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Learning how to live

Why do we find free time so terrifying? Why is a dedication to work, no matter how physically destructive and ultimately pointless, considered a virtue? Jenny Diski urges you to down tools while you can.

Stop what you’re doing. I don’t mean stop reading this, or whatever you’re doing while you’re reading (brushing your teeth, eating, waiting for the water to boil). I mean consider the possibility of stopping whatever your answer is to the conversational gambit, “And what do you do?” Try putting the appropriate response in the past tense: “I used to be [. . .]” It’s very likely, unless your interlocutor gives up on you at that point (as an academic sitting at a Cambridge “feast” once did, turning to her other neighbour for the rest of the meal when I told her I was a novelist), that the follow-up question will be: “So what do you do now?” You might attempt to circumvent this with “I used to be [. . .] but now I’m retired”, if you look old enough, or if you’re younger you could try, “I used to be [. . .] but now I’m vastly wealthy”, but the chances are that the next question will still be in the conceptual area of “What do you do now?”, such as: “How do you spend your time? What do you do with yourself? What are your hobbies?” If you wanted to avoid the whole party chatter thing (but what are you doing at this vacuous party, anyway?), you could say: “Unemployed, thanks to the government’s economic policy, and lacking the financial resources for hobbies to pass the time until I die.” Or in a more passive-aggressive mode just answer, “Oh, these days I skive and scrounge.”

But what if as you use the phrase “I used to [. . .]” your own heart sinks, or your psyche panics at the idea that you might not be what you think yourself to be? Or that what you think yourself to be crumbles into nameless dread at the thought that you are not being what you are doing? The party questioner is only you (or me) on another day, wondering how on earth we are to get through the rest of our time as conscious beings without the reassurance that we are a writer, a teacher, a taxi driver, a parent. The Tory rhetoric about the skiver and scrounger is not nearly as disturbing as the idea we have of ourselves, of being cut loose from a sense of purpose. And the venom directed at the skivers is surely the result of the rhetoric feeding on our own fears about a life without a labelled purpose.

Driving ambition might just be a way of staving off the vacuum, rather than a sign of bottomless greed for more when you have enough. An unquenchable passion for work might be a panic-stricken way of concealing the fear of a lack of passion for life itself. If you are what you do, what are you when you stop doing it and you still are? There are people who don’t find this a problem, who have not entirely or even at all identified existence with what they do and how they make a living, but they are evidently a great problem to those – the majority –who do.

What if you answered the question “What do you do all day?” with “Nothing”? It isn’t as if that could possibly be true. If you spent all day in bed watching television, or staring at the clouds, you wouldn’t be doing nothing. Children are always being told to stop doing “nothing” when they’re reading or daydreaming. It is lifelong training for the idea that activity is considered essential to mental health, whether it is meaningful or not. Behind the “nothing” is in part a terror of boredom, as if most of the work most people do for most of their lives isn’t boring. The longing people express to be doing “creative” work suggests that they think it less boring than other kinds of work. Many people say that writing isn’t “proper work”. Often they tell me they are saving up writing a book for their “retirement”. Creative work sits uneasily in the fantasy life between dread leisure and the slog of the virtuous, hardworking life. It’s seen as a method of doing something while doing nothing, one that stops you flying away in terror.

It was Michel de Montaigne’s chosen solution in 1571, after retiring from his position as a counsellor of the Bordeaux high court. He settled himself at the top of a circular tower in his chateau, surrounded by books, and decided to write delicate morsels of classical rhetoric to pass the time. He crashed into a depression and then, in desperation, started to write a newfangled form of essay that looked, not from some high, abstract point at well-trodden arguments, but deep into the well of his self to investigate the nature of the world of which he had once been so much a part. It turned out to be not so much a retirement, as a reinvention of life and form.

