The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - VIC­TOR SEBESTYEN Vic­tor Sebestyen is the au­thor of Lenin the Dic­ta­tor: An In­ti­mate Por­trait (Wei­den­feld and Ni­col­son, £25)

THIS IS a note to the rad­i­cal Leftists close to Jeremy Cor­byn in the Labour Party as they mark — or should it be cel­e­brate — the 100th an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion. The resur­gent Lenin­ists in the Party — no names, no pack drill, but I think we have an idea who they are — may not know the re­cently re­dis­cov­ered story of Lenin’s an­tecedents. The Sovi­ets cen­sored all men­tion of it for 70 years, mainly be­cause of deep rooted an­tisemitism in Rus­sia, but the leader of the Rev­o­lu­tion and the founder of the USSR, was many parts Jewish, through his mother.

The facts came to light only af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed and Com­mu­nist Party archives re­cently opened. Even then, though, Rus­sian his­to­ri­ans kept quiet about the in­for­ma­tion; it was left to Western bi­og­ra­phers, to piece to­gether the var­i­ous frag­ments of the story, as I did in my book Lenin the Dic­ta­tor: An In­ti­mate Por­trait, pub­lished ear­lier this year.

The grand­fa­ther of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — he be­gan to take the pseu­do­nym Lenin when he was around 30 — was born Sril Moiseye­vich (Is­rael Moses) Blank in Odessa in the early 1800s. Like so many am­bi­tious young men in the Tsarist em­pire, while study­ing medicine in his early twen­ties he con­verted to Rus­sian Ortho­doxy and changed his first name and patronymic to Alexander Dim­itreye­vich. He trav­elled widely in Europe af­ter qual­i­fy­ing as a doc­tor and he mar­ried the daugh­ter of a wealthy Ger­man mer­chant, Anna Groschopf. She was a Protes­tant and their chil­dren were brought up as Chris­tians. Even­tu­ally he achieved a high enough rank in the Civil Ser­vice to qual­ify as No­ble sta­tus, which, un­der the Ro­manovs, he never could have done as a Jew. The ev­i­dence sug­gests that Lenin’s mother, Maria Alexan­drovna, knew about her back­ground but never men­tioned it, even to her hus­band or chil­dren.

Lenin was al­most cer­tainly un­aware of his part Jewish an­ces­try. His older sis­ter Anna dis­cov­ered a piece of the story in her thir­ties when she went to Switzer­land and met a fam­ily called Blank. She was told that nearly all Swiss by that name were likely to be Jews. Then she found that a sil­ver cup — a Blank fam­ily heir­loom that had come from her mother — was the kind typ­i­cally used for Jewish fes­ti­vals. By her own ad­mis­sion, she never spoke of it to her brother Vladimir.

Soon af­ter Lenin died in 1924 Anna was asked by the Lenin In­sti­tute, es­tab­lished to pre­serve his “legacy”, to write a de­fin­i­tive his­tory of the Ulyanov fam­ily. She did a thor­ough job and found out de­tails about her grand­fa­ther that were en­tirely new to her. She didn’t men­tion her work to any­one out­side the fam­ily for many years.

But in 1932, shortly be­fore her own death, she wrote to Stalin and re­vealed her find­ings. She went to his of­fice in the Krem­lin and handed the let­ter to him. “It’s prob­a­bly no se­cret to you that our re­search on our grand­fa­ther shows that he came from a poor Jewish fam­ily,” she told him. The let­ter only came to light a few years ago. Pub­lish­ing the facts, she said, “could help to com­bat an­tisemitism…Vladimir Ilyich al­ways val­ued Jews highly and was al­ways per­suaded of their ex­cep­tional abil­i­ties.” Stalin re­sponded im­me­di­ately, or­der­ing her “Ab­so­lutely not one word about this let­ter to any­one.” Stalin was a ra­bid Jew hater and prob­a­bly felt vis­cer­ally, as well as cal­cu­lated po­lit­i­cally, that it would not have helped the Com­mu­nist cause amongst Rus­sians if it had been re­vealed that the founder of the Soviet state had Jewish roots.

If Lenin had known, he would prob­a­bly have been re­laxed about the rev­e­la­tion. As he once told the writer Maxim Gorky. “We do not have many in­tel­li­gent peo­ple. (Rus­sians) are a tal­ented peo­ple. But we are lazy. A bright Rus­sian is nearly al­ways a Jew or a per­son with an ad­mix­ture of Jewish blood.’

Lenin was many things — among them a dic­ta­tor who sent many thou­sands of peo­ple to their deaths — but one thing he can’t be ac­cused of is an­tisemitism. Many of the lead­ing early Bol­she­viks, such as Trot­sky, were Jews — though few Jews in the 1900s, or later, were Bol­she­viks. In the bloody Rus­sian Civil War from 1918-1921, in which around six mil­lion peo­ple died, there were many cases of pogroms by the White Rus­sian armies, who rou­tinely slaugh­tered Jews in towns and vil­lages from the Crimea to Siberia. In one night nearly a thou­sand Jews were butchered by bay­o­nets in Kiev.

There were a few iso­lated cases of atroc­i­ties by the Reds. When Lenin heard about them he was apoplec­tic with rage and or­dered a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He was the first Rus­sian leader to speak out against an­tisemitism, though he knew that prob­a­bly it would do the Bol­she­vik cause lit­tle good.

In 1921 he made 16 three minute pro­pa­ganda gramo­phone records to be played in vil­lages and town halls through­out the fledg­ling USSR.

He chose as the sub­ject of one of them On Pogroms and the Per­se­cu­tion of the Jews. I would com­mend them to Mr Cor­byn as the row over an­tisemitism in the Labour Party a cen­tury later rum­bles on. With a mi­nor tweak to up­date the con­text for today some Labour vot­ers, es­pe­cially younger ones, might want him to say some­thing like Lenin did. “It is not the Jews who are the work­ers’ en­e­mies. It is the cap­i­tal­ists of all the coun­tries. The great ma­jor­ity of Jews are them­selves work­ers… They are our broth­ers be­ing op­pressed by the cap­i­tal­ists, our com­rades in the strug­gle for so­cial­ism. The Jews have their ku­laks, their ex­ploiters and their cap­i­tal­ists, just like the Rus­sians. Just like all na­tions…It is the cap­i­tal­ists who in­flame ha­tred against the Jews.”


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