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The men saving Syria’s treasures from Isis

A remarkable group of archaeologists are battling to save the country’s ancient artifacts.

On 19 May this year, the ancient city of Palmyra was about to fall. Jihadist fighters were advancing in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns. They were from the group that calls itself Islamic State, also known as Da’esh and Isis.

Khalil Hariri, an archaeology expert who worked at the Syrian city’s museum, could hear the sounds of the fighting getting closer. Grunting and sweating, he and four friends kept on manhandling wooden crates out of the door of the museum and down to three trucks that were parked outside.

Bullets hit the outside of the museum, sounding like enraged insects as they hissed over their heads. Mortars exploded nearby, sending hot pieces of shrapnel fizzing through the air, blowing shards of wood off the trees and turning them into daggers. The men bundled the last crate into the nearest truck. As they jumped in after it, with the vehicles careering out of Museum Square, a bullet hit Khalil. Shrapnel wounded two of the others.

They drove fast down the road to Homs, away from Da’esh, as they call Isis, not even stopping to treat the wounded until they were well clear of Palmyra.

Against all odds and under heavy fire, five middle-aged men had managed to thwart the new barbarians of Islamic State. In scenes reminiscent of the George Clooney film The Monuments Men, about an army unit that tries to save art treasures hidden by the Nazis, Hariri and his friends had rescued Palmyra Museum’s priceless collection of artefacts, the legacy of one of the world’s earliest civilisations. Ten minutes after the men left, Isis fighters entered the museum. The display cases were empty. Nothing was left inside, except big statues that were too heavy to lift without a crane.

Who were the men who saved the treasures of Palmyra? The first, Khalil Hariri, was the museum’s director. When he left in May, his wife stayed behind in the city with his young son. So rapid was the Isis advance that he had to leave them behind and it took nearly a month to get them to safety. When they were reunited, she told him that the jihadists stormed out of the museum and into their house 30 metres away, looking for him and demanding to know what he had done with the collection.

When I met him this month in Damascus, Khalil inhaled his cigarette smoke to the base of his lungs. “I’m going to get a harsh sentence, if they get hold of me,” he said. He knows this because after the jihadists escaped with the few remaining contents of the museum, Isis men took away his brother and two cousins and killed them. It was, he says, a reprisal.

He was helped in his daring plan by his brothers-in-law Mohammed, Walid and Tarik al-Asaad. Their father was Khaled al-Asaad, the 83-year-old keeper of Palmyra’s antiquities, who was publicly murdered by the jihadists last month.

Khaled al-Asaad was born in the city and served as head of the museum and director of antiquities for 40 years, until 2003. Even in retirement, he was still the man whose opinion and judgement about Palmyra and its treasures mattered most. He so admired Zenobia, the 3rd-century warrior queen of Palmyra who rebelled against the Roman empire, that he named his daughter after her. She married Khalil Hariri.

Mohammed al-Asaad was not scared when the bullets began flying as they were struggling with crates of antiquities. “We believed that what we were doing was important,” he told me. The whole family had been brought up by their father to venerate Palmyra, its buildings and its treasures.

In Iraq over the past year, Islamic State has destroyed ancient sites and reduced statues in museums to rubble. Mohammed’s father knew what might be coming when they reached Palmyra.

So, in May, Khaled al-Asaad refused to leave with his sons. They never saw him again. He was beheaded by Isis fighters in a public square; his body was left hanging on a traffic light.

“My father was 83 years old,” Mohammed told me, “and a true believer in the importance of Palmyra. He was deeply attached to it and refused to flee. He believed that it should be protected against any harm from militants or anyone else.”

I sat with Khalil and Mohammed in the garden of the Damascus museum and talked about how and why Isis had killed Khaled. Mohammed had a picture of his father in better times, downloaded from the internet, on his phone. All the family’s physical mementoes were left behind in Palmyra.

Mohammed was Khaled’s right-hand man at the museum for 25 years; he is proud of his father’s bravery, the way he brought them up, and the love he instilled in them all for Palmyra. “The main reason Da’esh executed my father was he refused to swear allegiance to them. They labelled him an apostate – a non-believer. There were stories that they killed him because he knew the secrets of Palmyra and locations of a hidden store of gold. But that’s false . . . they killed him because he was honest and loved Palmyra and was devoted to it and refused to leave it till his last breath.”

Mohammed added: “We were punished by getting chased out of Palmyra. All our possessions were confiscated. All that’s left for us in Palmyra are the ruins.”

 

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The nihilists of Isis revile all the relics of religious life in the Middle East before the Prophet Muhammad, which they regard as a time of heresy. Palmyra was always a prime target for them because it has Syria’s greatest single concentration of buildings and artefacts from that era. The Prophet died in 632AD; by then Palmyra was already an ancient city, with a remarkable body of architecture. It has survived earthquakes and wars, but is now in greater danger than ever.

It was not an accident that Syria’s monuments men were able to empty Palmyra’s museum. It was part of a plan hatched by Syria’s director of antiquities, an engaging, francophone, energetic man in his early fifties called Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. He had watched with alarm what was happening in Iraq, and realised as Isis advanced that it was a matter of time before it tried to take its drills and sledgehammers to some of Syria’s heritage, too. Until March the plan had been to bring some objects to Damascus and to hide others locally. But after the fall of a strategic provincial capital, Idlib, to Islamist extremists in March, he gave orders to crate up as much as possible and bring it to “safe places” (he won’t say where they are) in and around Damascus.

