Jinnah — he had a dream

The vision of Pakistan’s founding father was a land of many faiths and cultures united in a common p

"Jinnah Street in Chicago?!" I had every reason to be incredulous. Chicago was, after all, that most American of cities. But my Pakistani friends were right. Not only was there a Jinnah Street in the Devon area of the city, but the number of men and women wearing the traditional shalwar-kameez, the shops selling saris and sweetmeats, and the kebab houses made me feel as if I were in Karachi or Lahore. Pakistanis have even transformed the local pronunciation of Devon into the more Pakistani-sounding "Diwan".

I was travelling the length and breadth of the United States to conduct fieldwork on the Muslims of America, and was therefore delighted not only to visit Jinnah Street, but to be welcomed there by Alderman Berny Stone, the Jewish politician who had initiated its naming. A gentle, frail and elderly man, Stone told me that he had more support among Muslim voters than among Jews.

I found similar enthusiasm for Jinnah - whom Pakistanis call the Quaid-e-Azam, or "Great Leader" - in other western cities such as London and Birmingham. In London, Jinnah's portrait has a place of honour at Lincoln's Inn, and the anniversaries of his birth and death are still commemorated in the Pakistani community. Jinnah's life spans different centuries, cultures and continents. He was born in Karachi in 1876, studied at Lincoln's Inn, practised law in Bombay, led the movement which resulted in the creation of Pakistan in 1947, and died in Karachi in 1948. Jinnah was renowned for his prickliness and impeccable suits. It was widely rumoured that they were stitched in Savile Row. In appearance, morals and wit, he was the quintessential Victorian gentleman.

Pakistanis remember Jinnah with a mixture of nostalgia, awe and admiration. He represents an ideal to them. They see him as a figure of fierce integrity and intellect and as a champion of Muslim causes. Most importantly, he gives Pakistanis hope - he was a leader who succeeded against all the odds and gave them their homeland.

In Pakistan itself, so revered is he that people have taken to adding "Rahmatullah Alay" ("may the mercy of God be upon him") after his name, a blessing normally reserved for respected spiritual leaders. Jinnah's mausoleum in Karachi remains a top tourist attraction and an essential destination for foreign dignitaries. The atmosphere there is worshipful, with dozens of men and women reading the Quran incessantly and invoking the mercy of God on his soul.

Jinnah envisaged a country that would foster human rights, women's rights, minority rights and the rule of law. During the short period he was governor general of Pakistan he established the importance of showing extra consideration to minorities.

Once, on his way to a state function, he ordered his entourage to stop because he saw a Muslim mob threatening a small group of Hindus with violence. These Muslims were refugees who had lost everything in India and were venting their anger. Jinnah, against the pleading of his staff, threw himself into the mob and demanded that it desist. He declared: "I am going to constitute myself the Protector General of the Hindu minority in Pakistan."

All this would suggest that his legacy has been safely preserved in Pakistan and that the Jinnah model has survived. Alas, this is not so.

Jinnah died one year after creating Pakistan and the strong forces of feudal and tribal society soon reasserted themselves, overriding modern notions of justice, democracy and the rule of law. Almost inevitably, civilian government faltered and just a decade after Jinnah's death the military stepped in to assume power. The history of Pakistan since then has oscillated between shaky democratic governments and rapacious military rule.

Those who vie for power in Pakistan today can be placed in one of three categories: religious leaders who claim to speak on behalf of Islam and promote the violence of the Taliban; military rulers such as General Pervez Musharraf who violate the constitution; and democrats such as the current president of Pakistan, Asif Zardari, who have a reputation for corruption.

Ambitious generals and corrupt politicians mislead Washington and London when, during foreign visits, they sell the idea to receptive audiences that nothing prevents nuclear Pakistan from falling into the hands of the dreadful Taliban other than their services. Billions of dollars have been given to the rulers of Pakistan, and more promised. In that sense, the west's ignorant enthusiasm in support of military dictators or tainted politicians makes it complicit in the state in which Pakistan finds itself.

Jinnah himself would not have been happy with any of these categories. His vision of Pakistan can be reconstructed from the speeches he gave towards the end of his life. He had a clear idea of the kind of country he wished to create.

This would be a modern democracy, not a theocracy, and non-Muslims would be safe in it. He would have been heartbroken at the persecution and killing of minorities in Pakistan; we have had too many examples of attacks on Christians and the horrendous slaughter of Ahmadis in Lahore as recently as May.

