Was Lenin Jewish?
The Bolshevik Revolution undertook to change history. In line with that aim, its leaders set out to control the writing of history, including by controlling access to the archives that informed it. The scholar Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, who was born in the Soviet Union and studied there before coming to the United States, learned the hard way that history is shaped by how information is managed and made available. He believes that, when it comes to the Russian experience, Jews in particular have a large stake in the integrity of the history-writing process. Confronting the challenge head-on, he has published a book, Lenin's Jewish Question, about the ancestry of the man who masterminded the 1917 Revolution and became the iron-fisted dictator of the early Soviet state.
The background is this. The declassification of documents since the collapse of the Soviet Communist tyranny in 1991 has brought irrefutable proof that Lenin's maternal great-grandfather was a shtetl Jew named Moshko Blank. Whether or not Lenin himself was aware of this piece of information is uncertain, but by the time of his death in 1924 his sister had possession of the facts—and, by order of the Central Committee of the Communist party, was forced to keep them secret. The order held firm until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's.
How is a historian to approach this subject? For Petrovsky-Shtern, it is not simply a matter of exposing the truth, which others have already done. In writing his book, he was keenly aware of the way that, in today's Russia, Jews continue to be blamed: by some, for Communism and its depredations by virtue of the fact that a number of prominent Bolsheviks were of Jewish origin; by others, for Communism's collapse. He is especially worried about the former threat—i.e., the manipulation of truth by today's anti-liberal nationalists bent on overestimating the Jewish role in the evils of Communism. In this book, he tries to set the record straight by proving that, in the key case of Lenin, there was nothing Jewish about the man.
One of his tools is genealogy. First of all, Moshko, the great-grandfather in question, converted to Russian Orthodoxy in 1844. He had already seen to the conversion of his sons a quarter-century earlier. Next, Moshko's baptized son Alexander—i.e., Lenin's grandfather—married a Christian woman of German descent. Finally, Maria, the daughter of this pair, who was clearly not a Jew by any reckoning, married the Russian Orthodox Ilya Ulianov. Thus, by the time we reach their son Vladimir Ilyich, we are four generations away from the original Jewish ancestor—himself, as we have seen, a convert to Christianity.
As for Vladimir Ilyich, he became a thoroughgoing internationalist, treating ethnic affiliations of all kinds as strictly temporary evils. Nor is anything to be made of his friendship and collaboration with Jews; behind all of Lenin's alliances, as Petrovsky-Shtern documents, there lay only pragmatic calculation and ideology. "Once you join the Bolsheviks," he writes, "you think class, not ethnicity. Moreover, when you join the RSDRP [Lenin's party], you obliterate your ethnicity and become a class." Genealogy by itself is frivolous that does not recognize the force of human decisions that determine historical fate.
But the duty of the historian does not stop there. As Petrovsky-Shtern's title suggests, the question of Lenin's Jewishness was intimately bound up, in the minds of Soviet rulers, with the "Jewish question" itself. The ranks of those rulers included ethnic Jews at the highest levels of the Communist party. Why did they insist on obscuring Lenin's origins? Petrovsky-Shtern thinks it was because the party needed the image of a "pure" Russian founder. Indeed, the Russification of Lenin, the consummate internationalist, was part of a paradoxical process to de-internationalize Communism, and to refashion it as an ideology coterminous with Russian nationalism.
Curiously, Petrovsky-Shtern observes, those Communist ideologues of old have their counterpart in today's Russian xenophobes, who cite the fact of a "Jewish" Lenin as further evidence for their thesis that Communism was an aberration in Russian history, a subversive and wholly alien implant with no roots in the pre-Communist Russian past. Thus does one deliberate distortion of historical reality beget its mirror image.
This study's insistence on clear distinctions between historical truth and lies is most welcome, and makes a refreshing contrast with much Western scholarship that, in this area as in others, shows a greater interest in blurring boundaries than in achieving clarity. Yet, in striving to avoid ambiguity, Petrovsky-Shtern also inadvertently opens the very door he has tried to close. He has done so by making not Lenin but Moshko Blank into the most fully realized character in his book.
