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Spiritual awakening

Globalisation has been good for gods in the Indian subcontinent. As the region has remade itself, it

On a foggy winter's night in November 1998, Om Singh, a young landowner from Rajasthan, was riding his Enfield Bullet back home after winning a local election near Jodhpur, when he misjudged a turning and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. As a memorial, his father fixed the motorbike to a stand, raised on a concrete plinth under the shelter of a small canopy, near the site of the crash.

“We were a little surprised when people started reporting miracles near the bike," Om's uncle Shaitan Singh told me on my last visit. "Om was no saint, and people say he had had a drink or two before his crash. In fact, there was no indication whatsoever during his life that he was a deity. He just loved his horses and his motorbike. But since his death a lot of people have had their wishes fulfilled here - particularly women who want children. For them, he has become very powerful. They sit on the bike, make offerings to Om Singh-ji, and it is said that flowers drop into their laps. Nine months later they have sons. Every day people see him. He comes to many people in their dreams."

“How did it all begin?" I asked. We were in the middle of a surging throng: crowds of red-turbaned and brightly sari-ed villagers gathered around the bike, the women queuing patiently to straddle its seat and ring the bell on the canopy. Nearby, two drummers were loudly banging dholaks, while chai-shop owners made tea and paan for the pilgrims. Other stalls sold plaques, postcards and statues of Om Singh and his motorbike. Pieces of cloth were tied to branches all over the tree and gold flags flapped in the desert wind. Everywhere buses and trucks were disgorging pilgrims coming to visit Rajasthan's newest shrine.

“First it was just family and friends who came," Shaitan Singh replied. "Then people realised there was a certain power here. It wasn't just the Hindus: Muslims came, too. Now the truck drivers will never pass this spot without stopping and making an offering. Every year the crowd grows."

“Do you believe in Om's power?" I asked.

“The more faith grows," he answered enigmatically, "the stronger it becomes."

Across the subcontinent, faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as the region develops and reinvents itself. In 19th-century Europe, industrialisation and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went hand in hand with the Death of God: organised religion began to decline, and the church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of south Asia has been more or less the reverse of this.

During the early 20th century, educated, urban Hindu reformers moved away from ritualised expressions of faith, and early leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar constitutionally formed India as a model secular state with no official faith: this was to be a nation where, in the words of Nehru, dams would be the new temples. But over the past 20 years, just as India has freed itself from the shackles of Nehruvian socialism, so India has also gone a long way to try to shake off Nehruvian secularism, too. The revival of religiosity and religious extremism in Pakistan may be more the focus of the international media, especially as Barack Obama grapples in vain with the troubled region now hyphenated as Af-Pak, but what is happening in India is equally remarkable and in many ways surprisingly similar.

The dramatic revival of piety and religion in India has recently been the subject of a remarkable study by Meera Nanda, a Delhi-based academic who has shown how globalisation may be making India richer, and arguably more materialistic, but it is also making Indians more religious, and at the same time making religion more political. "Globalisation has been good for the gods," she writes in The God Market.

As India is liberalising and globalising its economy, the country is experiencing a rising tide of popular Hinduism which is leaving no social segment and no public institution untouched. There is a surge in popular religiosity among the burgeoning and largely Hindu middle classes, as is
evident from a boom in pilgrimage and the invention of new, more ostentatious rituals. This religiosity is being cultivated by the emerging state-temple-corporate complex that is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehruvian era . . . a new Hindu religiosity is getting more deeply embedded in everyday life, in both the private and public spheres.

India now has 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals. Pilgrimages account for more than 50 per cent of all package tours, the bigger pilgrimage sites now vying with the Taj Mahal for the most visited sites in the country: the Balaji Temple in Tirupati had 23 million visitors in 2008, while over 17 million trekked to the mountain shrine of Vaishno Devi.

In a 2007 survey jointly conducted by the Hindustan Times and the CNN-IBN news channel, 30 per cent of Indians said they had become more religious in the past five years. Such is the appetite for rituals in this newly religious middle class that there has recently been a severe shortfall of English- and Sanskrit-speaking priests with the qualifications to perform Vedic and Agamic rites. When it comes to rituals in the new India, demand has completely outstripped supply.

