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Eternal vigilance

Throughout the 1940s, George Orwell was formulating the ideas about language and politics that found

By 1940, George Orwell had behind him four conventional “social” novels and, more significantly, three books of documentary reportage, each one better than the last, culminating in his classic account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia.

Gradually in the others but culminating in Homage, Orwell perfected his signature “plain” style, which so resembles someone speaking honestly and without pretence directly to you, and he had more or less settled on his political opinions: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” So he said in 1946.

But while this may have been settled, there were other matters Orwell was still working out in his mind. The subjects of the essays Orwell wrote in the 1940s are almost all, in one way or another, things Orwell doesn’t like. The essays are incessantly self-contradicting. First, Orwell declares that no great novel could now be written from a Catholic (or communist) perspective; later he allows that a novel could be written from such a perspective, in a pinch; and then, in his essay on Graham Greene, he comes very near to suggesting that only Catholics can now write novels.

In his essay on T S Eliot, he writes that it is “fashionable to say that in verse only the words count and ‘meaning’ is irrelevant, but in fact every poem contains a prose-meaning, and when the poem is any good it is a meaning which the poet urgently wishes to express. All art is to some extent propaganda.” Several years later, in “The Prevention of Literature”, in arguing for the idea that poetry might survive totalitarianism while prose would not, he writes that “what the poet is saying – that is, what his poem ‘means’ if translated into prose – is relatively unimportant even to himself”.

What is particularly frustrating about these contradictions is that at each successive moment Orwell presents them in his great style, his wonderful sharp-edged plain-spoken style, which makes you feel that there is no way on earth you could possibly disagree with him, unless you’re part of the pansy left, or a sandal-wearer and fruit-juice drinker, or maybe just a crank.

In a way I’m exaggerating, because the rightness of Orwell on a number of topics has been an albatross around his neck for 60 years. In truth, Orwell was wrong about all sorts of things, not least the inner logic of totalitarianism: he thought a mature totalitarian system would so deform its citizenry that they would not be able to overthrow it. This was the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In fact, as it turned out in Russia, even the ruling elite was not willing to maintain mature totalitarianism after Stalin’s death.

Other totalitarian regimes have repeated the pattern. Orwell was wrong and Orwell contradicted himself. He was more insightful about the distant dangers of communist thought-control, in the Soviet Union, than the more pressing thought-control of western consumerism. Nor did he see the sexual revolution coming, not by a long shot; one wonders what the too-frequent taunter of the “pansy left” would have made of the fact that the gay movement was one of the most successful, because most militant, of the post-1960s liberation struggles.

But there is a deeper logic in Orwell’s essays, beneath the contradictions and inevitable oversights. The crisis that he was writing himself through in the 1940s was the crisis of the war and, even more confusingly, the postwar. It involved a kind of projection into the future of certain tendencies latent in the present. Orwell worries about the potential Sovietisation of Europe, but also the infection by totalitarian thinking of life outside the Soviet sphere – not just specific threats to specific freedoms, but to deeper structures of feeling. As the philologist Syme says to Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? . . . Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness is smaller.”

If Orwell was wrong in some sense about the long-term development of totalitarianism, he was right about its deepest intellectual intentions, about the rot it wished to create at the centre of thinking itself. And he was right that this rot could spread.

One solution would be to cordon off literature from life and politics entirely: this was, in some sense, the solution adopted by the writers of the previous generation – Eliot, James Joyce, D H Lawrence, Ezra Pound – whom Orwell calls the writers of the 1920s and we now call the high modernists. And yet he did not want to make a special plea for literature; in fact, of all the writers of his time, Orwell was constitutionally the least capable of making this separation. His own writing and politics were the fruit of his specific experience – of imperialism in Burma, of the conditions in the English coal mines, of the war in Spain. He insists on several occasions that “all art is propaganda” – the expression of a particular world-view. In Dickens’s case, for example, this is the world-view of a classic 19th-century bourgeois liberal, a world-view Orwell admires even as he sees its limitations.

For the Orwell of the early essays, the case of Henry Miller is the tough one. Because while Dickens’s politics are in the end congenial enough, Miller’s quietism is less so. “I first met Miller at the end of 1936, when I was passing through Paris on my way to Spain,” writes Orwell. “What most intrigued me about him was to find that he felt no interest in the Spanish war whatever. He merely told me in forcible terms that to go to Spain at that moment was the act of an idiot.” Orwell nonetheless went to Spain, and fought there. He was a writer who felt it was vital to let politics animate his work; Miller was the opposite.