And what a character he was. Confined to Jewish small-town life, Moshko took out his resentments on his Jewish neighbors, who fought back by denouncing him to the Gentile authorities. In an intensifying spiral of recrimination, not only did Moshko denounce them in turn but, the records reveal, he became an informer against Judaism itself. We see him urging the Tsar to "reform" Russia's Jews by fiat, and proposing measures for forcibly restricting the practice of the Jewish religion and moving the Jews toward Christianity.
This introduction to Moshko almost compels us, in short, to associate his behavior with the brutal, nation-wide suppressions that were among the landmark "achievements" of his great-grandson's career. How, we can't help wondering, might certain aspects of family history, among them the very denial of one's identity and one's God, have contributed to the violent, conspiratorial power-hunger and paranoia of one's descendants?
To Petrovsky-Shtern, such speculation is illegitimate, an abrogation of the commitment to precision that is the hallmark of the historian's discipline. In his way of thinking, Jewish converts, whether to Christianity or Communism, are no longer Jews, period, and they should be neither claimed nor charged as such. Yet even if one grants this in principle, there may still be much to learn from the often influential participation of former or ex-Jews in the development of modern anti-liberal movements. Instead of dwelling on the question of Jews and Communism, as many a scholar has done, might historians not do better to focus their attention on renegade Jews and Communism? There, as the Yiddish expression has it, may be where the dog lies buried.
Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, The Glatstein Chronicles (Yale).
Thank you for a review worthy of the book.
Surely, unless you're joking, Ruth Wisse's designation of "Communist Jews" as renegates is quite simple.
Those who embraced the Communist Party were leaving whatever one considers Jewish behind them by making common cause with a philosphy (and its practice) that by any measure was un-Jewish.
Your joke about the Lubavitcher Rebbe is unworthy of comment. So don't be so cute, Jerry.
But, hey, if he is your God --belileve what you will. I won't call you a renegade. Silly, perhaps.
Thank you for publishing Ruth Wisse’s enlightening review which brought to my attention this important book.
While reading I kept thinking of Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago, a work in which a number of important characters like its main character Yuri Zhivago expresses some odious antisemitic views.
It seems to me that it’s unquestionably true that Communism in Russia allied itself to antisemitism as it did and does in many Latin American countries. However, this is because the culture of these places was already antisemitic.
Can one be a communist and not be antisemitic? After the two world views are antithetical. One view champion’s universality, while the other, particularity. All people (including Jews) can delude themselves into thinking that the universal is attainable and a more moral perspective than particularism, but history teaches otherwise. Christianity and Islam are universal creeds as is Marxism and we know the death and destructions these systems unleashed on a naïve world.
Gary, the Nazis killed Muhsam because he was a Jew and not because he "Bowed" to the State. Moreover, the Jews who were killed in Russian and then Soviet pogroms did not "bow to the State" this is why they were killed.
created a category of Jew -- the "Renegade Jew." My simple, perhaps simplistic understanding of her category is that anyone who doesn't think as she does about why many famous Jews became communists are renegade Jews. Renegade from what? Thinking differently? Taking action to change social conditions? It's part of our tradition. That communism failed and killed the Jewish true believers is a fact. That they tried to better the conditions of the Jew by their political choice is also a fact.
I think Prof. Wisse should publish a list of the top ten Renegade Jews of the twentieth century -- as a guide to students.
She did not create any new category. You should read her article again. You may also wish to read some of her many books on Jewish literature and culture.
Lenin's great-grandfather was not alone in converting to Russian Orthodoxy, so did Boris Pasternak and many other intellectuals and some industrialists. Conversion was their ticket to becoming a citizen of Russia and enjoying all the privileges of citizenship in Tsarist Russia.
