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Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern.Lenin's Jewish Question. New Haven: Yale 
University Press, 2010. 224 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-15210-4.

Reviewed by Jarrod Tanny (University of North Carolina at Wilmington)
Published on H-Russia (August, 2011)
Commissioned by Teddy J. Uldricks

The Politics of Lenin's Ethnicity

Vladimir Il'ich Lenin was biologically one-quarter Jewish. This is a 
genealogical fact that has evoked intense controversy, having been 
exposed with malice by his detractors, concealed with anxiety by his 
followers, noted with fascination by casual observers, yet 
historically irrelevant for understanding Lenin, the Bolshevik Party, 
and the Russian Revolution. Such is the premise of Yohanan 
Petrovsky-Shtern's Lenin's Jewish Question, a lively monograph that 
tracks the origins and fate of Lenin's "Jewish" biography. With 
self-effacing irony, Petrovsky-Shtern makes it clear from the outset 
that this is a story in need of telling precisely because his main 
character, a "Jewish Lenin," never existed; Lenin emerged from a 
linguistically, culturally, and spiritually Russian Christian milieu 
and became an ideologically committed Russocentric Bolshevik driven 
to construct a centralized communist state. He probably did not know 
of his Jewish ancestors and even if he did, Petrovsky-Shtern argues, 
it would not have had any impact on his conception of Bolshevism or 
the Jewish question. Yet the postmortem discovery of Lenin's 
forgotten Jewish ancestry was deemed to be a bombshell whose 
revelation could have profound political consequences. Deified as the 
linchpin of Soviet power, Lenin had to be Russian, for to be 
Jewish--even in part--would undermine the party's authority, which 
was rooted in its allegedly indigenous Russian credentials, the 
legitimate heir to the tsarist autocracy. Lenin's genealogy was 
trivial, but its subsequent assessment was not.

Petrovsky-Shtern devotes two fascinating chapters to the turbulent 
life of Lenin's insignificant ancestor, his great-grandfather Moshko 
Blank, born into a Yiddish-speaking traditional Jewish family in 
mid-eighteenth-century Poland. He resided for several decades in 
Starokonstantinov, a predominantly Polish Catholic and Jewish town of 
ten thousand. Blank disdained the local Jewish community for their 
insularity, devotion to the Talmud, and refusal to see the great 
benefits of assimilating into Russian Orthodoxy and culture. He 
repeatedly ran afoul of the local Jewish authorities, regularly 
denounced their lack of patriotism and alleged treachery in his 
petitions to Nicholas I, and ultimately resettled in Zhitomir, the 
regional capital where he could fulfill his dream: to efface his 
Jewish origins and raise his family as Christian subjects devoted to 
tsar and empire. His children were baptized (as was he at the age of 
eighty) and attended Russian schools, and his two sons obtained 
permission to reside in St. Petersburg, where they became physicians. 
One of his sons, Alexander (née Yisroel), went on to have a 
successful career, marry a Russified German, and raise children with 
no memory of their shtetl ancestry; the Blanks were now Russians in 
every respect, thus fulfilling the dream that Moshko had for his 
progeny. And in 1870, Alexander's daughter Mariia bore a son, 
Vladimir, the future revolutionary and founder of the Soviet state.

Lenin and his relationship to the Jewish question in Russia is the 
subject of Petrovsky-Shtern's third chapter. The author insists that 
Lenin did not see the Jewish question as relevant for achieving his 
ultimate goal, the creation of a centralized Communist Party which 
would serve as a model for his envisioned Soviet state. Anti-Semitism 
and, for that matter, all forms of ethnic discrimination were a 
byproduct of capitalist exploitation. All such issues would be solved 
under communism once all citizens would be free and equal. The Jews 
and other ethno-cultural communities would vanish through 
assimilation into, quite naturally, the dominant nation--the 
Russians; there would be no Jewish question because there would be no 
Jews. In this sense, Lenin became a Russian imperialist, though not 
because he was an ethnic chauvinist or a racist. Lenin judged people 
according to their utility to his revolutionary agenda and quest for 
power. And for such a state to be seen as the legitimate successor to 
tsarist Russia it was imperative that the party and Lenin--its human 
embodiment--be seen as Russian. A "Jewish Lenin" would delegitimize 
the party as a foreign entity.

Petrovsky-Shtern examines the fate of Lenin's ethno-biography in the 
book's final two chapters. It was his sister Anna who, shortly after 
Lenin's death in 1924, uncovered archival documents attesting to the 
Blanks' Jewish genealogy. Anna wanted the information to be released 
to the public, convinced it would illustrate how the USSR brought all 
nations together into a community of equals. But the party ordered 
the information suppressed, tacitly recognizing "the power of a 
racist belief: once marred by Semitic blood, an individual was never 
able to wipe it off" (p. 105). Anti-Soviet propaganda already 
vilified "Judeo-Communism" with prominent Bolsheviks of Jewish 
descent--Lev Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev--being held up as 
perfidious infiltrators. A "Jewish Lenin" was simply not an option, 
and despite several attempts to get them released in the 1960s, the 
documents remained buried as state secrets until the USSR's collapse. 
Once the information came to light in the 1990s, it was seized upon 
with great fanfare by Russian nationalists and neo-fascists who 
sought to condemn the Soviet era as a tragic aberration in Russian 
history; the alien "Jewish Lenin" and his Judeo-Bolsheviks had sought 
to destroy Holy Russia. Thus, Petrovsky-Shtern concludes, the 
Communist Party's censorship and the Russian fascists' invectives 
were rooted in a common belief: "the Jews had no place in Russian 
history, either Imperial or Soviet" (p. 134).

For the student of Russian-Jewish history, much of this book treads 
on familiar terrain, especially the sections on Lenin's nationality 
policy and the history of Russian fascism. Petrovsky-Shtern also 
makes a handful of conclusions that are in contention among scholars. 
For instance, he argues that the disproportionately large 
representation of Jews among the Bolsheviks says "nothing 
historically relevant," because the Jews who joined the party did so 
"to discard their Jewishness" (pp. xiii-xiv). Yet such a sweeping 
statement belies the heterogeneity of Lenin's followers who, for 
various reasons, embraced his vision of communism. A "Jewish Lenin" 
may be fictitious because Lenin's family had discarded Judaism and 
erased its memory two generations earlier; this was not so for many 
Jewish Bolsheviks who were intimately connected to (or at least 
consciously aware of) the world of their ancestors they yearned to 
abandon. Such an awareness undoubtedly influenced their political commitments.

Nevertheless, Lenin's Jewish Question is an important book, for it 
illustrates how a minor element in one man's genealogy could have 
such a profound psychological effect on those who knew the secret, 
and how the knowledge of this secret could be mobilized to shape the 
representation of Russia's past and to legitimize a course for its 
future. Petrovsky-Shtern underscores the absurdity of a "Jewish 
Lenin" with wit and irony, making his work a pleasure to read.


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