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Lenin's Jewish Question$

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780300152104

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300152104.001.0001

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Lenin, Jews, and Power

Lenin, Jews, and Power

(p.64) III Lenin, Jews, and Power
Lenin's Jewish Question

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines Vladimir Lenin's connection with the Jews. It explains that Lenin's parents belonged to the well-educated Russian cultural elite and speak of someone's ethnic origin in the Ulianovs' milieu was the height of bad taste. It also mentions that both the Blanks and Ulianovs were Russian Christians, lived in Russian towns on the Volga River, and spoke Russian. This chapter considers Lenin's attitudes towards the Jews, how he treated his colleagues of Jewish origin, and what being Jew meant to him.

Keywords:   Vladimir Lenin, Jews, Russian cultural elite, Blanks, Ulianovs, ethnic origin, Russian Christians

In June 1870, Lenin's parents, Mariia Blank and Il'ia Ulianov, arrived in the village of Kokushkino with their newborn baby boy. That summer, Alexander Blank's five. daughters, sons-in-law, and multiple grandchildren came together at the family estate. Spending vacations in Kokushkino had long been the family tradition. This visit, however, was a special occasion for Mariia Blank and Il'ia Ulianov. They were coming to the Blanks' estate to introduce two-month-old Vladimir to his sixty-six-year-old grandfather, an experienced medical doctor and specialist in obstetrics and in naturopathic and balneal medicine. The baptized yet circumcised Alexander Blank examined his uncircumcised and baptized grandson and found him in perfect medical condition. What did Alexander Blank feel? What was he thinking during this medical checkup?

Dr. Blank was satisfied. He held in his hands yet another grandchild, a warm two-month-old human being, whom he felt with his cool and dexterous palms. He had too many daughters—five!—and his only son, psychologically unstable, (p.65) had taken his own life, but here he had a real baby boy, a grandson. He was proud indeed. Vladimir was born to a family of mid-rank Russian nobility: Il'ia Ulianov was an inspector of public schools with the rank of state chancellor and the state salary paid by the Ministry of Education. Alexander Blank probably also felt safe. Mariia Blank and Il'ia Ulianov belonged to the well-educated Russian cultural elite. Their family life seemed stable and predictable, and Vladimir had a secure future.

Blank probably rejoiced that his grandson would be spared all the evil he himself had seen, first as Yisroel, then as Alexander: the moral abuse from his conflicted father, Moshko, in Starokonstantinov; the quarrels between his father and mother in Zhitomir over the Christianization of their family; the scorn and envy of his Jewish brethren; and the repugnant suspicion, if not mistreatment, from some of his bosses in Smolensk, Kazan, and Perm provinces. Blank may have regretted that his own father, Moshko Blank, resting in peace as Dmitrii Blank, had not lived to see a Christian boy born to the Blanks far from the wretched Pale of Settlement. Dr. Blank knew that little Vladimir would have a very different destiny. He would not have problems with Latin. He would go to a good Gymnasium. He would become a doctor or a lawyer. He would live in St. Petersburg and would see the glory of the world!

This was the first and last contact between the Blanks from Starokonstantinov and Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin) from Simbirsk. Doctor Blank died a few weeks later. He was remembered in family legend as a strict and witty man, a helpful family doctor, and a democratic-minded individual who attended to the peasants for free, a person whose liberal convictions, if not his origins, caused conflict with the administration.

Lenin and his sisters knew that their mother, Mariia (p.66) Blank, came from the family of Dr. Blank. Perhaps they also knew that Mariia Blank's mother was Dr. Blank's first wife, Anna Grosschop, who belonged to a profoundly Russified German-Swedish family. Ekaterina Essen—Aunt Katya, as the family called her—her mother's sister and, after her mother's death, the civil wife of Mariia's father, brought her up. Taking into consideration the German and Swedish roots of Anna Grosschop and Ekaterina Essen, the assumed German provenance of the Blank family sounded logical. The Ulianovs—Lenin and his siblings—did not doubt it.

To speak of someone's ethnic origin in the Ulianovs' milieu was the height of bad taste. Deeply rooted in the values of the enlightenment, the family abhorred any ethnic labeling. For the Blanks and the Ulianovs, identifying somebody as a Jew was tantamount to conjuring antisemitic stereotypes. Both families were Russian Christians, dwelt in Russian towns on the Volga River, and spoke Russian. They belonged to the self-made, mid-rank Russian nobility of the first or second generation: people with strong family dignity but without any inherited capital. The village of Kokushkino was pawned again and again: it was a liability rather than an asset. The family had colorful origins—from Kalmyk to Swedish to Jewish to German—but the Ulianovs were aware only of their Russian and German roots and felt entirely assimilated in Russian culture. They had never been to the Pale of Settlement and had no contact with Jews. When Lenin visited Poland as a thirty-year-old socialist he saw traditional Jews for the first time in his life. In a warm letter to his mother, he compared them to Russians: this was the only frame of reference he had.1

Even if Mariia Blank knew that her father, Alexander, Lenin's grandfather, was a Jew Christianized into Russian Orthodoxy, she would have felt uncomfortable discussing the (p.67) matter with her children. Most likely she never mentioned it. Her sons and daughters were introduced to many relatives on their father's side but knew nothing about their grandfather Alexander's family. As we shall see in Chapter 4, Lenin's sister Anna discovered Alexander's Jewish roots only after Lenin's death, in 1924. The discovery amazed her, and she regretted that her brother had never been aware of it. Lenin did not like answering questions about his ethnic origins in party questionnaires. When he had to, he either skipped them or simply wrote “Russian.” He did so because he found any discussion of ethnicity awkward, not because he was reluctant either to lie or tell the truth about his origins. Therefore there are serious reasons to doubt that there is anything to the statement made by a historian of Russia that Lenin “took pride in the Jewish ingredients in his ancestry.”2

Scholars of Russian history have argued endlessly about whether Lenin knew of his Jewish roots, but to me it seems irrelevant whether Lenin knew or did not know about the Jewish origin of his maternal grandfather. The key question is what Lenin's attitude was toward Russian Jews, how he treated his colleagues of Jewish origin, and what being Jewish meant to him. While the question of whether Lenin knew about the Blanks' origin remains entirely in the realm of historical speculation, the question of Lenin's treatment of Jews and, broadly defined, the Jewish question, is a more accurate way of situating Lenin vis-à-vis his own ancestry.

A Theatrical Encounter

Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin) grew up in Simbirsk, a town on the Volga, located some one thousand miles east of Starokonstantinov, Zhitomir, and the Pale of Jewish Settlement. The population (p.68) of Simbirsk was 83 percent Russian Orthodox, 3 percent Catholic, and 8 percent Muslim. An almost invisible local Jewish community consisted mostly of former Jewish cantonists and soldiers who had served in the Russian army under Nicholas I and whom the military had allowed to settle in the place of their service.3 They were petty traders and artisans, and in the 1860s–1870s, in the wake of the Great Reforms of Alexander II, a number of Jewish guild merchants joined them. The local Jews were profoundly acculturated into Russian society: they spoke Russian, not Yiddish, and wore Russian clothes, not traditional Jewish dress. By the end of the century there were three or four Jewish prayer houses in town, yet even after a major relocation of the Jews from the Pale into the interior of Russia during the pogroms of World War I, the Jewish population of Simbirsk did not exceed 1 percent.

