The Bolsheviks and antisemitism

Issue: 168

John Rose

A review of Brendan McGeever, Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, Cambridge University Press (2019), £22.99

Brendan McGeever’s meticulously researched book uncovers truly shocking revelations about the scale of antisemitism during the civil war that followed the October 1917 Russian Revolution.1 It exposes the limitations of the Bolsheviks’ response to this antisemitism and, most damaging of all, the involvement of some Red Army units in perpetrating pogroms against Jews, particularly in the Ukraine.

McGeever sets the scene with a 1919 passage from Victor Serge, the anarchist-turned-Bolshevik who was one of the most perceptive writers about the Russian Revolution:

Antisemitism was the enemy, the counter-revolution… We could feel it all around us…looking for our weaknesses, our mistakes, our follies, skilfully making us stumble, ready at the slightest lapse to pounce on us and tear us to pieces.2

The Bolshevik Evgeny Preobrazhensky had moved the Russian Revolution’s original foundational statement on antisemitism at the First Congress of Soviets in June 1917. It was carried unanimously by over a thousand delegates representing millions of workers, peasants and soldiers. It instructed “all local soviets…to carry out relentless propaganda and educational work among the masses in order to combat anti-Jewish persecution.” But it also warned of the “great danger” posed by the “tendency for antisemitism to disguise itself under radical slogans”.3

That “great danger” would constantly resurface as the revolution and then the civil war unfolded. Its fundamental irrationality was given dramatic symbolic expression on the very night of the Bolshevik insurrection in October 1917. As Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the ruling provisional government, was leaving the Winter Palace, he noticed that someone had painted in huge letters across the palace wall: “Down with Jew Kerensky, Long Live Trotsky!” Needless to say, Kerensky was not Jewish but Leon Trotsky was.4 Not so symbolic and far more ominous was the slogan: “Smash the Yids, Long Live Soviet Power” that would attach itself to some rogue Red Army units, especially in the Ukraine.5

What McGeever calls the “arc of antisemitic violence in the Russian Revolution” peaked in Ukraine in 1919.6 McGeever makes it clear that “the Red Army was the least prone to pogroms of all the military forces in Ukraine.” He cites a study showing the “the Reds” responsible for 8.6% of civil war pogroms, with the bulk of atrocities carried out by the counter-revolutionary “Whites”.7 Nevertheless any example of Bolshevik antisemitism in the Ukraine requires detailed examination and explanation. Its most notorious exponent was Nikifor Grigoriev, recognised as one of the most talented military commanders in the region. McGeever’s analysis of the Ukrainian “social formation” provides useful background to his crimes.

Ukraine’s urban working class was overwhelmingly drawn from minority ethnic populations, especially Russians and Jews. In contrast, the vast countryside was predominantly Ukrainian. “In Ukrainian peasant popular culture, the ‘cityman’ represented a ruthless profiteer, an oppressor of the poor Ukrainian toiler”.8 To complicate matters further, Ukraine was occupied by the German military at an early stage of the civil war, as well as other foreign forces. Grigoriev, a former tsarist army officer during the First World War, initially backed the German occupation, but he switched sides to back the successful Ukrainian nationalist uprising in 1918. However, in early 1919 he switched sides again, this time to support the Bolsheviks who, after all, favoured independence for nations oppressed by the former Tsar. His newly constituted Soviet unit, eventually becoming the 6th Soviet Ukrainian Rifle Division, was huge, with 13,000 to 16,000 soldiers.9 Grigoriev quickly proved his worth by taking the famous city of Odessa from the occupying French and Greek armies, which was applauded as a huge gain for the Bolsheviks.

But the following week, Bolshevik intelligence reports began noting that Grigoriev’s soldiers were shouting slogans such as “Long Live Soviet Power, Down with the Communists, All Communists are Yids.” Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Bolshevik military chief in Ukraine, gambled that Grigoriev, though “unpredictable”, could be “kept under control.” The gamble backfired. Grigoriev turned on the Soviet government and initiated what McGeever calls “the most deadly of all the civil war progroms”.10 In just 18 days his units carried out at least 52 antisemitic outrages, murdering more than 3,400 Jews.11 The Soviet government issued orders for Grigorev’s soldiers to be shot on the spot, but the local apparatus of Soviet power was powerless to enforce them. Grigoriev, after all, had become part of it.

