Was Lenin Jewish?

Exploring the ancestry of the mastermind of the Bolshevik revolution.

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Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

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.

A Jewish Great-Grandfather

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.
vladimir lenin
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.

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Ruth Wisse

Ruth Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.