In her book, Nanda writes engagingly about what she calls "karma capitalism" and the Indian equivalent of American televangelists, the TV God Men, some of whom have huge followings: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is in many ways India's Pat Robertson, has built a global spirituality empire called the Art of Living, which claims 20 million members, and much of whose land has been donated by Indian state governments.

Meanwhile, religion and politics are becoming ever more entangled. Nanda presents interesting evidence about the dramatic increase in state funding for yagnas (fire sacrifices), yoga camps and temple tourism, as well as the sharp increase in state donation of land for temples, ashrams and training schools for temple priests. In Rajasthan, the government annually spends 260 million rupees on temple renovations and training for Hindu priests. Mass pujas (prayers) and public yagnas have become an important part of political campaigning for all parties, not just the overtly Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Perhaps surprisingly, India's growing band of techies and software professionals seems particularly open both to religiosity in general and to hard right-wing Hindu nationalism in particular, so much so that many have joined a special wing of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Association of Volunteers), the organisation to which Mahatma Gandhi's assassin belonged. The RSS now organises regular social meetings called IT-milans, where right-wing techies can "meet like-minded people and get a sense of participating in something bigger than just punching keyboards all day".

The modernisation of the RSS is certainly one of the more worrying trends in Indian religiosity, as is the organisation's increasing respectability in the eyes of the urban Indian middle class. For, like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements. Like its 1930s models, it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes (the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest). The idea is to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will bring about a revival of what the RSS sees as the lost Hindu golden age of national strength and purity.

The BJP, which governed India from 1999 until 2004, and is now the principal opposition party, was founded as the political wing of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both organisations. Though the BJP is certainly much more moderate and pragmatic than the RSS - like Likud in Israel, the BJP is a party that embraces a wide spectrum of right-wing opinion, ranging from mildly conservative free marketeers to raving ultra-nationalists - both organisations believe, as the centrepiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation and that the minorities may live in India only if they acknowledge this.

The most notable political manifestation of the increasing presence of religion in Indian life took place in the early 1990s as the Hindu right rose slowly to power, partly as a result of taking advantage of a long-running dispute over a small mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. The argument revolved around the question of whether Mir Baqi, a general of the Mughal emperor Babur (1483-1530), had built the mosque over a temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram.

Although there was no evidence to confirm the existence of the temple or even to identify the modern town of Ayodhya with its legendary predecessor, Hindu organisations began holding rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple. Finally, at a rally in December 1992, a crowd of 200,000 militants, whipped into a frenzy by inflammatory BJP statements, stormed the barricades. Shouting "Death to the Muslims!" they attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, like symbols of India's traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.

Over the next month, violent unrest swept India: mobs went on the rampage and Muslims were burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the street. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It was a measure of how polarised things had become in India that this violence played so well with the electorate. In 1991, the BJP had taken 113 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous ­election. In 1996 that proportion virtually doubled, and the BJP became the largest party. After the 1999 general election, with 179 seats, it was finally able to take the reins of power into its hands.

Since then, however, the BJP has lost two general elections, largely for economic reasons, and perhaps especially their neglect of India's farmers; the ability of the religious right to mobilise votes by exploiting communal religious grievances seems, thankfully, to have diminished. But as large-scale anti-Christian riots in Orissa last year showed, it doesn't take much to wake the sleeping dragon of communal conflict from its slumber, and Ayodhya remains an emotive and divisive issue. If religion is no longer a vote-winner for the BJP, it is largely because other parties have found more subtle ways to use its ever-growing power.

F or the growing politicisation of faith among the middle classes is only part of a much wider story. Behind the headlines, and beyond the political sphere, in the small towns and villages suspended between modernity and tradition, Indian religion is in a state of fascinating flux. Over the past couple of years, while researching Nine Lives, my book on local and folk beliefs in contemporary India, I have been very struck by how fast forms of traditional Indian devotion have been changing, even in the villages and backwaters, as India transforms itself at breakneck speed.

As is now well known, India is already on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third-largest economy in the world; the Indian economy is expected to overtake that of the United States by roughly 2050. Much has now been written about the way that India is moving forward to return the subcontinent to its historical place at the heart of global trade, but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected the diverse religious traditions of south Asia, and particularly the archaic and deeply embedded syncretic, pluralist folk traditions that continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

Though the west often likes to imagine the religions of the east as deep wells of ancient and unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself beyond recognition.