The Ulianovs belonged to a different social and cultural realm. Il'ia Ulianov, a teacher of physics and mathematics, took a new position in Simbirsk as a public education inspector. He helped establish new schools and libraries, encouraged female teachers to take jobs, introduced quality control of the curriculum, and promoted education for ethnic minorities such as the Mordva, Chuvash, and Tartars. During his tenure, he fostered the establishment of about 350 new public schools in the district, enrolling twenty thousand students. For his faultless and diligent service, which undermined his feeble health, he was awarded the St. Stanislaw, St. Anna, and St. Vladimir orders.4

The Ulianovs exemplified one of many unassuming families of the enlightened Russian petty nobility. They believed in the redemptive role of education and relied on their only income—a state salary. In Simbirsk, the Ulianovs lived in a wooden one-and-a-half-story house with an attic: there were (p.69) seven windows on the front façade, five rooms on the ground floor, four rooms upstairs, and a small backyard with a hand pump and a well. Mariia Blank brought up the children as modest and disciplined workaholics. The children focused on schooling, self-perfection, and helping each other. Chess, music, and reading were their main hobbies. The Ulianovs were Russian Orthodox, as were their friends and acquaintances—mostly teachers, but also some lawyers, clerks, and doctors, and they sometimes relied on a Russian Orthodox priest to tutor their children for Gymnasium.5 Much later, Lenin, already a stalwart Marxist, grudgingly recalled that he grew up a devout Russian Orthodox young man. Lenin split from Christianity when he turned sixteen—the year after his father died and a year before his brother Alexander was executed.

When and how did Lenin encounter Jews? In his timid, heavily self-censored memoir, Lenin's younger brother Dmitrii related an episode that unexpectedly sheds light on this tantalizing question. When they were in their late teens, Dmitrii and Vladimir went to see Jacques Fromental Halévy's opera La Juïve (The Jewess). This is the story of the love and suffering of Rachel, foster daughter of Eleazar, a Jewish silversmith, and Leopold, a Swiss prince. Premiered at the Paris Opera in 1835, The Jewess brought spectators back to the early fifteenth century, demonstrating the cruelty and brutality of the Catholic Church toward the Jews and bemoaning their plight in late medieval Europe. The opera deftly exploited popular clichés, making Rachel into the lost daughter of the cardinal, who had to wield the weapon of state religion against his own child. The opera features many scenes of events that Vladimir and Dmitrii had never seen in their lives, including a Passover seder. Most likely this was Vladimir Ulianovs first encounter with Jewish history, Jewish religion, and Jewish images. He might (p.70) well have been deeply impressed by the final scene of the opera, in which the steadfast Rachel and her father reject redemptive escape to Christianity and meet their death by being thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil.

Dmitrii recalled that his brother had been overwhelmed. When they came home, Vladimir could not fall asleep; he paced around his room singing arias from The Jewess such as “Rachel, you are given to me….” Yet most of all Vladimir loved Eleazar's aria, in which the silversmith epitomizes his ethics: “I hate Christians, I choose to scorn them, but when I can enrich myself—why not extract from them some money!” This aria particularly inspired Vladimir, and he repeated it over and over again.6 Thirteen years later, in September 1901, Lenin spent some time in Munich and wrote to his mother that he was at the opera where “with great enjoyment” he watched The Jewess. He mentioned in passing that he had heard it in 1887 or 1888, yet “he could still remember some of the musical themes.”7

Lenin identified with the Jews onstage, as an agitated spectator in a provincial Russian town identified with the performers of the French grand opera, who revitalized for him the fifteenth-century despair, passion, honor, and suffering of a persecuted minority. For Lenin, Jews were the characters on stage—sometimes melodramatic, sometimes heroic, and always artistic. He sympathized with them as with the suffering of the Other. He wrote about The Jewess no differently than he would have about a successful performance of Carmen or Rigoletto.

Had he known anything about the Jewish roots of the Blanks he would have been much more sensitive. He wrote about The Jewess in his letter to Mariia Blank, whom he loved dearly, called an “angel,” and always tried to accommodate and (p.71) protect, especially after his elder brother Alexander was hanged for attempting to kill the tsar. It is thus very unlikely that he knew anything about the sensitive issue of his mother's origin. It is also not surprising that he went to see Halévy's masterpiece twice: The Jewess was a very popular and widely staged grand opera production highly praised by Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, and Gustav Mahler. Lenin did not mention the plot, as if his mother knew it, but did mention the music. It is fascinating that he was less impressed by Halévy's medieval Swiss couleur locale, luxurious costumes, and visualized Judaism and Jewish images than by the pragmatic, borderline cynical stance of the silversmith Eleazar. The character easily discarded his grotesque hatred of zealous Christians—very much reciprocated in fifteenth century Central Europe—once his financial interest was at stake. Eleazar did not hesitate to sacrifice ideology for a profit.

Lenin's reaction to Halévy's opera can be juxtaposed with his impressions of reading Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel Chto delat? (What Is to Be Done?), arguably the literary work that was most important in the shaping of Lenin's world-view. Written by an admirer of French utopian socialism, this novel taught the basics of pragmatic socialist rhetoric. On a superficial level, it is the story of a love triangle, of the liberation of a young woman from petit bourgeois family oppression, and of the manufacturing business. Yet the novel contains hidden references—for example, the dialogues of Vera Pavlovna and Lopukhov, who knew that their conversation was being monitored—suggesting that one should read the novel above all allegorically. And as an allegory the novel is about the emancipation of class and gender, the revolutionary changes in society, the rise of the new socialist-minded intelligentsia, and ultimate social liberation. Built on doublespeak (p.72) stylistically and structurally, the novel taught Lenin how to say “bride” and imply “revolution” and how to manipulate the language and interests of one's adversaries for one's own immediate benefit.8 Nabokov shrewdly satirized this novel, this “little dead book” built on “ghostly ethics” and propagating utilitarianism as a driving force of human conduct. It is difficult to find out whether Lenin saw in Halévy's Eleazar a Chernyshevsky-esque image or in Chernyshevsky's protagonists the pragmatic character from Halévy's opera. Yet Lenin's attitude toward Jews and toward his revolutionary colleagues of Jewish descent indicates that he mastered the art of manipulating ethnic and national minority issues toward his own goal. This is particularly evident in his first encounters with individual Jews.

Marx Versus Marks

When Lenin met Yulii Tsederbaum (known among Russian Marxists as Yulii Martov), Jews came down from the theatrical stage, donned their worn revolutionary jackets, and became a reality. Lenin perceived this reality through his Marxist lens. From the Siberian village of Shushenskoe, where he spent three years in exile for his political activity, Lenin wrote to his mother about his trip to nearby Minusinsk. In 1897, there were several revolutionaries, his friends and acquaintances, who had been exiled to that distant Siberian region for their political activities. Lenin described the situation of each of his colleagues. Sometimes he mentioned party affiliation (“a People's Will member”), rarely nationality (“a Pole”), and almost always class identification (“worker”). In one of these letters to his mother, Yulii Martov was only Yulii, although Lenin was well aware of the strong Jewish roots of his then best friend. (p.73) Perhaps referring to him as a Jew would have been vulgar for Lenin and for his mother. Not only Lenin's Marxist stance but also the Ulianovs' democratic convictions made the word “Jew” unacceptable.

Martov was born to a mid-rank bourgeois family: his father worked in the Russian Steamship and Trade Company in Constantinople and later moved to Odessa and then to St. Petersburg. Yulii's mother came from a Sephardic Jewish family, yet the Tsederbaums were profoundly acculturated into the secular and mid-rank European and Russian bourgeoisie. Yulii owed his superficial familiarity with Judaism to the stories of his grandfather, Alexander Tsederbaum, a founder of the Russian Jewish Hebrew press and one of the leading champions of the Russian Jewish enlightenment. The influence of his illustrious grandfather notwithstanding, Yulii was never exposed to Jewish rites and customs. His acquaintance with the Hebrew language was cursory; his sister recalled that they could never read Ha-Melits, their grandfather's newspaper. On the contrary, Russian literature and culture meant the world to him. Physically disabled—he had a bad limp from early childhood—Yulii grew up a keen reader and devoured entire tomes of such Russian democratic writers as Alexander Hertsen, Nikolai Ostrovsky, and Vladimir Korolenko. If Yulii later sympathized with the situation of the Jew in the Russian Empire and inspired the establishment of Marxist units of Yiddish-speaking proletarians, he did that as a liberal internationalist, a representative of Russian democratic intelligentsia, and a sympathetic Russian outsider.9