After the revolution the antisemitism inherent in Russian society didn’t go away. This is what the Bolsheviks of Jewish origin didn’t understand until it was too late.
Most Bolsheviks in Russia did not think of themselves as members of any religious faith. Bolsheviks who came from Jewish families also renounced their Jewishness for the most part as did Trotsky.
However, they were still viewed as Jews by other communists and especially antisemites.
That was their tragedy.
We are both correct. Mühsam was killed for being a Jew as well as not bowing to the power of National Socialist tyranny.
But when one surveys the victims of the "state" across the world in the last century, there are all too many victims who were not Jewish. To identify someone murdered by National Socialism's madmen only as Jewish does not explain the many non-Jews murdered by the same socialist state. My purpose in writing about this particular Jewish author and anarchist was to show that he saw then, a century ago, that state and society are vastly different things, as he advocated the "liberation of society from the state."
This is a title of his, in fact. To all who advocate the state over the individual, this is a call to rebellion, to revolution.
Rabbinic Judaism, as best I understand it, sees community life and individualism as complementary features of life, with the state and its easy seduction into becoming tyrannical as something entirely other than society.
But Jews alone were not and are not the lone target of state power, for its victims are many in culture, many in language, many in religious outlook and practice, but united in one thing. They all have been enemies of the state itself.
Professor Rummel's fine study on the vast scale of murder by the state in its many incarnations proves the point dramatically. A work of his is aptly and sadly titled, Death by Government.
That Lenin might be considered by some to be Jewish is a small focus, for many ex-Jews like Marx became seminal new enemies of Judaism. For all of them, the state was their perceived and advocated antidote. From this came much tragedy. From this still comes much tragedy.
“We are both correct. Mühsam was killed for being a Jew as well as not bowing to the power of National Socialist tyranny.”
In Muhsam’s case we are not “both correct.”
To be killed as a Jew means that he had no choice in the matter. Jews were killed by German Nazis because they were Jews and not for any other reason. Had Muhsam been a supporter of the Nazis he still would have been killed.
This is the difference between Nazism and Communism. In the USSR a Jew could become a supporter of the State and not be killed. In Nazi Germany this wasn’t possible.
“But when one surveys the victims of the "state" across the world in the last century, there are all too many victims who were not Jewish.”
Of course, no one denies this.
“To identify someone murdered by National Socialism's madmen only as Jewish does not explain the many non-Jews murdered by the same socialist state.”
No, it does not but it does explain the more deadly phenomenon as to why say a Muhsam was killed along with his whole family if they were Jewish.
Recently some too clever writer by half wrote in the NY Review of Books that to a capitalist Jew it didn’t matter if he was killed in Nazi Germany “because he was Jewish or in Russia because he was a capitalist.”
Well this wrong: it does matter because in Nazi Germany not only the capitalist Jew would have been killed but also his whole Jewish family. In the USSR he would have been killed but his family may have been spared.
This makes all the difference to the Capitalist Jews.
If I alone and only I am the target, that is one thing, but if along with me my parents, children, siblings and grandparents are also slated to be killed that is a completely different kind of thing.
Not all Statist regimes are the same Mr. Bachlund. There are degrees of evil even among the deadliest of States.
We agree. There are indeed degrees of evil among the deadliest of states. Is there comfort however in this perspective, that you make it?
The state of Jewry was dire beyond horrors under National Socialism (I write from Berlin where the bookshelves in stores correctly identify the politics of that period by name), but dire under Soviet Socialism as well. Moreover, the 850K Jews displaced from increasingly intolernat Arab lands proves to me that the "state," whether Nazi, Communist or Wahhabi Arab among other forms of government, can be dire for Jews, though not always murderous in the obvious sense.
As to the survival of Jews as "capitalists" in the USSR, what class of Jews do you identify so as to make your observation? From my reading of history, most Soviet Jews were poor and oppressed, which explains the movement for Soviet Jewry of several decades past to empty them from their "state" to the State of Israel as to the United States and Western Europe. If you have other historical evidence for your distinction about Jewish capitalists being somehow comfortable in the USSR, I would be curious to know it.