It’s true that the Tories (imitated by every other political party) did not invent the idea of “decent, hard-working families” and “strivers”, even if it seems as if they have so convincingly coined the phrases that their clichéd-language coffers are now overflowing. (If only the mountain of hard-workingfamily- rhetoric could be used to pay off the national debt.) Max Weber and R H Tawney would claim the work-ethic-as-self-worth idea behind the virtuous labouring discourse to be the cultural property of the Protestant Reformation. In the north/south religious divide it does, roughly speaking, keep to the same side as Protestantism. It can’t be only the lack of sunshine that prevents us in the more northern parts of the western hemisphere from enjoying and benefiting from those civilised siestas and mañanas that punitive economists partly blame for the Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese financial crises. If we’re going delving, there’s also Adam (and all of us), punished for his disobedience by having to work hard for a living, as well as the first deadly rivalry between the farmer Cain and the herder Abel, each striving to have God favour his produce over his brother’s. Not such an honest and decent family, that original one. Working hard to earn a living may go back to the very beginning, but it was called the Fall for a reason, and it signalled the opposite of an ideal way of life. Work as ethic and work as punishment might come to seem, in the omnipresence of religious or Freudian guilt, to be one and the same thing, but they are not.

Nor are the skiver and scrounger labels recent inventions, although “welfare state”, which is the context for the latest iterations (and not about scrounging but a social safety net for any of us who find we cannot earn a living by ourselves), is relatively new. Most familiarly, concern about skivers and scroungers takes us back to the deserving and undeserving poor of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This legislation embodied the Victorian view that if you made destitution unpleasant enough (because it wasn’t unpleasant enough already?) and arguably worse than a fairly swift death from cold and starvation, with grim and regimented workhouses providing bare sustenance, only the most hopeless cases would consider it an option. Genesis gave us work as punishment and the Victorians doubled it, by punishing those who didn’t or couldn’t work. I’m rather inclined to think that those who can liberate themselves from the severe whims of old Nobodaddy deserve a cheer, but the Victorians’ moral assessment of the poor into good and bad, worthy and unworthy sorts, translates effortlessly into the present government’s employment of companies such as Atos, which use standardised questionnaires to decide who is “genuinely” seeking but unable to find a job, and who disabled enough not to be fit to work. Then and now, avidness to work hard all their lives is –unsurprisingly, you might think – the ruling classes’ and corporations’ definition of the good citizen.

My father often used to tell me how my immigrant grandfather declined in health and spirit once he gave up the café he ran from dawn to late into the night in Petticoat Lane to retire to a leafy suburb. It was only a matter of time, my father said of the man I never met and knew almost nothing else about, before he died of having stopped work. I think this story is the equivalent of an urban myth of that generation. The decent man who worked all the hours that God sent and more, provided what he could (which was never lavish) for his family, toiled unceasingly in order to make sure his son went to a good school and got a profession, collapsed and died once he stepped off the treadmill.

I never doubted that retirement killed my grandfather. I did wonder sometimes why his devotion to work unto death was considered a virtue. It was never explained, as if it were self-evident, although frequently the story would be told to me as an improving tale when I had failed to complete some task or activity – regardless of its lack of efficacy on my own father, who was a criminal conman, a profession that David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith would presumably not include in the decent, hard-working category.

There is an argument to be made against the prototypical life of hard work as the inevitable lot of humanity. In 1974 the Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published Stone Age Economics. He proposed the idea that individuals in many “simple” societies, far from working themselves to death merely to exist in their nasty, brutish and short lives, were actually members of the “original affluent society”. He suggested that, in those parts of the world where co-operation and social exchange were paramount, once people had done the few days’ hard work of felling a tree and carving out a canoe, there were large amounts of free time to lie about daydreaming, exploring, telling stories: doing “culture” or just skiving. You’d fish in the canoe you’d made, and by preserving and sharing the catch with others, who also shared theirs with you, you could then take a few days off before you needed to get any more. Decent members of those communities did what they needed to do and then when they didn’t need to do it, they stopped.