And yet Orwell contrasts Miller favourably to W H Auden, who at this time in the poem “Spain” was miming the thoughts of the good party man about the “necessary murder”. Miller is so far removed from this sort of sentiment, so profound is his individualism and his conviction, that Orwell comes close to endorsing it: “Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale – or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course).” Except Orwell doesn’t really mean this. He may be inside the whale but he does not intend to stop disturbing its digestion, he does not intend to be any more quietistic.

What he admired above all in Miller was his willingness to go against the grain of the time. While all art is propaganda, it needn’t necessarily propagandise something correct. The important thing is that the writer himself believe it.

But there are certain things that you simply can’t believe. “No one ever wrote a great novel in praise of the Inquisition,” he asserts. Is that true? At almost the exact same moment, Jean-Paul Sartre (a writer who, Orwell thought, incorrectly, was “full of air”) was writing in What Is Literature?: “Nobody can suppose for a moment that it is possible to write a good novel in praise of anti-Semitism.” Is that true? It seems to have been a problem that leftist writers of the 1940s were going to face by sheer bluff assertion.

For Orwell the number of beliefs hostile to literary production seemed to expand and expand. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is labelled “Pétainist” – a fairly strong term to hurl at a long experimental poem that doesn’t even rhyme. And Salvador Dalí, in “Benefit of Clergy”, is a “rat”.

As the war goes on, then ends, Orwell’s sense of peril grows sharper, and he looks at literature in a different way. He comes to think that no matter who wins, the world will find itself split again into armed camps, each of them threatening the others, none of them truly free – and literature will simply not survive. This is the landscape of Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is also the landscape of his later essays – “The Prevention of Literature”, “Politics and the English Language”, “Writers and Leviathan”.

There is even, momentarily, a kind of hallucination, in the curious short piece “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”, where some of Orwell’s old interest in the starving writer crops up, now mixed with the wintry gloominess of his later years: “In a cold but stuffy bed- sitting room littered with cigarette ends and half-empty cups of tea, a man in a moth-eaten dressing gown sits at a rickety table, trying to find room for his typewriter among the piles of dusty papers that surround it . . . He is a man of 35, but looks 50. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if only his pair were not chronically lost.”

Who is this but Winston Smith, the failed hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four, figured as a book reviewer? Or who, conversely, is Winston Smith, but a book reviewer figured as the prisoner of a futuristic totalitarian regime?

With great doggedness, Orwell keeps delving into the question of literature’s position in society, and what might be done to keep it alive in a time of total politics. In “Writers and Leviathan”, dated 1948, he argues that writers must ultimately separate themselves from their political work. It’s a depressing essay and it ends – one wonders whether Orwell was aware of this – with an echo of the line of Auden’s he so reviled: the writer capable of separating himself from his political activity will be the one who “stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature”.

Orwell was always a realist who knew that politics was a dirty business –
but he was never quite such a realist as here. The realm of freedom had finally shrunk to a small, small point, and it had to be defended. As Winston Smith says in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

It is hard not to wonder whether the pessi­mism of this conclusion was partly a response to the art (or propaganda) Orwell was himself creating in those years. He had published Animal Farm in 1945; weakened by the tuberculosis that would kill him, he was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1947-48. After the reception of Animal Farm, and with the direction Nineteen Eighty-Four was taking, it must have been clear to him on some level that the world was going to use these books in a certain way. And it did use them that way.

The socialist critique of Orwell’s late work seems essentially correct – they were not only anti-Stalinist but anti-revolutionary, and were read as such by millions of ordinary people (a fact that Orwell, who was always curious to know what ordinary people thought, would have had to respect). Out of “necessity” he had chosen a position, and a way of stating that position, that would be used for years to come to bludgeon the anti-war, anti-imperialist left.

That he had chosen honestly what seemed to him the least bad of a set of bad political options did not make them, in the long view of history, any better.

But what a wonderful writer he had become! That voice – once you’ve heard it, how do you get it out of your head? It feels like the truth, even when it’s not telling the truth. It is clear and sharp but unhurried; Orwell is not afraid to be boring, which means that he is never boring.

His voice as a writer had been formed before Spain, but Spain gave him a jolt – not the fighting nor his injury (a sniper had shot him through the throat in 1937), though these had their effects, but the calculated campaign of deception he saw in the press when he got back, waged by people who knew better. “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper,” Orwell recalled, “but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed . . . This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.”

This insight reverberates through Orwell’s work for the rest of his life. The answer to lies is to tell the truth. But how? How do you even know what the truth is, and how do you create a style in which to tell it? Orwell’s answer is laid out in “Politics and the English Language”: You avoid ready phrases, you purge your language of dead metaphors, you do not claim to know what you do not know. Far from being a relaxed prose (which is how it seems), Orwell’s is a supremely vigilant one.