When wars are going on, while the killing seems endless, and the fear and the desire to run away and not to stop is overwhelming, it can be hard to think about a time when it will all be over. Looking back and thinking about all the wars that went before – in Syria’s case, over roughly 5,000 years or more of history – and knowing
that all wars end eventually is no comfort for the refugees struggling to escape the battle zone, or to get to Europe. But now history is on the front line of the war in Syria. Perhaps history shouldn’t matter any more. I asked Professor Abdulkarim whether it was right to be concerned about ancient relics when so many human beings were being slaughtered.

“I think it’s two different things; we cannot compare them,” he said. “I understand lives are very important because we are people, too, we are living in this crisis, we know we can be killed in this crisis, too. We understand this question. But our job as archaeologists is saving this heritage. And finally
what we are doing to save cultural heritage in Syria. It’s the memory of the Syrian people, it’s the identity of these people. I’m sure the crisis will finish. Life will be better in the future. But all the damage to the cultural heritage will stay for all the generations. That’s why we are thinking about how we can reduce the damage, how we can save all the collections in all the museums in Syria.”

The National Museum of Damascus is opposite the hotel where the UN is based. Journalists stay there as well. Since the war started, I’ve looked down on the museum many times from a balcony, as the thunder of artillery has broken over the city, and flashes and explosions have come from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and all the other urban battlefields. All that time, the museum has been there, battened down, closed for the duration of the war.

Abdulkarim ordered that the most precious tombs and sculptures in the garden should be encased in concrete to protect them. On my visit this month, we walked past the strange concrete cubes to see how he has improved security. We waited while a four-tonne steel door at the main entrance rumbled slowly upwards. The old steel grille lay on the floor, dusty and fragile-looking. Armoured glass has been put into the windows. The display cases here have been emptied, too, and their contents put into safe storage.

In the basement is a stunningly preserved tomb from Palmyra which was moved to the museum in the 1930s. It shows the man who commissioned it at a feast, surrounded by his family and possessions. He reclines like a Roman, propping himself up on his elbow as he eats, but the carving is in the distinct style of Palmyra. The generations that followed his body into the tomb for two centuries are immortalised in lines of sculpted heads.

 

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Isis smashes up statues and ancient sites on video to scare its enemies and excite its supporters. But the archaeologists say it also makes a lot of money selling off attractive, portable pieces to dealers. To pre-empt them, Abdulkarim’s team has rescued 16,000 cuneiform tablets and 15,000 coins, ceramics and other objects from Deir az-Zour, a city where Isis has been fighting the Syrian army and local tribes. The tablets are relics of a writing system developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around 3,500BC. Their makers used reeds to mark clay tablets, creating one of the earliest records of politics, war and trade. Many of the objects are small, easy to hide and to smuggle, and worth a lot of money to collectors.

Syria has monuments women, too. A 25-year-old archaeologist, who does not wish to named, so that she can carry on with her work, led the team that rescued 24,000 ancient objects from Aleppo. The road from the regime-held side of Aleppo to Damascus is dangerous, and in places lonely and almost empty. The Syrian army secured it only last year, and its hold on parts of the road is tenuous. The convoys moved quickly and discreetly in unmarked vehicles because of the risk that they might be robbed. They were high-value targets.

Another young female archaeologist, Mayassa Deeb, is in charge of classifying and repacking all the objects that have been saved so they can be put safely into storage. Each one is photographed, its details uploaded on to a database, then it is wrapped in layers of cotton wool and tissue paper. They are packed into sandwich boxes – the staff have had to improvise – and slotted into packing cases lined with protective foam.

Mayassa is an expert on chariots. She showed me her favourite object: a 5,000-year-old clay model of a chariot that was rescued from Deir az-Zour. If Isis had found it, she said, they would have either smashed it or sold it.

The archaeologists work in an open courtyard in the museum, and sometimes they can hear shells, mostly fired out from Syrian army positions, sometimes coming back in from the rebel-held suburbs. May­assa loves coming to work, because it helps her forget what is happening outside. “It’s hard because every minute we have a noise and we have an explosion, and some die, it’s hard . . . but we work, and sometimes we don’t remember we have a war. We feel safe here, we don’t think about the war. Some people lose their houses, somebody loses his family, somebody goes abroad. Everybody has problems.”

She looked at the clay chariot, about the size of a couple of matchboxes, decorated with tiny marks that were made five millennia ago. “It’s important for everybody because this isn’t just about the history of Syria – this chariot speaks to us about the history of all the human world. For this reason we must keep it.”

I expected the museum to be full of despair because of the attacks on Palmyra by Isis and the desolation elsewhere in the country. Some of the worst destruction is in Aleppo’s Old City. It was a gem, a tight mass of alleys and khans, as full of entrepreneurs as it must have been a thousand and more years ago. Now it is in ruins.

But Professor Abdulkarim and his team are remarkably positive, horrified by the destruction of the most significant relic in Palmyra, the Baalshamin temple, but delighted about what has been rescued. They are even hopeful, if the stones are not too badly damaged, that they can put the buildings back together after the war. Now they want help from abroad. Foreign governments, the professor said, need to crack down much harder to stop the illegal trade in stolen antiquities.

He also talked about rebuilding the great minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Aleppo, which was flattened earlier in the war. “We’ve told them not to touch the stones,” he told me enthusiastically. “If they’re all there, we can fix it.”

Abdulkarim has 2,500 people working to save Syria’s past, on both sides of the lines. Fourteen of them have been killed so far. “We saved 99 per cent of the collection in the [country’s] museums. It’s good. It’s not just for the good of the government. It’s for the opposition, for the humanity, for all Syria. It is our common identity, our common heritage.”

The National Museum and the remarkable people who work there have created an unexpected oasis, transcending politics and trying to save a vital part of their country for better times. In a country full of despair, it was the most hopeful place I have been in Syria since the war began.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “The Arab Uprisings” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War

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