Only when you worship the idea of accumulation and status based on its perceived wealth-giving properties do you have to work hard all the time. Accumulation was hampering; you had to carry it about with you when you moved from camp to camp, or find ways of storing and securing it if you were sedentary. Without the idea of surplus as a value beyond its use value, when you needed/wanted something you got it, and when you had it, you enjoyed it until it was time to get some more.

To modernity’s inability to grasp the idea of a pattern of necessity, sufficiency and rest, we could add its lack of understanding about the social conditions needed to produce a willingness to labour. A few years ago I visited the isolated island of St Helena, a plaintive, forgotten and unwanted British overseas territory left over from the days of the East India Company. There were desperate plans by DfID (the Department for International Development, responsible for the island) to make St Helena economically viable by building an airport to fly in rich South Africans for “luxury holidays”. This was in spite of the mountainous island being overrun with flax that was once disastrously imported as a possible cash crop, the place having no natural resources or industry, frequent shortages of fresh water, not a single accessible beach or usable port, and a dwindling, elderly population of 4,000.

A DfID official was travelling from England on the same boat as me in 2008 (this dedicated boat, the RMS St Helena, was the only means of delivering people and goods as basic as salt and potatoes to the island from England and South Africa, though the English leg has now ceased). DfID Man explained that the people living on the island were fatally dependent on Britain’s (rather paltry) annual handouts. As he told me, one example of the essential laziness of the Saints – as they call themselves – was that those with boats and nets on the island fished only when they needed to, and then waited until they needed more fish before going out again. St Helena was one of George Osborne’s feckless families on a slightly grander scale, stuck in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean, “sleeping off a life on benefits”. If it had blinds around its sheer coastal cliffs, it would keep them down all day.

Only a handful of people I spoke to wanted the airport or believed it could be anything other than an outrageously expensive white elephant, especially since the planned airstrip was battered by fierce crosswinds that would make landing and taking off terrifying at the least. And if it worked it would be a less-thanattractive, island-sized case of, as always, the “feckless” poor being forced to earn their own living by servicing the pleasures of the rich. Only the old were left, and they loved the island, having returned after retirement from a life of work abroad, taking up half the passenger space on the RMS St Helena to be back where they belong.

I wondered: given how little the Saints cost the British taxpayer, on whose behalf the DfID official was wringing his hands, why not carry on paying our dues and let those who want to live there continue to live there without requiring economic self-sufficiency for the whole island? The population of St Helena is roughly half that of Malton, North Yorkshire, a town from which we wouldn’t think of demanding self-sufficiency.

There were, of course, all sorts of problems in St Helena – empty shelves in the shops before the boat with supplies arrived, very poor standards of education, a class division between self-important bureaucrats and the rest of the population, inadequate selfesteem – but those things could be improved with a little more money and commitment to our historical responsibility to the place that did not seek to turn the islanders’ perceived paradise into a service industry for wealthy tourists. Why not let them be? “Because,” I was told firmly, “they have a culture of dependency. St Helena, like everywhere and everyone else, must earn its living.” My “Why? Not everyone can” was left hanging in the air, the question so evidently absurd and troublemaking that the man from DfID didn’t bother to reply.

Even those imbued with the work ethic used to concede that a lifetime’s work earned an easeful retirement early enough in life to allow you a few years to appreciate it before you died. If you weren’t driven, like my grandfather, the gold watch represented the time you’d looked forward to during those decades of nine-to-five, the time when you would potter in the garden, read books, go on long, lazy cruises or play with the grandchildren. It was a prize of extended leisure for a life of hard work and a consolation for forthcoming death. It was the equivalent of the Lord’s seventh day of rest, a well-deserved, built-in part of the pattern of a life of doing. The Lord got one day in seven for the graft of creating the earth, and his virtuous followers got ten or 15 years in addition after four or five decades of shipbuilding, selling, teaching or manufacturing cardboard boxes. At any rate, that was how it was for a western capitalist society that thought it had got itself sorted.

