Girls in Rochdale. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How the Rochdale grooming case exposed British prejudice

Daniel Trilling reports from Rochdale in the aftermath of a trial which saw nine men convicted of rape, trafficking and conspiracy.

“Just because we live here, it doesn’t alter our standards in morals,” Tom says as he hands me a mug of tea. We’re sitting in his living room at the front of a neat council semi in Heywood, on the outskirts of Rochdale in Greater Manchester. Four years ago, his 15-year-old daughter fell victim to a gang of men who were grooming young teenage girls for sex. In May this year, after an agonising and protracted struggle to bring the case to trial, nine of the men were convicted of offences ranging from rape to trafficking and “conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child”.


It was not the first such case to come to light in Britain, but the trial provoked outraged coverage, pundits reaching for quick and easy ways to explain the terrible crime. To some, race or religion played a defining role – all five of the victims were white, while their abusers were all Muslims of British Pakistani or Afghan origin. Others pointed to a defect of character in the girls themselves which, in the words of one commentator, made them “happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone”.


 


For Tom, it is this blaming of the victims that hurts most. The mantra, originating from police officers, has been that the girls came from “chaotic, council estate backgrounds”, as if this somehow lessened the crimes, or explained them. “[My daughter] wasn’t a bad kid,” Tom says. “She wasn’t into stealing or shoplifting. And she certainly didn’t ask for it. No matter what you think of society and the way it’s going, girls aren’t that cheap. We’re talking about children. And it could be anybody’s children.”


 

**
 


It was the summer of 2008 when Tom and his wife – married for the best part of 20 years – began to notice that something was wrong with their eldest daughter. She was cheekier than her siblings, and a bit more mischievous, Tom says, but she would socialise with her family and always be home by ten at night. That July, however, her behaviour changed “almost overnight”. The girl became withdrawn and stopped doing what she was told. She would use “coarse and vulgar language” in front of her family, and started to come home tipsy or, at times, much more seriously drunk. After a family argument, she moved out of home to stay with one of her friends.


 


Yet nothing prepared Tom and his wife for what they would discover a few weeks later, one night in August. The police phoned to say that their daughter had been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage – she had smashed up the counter of the Balti House takeaway in Heywood. When detectives began to interview her, however, she poured out an awful story: she had been raped, on repeated occasions, by a gang of men. They would ply her with vodka or beer and threaten her with violence if she did not do as she was told. Was she telling the truth? Tom had arrived to collect his daughter from the police station and he remembers how, on their way out of the interview room, an officer turned to his daughter and said, “I believe you, because there’s somebody else come into the station and said the same thing.”


 


By accident, officers had stumbled on a crime of frightening proportions. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were being trafficked around the north-west of England. Men who worked in the takeaway trade or as taxi drivers – professions that gave them unsupervised access to young teenagers – were grooming girls by offering them gifts, slowly winning their trust, and then forcing them to have sex. Some victims were driven between Rochdale, Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere to have sex with men for money. Others were duped into thinking they were in a relationship.


 


Many of the abusers were known only by their nicknames: “Master”, “Tiger”, “Car Zero”, “the Ugly One”. The gang employed a teenage girl – her peers nicknamed her “the Honey Monster” – to lure in fresh victims. She was paid a £200 finder’s fee for each one. (The police did not charge her because they decided that she, too, had been a victim of the abuse.)


 


As Tom explained to me, this was a carefully planned crime. “They [the abusers] don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a free kebab if you have sex with me’ – that doesn’t happen. They become your friend. Girls are told, as my daughter was always told, don’t speak to strangers – but these men aren’t strangers any more.” Children like Tom’s daughter would go to the Balti House and other takeaways where gang members worked to socialise. The men would befriend them, over a period of weeks or months, offering free food or free taxi rides home. “It made me feel like I was pretty,” Tom’s daughter told police. Then they would be invited to a seedy flat above the takeaway, or driven out to the countryside, and told they had to repay the favour. “It’s part of the deal,” Tom’s daughter was told the first time she was raped. “I gave you vodka, now you give me something.” Only then, after working to build up trust, would the threats of violence begin. One witness told of how one man slit his own wrist and then threatened to cut her throat if she did not have sex with him.


 


But in August 2008, the gang had been uncovered: the police found a suspect’s DNA on Tom’s daughter’s underwear; two men were arrested and charged. Yet the victims’ ordeal was far from over. Months went by without news. 