It is interesting that Orwell did not go to university. He went to Eton, but loafed around there and, afterwards, went off to Burma as a police officer. University is where you sometimes get loaded up with fancy terms whose meaning you’re not quite sure of. Orwell was an intellectual and a highbrow who thought Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence were the greatest writers of his age, but he never uses fancy terms.

You could say that Orwell was not essentially a literary critic, or that he was the only kind of literary critic worth reading. He was most interested in the way that literature intersects with life, with the world, with groups of actual people. Some of his more enjoyable essays deal with things that a lot of people read and consume – postcards, detective fiction, “good bad books” (and poetry) – simply because a lot of people consume them.

Postwar intellectuals would celebrate (or bemoan) the “rise of mass culture”. Orwell never saw it as a novel phenomenon. He was one of the first critics to take popular culture seriously because he believed it had always been around and simply wanted attention. These essays are part of a deeply democratic commitment to culture in general and reading in particular.

His reading of writers who were more traditionally “literary” is shot through with the same commitment. Orwell had read a great deal, and his favourite writers were by many standards difficult writers, but he refused to appeal to the occult mechanisms of literary theory. “One’s real reaction to a book, when one has a reaction at all, is usually ‘I like this book’ or ‘I don’t like it,’ and what follows is a rationalisation. But ‘I like this book’ is not, I think, a non-literary reaction.” And the “rationalisation”, he saw, was going to involve your background, your expectations, the historical period you’re living through.

If we compare Orwell to his near-contemporary Edmund Wilson, who was in many senses a more sensitive critic, we see Orwell’s peculiar strength. At almost the exact same moment as Orwell, in early 1940, Wilson published a psychobiographical essay on Dickens in which he traced much of Dickens’s later development to his brush with poverty as a young man.

Orwell’s treatment is much more sociological and political, and in a way less dramatic than Wilson’s. Yet at one point Orwell encapsulates Wilson’s argument with a remarkable concision: “Dickens had grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it, and in spite of his generosity of mind, he is not free from the special prejudices of the shabby-genteel.” This is stark, and fair, and that “terrified” is unforgettable.

You can tie yourself in knots – many leftist intellectuals have done this over the years – trying to prove that Orwell’s style is a façade, an invention, a mask he put on when he changed his name from Eric Blair to “George Orwell”; that by seeming to tell the whole story in plain and honest terms, it actually makes it more difficult to see, it obfuscates, the part of the story that’s necessarily left out; that ultimately it rubber-stamps the status quo.

In some sense, intellectually, all this is true enough; you can spend a day, a week, a semester proving it. There really are things in the world that Orwell’s style would never be able to capture. But there are very few such things.

Orwell did not want to become a saint, but he became a saint anyway. For most of his career a struggling writer, eking out a living reviewing books at an astonishing rate, he was gradually acknowledged, especially after the appearance of Homage to Catalonia in 1938, to be a great practitioner of English prose. With the publication of Animal Farm – a book turned down by several of England’s pre-eminent houses because they did not want to offend Britain’s ally the Soviet Union – Orwell became a household name.

Then his influence grew and grew, so that shortly after his death he was already a phenomenon. “In the Britain of the 1950s,” the great cultural critic Raymond Williams once lamented, “along every road that you moved, the figure of Orwell seemed to be waiting. If you tried to develop a new kind of popular cultural analysis, there was Orwell; if you wanted to report on work or ordinary life, there was Orwell; if you engaged in any kind of socialist argument, there was an enormously inflated statue of Orwell warning you to go back.” In a way the incredible posthumous success of Orwell has seemed one of the more peculiar episodes in the cultural life of the west.

He was not, as Lionel Trilling once pointed out, a genius; he was not mysterious; he had served in Burma, washed dishes in a Parisian hotel, and fought for a few months in Spain, but this hardly added up to a life of adventure; for the most part he lived in London and reviewed books. So odd, in fact, has the success of Orwell seemed to some that there is even a book, George Orwell: the Politics of Literary Reputation, devoted to getting to the bottom of it.

When you return to his essays of the 1940s, the mystery evaporates. You would probably not be able to write this way now, even if you learned the craft: the voice would seem put-on, after Orwell. But there is nothing put-on about it here, and it seems to speak, despite the specificity of the issues discussed, directly to the present. In Orwell’s clear, strong voice we hear a warning. Because we, too, live in a time when truth is disappearing from the world, and doing so in just the way Orwell worried it would: through language. We move through the world by naming things in it, and we explain the world through sentences and stories. The lesson of these essays is clear: Look around you.

Describe what you see as an ordinary observer – for you are one, you know – would see them. Take things seriously.

And tell the truth. Tell the truth.

Keith Gessen is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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