At the early stages of his political career, Lenin adored Martov, wrote warmly of Yulii's work, called him a “nondespairing lad,” and often expressed concern about Yulii's unhealthy environment and his psychological state.10 Lenin was (p.74) reported to have sung a revolutionary song that Martov wrote. Built on revolutionary romantic metaphors, it helped Lenin endure the hardships and solitude of the Siberian exile. The first question he asked his relatives once he returned from exile was about Yulii—his health, his news, his return.11

Martov was for Lenin a Russian social-democrat, a Marxist. Lenin most certainly knew that in the mid-1890s Martov had not only suggested creating a special Jewish proletarian organization before such an organization was officially established, but also that he had insisted on the integration of Jewish organized workers within other internationalist proletarian groups.12 Yet Lenin saw Martov above all as his most promising colleague for the future all-Russian social-democratic newspaper.13 Trotsky portrayed Martov in the first years of the twentieth century as Lenin's closest friend, although he was, according to Lenin, “too soft.”14 This softness was Martov's commitment to democratic standards and humanism in politics. For example, when Lenin disagreed with his opponents, he labeled them criminals, whereas Martov insisted on a thorough critique of their viewpoint.15 The difference between “hard” Lenin and “soft” Martov eventually led to the disruption of their friendship.

The first major rift between the two dates to the 1903 Second RSDRP Congress, when Martov and Lenin radically diverged on the issue of party membership. Their famous disagreement resulted in the split of Russian social democracy into the Mensheviks (who supported Martov) and the Bolsheviks (who followed Lenin). Martov put forward a definition presupposing an open party organization with affiliated membership, whereas Lenin insisted on a membership restricted to actively involved individuals. Martov sought to establish a democratic party with a wide range of participation. Lenin (p.75) planned to create a party of elitist professional revolutionaries. The Jewish social democrats supported Martov and secured for him the majority (thus the Bolsheviks, literally “the majority,” remained for some time a party minority). Despite the Mensheviks abandoning their position and accepting the Bolshevik membership rules at the fourth party congress in 1906, one biographer of Martov noted that the centralized party to which Lenin aspired “became a blueprint for the supercentralized Soviet state also created by Lenin.”16

After the second party congress, friendly relations between Lenin and Martov came to a halt. Trotsky recalled that when Lenin and Martov had to speak to one another, Lenin looked aside and Martov's eyes became frozen. At the congress, summarized Trotsky, Lenin “lost Martov—forever.”17 From then on Lenin used each and every opportunity to defame Martov. When Martov joined the liquidators, Lenin labeled him a well-known slanderer. In a private letter to his sister Anna, Lenin dubbed Martov a scoundrel and a blackmailer who should be thrown out of the workers' movement and whose ilk Lenin hoped to smash. But even after their schism Lenin corresponded with Martov, inviting him to work for the socialist press—and even offering him membership on the editorial committee of the party's main publishing organ, despite Martov's attachment to various non-Bolshevik trends in the social democratic movement.18

Thus Lenin treated Martov on the basis of the latter's attitude toward what Lenin considered at that very moment an immediate revolutionary task. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Lenin knew only too well that Martov was the most effective journalist among the Russian Marxists—hence it would be beneficial for the party and the socialist revolution to co-opt him. Since Martov could be profitable for the party, (p.76) Lenin's attacks against Martov could be halted. Lenin assessed his colleagues, Jews among them, from this standpoint alone: their readiness to sacrifice any group, ethnic, class, or national interests for the sake of the issues to which Lenin assigned much greater significance.

The problem was that Martov was too “soft” for Lenin, not that he was or was not Jewish. Martov was not ready to sacrifice his democratic principles for belligerent Bolshevism. His alternative vision of party membership had far-reaching consequences. A democratic-minded humanist, Martov after 1917 condemned the October militaristic coup of the Bolsheviks, called for the unification of all truly international-minded and peace-loving democratic constituencies of the Second Congress of Soviets, and mobilized European intellectuals to protest the brutality of the Bolshevik regime.19 When this happened, Lenin cursed him as a renegade of the socialist party, not as a Jew.

Off the List of Nations!

While Lenin knew first-hand a number of deeply Russified revolutionaries of Jewish origin such as Martov, his familiarity with Jews as a people of 5 million secluded in the Pale of Settlement was second-hand. Lenin's knowledge of the Jews was superficial, shaky, and biased. He drew his information from the Russian press and his conceptualization from German socialist publications. It is likely that Lenin also knew of Marx's early essays on the Jewish question. In them, Marx calls bourgeois all those socioeconomic conditions, which radically limited Jewish professional pursuits and triggered the rise of the stereotypes about Judaism—a bourgeois system in which “money” served the “worldly God of the Jews.” In a witty rhetorical twist, Marx used this stereotypical Judaism as a foil (p.77) for the German capitalism and called for the elimination of the socioeconomic conditions generating them. Just as the emancipation of the proletarians depended on the liquidation of capitalism, the “emancipation of the Jews” required the “emancipation of mankind from Judaism.”20

Lenin's own studies of the political situation in the multi-ethnic Russian Empire brought him to a more accurate understanding of the situation of the Jews, whom he called “the most oppressed nation” in East Europe. Lenin underscored that the Russian regime had turned Jews into the objects of a blatant hunt, particularly on the eve of World War I. Lenin considered the Jewish predicament in Russia to be worse than the predicament of Negroes in America. He observed in passing that only in tsarist Russia could there occur a medieval blood libel—the accusation of Jews using Christian boys' blood to bake their matzos—such as the notorious Beilis case (1911–13).21

To better situate the Russian Jews, Lenin designated two types within the world Jewish population. One group, which he defined as the larger half of the 10 million people, dwelled in the semi-barbarian countries of the Habsburgs or the Romanovs. These two countries, Austria and Russia, treated Jews violently and segregated them into a caste, a class of petty merchants. Another part of the Jewish population dwelled in the civilized word, in Western Europe and North America, where Jews had been emancipated and successfully assimilated into the mainstream culture. West European and North American Jews manifested what Lenin saw as their genuine ethnic features: strong internationalist leanings and a proclivity for modern progressive movements.

Thus in the early 1900s, Lenin understood Jews in Russia as an oppressed, self-contained ethnic minority with a clear-cut economic profile, and Jews in Europe as assimilated leftist-minded (p.78) internationalists. Lenin maintained that on their way toward emancipation Jews should reject their East European identity and strive toward the West European one. After all, East European Jews were for Lenin an inconvenient class entity: petit bourgeois. In order to lose their oppressed social and economic status, Jews should leave their ethnic ghetto and join the socialist revolution. And social democracy would successfully solve the Jewish question through assimilation. Jews should seek assimilation into a denationalized and proletarian international culture, not the Russian imperial one. Like the proponents of Jewish emancipation, Lenin perceived assimilation as a highly positive experience. It informed the life of Jews in the civilized world and was one of the most powerful mechanisms for transforming capitalism into socialism. The more Jews assimilated themselves, the better it was for the world proletarian revolution.22

Those Jewish Marxists who did not kowtow to the separatism of the Jewish social democracy continued what Lenin considered one of the best traditions of the Jewish people. Marxists and revolutionaries with an internationalist agenda were genuine Jews; those who merely defended the rights of the Jewish workers in the Pale were false ones. Lenin went as far as to ask whether the Jewish proletariat needed an “independent political party.”23 Certainly, from Lenin's point of view, it did not. Therefore Vladimir Medem was a bad Jew; yes, he was Christianized into Russian Orthodoxy and was a Russian-speaking Marxist—but he still headed a separate Jewish national democratic party. On the other hand, Leon Trotsky, at least sometimes, was a good Jew as a Marxist, assimilationist, and member of the Russian social democracy. The less one was Jewish, the better Jew one became.