 


It took the police 11 months to send a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, which then decided in July 2009 not to prosecute, for fear that Tom’s daughter would not be a credible witness. Only in late 2010 was the case taken up in earnest and arrests made that would eventually bring the gang to trial.


 


Yet, in the months that followed Tom’s daughter’s arrest, she continued to be abused and her parents, with no support from social workers, were unable to prevent it. Worried that the police were on to them, the gang passed her to Abdul Aziz, 41, a taxi driver, who would transport her between houses where she would be raped by up to five men in one night, several times a week.


 


For two years, the authorities knew a terrible crime was happening, but nothing was done to protect the victims. (The five girls who tes­tified in court represent a fraction of the victims. To date, the police have identified at least 47 suspects.) Rochdale is not the only town where grooming has taken place, but could this have happened anywhere? Why, for instance, did there seem to be such a steady supply of new victims?


 

**
 


“We’ve certainly got a specialism in this town,” Jonathan Rigg says, as he shows me around the school that his company runs for children who have dropped out of the education system. It has recently been given a glowing report by Ofsted inspectors. “If it was engineering or IT, I think it would be celebrated. But just because it’s childcare we all keep our heads down and duck under the table.”


 


Rigg is the director of Meadows Care, the largest provider of private care homes in Roch­dale. With 47 homes in the borough, run by companies ranging from independent local firms like Rigg’s to branches of private-equity conglomerates, it is something of a growth industry. In the fallout from the grooming trial, the issue of private care homes has loomed large, and the homes have been blamed for dumping large numbers of vulnerable children, from all over the country, on Rochdale’s streets. (For context, Haringey in north London, a similar-sized borough, has just two private care homes, compared to the 47 in Rochdale.)


 


Here’s why: when a local authority anywhere in the country needs to take a child into care and it doesn’t have any free beds of its own, it sends out an email to private providers. Some local authorities will email all the companies they know of; others will have agreed on a list of preferred providers. But the principle is the same – whoever can offer the home and support that best fits the child, at the most attractive price, gets the commission. Like any other industry, children’s care homes have concentrated where conditions are most favourable. The north-west of England, with its modest salary costs and property prices, has proved an ideal location. In Rochdale, vulnerable children from all over the country are funnelled into homes, supposedly monitored by social workers who may be as far away as Essex or Exeter.


 


To an outside observer, it sounds like the stuff of nightmares. In May, the leader of Rochdale Council, Colin Lambert, told the BBC that the concentration of private care homes in the town had created a “loophole” whereby “the safety of children is not being guaranteed”. “Unless the child is from the borough of Rochdale we have no say in whether the child should be here, whether the home is providing what it should [and] we get no reports back on how the child is progressing . . . It is a scar and a disgrace on this country’s record of caring for vulnerable children.”


 


Press reports of the grooming trial have emphasised that one of the five girls who testified was in care at the time of her abuse – not at a home operated by Rigg’s company, but at one owned by a private-equity firm.


 


Nonetheless most of the grooming victims were not in care; like Tom’s daughter, they lived with their families. According to Simon Dan­czuk, Rochdale’s Labour MP, the real failure lies with social services. During that crucial delay – the months after Tom’s daughter’s arrest in August 2008 – you might have expected social workers to intervene to protect her and other girls. Since the trial, other Rochdale parents have come forward to say that police were told about similar abuse as far back as 2002. In 2004, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about the grooming of girls taking place in West Yorkshire in Bradford and Keighley. Certainly by 2008, any local authority should have been aware of the existence of this crime. But according to Danczuk, when health workers for Rochdale’s crisis intervention team, an NHS clinic offering advice on abortions and sexual health to vulnerable young women, alerted social services about girls they suspected were being abused, their concerns were ignored. According to Danczuk, they were told that the girls were making “life choices” and that they were sleeping with their abusers voluntarily.


 


“Social services believed that these girls were choosing to be prostitutes,” Danczuk says now, “and they concluded, absolutely wrongly, that they should be allowed to get on with it.”


 


It was not privatisation, but prejudice, that enabled this crime to continue for as long as it did. Rochdale Council has gone some way towards acknowledging this: in June 2012, its new chief executive, Jim Taylor, acknowledged that Rochdale had “missed some opportunities to offer support to [the grooming victims] in 2008 and 2009” and promised that staff today were better informed, “to such an extent that they now see child sexual exploitation as part of a wider pattern of behaviour and offending”.


