(Left to right) Bolshevik leaders Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin, and Lev (Iurii) Kamenev, USSR, n.d. Trotsky and Kamenev, the first deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, were both of Jewish origin. (Slavic and Baltic Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Kamenev, Iurii

(Lev Borisovich Rosenfel’d; 1883–1936), a principal leader of the Bolshevik party and the early Soviet government. Apprenticed in radical politics during his high school and truncated university careers, Kamenev was an early recruit to the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democrats (1904), growing close to Lenin during the revolutionary period 1905–1907. He spent the years of political reaction in emigration (1908–1914), where he and Grigorii Zinov’ev became Lenin’s most trusted lieutenants. As the more analytically and literarily inclined of the two, Kamenev collaborated with Lenin, editing a series of Bolshevik periodicals. A man of mild temperament, he avoided personal invectives and maintained good relations with political opponents.

Kamenev was arrested on his return to Russia in October 1914 and exiled to eastern Siberia, but following the February Revolution of 1917, he and Stalin went back to Petrograd. There they took control of the Bolshevik Central Committee in Russia, staking more moderate positions than those advocated from abroad by Lenin. After Lenin returned to Russia in early April, Kamenev ridiculed his call for a socialist revolution, objected to his implacable antiwar position, and together with Zinov’ev tried unsuccessfully to prevent the armed insurrection that brought the Bolsheviks to power in October. The Second Congress of Soviets meeting at that time elected him chairman of the Bolshevik-dominated Executive Committee of Soviets (October 26), a position he used to open negotiations for a government of all socialist parties. Lenin urged the party to force him to resign, and he was removed from the Executive Committee of Soviets as well (8 November), but within weeks he and Zinov’ev were restored to the party and its Central Committee, having submitted to Lenin’s majority.

Kamenev would never again show the political independence that was his hallmark in 1917, yet he remained a leader of the first order in the young Soviet state. He was appointed chairman of the Moscow Soviet (1918), member of the Politburo (1919), Lenin’s deputy chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and the Council on Labor and Defense (1922), and Lenin’s replacement in the latter position after his death (1924). He was also chief editor of Lenin’s collected works and headed the V. I. Lenin Institute. A triumvirate he formed with Zinov’ev and Stalin was initially victorious in the struggle for Lenin’s succession, but by 1926 Stalin had outmaneuvered Kamenev and Zinov’ev and pushed them out of all their posts. A short-lived alliance with Trotsky doomed the pair to further defeat and humiliation: expulsion from the Communist Party in 1927, repeated acts of public submission to Stalin to gain readmission, arrest in 1935, and a tragic appearance as “stars” of a staged trial in August 1936, where both were sentenced to death.

There is no evidence that Kamenev gave much thought to his Jewishness. He was born into a thoroughly assimilated family; his mother had studied at the Bestuzhev Courses for Women in Saint Petersburg and his father, after training at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute, worked as a railway mechanic and engineer. Growing up near Vilna and in Tbilisi, Kamenev attended Russian schools. The single possible sign of youthful Jewish awareness was his presence at a Paris celebration of the Bund’s fifth anniversary (1903), where he met his future wife (and Trotsky’s sister), Olga Davidovna Bronshtein. Nevertheless, Hebraists and Zionists in Soviet Russia spoke of him as their protector; indeed, he used his chairmanship of the Moscow Soviet to sanction their public events and celebrations and on several occasions intervened to secure the release of arrested Zionists and ensure their departure to Palestine. David Shor, a famous Jewish pianist who appealed to him on behalf of Zionism and Hebrew culture, recorded Kamenev’s deep concern in 1923–1925 over the Jewish economic crisis, the renewed possibility of antisemitism, and the inability of the Evsektsiia (the Jewish Section of the Communist Party) to cope with these problems.

Suggested Reading

Stuart Finkelstein, “Lev Borisovich Kamenev: The Political Development of a Moderate in Lenin’s Party, 1907–1922” (B.A. thesis, Harvard University, 1992); A. A. Opekin “L. B. Kamenev,” Voprosy istorii KPSS 1 (1990): 105–118; A. Proskurin, comp., “L. B. Kamenev. Odin iz vidneishikh bol’shevikov i kommunistov . . . ,” in Vozvrashchenye imena: Sbornik publitsisticheskikh statei v 2-kh knigakh, vol. 1, pp. 211–233 (Moscow, 1989).