Assimilation for Lenin was the mission of the Jews. He (p.79) did not invent it. He took it verbatim from the West European champions of complete Jewish dissolution in European cultures. When Lenin wrote that no great European Jews protested against assimilation, he upheld the denationalized socialists—Austrians such as Otto Bauer and Germans such as Karl Kautsky. In his draft notes for his article on the national question, Lenin wrote: “National curia in schooling. Harmful. Jews, predominantly merchants. In Russia Jews are separated as a caste. Way out? 1) this or that way to strengthen it; 2) rapprochement with the democratic and socialist movement of the Diaspora countries.” And then, as if to emphasize the main idea of his future essay on the national question, Lenin made his key point using a quotation that his commentators (and the author of this book) were unable to identify: “Beat the Jews out of the list of nations.”24

This is what Lenin suggested doing to the Jews: assimilate them to the point where nothing would remain of their status as a nation. And then they would become leftist supporters of social democracy. Helping them to get rid of their petit bourgeois self-understanding as a nation and integrating them with socialism would accomplish the task. While Marx emphasized the obstacles preventing Jewish emancipation such as contemporary Jewish socioeconomic pursuits generating what Marx called “practical Judaism,” Lenin identified only one significant hindrance on the Jewish path toward emancipation: a cumbersome group of Jewish Marxists, the Bundists.

Red Jews and Bad Jews

The Bund, the shortened Yiddish name for the General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia, was a leading Jewish revolutionary group in turn-of-the-century Russia. (p.80) Created officially in 1897, it brought together various cells of Jewish Marxist workers responsible for preparing and conducting dozens of successful strikes in the western borderlands of the empire—and even for establishing one of the first shortlived Soviets. The Bund had an effective yet pluralistic leadership, a wide network of agitators, a rapidly growing Yiddishlanguage press, an impressive fundraising apparatus, and the charisma of a combatant organization of Jewish proletarians. The Bund relied on the increasingly segregated, profoundly impoverished, radically urbanized, and rapidly growing class of Jewish workers—perhaps the most rapidly growing proletarian group among the East European ethnicities.

The Bund was sharply critiqued by Lenin, as were other Marxist groups representing national minority proletarians. Lenin deeply disliked their ethnocentric trend, which he found nationalistic. No socialist group sporting an ethnic agenda, be it all-Russian, Lithuanian, Jewish, Polish, Georgian, or Ukrainian, escaped his rage.25 Lenin wrote consistently, without fear of being repetitive, against such groups. Whereas Lenin sought to integrate all Marxist groups into the Russian social democratic movement, he protested some programmatic tasks of the national minority Marxists. Above all, Lenin deleted their ethnocentric paragraphs: demands for a national language, national schooling, and, most importantly, national-cultural autonomy for oppressed imperial ethnicities.26 Various worker groups, Jewish, Ukrainian, Polish, and Georgian among them, insisted on the inclusion of these issues in the social democratic party program. For Lenin, however, the mere existence in Marxist parlance of notions such as a national culture or language was blasphemy against proletarian internationalism. For Lenin, these notions were a means to which the nationalistic bourgeoisie resorted in order to divide the workers' movement. (p.81) There was no such thing as national culture, which in fact was the culture of landlords, the bourgeoisie, and the clergy. For Lenin, true culture was always internationalist, class-based, and proletarian. Ethnic conceptualization was out of the question.

Before the 1905 Russian revolution and thereafter, the case of the Bund, with its understanding of Jewish national culture, turned out to be more acute than that of the Georgian or Polish social democrats. After all, no one doubted that the Georgians or the Poles constituted a nation. The Bund also took for granted that the Jews constituted a nation. Lenin agreed with Georgian and Polish Marxists but disagreed with the Bund. Although in his polemical exchanges with the Bund Lenin sometimes agreed to call the Jews a nation, elsewhere he argued against applying this notion to Jews. Lenin followed Karl Kautsky, who maintained that Jews did not have a permanent territory and therefore were not a nation. Lenin also followed Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whom on other occasions he had sharply criticized for his clericalism. Perhaps he did not agree with Hegel's (in fact, Pauline) vision that Jews were not a living historical identity, yet he agreed with him that Jews did not have a future as a nation.27 For Lenin—and as will appear in Chapter 4, also for Stalin—Jews had no common language, no common territory, and thus were not a nation and not even a people. If he did call the Jews a nation, Lenin put the word “nation” in quotation marks.28

For Lenin, Jews had no chance of ever becoming a nation. He categorically rejected Johann Gottfried Herder's romantic concept of ethnic teleology. Herder preached that people bereft of their own territory tended to acquire one. Any Volk aspired to have a Staat. Nachman Krochmal, one of the earliest Jewish proto-Zionists, used Herder to demonstrate (p.82) that Jews—in a teleological perspective—would become a unified nation and would reclaim their land.29 The proto-Zionist Moses Hess also used Herder's ideas but with a socialist twist.30 A concoction of romantic nationalism and liberal individualism shaped the ideas of Simon Dubnow, the father of East European Jewish historiography, and generated the concept of national-cultural autonomy for the Jews, which the Bund adopted as one of its key political goals.31

For Lenin, this was an abomination. In his rebuff of the Bund he mockingly suggested that Jewish social democrats invent a concept of a separate nationality such as the Russian Jews, with Yiddish as its language and the Pale of Settlement as its territory. Since for Lenin there was no such entity as the Russian Jews with a national language and separate territory, Lenin advised against engaging in parish-centered socialist work he sarcastically dubbed “Poshekhonsk social-democracy,” paraphrasing Saltykov-Shchedrin's use of the name of a provincial, old-fashioned, and distant Russian town.32 For him, the whole issue of Jews as a nation was a laughable, parochial concept, a reactionary falsehood contradicting the interests of Jewish proletarians. Therefore a true Marxist should deny it.33 From the first years of organized work of the Russian social democracy, the Bund emerged on Lenin's political agenda as one of his two major opponents, no less important than the Mensheviks. From Lenin's point of view those Jews who fought for their national minority rights, for the acknowledgment of Yiddish as the national Jewish language, and for their national-cultural autonomy brought Jews back into the ghetto. Those who, like the Bundists, defended the idea of a Jewish national culture deserved nothing but scorn. The workers' party, declared Lenin, should smash the “foolishness of cultural-national autonomy.”34

Lenin, Jews, and Power

The Palace of Prince Konstanty Ostrogski, Starokonstantinov, late sixteenth century. Courtesy of Petr Vlasenko.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Record Book of the Great Synagogue of Starokonstantinov (Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine, Orientalia Division, Pinkasim collection, f. 129, spr. 86). Courtesy of Vitalii Chernoivanenko.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

St. Michael Church, Zhitomir, mid-nineteenth century. Courtesy of Yaroslav Dimont.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Moshko Blank's signature in Russian at the bottom of his complaint of the arbitrary decision of the provincial court. Courtesy of TsDIAU, f. 442, op. 150, spr. 82, l. 2b.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Vladimir Lenin (Ulianov), photo of 1895 from the police file of 1907. Courtesy of GARF, f. 1742, op.1, d. 37015, l. 1.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Yuli Martov (Zederbaum), 1917. Collection of D. Zaslavsky. Courtesy of Alexei Litvin.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Lev Kamenev at a meeting, June–July 1919. Collection of D. Zaslavsky. Courtesy of Alexei Litvin.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Gennadii Belov, director of the Central Archival Administration (Glavarkhiv). Mid-1960s. Courtesy of Alexei Litvin.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Vassili Shulgin, ca. 1920. Courtesy of Alexei Litvin.

Lenin, Jews, and Power

Popular Russian antisemitic books by Vadim Kozhinov, Vladimir Soloukhin, and Oleg Platonov on the sinister role of Jews in the Russian revolution.