 


Nonetheless, Danczuk believes the debate over private care homes is being encouraged “to distract attention from failure by the local authority. If the issue is about on-street grooming, then I’m puzzled as to why so much emphasis has been put on children’s homes.”


 


Rigg feels that businesses such as his are being made the scapegoat and that, as a result, other local authorities have begun to avoid placing teenage girls in his homes. The New Statesman has seen email evidence, for instance, that on 26 July his company was offered a placement by a local authority in Yorkshire, only for it to be withdrawn an hour later with the explanation: “We have since been advised by Rochdale Social Services not to place vulnerable girls in and around the Rochdale area.” When the New Statesman contacted Rochdale Council, a spokesman denied that the borough was giving this advice.


 


Whatever one’s views on private-sector involvement in such a crucial public service, one can’t deny that confusion of this kind will only end up harming children’s welfare. For better or worse, Rochdale has built up significant resources and expertise in childcare – and it now risks being unable to offer these to the people who need it most.


 


Back in Heywood at Tom’s house, we talk through all this as a couple of ageing Staffordshire terriers pad around the floor between us. It must have made you very angry to have been let down so comprehensively, I say. “Not angry,” he replies. “More . . . lost, really. No one would listen to me.”


 

**
 


When some people feel lost, they become vulnerable to all kinds of predators. On the evening of 23 February 2012, a crowd of 200 – mostly teenage boys – gathered outside the Balti House takeaway on Market Street. The grooming case had finally come to trial and tensions were on the rise. Ignoring the banner above the door of the takeaway that pleaded “Under New Management”, the crowd shouted racist abuse and hurled bricks and other missiles at the shop window. Some youths chanted “EDL” – the initials of the far-right English Defence League, though the group later denied that it had had any role in the evening’s violence.


 


In Rochdale, which is home to approximately 20,000 people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, far-right activists spied an opportunity.


 


It was in nearby Oldham, in 2001, that tensions between white and Asian locals, exacerbated by neo-Nazi provocateurs, had boiled over into a riot. Then, in 2004, the British National Party (BNP) won a council seat in Keighley in West Yorkshire by hijacking the campaign of a local mother whose daughter had been abused. The grooming case seemed ripe for exploitation: all the girls were white, all the accused were Asian Muslim men, and they had displayed a searing contempt for their victims. “You white people train them in sex and drinking,” one of the accused men told the jury during the trial, “so when they come to us they are fully trained.”


 


Over the months that followed, both the BNP and the EDL held rallies in and around Roch­dale. A close relative of one of the victims even joined the BNP after receiving a party leaflet through the door, but left soon afterwards when he encountered the neo-Nazi ideology that lay beneath the surface talk of “fair” treatment for white people.


 


That was about as far as they got. The hoped-for confrontation never came, and to date neither group has been able to sink roots in the town. Yet the presence of the far right, and the fear of a violent backlash, were keenly felt by many Asians. Taxi drivers in particular have experienced verbal abuse, and even violence. One driver told the Manchester Evening News that many of his colleagues have given up on the job because they see it as too dangerous. Worse still, according to the youth worker Mohammed Shafiq, it has intensified what he describes as a “siege mentality” among many of his Muslim peers.


 


I met Shafiq at a Pakistani cafe near Rochdale train station, in an area of flat-fronted Victorian terraces where many of the town’s Asians live or work. It was Ramadan, and as evening drew near, people were hurrying home for the iftar meal. Shafiq told me that he first heard about child sexual exploitation in 2006, when he encountered a mother in Blackburn whose daughter had been abused. “At the time, she was blaming Islam. She had gone to the mosque leaders for help but they had slammed the door in her face.”


 


This wasn’t out of contempt, he explained, but rather a complete unwillingness to accept that it was anything to do with them. “If you look at it from a religious point of view,” Shafiq said, “what these guys did was evil. Islam does not sanction these sort of activities or these crimes, so, from the point of view of a mosque, it was, ‘This has nothing to do with us; we don’t encourage this sort of behaviour. If people go out and do this sort of thing, it’s them who should be held responsible.’”


 


Any community faced with the discovery of child abusers in its midst will find it hard to accept; after all, colleagues, friends – even family members – may be involved. Two Muslim Labour councillors gave character references for one of the men on trial and, according to Shafiq, “there are some parts of our community that are still in denial. People saw the BNP talking about this, put two and two together and said ‘this is just a BNP conspiracy’, against Muslims and against Pakistanis.”