As to your distinction between the degrees of evil among statist regimes, I agree that there are degrees. There are also degrees of murder, of enslavement and of tyranny. I personally prefer not to experience any of them if I can help that. But socialist states throughout the last century have proven less than tolerant hosts for Jews, as Mühsam's story more than adequately explains, and as Professor Rummel's research makes clear in the extreme.
Mühsam's central thesis was "liberation of society from the state." Rather bold words, even now, in a world where arguments for greater governance and greater control oppose freedom-seeking anarchism and the libertarian impulse of the early twentieth century anarchists. I dislike party politics in general and refuse to see the world divided into a range of Left and Right brand name parties, but I do see it divided into free and chained in which "degrees" of socialism have turned abusive to deadly. I would not have survived under National Socialism, and certainly not havethrived under Soviet Socialism.
That there are degrees of evil between "even the deadliest of states" does not offer solace, as I choose no evil as and when possible, with the very least evil when pragmatically necessary. As goes the adage when the yetser hara and the yetzer tov argue their competing advice, one should choose life. For my view, liberating society from the state is to very much to choose life, while risking the ire of those for whom the various socialist states are so much more important.
“We agree. There are indeed degrees of evil among the deadliest of states.” Then you ask. “Is there comfort however in this perspective, that you make it?”
Comfort? No. There is nothing comforting either any totalitarian State. I merely stated the distinction between totalitarian regimes as a fact; a fact often forgotten.
However, we seem to be writing at cross purposes.
When you impugn “the State” you seem to imply that all States are evil, that they all threaten citizens who argue against them. This was true in those States mentioned by you and by me. But is it true of all States? Does England, France (today) or the US also threaten the lives of people who argue against them?
Conversely, Jews have historically also fared ill under anarchic conditions. When states fall into disarray or when large geographic areas lack law, Jews (and the weak in general) tend to suffer.
It's not enough to attack the overbearing State. One must also specify under what political regimes people in general (and especially minorities) function best as citizens?
If one runs from the Jewish Community and then like Lenin's great grandfather refuses to admit to his past and becomes an anti-semite -- then that person is a renegade Jew or not a Jew. But, if one becomes a "Veltlikher" yid...someone who says I don't believe in god but the Jewish tradition and history is something I can draw on to strengthen my Jewish identity -- then as far as I'm concerned that person isn't a renegade Jew -- even if he is a communist.
I am a secular humanist Jew. Born into a family deeply involved in the Jewish left. I'm an athiest. My mother and father were athiests but deeply involved in the cultural life of the Jewish community.
Were they renegade Jews in Wisse's broad brush description? Am I who speaks, reads and writes Yiddish a renegade Jew because I don't agree with the religious politics and practices of the community?
Whose definition is she using -- the Bratslavers' definition. The Lubavitchers' definition? The Bund's definition?
Was Isaac Babel a renegade Jew? I might agree that Kaganovitch was a power hungry satrap of Stalin's who happened to be Jewish and went to the Yiddish theatre while allowing the whole of the Yiddish cultural scene to be destroyed. He was a renegade in that he, in the end, had no people with which he chose to identity other than the Soviet people.
I wasn't being facetious when I asked her to identify whom she could point at as renegade Jews who had, historically, or in modern times a deleterious effect on the course of Jewish life. Lenin wasn't a Jew.
“I'd like to get back to Prof. Wisse's broad brush attack on "renegade Jews" and what constitutes a a "renegade" -- adherence to an idea, e.g. Christianity or Communism or Capitalism or Budhism.