An end to angularities

Pakistanis need to heed Jinnah's first speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, which elected him as the country's first president, delivered on 11 August 1947. It is a seminal speech in the history of Pakistan. (The state itself came into being a few days later, on 14 August, which is now celebrated as Independence Day.) Because the words reflect a vision of Islam which does not suit either the likes of the Taliban or those in uniform or civilian clothes who do not wish to promote a tolerant, democratic and humanist nation, they have been frequently expunged from the history books.

For me, this is the heart of the speech, and because of its importance and relevance today, I quote from it at length:

If you change your past and work together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make.

I cannot emphasise it too much. We should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community - because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vaishnavas, Khatris [Kshatriyas], also Bengalees, Madrasis and so on - will vanish. Indeed, if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain . . . freedom and independence, and but for this we would have been free people long, long ago.

Building from this powerful passage comes the vision of a brave new world, consciously an improvement in its spirit of tolerance on the old world Jinnah has just rejected:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed - that has nothing to do with the business of the State . . . We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State.

Jinnah's words regarding the poor and the less privileged are particularly poignant as they are largely being ignored by Pakistan's rulers, in or out of uniform:

Now, if we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous, we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor. If you will work in co-operation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed.

Jinnah had regularly reminded his Muslim audiences of the ideal in Islam: "Our own history and our Prophet have given the clearest proof that non-Muslims have been treated not only justly and fairly but generously."

Jinnah was confident of the future if Pakis­tanis could follow these ideals. His attitude towards India is also instructive. When things go wrong in Pakistan, Pakistanis tend to blame Indian intelligence and Indians respond in the same vein when there are problems in India, blaming the Pakistan secret services. There is an ugly and destructive aspect to the relationship between the two.

Yet Jinnah envisioned an India and a Pakistan living as good neighbours, supplementing and supporting each other. He even proposed a joint defence system that would seem outrageous to most Pakistanis and Indians today. On the death of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948, he issued a statement in which he described the slain leader as "great" three times.

The Jinnah model was both vital and relevant for Pakistan. Unfortunately, in the country's tribal and clan-dominated societies, it did not make a deep impression. The repeated acts of violence by the Taliban and others on those whom they see as the enemies of Islam, and the violation of the constitution by the rulers of Pakistan, have convinced many that the Jinnah model is irrelevant. In time, the people of Pakistan, with good humour and irony, began to comment on the widespread corruption by saying that only Jinnah could solve the country's problems, by which they meant the official currency notes that carry his portrait.

Besides, Jinnah's critics are many and widespread. To Indians and many in Britain, he is the ultimate villain in the drama of the partition of India into two countries. He is depicted as a megalomaniac who caused the deaths and displacement of millions of people.

For groups such as the Taliban, his model is the most dangerous of all for Muslim society, because it is capable of winning the support and affection of the masses.

Nationalism within the law

Today, some prominent commentators hostile to Pakistan suggest that Jinnah was a failure precisely because he created Pakistan, a "terrorist state". Fareed Zakaria, for example, who hosts a foreign affairs show on CNN, wrote in a recent issue of Newsweek that "from its founding, the Pakistani government has supported and encouraged jihadi groups, creating an atmosphere that has allowed them to flourish". To suggest that the very proper, British-trained constitutional lawyer was even faintly associated with any kind of violence is a travesty of history. Perhaps Zakaria, as an Indian, combines a need to display his anti-Pakistan credentials to Indians while scoring cheap points in the American media by indulging in the popular pastime of "Paki-bashing".

Jinnah's historical significance for Muslims today is that he founded what was then the largest Muslim state in the world within the law, never advocating the hijacking of planes, hostage-taking or terrorism of any kind. Whatever his personal foibles and failings, there is no denying that he left behind a potentially successful model of a modern nation state.

Pakistan remains vital to the west. General David Petraeus, commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan, has stated bluntly that the war on terror cannot be won without Pakistan. Besides, this country of 170 million people is a nuclear state. Its location makes it a vital player for any power interested in the geopolitics of the region. This is where the interests of several world powers intersect. Perhaps most importantly, Pakistan has the potential to nurture the Jinnah model. Because the country is seen as a leader among the Muslim nations, it can, if the model succeeds here, open the way for other Muslim interests to strive towards democracy. That is why the west needs to enter into alliance with Pakistani leaders to keep Jinnah's dream alive.

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the author of “Journey Into America: the Challenge of Islam" (Brookings Institution Press, £19.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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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