Vladimir Ilych Lenin, the leader of the Russian revolution, was born on 22 April 1870. Anyone educated in a Soviet school, will always remember April as ‘Lenin’s month’. The commemorative activities would typically run for several weeks running up to his birthday and come to a crescendo with a school assembly on his actual birthday. Lenin’s biography and the minutiae of his family life were told and re-told in thousands of publications targeted at different age groups. Little Lenin was crestfallen when, aged 4, he broke his aunt’s favourite vase. Little Lenin admired his older brother Alexander. Aged 10 or so Little Lenin made a birds’ house for his mother’s birthday. Some of the accounts were real, others – based on the reality, still others – completely made up. Children’s authors contributing to ‘Leniniana’ (the library of works on Lenin’s life) had a developed imagination and could afford to submit to it more easily than their colleagues writing for the adult readership. Neither type, however, was too coherent on Lenin’s genealogy.
It is probably for this reason that Lenin’s genealogy became the focus of public attention in the last years of the USSR, when Perestroika and Glasnost kicked in. Lenin’s parents’ names were impeccably Russian. So, looking at it superficially, there was nothing to suspect. But the (post) Soviet collective mind, well-versed in the methodology of concealment of the ‘difficult issues’, knew where to look and what questions to ask. And so, before too long, the ‘Lenin was actually a Jew!’ tagline was born. That ‘fact’ was considered particularly scandalous by some of the fierce critics of the communist regime and some of the Russian nationalists – these political groups appeared and proliferated quickly and seemingly out of nowhere when the political conditions allowed. Importantly: not all Russian nationalists and anti-communists were antisemitically-inclined, but those who were reveled in ‘Lenin’s Jewishness’. To them, ‘this’ explained everything: for them, Jewish Lenin and his Jewish collaborators simply hated Russia and all things Russian, and so their revolutionary activity was simply a way to destroy Russia. In the early 1990s, Lenin’s ‘Jewishness’ became one of the bitterest accusations thrown at him by the contemporary Russian nationalists, and – sort of – the new accepted knowledge. So popular was this topic that even some serious historians fell into the trap and treated it in an unquestioning manner. Norman Davies, an eminent expert in Eastern European affairs, stated in his writings that Lenin was Jewish according to the Jewish law, as his Jewishness was inherited through his mother.
Is this true? Was Lenin Jewish?
In truth: Lenin had Jewish blood. How much? About one quarter of him, genetically speaking. From the point of view of Jewish law, it was inconsequential, and could not have made him a Jew. Lenin’s mother, Maria Blank, was a daughter of a Jewish convert, Alexander (born Israel) Blank and a mother of mixed German/Swedish origin. She was Lutheran by faith. The conversion of her father, Alexander Blank, took place way before Maria’s birth, and indeed before his marriage, and she had no knowledge of it, or any sentiments towards it. In sum, Lenin’s mother was never Jewish to start with, and she inherited whatever Jewishness she had in her purely ‘biologically’ from her father, the ‘wrong side’ from the point of view of Jewish law. That father, in addition, was not even Jewish himself by the time of Maria’s birth. When Lenin’s adult sister settled in Switzerland (in the years before the Russian revolution), she started using her mother’s maiden name in a new place – to facilitate integration or avoid police attentions, or both. She learned quickly enough that the name Blank was perceived as exclusively Jewish by the surrounding Swiss. Astonished, she made inquiries and ‘found out’ about her Jewish roots for the first time as an adult. After the revolution, she continued to research the topic and eventually made a suggestion-to the members of the Soviet Politburo-that publicizing and emphasizing Lenin’s Jewish origin may help to combat popular Russian antisemitism. The Politburo did not find her argument convincing.
As for the Lenin’s father- Ilya Ulyanov – his ethnic origins cannot be determined with precision, at least, I have not come across anything definitive. It is possible that his father was Mordvin or Chuvash (two ethnic groups indigenous to Volga region), and it is possible that his mother could have been Russian or half-Kalmyk (another ethnic group settled on Volga river). His facial features, inherited by Lenin, are unmistakably Asian. One thing is clear: there was nothing Jewish on his side.
Who is Lenin then? Is he Russian? The answer should be obvious by now; it is genuinely: yes and no. Lenin’s ethnicity is a reflection of the drama of his place of birth: paradoxically, Russia in itself was not as Russian as one’s intuition would dictate. And so, Lenin was not Russian to the extent that Russia itself was not Russian. Let us look at the facts. In 1897, the first Imperial Census of the Russian Empire found that out of 126 million people populating Russia, only 56 million were Russians. Namely, 56 million people (44%) indicated that Russian language was their mother tongue, and this number would have included culturally assimilated members of various ethnic minorities. The rest (56%) were all sorts. In particular, in 1897 Russia hosted 8 million (6%) Poles, 5 million (4%) Jews, 5 million (4%) Tatars and Bashkirs, about 3 million (2.4%) Baltic nations and 2 million (1.6%) Germans and Swedes. What is also interesting and important to understand: some of Russia’s ethnic minorities, especially the Germans and the Jews, were better educated and more literate than the Russians. Political elites draw from the educated groups, it is only natural.
Various critics and detractors labelled Russia – and some still do – as a ‘prison of nations’. This, in my view, was, and remains, imprecise and unnecessary, unhelpful political hysterics. Russia was a multinational entity. Simple. It had educated minorities. Its educated minorities contributed significantly into shaping its elites and political agendas. What they attempted to make out of Russia, succeeding to a significant extent, is what we call today ‘ a state of all citizens’ rather than a more narrowly defined political entity symbolically owned exclusively by a particular ethnic group (for example, Russians). And many Russians, aware of Russia’s multinational nature and quite nonplussed by it, joined in.
To sum up: as a physical being, while Lenin was certainly not Jewish, he was not Russian either. He was a mixture of ‘a little bit of everything’, as was so usual in a multinational empire that gave birth to him. His mother’s parents were a Jewish convert to Russian Orthodoxy and a German/Swedish Lutheran. Louis Fischer, one of Lenin’s biographers, put it thus: ‘Lenin was what Russia is: a bridge between West and East, partaking of both yet struggling to be neither’. Technically, there does not seem to be a drop of Russian blood on his mother’s side. His father’s side was only a little ‘better’: his father parents were Volga minorities mixed with Russians. So, genetically Lenin’s was one quarter Russian at most. Culturally, he was Russian and nothing else.