Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (Ulyanov) was a Russian revolutionary, the leader of the Communist movement, and founder of the Soviet state. At all stages of his career, Lenin had to cope with the Jewish question from ideological, organizational, and political points of view.
At the outset of Lenin’s activities, the Jewish Bund, whose representatives took part in Russian Social Democratic congresses, was a factor to be dealt with in his tactics as head of the Bolshevik faction, as the Bund increasingly threw its weight to the Mensheviks and sometimes swung the balance against Lenin. Like every Russian revolutionary in his time, Lenin attacked, possibly with more sincerity and vigor than others, the anti-Jewish policy of the Czarist regime. On his initiative the Bolshevist faction in the 4th state Duma (1912–1917) proposed a law to annul all restrictive measures against Jews, including education, state service, the Pale of Settlement in part, and others.
He never displayed any inclination to exploit the deep-seated hatred of Jews in the Russian masses as “fuel” to advance the revolution, and in both his personal and political behavior. Lenin never differentiated between people – friends and enemies alike – on the basis of their national or ethnic origins. On the other hand, he viewed the assimilation of the Jews and their complete disappearance into the surrounding culture and society as an inevitable and even desirable result of human advancement. He believed that Jewish separateness, even in the modern and secularist image of the Bund and Socialist Zionism, was a remnant of the precapitalist era and had begun to disappear quickly in Western capitalist countries such as Germany, France, and England. He viewed the separate cultural and social existence of the Jews of Russia as a corollary of the anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution and as a symptom of the backwardness of Russia, in which medieval divisions had not yet crumbled. He therefore denounced not only all manifestations of anti-Semitism, but also all forms of Jewish nationalism and separatism as “reactionary” phenomena that deflect the Jewish workers away from revolutionary solidarity with their non-Jewish comrades and from the struggle for the future revolution to overthrow all class barriers and finally solve the Jewish problem.
Lenin expounded his views on the Jewish question and on the national question in general in many articles, e.g., “The Position of the Bund in the Party” (1903: Collected Works, (19614), 92–103), “Theses on the National Question” (1913; ibid., 19 (19634), 243–51), “Cultural-National Autonomy” (1913; ibid., 503–7), “Critical Remarks on the National Question” (1913; ibid., 20 (19644), 17–51). During the Civil War he refused to confiscate the Gorkis’ pamphlet “On the Jews,” despite warnings that it would become an anti-Bolshevist tool in the hands of the counterrevolutionaries.
After the Revolution, when Lenin took power in Russia (end of 1917), he endorsed the establishment of special departments for Jewish affairs in both the ruling Communist Party (the Yevsektsiya) and in the relevant ministry (the Commissariat of Nationalities, headed by Joseph Stalin). Neither did he object to the recognition of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews, since the masses of Jews – especially in the former Pale of Settlement – were a large ethnic bloc, with its own culture and language, that should be addressed through means – especially linguistic – understood by it. Together with his acquiescence in the de facto recognition of a Jewish “nationality” in Soviet Russia, Lenin campaigned vigorously, both orally and in writing, against anti-Semitism and incitement to pogroms by the anti-Soviet right-wing forces (the White Army, the Ukrainian nationalists, peasant anarchists, etc.) and initiated, soon after the Revolution, the decree outlawing pogroms and their instigators (July 1918). Thus, not only did Lenin abide by one of his ideological principles, but he also faced and courageously fought the most demagogic challenge of the counterrevolutionary forces that rose against his regime. He took note of the higher percent of Jews in the revolutionary movement than their proportion in the population, and he initiated the promotion of Jews to higher positions in the State and party apparatus.
Despite this position, however, Lenin did not oppose the cruel persecution of Zionists and suppression of the Hebrew language and the Jewish religion by the Soviet authorities, although in his time many arrested Zionists and rabbis were eventually allowed to leave Russia and go to Palestine. The assassination attempt on behalf of the Social Revolutionaries (1918), carried out against him by a Jewish woman, Fanya Kaplan, did not change his approach to the Jews at all.
At the end of his life, during his illness, Lenin attempted to oppose the Russian “great power chauvinism” of the young Soviet regime, which intervened, behind his back, with excessive cruelty in the lives of other nationalities in the country (such as the Georgians) and thus violated his principles on the national question. The Jewish aspect, however, did not play any part in this last struggle since the anti-Semitism of the Soviet regime appeared undisguised only years after his death. This development is symbolized by the fact that among the eight speeches that Lenin recorded in 1919, seven were rerecorded in the Soviet Union on a long-playing record and marketed in 1961, during the Khrushchev era, but one speech was not rerecorded – his speech against anti-Semitism.
S. Schwarz, Jews in the Soviet Union, (1961), index; Y. Ma’or, She’elat ha-Yehudim ba-Tenu'ah ha-Liberalit ve-ha-Mahpekhanit be-Rusyah (1890–1914) (1964), index; A.B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (c. 1966).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Pavel Semyonovich Zhukov (1870-1942), Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.