Certainly on my travels around India for Nine Lives, I found many worlds strangely colliding as the velocity of this process increases. In Jaipur, I spent time with Mohan Bhopa, an illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan who keeps alive a 4,000-line sacred epic that he, now virtually alone, still knows by heart. Living as a wandering bard and storyteller, he remembers the slokas of one of the great oral epics of Rajasthan praising the hero-god Papuji. Mohan told me, however, that his ancient recitative art is threatened by the lure of Bollywood and the Hindu epics shown on Indian TV, and he has had to adapt the old bardic tradition in order to survive.

The epic that Mohan recites contains a regional variant on the "national" Ramayana myth. In the main Ramayana tradition, the hero Lord Ram goes to Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, who has been captured by the demon king Ravana. In the Rajasthani version of the myth, the hero is Papuji, and he goes to Lanka, not to rescue a kidnapped spouse, but to rustle Ravana's camels. It is exactly these sorts of regional variants, and self-contained local cults, which are being lost and menaced by what the eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar calls the new "syndicated Hinduism".

As Thapar explains in a celebrated essay on the subject, Hinduism is different from other major world religions in that it has no founder and no founding text. Indeed, the idea that Hinduism constitutes a single system is a very recent idea, dating from the arrival of the British in Bengal in the 18th century. Used to western systems of faith, early colonial scholars organised many of the disparate, overlapping multiplicity of non-Abrahamic religious practices, cults, myths, festivals and rival deities that they encountered across south Asia into a new world religion that they described as "Hinduism".

Since the mid-19th century, Hindu reformers such as Vivekananda have taken this pro­cess forward, so that Hinduism has slowly become systemised into a relatively centralised nationalist ideology which now increasingly resembles the very different structures of the Semitic belief systems that its more extreme adherents tend to abhor. "The model," writes Thapar, "is in fact that of Islam and Christianity . . . worship is increasingly congregational and the introduction of sermons on the definition of a good Hindu and Hindu belief and behaviour [is] becoming common, and register[s] a distinct change from earlier practice."

According to Thapar, the speed of this homogenising process is now rising. "The emergence of a powerful middle class", she believes, has created a desire for a "uniform, monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements". This Hinduism masquerades as the revival of something ancient and traditional, but it is really "a new creation, created to support the claims of [Hindu] majoritarianism".

All over India, villages were once believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods who were said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life. They were worshipped and propitiated, as they knew the till and soil of the local fields and the sweet water of the wells, even the needs and thirsts of the cattle and the goats in the village. But increasingly in urban India, these small gods and goddesses are falling away and out of favour as faith becomes more centralised, and as local gods and goddesses give way to the national, hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Ram, a process that scholars call the "Rama-fication" of Hinduism. New deities are emerging, but carefully tailored for satisfying modern and middle-class needs, such as Santoshti Ma, who first reached national consciousness in the 1970s Bollywood film Jai Santoshti Ma. Also popular are other new deities such as Shani Maharaj, who neutralises the negative impact of the planet Saturn, and Aids Amma, who reputedly has the power to do away with HIV.

Ironically, there are strong parallels between the way this new Hinduism is standardising faith and what is happening in south Asian Islam - a religion Hindu nationalists routinely demonise. There, too, the local is tending to give way to the national as the cults of local Sufi saints - the warp and woof of popular Islam in India for centuries - lose ground to a more standardised, middle-class and textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the Wahhabis, Deobandis and Tablighis in their madrasas. Today, the great Sufi shrines of the region find themselves in a position much like that of the great cathedrals and saints' tombs of northern Europe 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation. As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans are on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals and the devotional superstitions of saints' shrines. As in Europe, they look to the text alone for authority, and recruit the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, which looks down on what it sees as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Where this process differs from 16th-century Europe is in the important role played by colonialism. Religiously conservative Hindus and Muslims alike suffered the humiliation of colonial subjugation, and had to watch as their faith was branded degraded and superstitious by the victorious colonisers and their missionaries. In both faiths, reform movements re-examined and reinvented their religions in reaction to the experience of failure and conquest; but while Hindu reformers tried to modernise their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults to become more like western Christianity, Muslim radicals opted instead to turn their backs on the west, and return to what they saw as the pure Islamic roots of their faith.