According to McGeever, Grigoriev revealed the extent to which Bolshevik revolutionary discourse could overlap with antisemitism. This formulation, as a stand-alone, is unsatisfactory and will be revisited shortly. Nevertheless, Grigoriev’s brazen double standards do give it a certain credibility. His advance on Odessa had been accompanied by unambiguous public declarations in support of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet just six weeks later when he turned on the Soviet state, Grigoriev issued a defining statement, known as the “Universal”. It was gross antisemitism, barely concealed:

Ukrainian people! The political speculators have deceived you…they have subjected you…to those gluttonous Muscovites from the land where they crucified Christ… Holy Toiler! Man of God! Look at your callous hands… You are the Tsar of the land… Down with the political speculators! Long live the soviets of the people of Ukraine!12

McGeever reports on many more horrendous and upsetting examples, but perhaps the most damning evidence comes from the Bolsheviks’ own intelligence files. These expose antisemitism “within the Red Army across the Ukraine, including among many regiments and brigades that did not carry out pogroms”. McGeever argues that the Bolsheviks’ response to antisemitism throughout the civil war period was faltering and inadequate, even though the Bolsheviks recruited a significant Jewish cadre after major splits among the Jewish nationalists (both from the left-wing Zionists and the Bund, an anti-Zionist Jewish socialist organisation).13 This is a particularly important part of his book and it raises questions about how McGeever interprets his own research evidence.

Some of these Jewish nationalists were incredibly impressive. Zvi Fridliand was a central committee member of Poalei Zion, the main left-wing Zionist party in Russia. In 1917 he led a small pro-Bolshevik faction. During the October Revolution he was active among the Red Guards, arming workers to seize the Winter Palace. By 1921 he had joined the Bolsheviks.14

Just five days after the formation of the Petrograd Soviet in February 1917, a commission was established led by the Bundist Moishe Rafes in order to respond to the immediate increase in antisemitic agitation. Two years later Rafes had become one of the leaders of the pro-Bolshevik faction in the Bund, the “Kombund” or Communist Bund, which would help shape the Soviet state’s confrontation with antisemitism. He then joined the Bolsheviks.15

Though small in number, this group of previously anti-Bolshevik Jewish socialists “actualised and often sustained” the Soviet response to antisemitism during the Russian Revolution, building upon Bolshevism’s “unquestionably…inbuilt opposition to antisemitism”.16 McGeever twice quotes the Jewish writer Jonathan Frankel to make sense of this development. To Jewish communists like Fridliand and Rafes, “…the revolution meant a struggle not only for social equality and political freedom, but also for national, for Jewish, liberation”.17

McGeever implies an unresolved tension is present here. The Jewish communists had played “a critically important role in elevating the politics of liberation within the class struggle”.18 Yet this is surely to misunderstand the application of Marxism as a living art and science to the practicalities of revolutionary movements and struggles. To adapt a famous phrase from one of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, “the educators themselves will be educated”. The struggle against antisemitism in the Russian Revolution brought together the Bolshevik internationalists who had very limited access to the Yiddish-speaking, poverty-stricken Jewish masses and the Jewish nationalists who were often rooted in these communities. Tensions between the two political strands lessened in the commonality and life-and-death seriousness of the fight against widespread and persistent antisemitism. But this wasn’t a merging of differing and previously hostile political traditions, nor was it about making previously unacceptable concessions. Key sections of the Jewish nationalist cadre became Bolshevik cadres. This implies an emphasis at odds with the one drawn by McGeever. The socialist revolution itself came to be seen as elevating the prospects for Jewish liberation.

However, McGeever takes a further far riskier and more problematic step in his analysis of what he perceives as the overall weakness of the Bolshevik’s approach to antisemitism. He uses a response from Trotsky to the constant threat of ­antisemitism to illustrate his argument. When Lenin asked Trotsky to become the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs following the victory of the October Revolution, Trotsky declined: “One should not place such a trump card in our enemies. I thought it would be much better if there were no Jews in the first revolutionary Soviet government.” Lenin replied: “Nonsense. Never mind…” Trotsky, for the same reason, later refused to become People’s Commissar for War, arguing that his Jewish origins had, in his words, “interfered greatly” with his role as head of the Red Army during the civil war. Lenin dismissed all this as Trotsky’s “eccentricity”.19

According to McGeever, Trotsky’s approach “betrayed a certain acquiescence with the same antisemitism” that revolutionaries “had devoted their lives to confronting”.20 Nor was this a problem just for the Bolsheviks. McGeever provides evidence that the former Jewish nationalists had urged fellow Jews not to “flood” the Soviet state apparatuses and stop “speculating” and “shirking” their responsibility to take positions at the military front.21

This leads McGeever to a final grim conclusion:

This was a revolution that promised liberation from antisemitism; its actuality, however, overdetermined them as Jews. No one, it seems, escaped the racialising logic of the “Jewish question” in the Russian Revolution.22

This clearly will not do. Two deeper issues have to be addressed that can only be touched on briefly here. The first is the internal dynamics of the civil war, which itself generated constant openings for antisemitism. The second is the impact of the earlier “Jewish Enlightenment”.