(p.83) The Bund, despite its militant Marxist character, represented for Lenin the bad Jews. In a letter to the party's Central Committee, Lenin found Bundists “stupid,” “self-praising,” “fools,” “idiots,” and “prostitutes.”35 Lenin complained that he had no patience for the Bund, yet in his public appearances he was much more restrained. The Bund's ethnocentric zeal, Lenin argued, separated nations in their fight against capitalist oppression. Insisting on its own exclusivity, the Bund, Lenin maintained, represented a logical contradiction: an ethnic part claimed that it was more than the international and class whole.36 Lenin treated the Lithuanian Marxist groups and the PPS—Polish socialists, whom he accused of many capital sins against proletarian internationalism—along the same lines. He used a Russian proverb to describe their position, which he saw as the guiding principle of all those socialists who did not care a bit about the tasks of the world proletarians: “My hut is at the end of the village,” meaning—“We take care of our needs and do not care about you.”37

Yet with their claims of representing all Jewish workers, Jewish social democrats were worse than the Poles, Georgians, Latvians, and Lithuanians.38 Lenin found the activities of those Marxist groups to be the most harmful form of nationalism, a bourgeois idea smuggled into the workers' milieu.39 Lenin agreed that social democrats should fight against national oppression, but not that they should fight for national development.40 The party task, he claimed, was to foster the independence of the proletarians of different nationalities, not of nations.41 Therefore, the only option for the Bundists was to repent and join the RSDRP. If the Jewish question could be solved through assimilation, then the Bundist problem could be solved through their dissolution in Russian social democracy. In May 1903, Lenin wrote in a letter to E. M. Alexandrova: (p.84) “We need to be politically correct and loyal with the Bund (and not hit them directly in the mouth), but at the same time we should be austere and buttoned up while dealing with them and we should suppress them mercilessly and incessantly.”42 Both attitudes were part of Lenin's agenda: the Bund had to be tolerated and even incorporated for the same reason that it had to be marginalized and kept down.

For the Oneness of the Party

Lenin's continuous struggle against the Bund correlated with the assimilating or dissimilating Jews only indirectly. He discussed national minority agendas in the party program only as a pretext for a very different and apparently disconnected issue: unification and centralization, and centralization through unification—principles he considered a cornerstone of the party management. He argued that the party committee must be one entity, vertically oriented—responsible from the bottom up and managed from the top down. In order to become the leading workers' party the RSDRP should reject any old-fashioned forms of autonomously functioning cells. There should be rigid and unequivocal submission to the party center, as in an army at war. Lenin categorically refused to consider the option of groups or individuals loosely affiliated with the Russian social democratic party. He opposed Yulii Martov's concept of party membership because it entailed a much less controlled relationship between the party member and its center. For the same reason he rejected the Bundist version of the party based on the federalist—horizontally oriented—principle.

Lenin did not care about Martov as Yulii Tsederbaum; he cared even less about Poles, Jews, or Latvians. What he did care (p.85) about was the control of the Russian social democratic party over all Marxist groups in the Russian Empire. He failed to accurately contextualize the Jewish proletarians in Poland and Russia because he saw them through the prism of party centralism, not because he was too much focused on assimilated West European Jews and missed the “real Jew” of East Europe.43 Lenin sought to place the Bolsheviks firmly at the center of the party's management. Therefore, he was arguing not so much against Jewish social democracy as against the Bundist principle of a federalist-based party structure, which diminished party control. The fact that nothing more than power was at stake became clear in Lenin's earliest clashes with the Jewish Marxists. For example, Lenin argued in 1901 that the Bund could not act as an independent power in negotiations. He grudgingly allowed the Bund autonomy on questions related to Jewish proletarians. On another occasion, Lenin wrote to P. A. Krasikov: “Be strict with the Bund; reduce it to a minimum so that it cannot acquire importance.”44

If Lenin saw the Bund as a vicious organization bordering, as he claimed, on Zionism, clericalism, and capitalism, then what were his reasons for wooing it? Again, it was not about winning over the Jews, but about winning power. After the split of the RSDRP and the Bund in 1903, Lenin needed the Jewish Marxists back as the best-organized social democratic group in Russia, with excellent fundraising, outreach, and propaganda. He critiqued the Bund in order to bring an important segment of the workers' social democratic movement under the aegis of the RSDRP. Therefore he addressed his staunch adversaries in the Bund with an invitation: “Join us! Let us go together!” He very much regretted the 1903 split and insisted on the inclusion into the protocol that the party congress work toward restoring unity between the Jewish and (p.86) non-Jewish workers' movements.45 Lenin was ready to sacrifice his own disdain of the Bund for the sake of long-term benefit to the party.

It is in this context that one should place Lenin's harsh critique of Jewish Marxists, who argued for a horizontally and pluralistically organized party. Anyone who set up roadblocks on Lenin's path toward a centralized party was removed by Lenin from the political arena—Jewish Marxists, socialist Poles, Russian Mensheviks, or Socialist Revolutionaries. One had no choice but to accept Lenin's vision, submit to Bolshevik leadership, assimilate into Russian social democracy, and bow down to a new monotheistic deity called the Party.

Side Effects of Centralism

After 1905 and especially on the eve of World War I, Lenin became increasingly aware of the rising nationalistic trends in the empire's borderlands. He realized that centrifugal tendencies could bring down the Russian Empire and fragment it into separate entities. Lenin welcomed anything that would trigger the collapse of the tsarist regime. He fiercely criticized tsarist policy toward ethnic and national minorities. He saw Russification as an imperial measure to suppress and control proletarians of various ethnicities.46 Yet his attitude toward tsarist ethnic policies was Marxist only on the surface.

As long as his critique of Russia's imperialist policies went against the autocracy, it was valid. Furthermore, it was valid only until the demise of the autocracy. Once the regime turned into a thing of the past and the victorious proletarian state emerged in its stead, it would be time to revisit the question of Russification and the Russian language. At that moment, however, the language issue should be reconsidered (p.87) from a moderate, well-measured, and class-based perspective. Lenin maintained that in the triumphant proletarian state, nations should not be pushed to accept the Russian language and culture. Rather, sooner or later workers from different nationalities and ethnic groups would realize without any external pressure the advantages of living in a big state. They would understand that they needed a language to communicate. And this language would be that of international social democracy. Proletarians in Georgia or in Ukraine would find out that having one language in a multi-ethnic state was convenient for trade and cultural exchange. The requirements of economic development would eventually lead to a unified language and culture.

Lenin was confident that this language would be Russian. He loved the Russian language and maintained that every dweller in the future proletarian Russia would have the opportunity to study it. Russian as the working-class language could become the language of the state. The only measure Lenin hesitated to endorse was that of enforced assimilation of ethnic minority proletarians into Russian proletarian language and culture. The party should not use a club to drive people into the paradise of Russification. Yes, Lenin argued, Russian Marxists were against one obligatory state language. However, in a centralized proletarian state the Russian language would become the language of the state and would be accepted by all its constituencies. Russian minorities would recognize their ridiculous overemphasis on their respective national cultures and would push themselves into the realm of the great Russian language. People would choose Russian as the language of power, not as a language that was better than Georgian or Lithuanian. There was no reason for the Russian Marxists to argue for the predominance of Russian language and culture. (p.88) They should instead insist on party centralism. The rest would be a matter of time.