 


Some white officials, in seeking to prevent the growth of racism, have tried to police debate. A senior council official told Shafiq that he was “doing the work of the BNP” by tackling the matter in public at all.


 


Danczuk acknowledges that, in the past, politicians have failed to discuss this type of crime sensitively. His Labour colleague Jack Straw, for instance, made comments last year about how some British Pakistani men are “fizzing and popping with testosterone” and see white girls as “easy meat”. Rather, says Danczuk, when race does appear to be a factor in child sexual exploitation “you have to raise it calmly and sensibly, and acknowledge that you can’t generalise on these types of issues. Because if you don’t, then right-wing extremists will come forward and say that mainstream parties are ducking the issue.”


 


What complicates matters is that Muslim and Asian men are the targets of racism. Child abuse is committed by people of all races and religions, and most child abusers in Britain are white. Although a disproportionate number of Asian men have come to trial for grooming, they represent a tiny fraction of Britain’s Asian population. Just 50 out of a total UK population of 1.2 million British Pakistanis have been convicted of this crime, yet the lurid press coverage of “Asian sex gangs” gives an entirely different impression. To some observers, it has uncomfortable parallels with the way that African-Caribbean men were demonised as “muggers” in the 1970s and 1980s.


 


The double standard is clear to see when other child abuse cases come to light. Last month, five men in Derby were found guilty of trawling the streets for vulnerable girls, then giving them drink and drugs before having sex with them. All but one of the men convicted in the Derby case were white, and though the Rochdale case dominated the headlines for days, only the Times and the Guardian reported this verdict. When, at the end of June, it was reported that the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers are carrying out a rare joint inquiry into why so many police officers use their position to rape, sexually assault or harass women, it did not spark a national debate over the “culture of misogyny” among policemen.


 


Nathalie Walters, chief executive of Safe and Sound, a Derby-based charity that works to tackle child sexual exploitation, argues that the key to preventing the crime is well-informed, open discussion. Safe and Sound has trained well over 2,000 Derby social workers, youth workers and police officers in recognising the warning signs of abuse, and both the city council and the local police force have specialist responses to child exploitation. All the local agencies meet regularly to share information, and the recent convictions there are the product of this proactive approach.


 


“Any child could be a victim of this crime – boys and girls, and not just those living in care,” Walters tells me. “There’s a need to move away from the myth that it’s only Asian men who perpetrate this crime. Child exploitation happens in many ways; young people can be approached in person, via the internet or through mobile phones, and offenders can come from any community and walk of life.” And Sue Bere­lowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, recently told the House of Commons home affairs select committee: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”


 


In Rochdale, Mohammed Shafiq told me, people were inching their way towards being able to talk openly. “The progress is on the street. It’s in the cafés, in the takeaways, with people socialising in the gym. People are talking about this. There has been utter disgust at the crime, and shame that someone from our community has done this, and sympathy for the families who have had to suffer.” But, he added: “I think we’ve got a chattering class in London, where anything to do with race, anything to do with working-class people, they rub their hands with glee and decide that they’re going to inflame this. And because they [the abusers] were Asian, because they were Muslim, it just fitted their agenda.”


 

**
 


On 9 May 2012, the Rochdale grooming trial reached its conclusion. Nine men were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 77 years in prison. More arrests, and more convictions, are likely to follow. Throughout the trial, Shabir Ahmed, the 59-year-old ringleader of the gang, showed no remorse. He tore out clumps of his own chest hair in the witness box and made a female court interpreter run crying from the room. Delivering a bilious rant from the dock, he dismissed the accusations as “white lies”, cursed the “bent bastards” who had brought him to trial and denounced everyone from the prosecution lawyer and Theresa May to Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.


 


A month later, Ahmed was convicted, in a second trial, on 30 counts of child rape. This time his victim was Asian. The abuse had gone on for longer than a decade, but it was not until after Ahmed’s arrest in the grooming case that his victim found the courage to give the police full details of what she had suffered.


 


In the autumn, the various inquiries into what went so badly wrong in Rochdale will begin to make their findings public. We already know that Ahmed was motivated above all by contempt for women: all women, and not just those of a different race or religion. But a truth that may prove much harder to accept is that our own prejudices – about who falls victim to the crime of grooming and why, about what motivates the perpetrators, and about where the system is failing – enabled him and his gang to operate unhindered for so long. 


 


Some names have been changed


 


Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman. His book, “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right”, will be published by Verso next month

 

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
Show Hide image

What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit