Early Zydokomuna. High Caliber of Jewish Revolutionaries: Recognized by Lenin. Petrovsky-Shtern
Lenin’s Jewish Question, by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. 2010. Yale University Press, New Haven and London
The Outstanding Organizational Skills and Ardor of Jewish Revolutionaries Appreciated by Lenin
This book focuses on the partial Jewish ancestry of Vladimir Lenin, and how this ancestry was perceived. The author generally downplays the Jewishness of Jewish Communists, and points to the fact that they were acting as revolutionaries, not as Jews. This rather naïve, exculpatory approach imagines that all Jewish revolutionaries were nonobservant, and that religious or cultural observance is what defines a Jew in the first place. It also assumes that an individual can turn his Jewishness on and off like a faucet, wherein he functions “as a Jew” at one time, and conveniently “not as a Jew” in another. No one suggests that the Christians that persecuted Jews functioned “as Christians” one moment, and functioned “not as Christians” when they were persecuting Jews!
Although Petrovsky-Shtern tries to minimize the significance of Judeo-Bolshevism, he, perhaps inadvertently, provides some indication to the contrary. That is the focus of my review.
THE HIGH CALIBER OF JEWISH COMMUNISTS MADE THEM INDISPENSABLE
Proponents of Zydokomuna denialism remind us that members of many nationalities of the Russian Empire, and not only Jews, were revolutionaries. While this is technically correct, it erroneously treats all revolutionaries as equivalent, and overlooks the special value of Jewish Communists. Lenin recognized as much, as recounted by Petrovsky-Shtern:
“”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.” (p. 85).
“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. 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 short-lived Soviets. The Bund had an effective yet pluralistic leadership, a wide network of agitators, a rapidly growing Yiddish language press, an impressive fundraising apparatus, and the charisma of a combatant organization of Jewish proletarians.” (pp. 79-80).
“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.” (p. 95). Yes, but this begs the question why Jews were such eager beavers when it came to Communism!
For more on the crucial if not decisive role of Jewish Communists, see:
THE NKVD LEADERSHIP: LESS A DE-JUDAIZATION THAN AN ONGOING RUSSIFICATION
Fast forward to decades after the Russian Revolution. It is often pointed out that the Jewish leadership of various Soviet institutions underwent an eventual decline, but what is often forgotten is that this was also true of most other non-Slavic nationalities. With reference to the leadership of the NKVD, the author writes, “In 1934, Russians represented 30 percent, Jews–of course, who saw themselves as socialists–37, Ukrainians 5, Poles 4, Latvians 7, Germans 2, Georgians 3, and Belorussians 3 percent of the leading NKVD cadre. By 1941, Russians grew to 65, Ukrainians to 28, and Georgians to 12 percent, whereas Jews dropped to 10 percent, Latvians to 0.5, and Azerbaijanis disappeared from the spectrum altogether.” (pp. 110-111).
THE SOVIET UNION CONTINUES THE RUSSOCENTRIC IMPERIALISM OF TSARIST RUSSIA
Many Poles saw the USSR as very much a continuation of the Russian Empire and its habits. Petrovsky-Shtern basically concurs as he writes:
“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 life, Lenin’s humanistic and universalistic Marxist principles turned blatantly imperial and chauvinistic.” (pp. 88-89).
“Thus Lenin encouraged the party in power to monitor the self-determination efforts of national minority groups and reject them. In so doing, Lenin sought to replace imposed Russian imperial nationalism with an imposed Russian-centered internationalism.” (p. 90).
“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.” (p. 91).
“The autocracy of the tsar became the autocracy of the party, the iconic symbols of the empire turned into the iconic symbols of communism, and the old tsarist administration merged into the new communist bureaucracy. Furthermore, Soviet identity inherited the all-Russian identity; as under the tsars, Russia remained the paternalistic Big Brother of the national borderlands and ethnic minorities.” (p. 100).
FLASHBACK: A 19th-CENTURY SHTETL FROM WHICH LENIN’S JEWISH ANCESTOR COMES FROM
Author Petrovsky-Shtern describes the town of Constantine (Starokonstaninov), the domicile of Moshko Blank, Lenin’s Jewish maternal great-grandfather, as follows, “In addition to its synagogue-goers and Talmud learners, the town had its own Jewish smugglers, in good standing with the Russian customs officers; Jewish drunkards, known to the local innkeepers for their debauchery; and Jewish vagabonds, as homeowners believed, prone to stealing. Jewish smugglers regularly paid Starokonstantinov court and customs clerks a certain amount of their revenues–either in cash or in coffee, absinth vodka, sugar, or colonial tea.” (p. 13).
July 27, 2020.
Published with the author’s permission.
The title image: „Lenin’s Jewish Question” by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern. 2010. Yale University Press, New Haven and London – part of the cover. / selected by wg.pco