Time Out with Nick Cohen: Barbara Stocking

In what circumstances would Oxfam's head choose to speak plainly, even if telling the truth endanger

Oxfam was founded in 1942 to bring aid to the oppressed of Nazi Europe, a cause that didn't make it popular with the Churchill government. After the Germans occupied Greece, the Royal Navy blocked the shipping lanes. Food and medicines couldn't get through to civilians, and famine set in. Lifting the blockade might have helped the starving, but Whitehall wondered whether food meant for the hungry wouldn't end up in the bellies of German troops instead, and gazed with some disdain on the new lobbyists.

The founders of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief were stereotypical members of the great and the good: bishops, academics, retired teachers and Quaker philanthropists, all of whom have been at the forefront of liberal causes for generations, and the butt of satirists for just as long. In Bleak House, Dickens gave us Mrs Jellyby, who had "very good hair but was too much occupied with her African duties to brush it", and was so obsessed with bringing edu cation and coffee cultivation to "the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger" that her neglected daughter declared: "I wish Africa was dead! I do! Don't talk to me, Miss Summerson. I hate it and detest it. It's a beast!"

Yet Churchill's coalition government found it no easier than its successors to dismiss the new charity. Mock if you like, implied Gilbert Murray, Regius professor of Greek at Oxford, founder of Oxfam and friend of half the worthy causes of the mid-20th century, but "be careful in dealing with a man who cares nothing for comfort or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right". Murray was better at predicting the power of organised conscience than Dickens. The ad hoc response to the Greek famine turned into the most visible charity on the high street. It was infused with the amateur air English liberals adopt when they go out in the world to do good. The first head office was in a cramped room above the original Oxfam shop in Broad Street in the city centre; the second in a dingy parade of shops in Victorian north Oxford.

The tweeds and piles of dusty pamphlets are gone now. Under the leadership of Barbara Stocking, Oxfam has moved to a huge HQ at a new business park on the edge of town. Old hands find the identikit postmodern box with its dispiriting views of traffic jammed on the ring road soulless, and I saw why when I got there. This might be the head office of any corporation in any ribbon development anywhere in the industrialised world. Once inside, however, there's no denying the efficiency of the place. Charity workers sit in an open- plan office the size of a football pitch. Neat shelving units hold research papers, while a GM-free, organic, fair-trade canteen offers succour when they need a break from rescuing Africa.

The businesslike atmosphere reflects the personality of the director. Stocking is a former regional director of the NHS who, according to rumour, was in the running for the top job. Corporate cant litters her talk - "making a difference", "meeting the challenge" and all the rest of it - but it would be a mistake to see her as another empty suit. The charitable world is notoriously uncharitable, but I couldn't find a director of a rival charity with a bad word to say about her. Her own staff describe her as an honest and popular manager.

Annus mirabilis

Above all, she is a success. Under her leadership, turnover has hit £300m. Oxfam now has more than 750 shops in the UK, 6,000 staff all over the world and sister organisations in 13 countries. Oxfam officials have gone from the charity into government and helped make new Labour the most charitable administration ever. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the "Lennon and McCartney" of poverty reduction, cried an approving Bono, and if you can forgive the cheesy comparison, you can see his point. I would be exaggerating if I said that aid was a major political issue in Britain, but it matters more to voters here than in any other European country.

The annus mirabilis for Oxfam was 2005, when Blair and Brown pushed for the G8 nations to agree to an extraordinary programme of debt relief and subsidies for Africa, Live 8 played Hyde Park, and the Asian tsunami provoked an outburst of altruism. "It was a time that people recognised that we are part of the global world," Stocking remembers with a warm smile. "For the first time, the new horizons of travel and the net came together and made people realise that if we're going to live happily in the global world we're going to have to make it better."

I wasn't as convinced then and am less so now. Even at the peak of Make Poverty History's campaign, you didn't have to be a Telegraph-reading Tory to think the aid movement was taking a wrong turn. It presented a picture of a world as much the white man's to direct as it was at the apogee of the European empires. No one told the audience at Live 8 that Africa had nepotistic dictators in power or kleptomaniac families in office. They stayed silent about genocidal movements and spy-ridden regimes. All that was needed to rescue Africa from poverty was for the developed world to agree more aid, fairer trade and debt relief and - poof! -the suffering would end.