Lenin reckoned that once the centralized role of the Russian-speaking Bolsheviks was secured, the Russian language would be accepted irreversibly as the language of the state. United around Russian Bolsheviks, the multi-ethnic and multicultural workers' movement would become Russian-centered. And the world workers' movement would become Russian-centered too. This connection between centralization and Russification was exceptionally strong among Lenin's colleagues. It is no wonder that Stalin was naïvely convinced that when communism achieved its ultimate victory, Russian would become the main language of international communication.47

This vision was hardly Marxist. Instead, it was a new yet recognizable version of Russian chauvinism dressed in a red proletarian shirt. What had happened? How could Lenin, who so venomously poked fun at Russian chauvinism, ignore the consequences of his program? Was Lenin incapable of seeing the paradoxical similarity of his (and the party's) aspirations and Russia's imperialist traditions? Lenin angrily dismissed any references to the time-worn mechanisms of Russian power or Russian traditions of statehood: this was all clericalism, popovshchina, to use his favorite derogatory expression. The dogmatic nature of Lenin's Marxism did not allow him to think through certain historical processes and trace analogies. Finding out that they simply could not be applied to the social reality, Lenin chose to sacrifice his Marxist principles after 1917, and then the social forces he could not fully understand overrode his Marxism in the 1920s. As soon as they transcended the specific historical context that brought them to (p.89) life, Lenin's humanistic and universalistic Marxist principles turned blatantly imperial and chauvinistic.48

For Lenin, acknowledging the right of nations to self-determination did not exclude proselytizing against their self-determination. He even claimed that the party should spare no effort to prove that the implementation of this right in a proletarian state was a gross mistake. This was not a random thought, but one that he repeated over and over.49 Social democrats had to assess the utility of the separation of this or that nation according to the universal goals of the proletarian struggle for socialism. A big state under proletarian dictatorship was easier to build and defend, better for the development of productive forces, and ultimately more beneficial for world proletarians.50 Thus Lenin encouraged the party in power to monitor the self-determination efforts of national minority groups and reject them.51 In so doing, Lenin sought to replace imposed Russian imperial nationalism with an imposed Russian-centered internationalism. While one can debate to what extent the operating policy of the USSR toward its republics after Lenin's death stemmed from Lenin's vision of the Bolsheviks' national policy, it is quite evident that Lenin was not deaf to national minority or nationality issues altogether.

Pragmatic Sensitivity

Lenin was sensitive to national issues when resolving them turned out to be absolutely essential for establishing, advancing, and maintaining Bolshevik control over the revolutionary movement in Russia. To that end Lenin was ready to compromise his previous diatribes against ethnic-based Marxist political parties. When the promotion of the revolution and the expansion (p.90) of Bolshevism to new territories were at stake, Lenin preached flexibility, courteousness, and caution. He asked Antonov-Ovseenko, his envoy in Ukraine, to be especially sensitive to Ukrainian national questions. “Offer Ukrainian socialists all possible sovereignty,” he instructed. What reason was there to be sensitive to the question of Ukrainian independence, an idea Lenin abhorred? The answer is obvious. In 1918, Lenin needed peace with the Kharkiv-based Ukrainian social democratic workers' party Central Committee—a peace that would bring Ukraine under the aegis of the Russian-speaking Bolsheviks and eventually into the USSR. Furthermore, Lenin badly needed the assistance of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks in a new campaign against the Central Rada troops, centered in Kyiv.

To make sure that Ukraine remained within the Bolshevik geopolitical realm, Lenin was also ready to sacrifice his disdain toward the concept of national language.52 Pragmatic reasons required putting the purity of ideology aside. The issue was not about Lenin's sensitivity or sympathy toward the self-determination of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian language, or the independence of Ukraine. Just a year later, in 1919, Lenin discussed sending Adolf Ioffe, an experienced diplomat, to Ukraine to work there against Ukrainian proclivities toward independence. Lenin was very consistent in his imperialistic policies; he was also a good strategist who knew when to pause and when to advance. Power was more important than Marxism.

Lenin's attitude toward other ethnicities was the same. During the 1920 Red Army campaign in Dagestan, North Caucasus, Lenin instructed Sergo Ordzhonikidze and Leon Trotsky to demonstrate with maximum show their good will toward the local Muslim elites. The Red Army leadership, he (p.91) opportunistically urged, should openly sympathize with Dagestan's striving for autonomy and independence.53 Lenin insisted they confirm that Russian communists were not against the right of Muslims in Dagestan to self-determination, national culture, national-cultural autonomy, and separate schooling. However, once the North Caucasus was under communist control, it would then be up to the Russian Bolsheviks to decide whether it was a good idea to grant Dagestan autonomy and allow it to separate itself politically. Students of history know what the Bolshevik answer was: a resounding no.

Lenin instigated class hatred and the purging of the class enemy among the Russians, but beyond the Russian ethnic realm he did not hesitate to encourage the suppression of entire national minority enclaves regardless of their class stratification. When Trotsky besieged Kazan, Lenin demanded that he not feel sorry for the local population, particularly since Trotsky had enough artillery. “We need a merciless destruction [of the city].”54 To the Red Army commanders responsible for the advance in Azerbaijan he also ordered preparations “to burn Baku to the ground.”55 During the Red Army advance in Ukraine, Lenin suggested treating “Jews and urban inhabitants in Ukraine with an iron rod, transferring them to the front, not letting them into governmental agencies.” He added in the margins, almost in the spirit of Chernyshevsky's remarks: “Express it politely: Jewish petty bourgeoisie.”56

Party Loyalty, Not Personal Identity

Lenin's concern about revolutionary power explains his attitude toward ethnic minorities such as Jews and their political representatives such as the Bund. Yet what about individual Jews? A close reading of the fifty-five volumes of Lenin's Complete (p.92) Works, particularly of his letters—about ten 800-page volumes—demonstrates that Lenin did not differentiate between Russians and Jews. Nor did he differentiate between Russians and other Russians. Apparently Lenin did not treat people on the basis of who they were ethnically, culturally, or nationally, even in terms of class. He discussed his colleagues as “useful comrades.” To say that Lenin praised individual people but was critical toward groups and organizations would also be untrue, yet so would the opposite argument. There is sufficient evidence to prove that Lenin deeply disliked Zinoviev and Trotsky, but it is equally possible to demonstrate that Lenin agreed with them.

Lenin treated people as the immediate implementers of a hic et nunc party task. They were the functionaries of the world proletarian revolution, the derivatives of Lenin's will. What the party comrades did for the revolutionary cause was important; who they were, was not. When talking to Lenin, one of his most reliable interlocutors once pointed to the indecent behavior of a certain B., much discussed in party circles. Lenin retorted, “You are following the same path that Martov, Zasulich, and Potresov went down two years ago when they got hysterical regarding several episodes from the personal life of comrade B. I told them: B. is a highly useful person, loyal to the revolution and to the party, I do not care about anything else.”57 This “I do not care,” corroborated by other memoirists, explains Lenin's favorite German word, Privatsache, with which he scornfully referred to personal, ethnic, or national issues of his closest colleagues. Georgii Solomon (Isetsky), immune to Lenin's spell, recalled Lenin's “vulgarity, mixed with an unshakable feeling of smugness and, I do not find a different word, a deliberate ‘I-do-not-care’ [naplevizm] toward his interlocutor.”58 Aleksei Kuprin, one of the key democratic (p.93) writers of Russia and renowned philosemite, wrote of Lenin's “algebraic will, his cold anger, his mechanical mind, his endless scorn toward the humanity he was saving.”59

Obsessed with the purity of ideology and revolutionary pragmatics, Lenin was venomous in his critique of others. A student of the European workers' movement wrote that “Lenin's work was characterized by an iron conviction of his own correctness, by a strong propensity to mockery and ridicule, and by vicious ad hominem attacks.”60 Lenin gave devastating critiques of his opponents and resorted to the most outrageous vocabulary and denigrating metaphors because homo, the human being with his or her emotions and feelings, did not exist for him. A crude materialist in political economy, Lenin was a radical idealist in his evaluations of people. He viewed people through the prism of Marxist teleology, seeing in them what he thought they would become as political visionaries, not what they were as human beings. He rebuffed someone who dared criticize Lenin's personal attacks: “You are, as it were, sick of the party atmosphere, so different from that of the Institute for Noble Girls. These are old-fashioned songs of those willing to make milksops out of revolutionary fighters. God forbid, do not hurt Ivan Ivanovich with your words. God protect you, do not offend Peter Petrovich. Argue with one another while doing a curtsey. Had social democrats resorted to harmless words that hurt nobody in their policy, propaganda, agitation, and polemics, they would have looked like those melancholic pastors pronouncing their useless Sunday sermons.”61 For Lenin, the human beings with whom he dealt embodied programs and ideologies. Lenin attacked his opponents as ideologies embodied, as materialized political programs, and as substantiated partisanship.