If one runs from the Jewish Community and then like Lenin's great grandfather refuses to admit to his past and becomes an anti-semite -- then that person is a renegade Jew or not a Jew. But, if one becomes a "Veltlikher" yid...someone who says I don't believe in god but the Jewish tradition and history is something I can draw on to strengthen my Jewish identity -- then as far as I'm concerned that person isn't a renegade Jew -- even if he is a communist.”
I believe, Mr., that Professor Wisse would agree with you.
I know I do.
In one of her many books, “The Modern Jewish Canon” she included many writers who are Jewish but nonbelievers. From Isaac Babel, to Primo Levi and Philip Roth, in addition she included Arthur Koestler and Yehuda Amichai and Saul Bellow.
Having been a communist doesn’t automatically make one a “renegade” Jew, (most Jews in Russia, in any case, were social democrats or Mensheviks), but converting to a belief system that is anti-Jewish and then working actively against the Jewish people does.
In any case, one can be disaffected Jew and still not be a renegade Jew. I think of Trotsky as such a Jew.
You write, "When you impugn 'the State' you seem to imply that all States are evil, that they all threaten citizens who argue against them. This was true in those States mentioned by you and by me. But is it true of all States? Does England, France (today) or the US also threaten the lives of people who argue against them?"
Perhaps it is a question of definitions and lack of clarity with words.
I think that a national state, as distinct from a small community within a national state, has in it at the minimum the ability close at hand to be evil for some under its power and control.
The weak "Founding Fathers" state of a young United States allowed slavery, for example. The current situation throughout the West predicts that many future generations could become "debt slaves," and of course we know that some find themselves "wage slaves" from various perspectives. Slavery in varying forms is a form of evil, we might agree. So, yes, we probably disagree as to the notion of state.
Lives can be threatened by a variety of means, so yes I think any national government can quickly come close to being evil, and an international government especially, as was the USSR's. At various times, from the US to Europe and certainly throughout Africa and the East, governments have all too easily reached beyond peaceful means to "correct" some individual or individuals.
Dear Mr. Kane,
I cannot answer even the basic question of "who is a Jew" when the definition becomes so amorphous as to loosen bonds, but I agree wholly with you that one who works actively and aggressively against Jews and Jewish culture as well as Jewish theological positions makes one no longer a Jew. Does the term renegade thereby apply? I think not, or we would be identifying Marx as a renegade Jew in spite of his antipathy to religion(s) and Judaism in particular.
A most interesting dicussion from you both.
You say: "The weak "Founding Fathers" state of a young United States allowed slavery, for example."
But slavery pre existed the United States and eventually it was the same State that freed the slaves at tremendous cost in lives.
Yes, States have the potential for evil, but evil pre exists the State and people have suffered from slavery, disease, from rampages and poogroms in pre State eras or where the State was non existent.
Yes, it was an interesting discussion.
'Yes, States have the potential for evil, but evil pre exists the State and people have suffered from slavery, disease, from rampages and poogroms in pre State eras or where the State was non existent.'
Should have read:
Yes, States have the potential for evil, but evil pre exists the State and people have suffered from slavery, from disease, from rampages and from pogroms in pre-State eras, or where the State was non existent.
What my amateur reading of contemporary history teaches me is that nation states and state governments have been enormously destructive, larcenous, murderous and willing to enslave others for a benefit to a small group of men.
Given this to be man's history and given that you see in men the potential for evil, I extend that potential into actuality. This is the lesson of the bloody twentieth century, for which Professor Rummel coined the word, "democide." Murder by government and government ideologies. In what are we in disagreement then, if we are?
However, it is simplistic to assume that in a technological age that has given us, poison gas, nuclear weapons, and chemical agents only governments are the danger. Just as dangerous and perhaps more dangerous is the capacity of small anarchic and libertarian groups of dedicated fanatics to commit mass technocide: mass murder through the use of technology.
Some States governed by ideological rather than humanistic impulses are a definite problem. Still, small anarchic groups looking to convert mass populations through murder and fear, or libertarian sects looking to destroy States are an equal danger.