Two years on, the neocolonialist view hasn't been shaken. A recent Oxfam study of global warming says, truthfully, that pollution from the rich world will hurt the poor world, but fails to ask how Africa can develop without increasing its output of greenhouse gases. A report on foreign policy says, again rightly, that the Iraq war has made humanitarian intervention harder to justify, but it makes no condemnation of Ba'athist and Islamist "insurgents", nor does it offer solidarity to their victims. A report in advance of this summer's G8 summit condemns rich governments for failing to honour promises made in 2005, but assumes the problems of the world are the fault of the west and, by converse, that the remedies lie in western hands.

The usual justification for lopsided vision is that pressure groups can best influence their own governments. A demonstration in London against the massacres in Darfur will have no influence on the regime in Khartoum, but a march to demand that the British government commit more money to, say, education in Africa might. If double standards and myopia follow, then so be it. What matters is what works. But the easy ride given to Oxfam, Christian Aid and the other aid charities overlooks a structural problem. The aid charities are hybrids with incompatible aims. On the one hand, they provide relief regardless of the political consequences - like the Red Cross - and, on the other, they lobby for political change - like Human Rights Watch. As Amartya Sen showed, dem ocracies don't have famines. The great hungers of the past hundred years were presided over by colonial administrators, communist tyrants and, today, African nationalists and gangsters. Dictatorships do not as a rule tolerate censure from anyone inside their borders. Therefore, if Oxfam were to speak out against the obscenity of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe being elected to head the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, there's a fair chance Mugabe would stop Oxfam workers from relieving the suffering inflicted by his economically unsustainable regime. Its hybrid status means Oxfam has to direct disapproval at governments that won't respond to criticism by closing down Oxfam operations, but, rather, will invite Stocking in for a chat and a cup of tea.

Stocking has the strength of character to face hard questions candidly. In Darfur, I said, Oxfam is feeding 600,000 refugees on the Chadian border. Is that why it refuses to call the Darfuri genocide "genocide"?

"It is a dilemma for us," she said. "We think we've got to save lives today while trying to get the international com munity to sort out the bigger problem. Now we will do our absolute utmost to go to the edge of that. We will try to give as much information out, but not in ways that are challenging to the Khartoum government."

I asked if she could imagine circumstances in which Oxfam would choose to speak plainly, even if telling the truth en dangered famine relief. There were two, she replied. First, if charitable aid was a "sticking plaster" that allowed the international community to feel that conditions in, say, Darfur were not so bad. Second, if aid was keeping an oppressive government in power, as may soon be the case in Zimbabwe.

Future dangers

I suggested that a better policy would be to help African progressives set their countries free by championing their causes and highlighting the crimes of their oppressors. If I'd confessed to stealing second-hand books from my local Oxfam, she couldn't have been more shocked. "No, no, that's not our mandate. We want to offer a way out of poverty that makes them feel they have economic opportunity and provides them with a right to be heard. It's not our job to help groupings that want to overthrow their governments."

She sounded reasonable as she marked out her limits, but I was left wondering how long the aid charities could stay in British politics while staying out of African politics. The strongest criticism she would make of governments in the poor world was that some of them were corrupt. But the trouble with Africa is not that its post-colonial elites are corrupt - there are corrupt governments all over the world - it is that they are unpatriotic. From Côte d'Ivoire to Zimbabwe, post-colonial rulers have shown that they would prefer to bring the roof down on their wretched peoples rather than let the opposition challenge their power.

A thought experiment shows future dangers for Oxfam. Suppose the G8 meets all its 2005 promises. Suppose the World Trade Organisation stops the rich world subsidising its farmers. Then suppose that nothing changes or, as Sen would predict, that change for the better comes only in those countries already on the path to accountable politics. Would Oxfam be able to rouse governments and publics for another Live 8? Or would governments and publics echo young Miss Jellyby and say that Africa was a beast?

At its birth, Oxfam had to decide whether destroying tyranny was more important than relieving immediate suffering, and 65 years on it seems no closer to an answer.

I asked Stocking if she expected to see Africa break away from the demeaning need for other people's charity by the time we both retired. Yes, she replied. Absolutely. Look at the strides made in combating poverty in India. The naysayers said change was impossible, but it happened, for all their sneers. I forgot about the question and moved on, but it evidently niggled away. As I left, she corrected herself: "Perhaps not by the time we retire, but maybe before we die."

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

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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