Relations between Lenin and Trotsky serve as a good example (p.94) of how Lenin treated his colleagues, including those of Jewish descent. Although routinely associated with the East European Jews, Trotsky always insisted on his being a communist, not a Jew. He wrote that the “national aspect did not occupy an independent place” in his psyche. His universalistic penchant and assimilationist convictions made him prefer “the general” over “the particular,” “law” to “fact,” and “theory” to “personal experience.”62 Yet Lenin never missed a chance to disparage Trotsky. This was part of his social-democratic style of work and the way to teach some fighting skills to his (to his mind) feeble, refined colleagues. In his 1908 letter to Gorky, Lenin wrote that Trotsky was “snobbish” and that he was “showing off.” On another occasion he called Trotsky an “intriguer and slanderer.” In regard to Trotsky's misunderstanding of Polish socialism and issues of national independence, Lenin claimed that a subservient Trotsky was “more dangerous than the enemy.” When Trotsky published his first series of essays on the socialist party in his newspaper Put' pravdy, Lenin criticized him for distorting the entire party history. On yet another occasion, Lenin rebuffed Trotsky for the absence of solid Marxist ideas. Quite often Lenin argued ad hominem, viciously criticizing Trotsky and using mocking epithets to belittle him.63

Though Lenin resorted to very sharp language when scolding Trotsky, he immediately changed his attitude once Trotsky adopted a position Lenin saw as productive.64 In 1908–9 Lenin invited Trotsky to cooperate for the sake of party unity, was ready to avoid a “battle” with him when Trotsky joined the Mensheviks, and regretted that Trotsky disagreed.65 He commissioned Trotsky to deal with the conflict between the Russian and Georgian communists because he, Lenin, could not rely on the impartial treatment of this case by Iosif Stalin and (p.95) Felix Dzerzhinsky. This does not imply that Lenin agreed with Trotsky in principle or with Trotsky as a Jew or with Trotsky as an old party comrade or with Trotsky who had always been impartial. Lenin changed his attitude toward Trotsky when he felt that Trotsky was ready to sacrifice his ambitions for the sake of the revolutionary cause. In other words, when Trotsky was ready to accept Lenin's leadership and join the Bolsheviks.

The party was a living mechanism and people were gears. When Valentinov supported Lenin in his dispute with other party members, Lenin liked Valentinov. But once Valentinov expressed his skepticism about Lenin's stance on an internal party issue, Lenin refused to join him for lunch as he had no desire “to sit down at the same table with Philistines.” Individual Marxists existed for Lenin inasmuch as they acted in favor of or against the social democratic party. He was interested exclusively in people's loyalties, not their origins—ethnic, religious, class, or cultural. As long as they implemented Lenin's orders and worked productively for the sake of the socialist revolution or the proletarian state, Lenin did not care who they were, where they came from, what their education was, or how long they had served the party.66

Lenin turned to other Marxists of Jewish descent—including B. Goldberg, A. Ioffe, M. Movshovich, A. Paikes, A. Rozengolts, L. Shapiro, B. S. Veisbrod—because of their diligence, obedience, punctuality, and desire to work with the Bolsheviks, not because of where they had come from.67 These people merited Lenin's benevolent and friendly attitude only insofar as they were useful party members. Without the party they signified nothing. With the party, they were humble and obedient servants of what Lenin considered the great revolutionary cause. Consider Lenin's marginal note on a letter from André Guibeaux, a French socialist-minded journalist who (p.96) planned to write about revolutionary and Soviet state leaders. Lenin answered his request succinctly: “It is not worthwhile writing about individuals” (ne stoit o litsakh).68 To write about individuals implied disregard for the centrality, homogeneity, and universality of the communist party.


Of course, Lenin did refer to the ethnic origins of his colleagues—but only in cases when Bolshevik party success was at stake. Yet even in these cases Lenin did his best to avoid using the word “Jew,” which from his standpoint compromised his Marxist integrity. For example, he needed somebody's help in the smuggling of revolutionary literature and newspapers. Apparently the network was Yiddish-speaking. Lenin did not ask his addressee: “Do you know a reliable Jew?” Rather, he asked in Chernyshevsky-style Aesopian language: “Do you have a comrade who knows the Jewish language?”69 In the wake of the Bolshevik-orchestrated anti-church campaign Lenin wrote a top secret document and gave instructions to leave no copies. In it he said, “Comrade Trotsky should at no time and under no circumstances speak out [on this matter] in the press or before the public in any other manner.”70 Lenin advised that Trotsky keep a low profile on this matter so as not to create the impression that the campaign was a Jewish plot against Christianity. Lenin did not use the word “Jew” in connection with Trotsky, yet he recalled that Leon Trotsky was Leyba Bronshtein. Only when Trotsky's commonly known ethnic origin might seriously jeopardize the success of the party's atheistic campaign did Lenin take it into account.

Lenin demonstrated an awareness of Jewish persecution for the same reasons that he manifested sensitivity toward national (p.97) minority strivings. Lenin used accusations of antisemitism to strike an additional blow at Russian imperial policies or to denigrate his external political enemies. Lenin did so to bring down tsarist power, not to argue against antisemitism.71 At the same time, Lenin did not hesitate to neglect testimonies of grass-roots antisemitism when it did not serve his agenda or advance the party's leadership. Antisemitism was for him nothing but a class-based phenomenon. International capital spread and maintained it purposefully in order to distract the proletarians from their struggle and check the advance of socialism. Antisemitism could not exist among proletarians.72 Lenin heaped sarcasm on the Bundists when they maintained that anti-fewish hatred had penetrated the working masses.73 This accusation contradicted class theory. And that which contradicted class theory could not and did not exist in empirical reality. For those detractors who dared say anything against class theory Lenin had a very effective argument: “V mordu!”—“[Beat him] in the face!”

Consider Lenin's feedback to an appeal of the Central Bureau of the Jewish Sections of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee, dispatched on July 6, 1921. The appeal asked that Jewish trade union members in Gomel and Minsk provinces be allowed to bear arms, as the Jewish population there was being systematically exterminated. The bureau also asked that investigations of anti-Jewish atrocities in these two provinces be conducted. Lenin wrote in the margin: “into the Central Committee Archive.”74 Perhaps one should not make sweeping conclusions on the basis of a marginal note. One can hardly use it as proof of Lenin's antisemitism. Rather it proves that Lenin simply dismissed the issue of antisemitism when he could not play it as a trump card. Jews as such did not interest him in the least. His actions betrayed indifference, if not (p.98) the skills of a deft political manipulator, rather than antisemitism. Jews conscious of their Jewishness, assimilationist Jews, baptized Jews, communist Jews, and self-hating Jews—be they the Trotskys or the Blanks—had vested interest in the issue and reacted quite differently.

In his famous memoir about Lenin, Gorky portrayed the leader of the world proletarians as a truth-seeking and truth-loving, open-minded, strong-willed, and compassionate individual. Gorky presented Lenin as the most humane of human beings, to use a metaphor from another Russian source. In the first edition of the essay, Gorky included Lenin's observation—censored from later editions—conveying his attitude toward the Jews. Lenin mentioned to Gorky that a clever Russian “was almost always a Jew or a person with mixed Jewish blood.” This statement has been taken out of the context of Gorky's portrayal of Lenin and presented as proof of Lenin's sympathy for the Jews. Gorky was a philosemite who sought to discover and emphasize philosemitism in others, especially among his personal friends. In that context, Lenin's philosemitic statement says more about Gorky's attitude toward the Jews than about Lenin's.

One final example illustrates my point. Trotsky recalled how he and Lenin went sightseeing in London. Whenever Lenin was excited by the architecture or technical discoveries, he would separate himself from what he saw. He would say once in a while: this is what “they” have. This “they,” explains Trotsky, implied “the enemies,” not “the British.” Trotsky added: “An invisible shadow of the class of exploiters cast itself over all of human culture, and he perceived this shadow with the certainty with which he perceived the light of day.”75 Lenin measured people—and ethnicities, including the Jews—with (p.99) the yardstick of party and state, not that of class. He turned his back on Jews of proletarian origin, social-democratic and communist-minded Jews, if they were not ready to accept his concept of the dictatorial state and the centralized party unquestionably. Power, not class, was the key to his perception of people of various nationalities. Some social democrats of Jewish origin such as Kamenev and Trotsky supported Lenin's quest for the party's absolute power; most of them, such as Medem and Martov, opposed it.

When Lenin's sister discovered that the Blanks were of Jewish origin and intended to announce it—to help check growing antisemitism and demonstrate historical correctness—she encountered the unified resistance of the party leadership. She could not understand that speaking about a Jewish Lenin undermined the Russian-centered identity of the party and was perceived as a surreptitious attack against its power. A true disciple of Chernyshevsky's doublespeak, Lenin knew that in the language of the Bolshevik imperialism the “power” signified the “Russian Bolshevik power” and the “Jews”—as well as the Ukrainians or Lithuanians or Georgians—were “detractors.” As will become clear in the next chapter, the Blanks had no chance of entering Lenin's official genealogy precisely because of Lenin's conceptualization of Russian Bolshevism, the driving force of revolution—and assimilation.


(1.) V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 55 vols. (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatelstvo politicheskoi literatury, 1967–1970), 55: 328.PSS

(2.) Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography (London: Macmillan, 2000), 28.

(3.) Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Jews in the Russian Army, 1827–1917: Drafted into Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 69–71, 85–88.

(4.) Shtein, Ulianovy i Leniny, 286.

(5.) A. I.Ulianova-Elizarova, O V. I. Lenine i semie Ulianovykh. Vospominaniia. Ocherki. Pisma. Stat'i (Moscow: Politicheskaia literatura, 1988), 25–27, 37, 107–111.

(6.) D. I. Ulianov, Ocherki raznykh let (Moscow: Politizdat, 1976), 112.

(7.) PSS 55: 202.

(8.) Irina Paperno, Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism: A Study in the Semiotics of Behavior (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988).

(9.) Martov i ego blizkie: sbornik (New York: Rausen, 1959), 11–12, 24–25.

(10.) PSS 55: 57, 84, 92.

(11.) Ulianova-Elizarova, O Lenine, 156–157.

(12.) I. Kh. Urilov, Iu. O. Martov: politik i istorik (Moscow: Nauka, 1997), 138.

(13.) Kh. Urilov, Istoriia rossiiskoi sotsial-demokratii (menshevizma), ch. 2 (Moscow: Raritet, 2001)

(14.) L.D. Trotsky, O Lenine: materialy dlia biografa (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1924), 19–22.

(15.) N. Valentinov, Vstrechi s Leninym (New York: Izd. Im. Chekhova, 1953), 312–313.

(16.) Urilov, Martov, 150.

(17.) Trotsky, O Lenine, 46.

(18.) PSS 25: 343, 55: 350, 47: 253, 270–271.

(19.) Iu. O. Martov, Pisma, 1916–1922 (Benson, Vt.: Chalidze, 1990), 165–167, 179–181.

(20.) Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher; (p.184) Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 3: 146–174.

(21.) PSS 24: 122–123; 25: 16–18, 64, 86; Lenin watched the film about the Beilis case and did not like that the director had transformed such an important sociopolitical issue into a mere melodrama; see PSS 55: 353.

(22.) PSS 24: 113–150.

(23.) PSS 7: 117–122; 25: 144–145. Cf. with his approach to Czech Marxists endeavors: PSS 23: 123–124.

(24.) PSS 24: 394.

(25.) For Poles and Ukrainians, see PSS 48: 59, 277–278.

(26.) On national-cultural autonomy dividing the nations, see PSS 24: 142; on the separation of the Jewish schools, see PSS 23: 376.

(27.) Irmiyahu Yovel, Dark Riddle: Hegel, Nietzsche, and the Jews (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 95–97.

(28.) PSS 8: 27.

(29.) Jay Harris, Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

(30.) Ken Koltun-Fromm, Moses Hess and Modern Jewish Identity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 48–49, 72–73.

(31.) Simon Rabinovitch, “Alternative to Zion: The Jewish Autonomist Movement in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia” (Ph.D. diss, Brandeis University, 2006), 28.

(32.) PSS 46: 139.

(33.) PSS 8: 72–75.

(34.) For Lenin's sharp critique of the Bund's ideas to conduct education in national minority language, PSS 8: 47; for his deafness toward national culture and for his sharp rebuff of its “obscurantist” essence, see PPS 24: 8–10, 48: 291.

(35.) PSS 47: 64.

(36.) PSS 8: 67.

(37.) PSS 7: 240–241.

(38.) PPS 24: 342, 366–367.

(39.) PSS 24: 174–178, 222, 225, 319.

(40.) PSS 24: 132.

(41.) PSS 7: 223.

(42.) PSS 46: 287–288.

(43.) Yoav Peled, “Lenin on the Jewish Question: The Theoretical Setting,” Political Studies 35 (1987): 61–78.

(44.) PSS 7: 9, 16, 21, 92, 245, 766; 23: 150, 209–211, 229–230; 46: 111–112; 48: 232. In 1913, Lenin ordered I. A. Piatnitsky to start collecting materials on (p.185) the separatism of the Bund—most likely, to despoil them subsequently from any power. See PSS 48, 147–148.

(45.) PSS 7: 300–301, 323.

(46.) PSS 24: 115–117.

(47.) B. S. Ilizarov, Tainaia zhizn Stalina: po materialam ego biblioteki i arkhiva (Moscow: Veche, 2002), 144.

(48.) For more detail, see his “On the National Program of the RSDRP,” PSS 25: 255–320.

(49.) PSS 23: 315; 24: 29; 25: 278.

(50.) PSS 24: 324–326.

(51.) Mattityahu Mintz, “Lenin's Hidden Formula on the Jewish Question and Its Presence in Soviet-Jewish Discourse,” Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, no. 227 (2008): 301–312.

(52.) PSS 50: 34–35, 294.

(53.) PSS 50: 125.

(54.) PSS 50: 106, 178.

(55.) Richard Pipes, ed., The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 46

(57.) Valentinov, Vstrechi s Leninym, 331PSS

(58.) Georgii Solomon, Sredi krasnykh vozhdei (Moscow: Sovremennik, 1995), 454.

(59.) Rassvet (Paris), 1926, no. 9, stlb. 9. Quoted in Savelii Dudakov, Paradoksy i prichudy filosemitizma i antisemitizma v Rossii: ocherki (Moscow: RGGU, 2000), 402.

(60.) Gary Steenson, Karl Kautsky, 1854–1938: Marxism in the Classical Years (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978), 211.

(61.) Valentinov, Vstrechi s Leninym, 333.

(62.) Lev Trotsky, Moia zhizn: opyt avtobiografii (Berlin: Granit, 1930), 109–110.

(63.) PSS 47: 136–137; 48: 69; 25: 201, 202, 312.

(64.) See Lenin's letters and notes to Trotsky, PSS 50: 178–179, 235–236; Lenin supports Trotsky against Stalin regarding the advance in the Crimea, PSS 50: 127; agrees with Trotsky's military opinion and orders, PSS 51: 121.

(65.) PSS 47: 208–209.

(66.) PSS 50: 66; 51: 28, 64.

(67.) PSS 50: 518; 51: 52; 52: 32, 100; 54: 52–55.

(68.) PSS 50: 358.

(69.) PSS 46: 79 (emphasis mine).

(70.) Pipes, Unknown Lenin, 151

(71.) PSS 22: 137; 50: 305; 54: 310.

(72.) For the English text of Lenin's 1919 speech on the class essence of antisemitism and its Russian gramophone version, visit http://www.marxists.org/romana/audio/speeches/antisem.htm.

(73.) PSS 7: 120–121.

(74.) Pipes, Unknown Lenin, 128–29

(75.) Trotsky, O Lenine, 6–7.