Let’s remember that the nomadic primitive Genghis Kahn the also murdered millions and this without the aid of a State. Today’s Genghis Kahns armed with deadly techno power would do much more damage.
The remedy is not some loud slogan such as “States are evil.” The remedy is to be found in individual citizens' vigilance and readiness to hold governments accountable.
In an era of large organizations and corporations, of international trade and travel, States are needed to organize human activity and alas also to fight potential lethal threats from small anarchic, and yes libertarian groups bent on destruction.
I have not said states "are" evil. I have said that government easily "can be" evil, which means for me a guarded and skeptical approach to thinking about those who would govern others.
Mine was not a "loud slogan," but to characterize it as such indicates to me that I might have upset you, perhaps in the manner in which our poet, as one of the topics of this discussion, upset the powers that be in another time.
As to your mention of "groups looking to convert mass populations through murder and fear," I would suggest that these groups, however they might be politically characterized, seek the same thing. They seek to become the government, which brings me back to my observation that goverment "can be" -- not "is" -- evil.
That movements seek to "convert mass populations" is exactly my point about the tendency of governments to "murder." Being a skeptic of those who would govern us is no misdemeanor or great crime except against those who would govern us. When they are dedicated to freedom for others, then such skepticism is a mere oddity. When they are dedicated to "converting mass populations," then skepticism quickly changes from oddity to irritation to become a capital offense.
Thus the question becomes one of wise governance in which the governors of communities as of nations practice restraint. How to measure that restraint is a question of much discussion, but restraint of power must be a part of the body politic, else it be cast out in favor of simple power over others.
This is not a loud slogan, but a look at various stories such as the forebearers of Lenin rejecting their religious and cultural background while embracing what they thought to be greater participation in governance.
Professor Wisse writes of "brutal, nation-wide suppressions" which I refuse to label with even a Lenin progenitor's label as Jewish. Since she is also professor of Yiddish, the loud slogan from Ashkenazic traditions teaches, "Shlekht lernt men zikh bald oys." Men learn evil quickly. And this is why I am skeptical of those who seek power, for my question remains for all parties, "To what end?"
This is my question which I ask rather regularly, and which often upsets because political slogans have precious little to answer to it, while reality and history speak very clearly. Usually they speak in and of "suppression."
OK, but we all live in Nation States which some would like to see all nations broken down into small provinces governed by some international order.
Do you believe that such an international Order will do better than the Nation State?
Should we go back to a Medieval like arrangement?
What is your solution to the potentially evil Nation State?
I suggested some solution in my previous comment, which is neither to seek after an international order (which would merely be an even bigger government, after all) nor to seek after feudal times and fiefdoms.
Restraint of existing governments by those people governed is the only solution, and one posited albeit imperfectly by the founding of the United States in its revolutionary war, as by various revolutionaries since. Restraining the state is exactly what simple fiscal forces are doing to the governments of Iceland, Greece, Portugal and Spain, to name names. The new coalition government in the UK is attempting to restrain its governance in extent and funding. Even the Castro brothers are planning an evisceration of their already impoverished public sector. All to what end? To restrain the state, because an unrestrained state can only devour its own as well as its neighbors, given a chance to do so. It seems a rather natural progression, given a decades long perspective on the problem.
As to the "evil" nation state, the history of the last century teaches us that restraint comes through military defeat, as with the National Socialists and Italian Fascists, and economic collapse, as with the Soviet Socialist system whose collapse freed many neighbor nations.
So I do not espouse some pie-in-the-sky solution, but rather suggest many solutions that are already in work in various surprising guises. So while I admit to being skeptical, I also confess to optimism for this world of ours. The repair of the world comes one individual at a time, so did rabbinic tradition counsel. It seems wiser as I get older, for my solutions mean relatively little. The changes occuring around this world are wondrous, if painful. They all come to some version of restraining the burden of government before (or after) it evidences its malfeasance, its ineptitude, and of course its evil.
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