In the aftermath of the brutal massacres by the British following the Great Uprising of 1857, Muslim radicals left the ruins of Delhi and the demolished Mughal court, rejecting both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors and the ways of the west. Instead, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband that went back to Quranic basics and stripped out anything syncretic, Hindu or European from the curriculum. A hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern west has yet had to face. In the al-Qaeda training camps of Kandahar, Deobandi currents of thought received a noxious cross-fertilisation with ideas that emerged from two other intellectuals forced to rethink their faith in reaction to domination by the west: the fathers of the intellectual Egyptian jihad, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.

Understandably, while it is the Islamists' assaults on India and the west that have absorbed our press of late, it is sometimes forgotten that the Taliban are also at war with rival comprehensions of Islam. Last year, in a new front on this war, they dynamited the shrine of the 17th-century Pashtun poet-saint Rahman Baba at the foot of the Khyber Pass in the North-West Frontier. For centuries, his shrine was a place where musicians and poets had gathered; Rahman Baba's Sufi verses in Pashto had long made him the national poet of the Pathans. Some of the most magical evenings I have ever had in south Asia were spent in the garden of this shrine, under the palm trees, listening to the sublime singing of the Afghan Sufis.

Then, about ten years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the dargah (Sufi shrine). Soon its students took it upon themselves to halt what they saw as the un-Islamic practices of the shrine. On my last visit there, in 2003, I talked about the situation with the keeper of the shrine, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists regularly came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry, immorality and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," he said. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble."

“What sort of trouble?" I asked.

“They tell us that what we do is wrong. They tell women not to come at all, and to stay at home. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out - even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually they have stopped coming."

“How long has this being going on?"

“Before the Afghan war there was nothing like this," he replied. "But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda to stop visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching ishq [love]. Now this trouble happens more and more frequently."

The end came on 4 March 2009. A group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn and placed dynamite around the squin­ches of the dome. The shrine chamber was completely destroyed. The Taliban issued a press release blaming the shrine for opening its doors to women and allowing them to pray and seek healing there. Since then several other shrines in areas under Taliban control have been blown up or shut down, and one - that of Haji Sahib Turangzai, in the Mohmand region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - has been turned into a Taliban headquarters.

If the North-West Frontier is now dominated by the Wahhabis and their mad­rasas, in Sindh the Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of their saints and the old, mixed culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam. Here, 60 years after Partition and the expulsion of most of the Hindus of Pakistan into India, one of the Sajjada Nasheens, or hereditary tomb guardians of the great shrine of Sehwan, is still a Hindu, and it is he who performs the opening ritual at the annual Urs (death ceremony). Hindu holy men, pilgrims and officials still tend the shrine, replenishing the lamps and offering water to visiting pilgrims.

Many scholars believe that the Sufi fakirs of Sehwan Sharif model their dreadlocks, red robes and ecstatic dancing on those of Shaivite sadhus. For Sehwan was once the cult centre of a Shaivite sect called the Pashupatas, who believed in emulating the dance of Shiva as part of their rituals, and using this shamanistic dancing as a way of reaching union with God.

As elsewhere in south Asia, these local, composite and pluralistic traditions are under threat; but, as in India, the Sufis of Sindh are not going down without a fight. As one female Sufi devotee put it: "I sometimes feel that it is my duty to protect the Sufi saints, just as they have protected me. Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis and Tablighis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is shirk [heresy].

“Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet. Mullahs and Aza­zeel [Satan] are the same thing."

As the great saint Shah Abdul Latif wrote:

Why call yourself a scholar, o mullah?
You are lost in words.
You keep on speaking nonsense,
Then you worship yourself.
Despite seeing God with your own eyes,
You dive into the dirt.
We Sufis have taken the flesh from
the Holy Quran,
While you dogs are fighting with each other.
Always tearing each other apart,
For the privilege of gnawing at the bones.

William Dalrymple is the New Statesman's south Asia correspondent. His most recent book is "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India", published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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