged other emigres at Radio Liberty. It "constitutes extreme anti-Semitic propaganda" and the disclaimers were "engulfed in a flood of anti-Semitic fabrications," V. Belotserkovsky of the Munich headquarters said in a memo to Radio Liberty directors.
John Lodeesen, U.S. director of Radio Liberty, noted that Lossev is Jewish and called the charges "ridiculous." However, he added, "I don't like the script, and I don't think we should have broadcast it . . . . It's poor radio because it leaves itself open to too many interpretations."
The furor shows no sign of dissipating. Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, who is not hesitant in denouncing anti-Semitism, weighed in with a long essay in his February issue on Solzhenitsyn's work.
He panned the original version of "August 1914," calling it "dead from beginning to end," and took a skeptical view of Solzhenitsyn's work as a novelist. While noting he has not read the new material, he summed up the debate about Solzhenitsyn's attitude toward Jews in what may be the ultimate verdict in the case:
"While there is no clear sign of positive hostility toward Jews in Solzhenitsyn's books," Podhoretz wrote, "neither is there much sympathy. I can well imagine that in his heart he holds it against the Jews that so many of the old Bolsheviks, the makers of the revolution that brought the curse of communism to Russia, were of Jewish origin but whatever there may be in his heart, there is no overt anti-Semitism in any of his translated works."
"August 1914," Solzhenitsyn's fourth novel, appeared in the West in 1972 to critical acclaim, with at least one reviewer saying it served "to establish Solzhenitsyn as a writer of the first rank." It dealt with Russia's involvement in World War I as background to the communist revolution, focusing on the obliteration of a badly prepared Russian army by Kaiser Wilhelm's efficient troops at the battle of Tannenberg.
But the book was thick with military maneuvers and did not sell as well as the books that had won Solzhenitsyn a Nobel Prize in 1970 and made him a literary household word in the United States -- "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch," "Cancer Ward" and "The First Circle."
Solzhenitsyn said "August 1914" was the first in a planned series of novels he called "The Red Wheel" that would explore the origins and nature of the communist revolution and "the fate of Russia in the revolution."
But seven Soviet publishers rejected the first draft of "August 1914," saying it glorified German militarism. It was published in Europe in 1972, and Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union two years later.
He and his wife settled on a secluded estate near Cavendish, Vt., where Solzhenitsyn, now 65, reportedly is writing feverishly in an effort to finish the series.
Volumes two and three, tentatively titled "November 1916" and "March 1917," are expected to be published this fall and next year, respectively, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Solzhenitsyn's revised version of "August 1914" was published in Russian last summer in Paris and is now being translated into English for publication next year.
Solzhenitsyn read the book's new 150-page midsection into Pomar's tape recorder over two days last May. The interview and 36 taped half-hour installments of the novel started being broadcast by the VOA into the Soviet Union in August.
"There is not one fictional character," Solzhenitsyn told Pomar, according to a transcript of the interview. "I present them all exactly with their biographies, with all the details, with all the things they did, just as it happened."