McGeever asks why the Soviet response to antisemitism was not more effective in the months following the October revolution:

An answer may lie in the profound nature of the crisis facing the Bolshevik ­leadership… Throughout April and May 1918, party leaders continued to believe that Petrograd was bound at any moment to be taken by German troops. Even more pressing was the rebellion of the Czech Legion, which provoked a crisis so grave that Trotsky declared in July that the fate of the entire revolution was now under threat.23

A favoured source for McGeever here is the historian Alexander Rabinowitch. However, McGeever passes over Rabinowitch’s observations about the “virtual state of war between town and country” that ultimately tore the revolution apart.24 Starvation gripped the cities and the Bolsheviks panicked, sending armed squads to the countryside to requisition food. It was easy for the enemies of the revolution in the countryside to equate city-based Bolshevik power with “Jew power”.

Peasant resentment was tempered during the civil war because opposing the Bolsheviks risked the restoration of the landlord class. But the Bolsheviks’ military victory in the civil war unleashed what Tony Cliff described as “waves of peasant uprisings” across rural Russia.25 Discontent spread to the cities, including Petrograd, where strikes erupted. Cliff describes an outbreak of antisemitism so serious that Jews in the city feared pogroms if the government failed to restore order.26

Peasant hostility to the regime climaxed in the 1921 Kronstadt naval insurrection. Many of the sailors came from peasant backgrounds, and a complete reversal of policy was forced on the Bolsheviks. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced, restoring the free market in the countryside. Forcible food requisitioning ceased immediately. Private capitalism in the countryside signalled a major defeat for the October revolution, even if viewed as only a temporary expedient.27 In Kronstadt too antisemitism flourished.28

In other words the “racialising logic of the ‘Jewish question’ in the Russian Revolution” was built into the breakdown of the worker-peasant alliance during the revolution and the deeply damaging terms that concluded the revolution. It was not a result of some inevitable general logic in the revolutionary process itself.29

McGeever also associates the “acquiescence with…antisemitism” with the Jewish Enlightenment and its campaign to “‘productivise’ Jews and render them ‘useful’ through agriculturalisation programmes”.30 But, without a proper explanation of the oppressive Jewish medieval economic and social structure in which Jews were so often trapped into becoming petty traders and “urban agents” in the peasant village, McGeever himself risks being seen as unwittingly recirculating “antisemitic representations of Jewishness”.

Modern Jewish Studies has explored and debated the roots of the economic role of Jews in medieval Europe. By the late 19th century most of the world’s Jews lived in the “Pale of Settlement”, controlled by the Russian Tsar’s crumbling feudal empire. In so far as there is a scholarly consensus, few would disagree with Antony Polonsky’s carefully formulated observation that most Jews in the Pale “remained closely connected…with the manorial system as agents of the nobility…and the principal commercial link between the village and the small town”.31 For several centuries the Jews had been “the indispensable traders and craftsmen of the rural economy, locating themselves in the small towns and villages of the noble estates”.32

This was an institutionalised “middleman” role forced on Jews as a result of their “pariah” status, sealed with a plethora of oppressive legal restrictions.33 It also made them prime scapegoats for simmering peasant resentment against serfdom. The Jewish Enlightenment thinkers wanted to break out of this economic snare. McGeever’s discussion of the Jewish Enlightenment introduces an argument that is easily open to misinterpretation unless developed thoroughly.

This is a depressing and pessimistic book—arguably, in tune with the times we are living. It comes close to seeing antisemitism as an “eternal verity”.34 Nevertheless there is richness and intensity in the detail of McGeever’s work, encouraging reflection on the intellectual and political challenge it poses. Its great strength is to bring to our attention the sheer scale of antisemitism that cast its ominous shadow across the civil war from beginning to end. Its great weakness is its failure to provide a satisfactory explanation. This leaves it appearing to lash out at the Bolsheviks for failing to control antisemitism, even after they had won over some of their most effective former Jewish nationalist adversaries. McGeever also claims that the Bolsheviks made unacceptable concessions to antisemitism. What is misunderstood is that the dynamic of the civil war itself—and in particular the breakdown of the worker-peasant alliance—constantly generated openings for antisemitism to flourish.

Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, titled his concluding chapter on the civil war, “Defeat in Victory”. “It had resulted in the utter ruin of Russia’s economy and the disintegration of her social fabric”.35 Historically, Jews took the hit for Russia’s failures. Tragically, this moment too was no exception.

John Rose recently completed a PhD on “Workers’ Power and the Failure of Communism”, which is the basis for a book now in preparation.


1 I would like to thank Rob Ferguson for reading and commenting on a draft of this article.

2 McGeever, 2019, p210.

3 McGeever, 2019, p25-6.

4 McGeever, 2019, p31.

5 McGeever, 2019, p33.

6 McGeever, 2019, p88. For a brief introductory overview of the general problems facing the Bolsheviks in Ukraine, see my article in an earlier edition of this journal—Rose, 2014.

7 McGeever, 2019, p89.

8 McGeever, 2019, p91.

9 McGeever, 2019, p95.

10 McGeever, 2019, p96.

11 McGeever, 2019, p96-7.

12 McGeever, 2019, p98.

13 For a very useful discussion about the Bund, see Englert, 2012.

14 McGeever, 2019, p57-8.

15 McGeever, 2019, p151.

16 McGeever, 2019, p216.

17 McGeever, 2019, p155, and again in his “Conclusion”, p217.

18 McGeever, 2019, p218. The outbreak of the German Revolution in late 1918 was also a trigger for Bolshevik recruitment among these Jewish socialists. However, McGeever convincingly argues that the fight against antisemitism was decisive in this regard—McGeever, pp141, 147, 156.

19 McGeever, 2019, p209-210. McGeever’s source here is Vilkova, 1996, p183-184. Vilkova’s reference is based on a reported speech by Trotsky in 1923. This was almost certainly not checked by Trotsky for corrections and so doubt might be cast on its accuracy. Nevertheless, Trotsky’s autobiography directly confirms that he regarded his Jewish origins as an impediment to becoming People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs—see Trotsky, 1960, p340-341. The reasons for his later refusal to become People’s Commissar for War after the civil war are less clear. However, we should not underestimate the intensity of personal antisemitic venom directed at him, particularly during the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt against the Bolsheviks in 1921.

20 McGeever, 2019, p210.

21 McGeever, 2019, p210. Chapter 7 of this book, entitled “Reinscribing Antisemitism?”, is full of examples of both the Bolsheviks, including Lenin, and the former Jewish nationalists betraying “a certain acquiescence with the same antisemitism.”

22 McGeever, 2019, p210.

23 McGeever, 2019, p85.

24 Rabinowitch, 2007, p270.

25 Cliff, 1979, p130.

26 Cliff, 1979, p131.

27 Kronstadt was a particular tragedy given the heroic role of its sailors in 1917. Cliff, 1979, p132.

28 Cliff, 1979, p133. Cliff writes that Trotsky and Zinoviev were particularly singled out both as Bolshevik oppressors and Jews. During negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the Kronstadt sailors’ revolutionary committee, the Bolsheviks were told: “Enough of your ‘hurrahs’, and join us to beat the Jews. It is their cursed domination that we workers and peasants have had to endure.”—Cliff, 1990, p185.

29 Of course, NEP was not the only very dangerous and unstable consequence of the civil war’s outcome. It might have been a Bolshevik victory but the cost was nothing less than “the destruction of the proletariat…whilst leaving intact the state apparatus built by it…the soviets as a front for bureaucratically controlled Bolshevik power.”—Cliff, 1978, p204. This laid the groundwork for the later emergence of Stalinism.

30 McGeever, 2019, p204.

31 Polonsky, 2010, p399.

32 Polonsky, 2020, p86. For an analysis of the formation of Jews into a sort of trading caste, see Israel, 1985, p171. I have discussed Israel’s book, comparing and contrasting it to Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question in a previous issue of International Socialism—seeRose, 2008.

33 Polonsky, pp17, 103.

34 This “lachrymose” view was dismissed a century ago by the accomplished Jewish historian Salo Baron in his 18-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews (Columbia University Press, 1980).

35 Deutscher, 1970, p488.


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