In the 1960s some of the postwar generation, given time to think by relative peace, security and wealth, voiced their doubts about the pattern of virtuous hard work followed by a bit of a rest and death, but, on the whole, nothing much changed structurally. Now, a new demographic (those very 1960s dissidents reaching retirement age) and the results of the greed inherent in capitalism are causing economists and politicians to fret about the cost of an ageing population “being paid for by the hard-working young”, idling their lives away too soon and for too long to sustain an honest hard-working economy. If only their deteriorating bodies can be kept going, the old folk could stay in work for longer and cost less. But keeping those bodies going is expensive, and the longer the old work, the fewer jobs there are for the young.

All very perplexing, when things seemed to be going so nicely in our small part of the planet for a not very long time. Especially confusing as it turns out that the economy, in fact, is controlled by people who gamble rather than graft, and that the decent hardworking family has to be provided with mythical villains – the skivers and scroungers somehow taking the benefit of their efforts – to prevent them from questioning what all the hard work and striving is for. The state has reasons of its own survival for requiring everyone to keep busy; it must maintain the status quo, keep the taxes rolling in and above all thwart the devil’s penchant for making work or something even more dangerous for idle hands.

The wealthy, the privileged and those satisfied with what they have done with their life (if anyone really is or ever could be) will continue to retire, to give themselves a rest and a break. The most dogged and unlikely people are taking the final sabbatical. Alex Ferguson, Philip Roth, even popes are retiring these days. Only the Queen is a holdout, the very emblem of the old standing in the way of the young and preventing them from having a decent hard-working existence. For decades now people have voiced concern about Prince Charles finding a role for himself and what the lack of purpose in his life might be doing to his character. The worry is that, if he finally attains the throne, it will cause the next prince-in-waiting to become a fretful, interfering busybody who has nothing to do but believe in odd theories, being an odd theory himself. The whole problem of the decent hard-working family in modern times is acted out for us by that quaint historical anomaly, the Windsors.

Philip Roth, apparently, is delighted not to be writing any more novels and seems to be having a wonderful time sitting around in coffee bars learning to use an iPhone. Alex Ferguson can have the satisfaction of watching the football or, perhaps, not watching it and going to the races instead if he wants to. But generally there isn’t very much evidence of joyful retirement even among the elite. The Daily Mail reports that the Pope Emeritus has gone into a physical decline of Diskigrandfatherly proportions, even though he is living comfortably next door to Pope Francis in a flat in the Vatican, in the care of “four consecrated laywomen”. Margaret Thatcher didn’t go gracefully into retirement; indeed, she seems to have taken the long route to going the way of my grandfather after the day job gave up on her.

It has always seemed to me that even those with the most worldly and desirable or admirable successes in their working life end up disappointed. How can it be otherwise? Although people fantasise the immense satisfaction of certain achievements, I would guess that if that is what you actually did with your life (whatever the achievement was), when it comes towards the end, it never seems to be quite enough, or the right thing, or what or how you really meant it to be.

The inevitability of it being too late to have another go must and perhaps should cast a shadow over whatever you have done. Only those who wish they had written the books of Philip Roth, coached the greatest football team, been a leader of “the free world”, succeeded Saint Paul as bishop of Rome and leader of the Catholic Church, brought up small children to be independent adults or taught generations of children to think for themselves think these achievements would feel sufficient when it’s game over. Those who do, fret, in my experience. And if satisfaction is properly absent for gaudy high achievers, is it any more available for all those who virtuously felled trees, dug out canoes and fished without cease until they dropped, because they were told it was “the right thing to do”, when all along their Palaeolithic ancestors knew that there was more to being alive than working to live, than doing something rather than being something?

Leisure, not doing, is so terrifying in our culture that we cut it up into small, manageable chunks throughout our working year in case an excess of it will drive us mad, and leave the greatest amount of it to the very end, in the half-conscious hope that we might be saved from its horrors by an early death.

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