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Laurie Penny on a tale of two cities: how San Francisco's tech boom is widening the gap between rich and poor

San Francisco is awash with tech money. Yet this city of innovation is also a place where you have to step over the homeless to buy a $20 artisan coffee.

Ivory towers: the cost of living in San Francisco is soaring - but the city is also a magnet for the long-term homeless.
Photograph: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos.

“They took my shopping cart.”

On Market Street in downtown San Francisco, an old man with long, dirty hair has dropped his collection can. Coins and scraps of paper spill across the sidewalk and into the road. Nobody is helping.

Every day, between two and four in the morning, cleaners with high-powered water jets come out to hose Market Street clean of urine, rubbish and, sometimes, men, women and children who have nowhere else to go. Bags and belongings are confiscated in an effort to discourage one of America’s most intransigent homeless populations from sleeping on sidewalks that are now slap in the centre of the most desirable neighbourhood in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. This is where Twitter has its headquarters. This is where the best and brightest young minds in the world come to work as engineers, designers, visionaries. It’s just a shame that the smell of shit and guilty consciences is hard to soak away.

The story of how the hi-tech industry has brought rapid social change to San Francisco has been written before, by journalists and authors who have lived their entire lives in the Bay Area and watched the city struggle through successive industrial bubbles and survive. That story has been so well covered in recent months that the San Francisco Chronicle published a short guide “to help our brethren who have flocked here to write the latest ‘How the tech boom is changing San Francisco’ opus”: “It is a tale of two cities. It’s a city of very rich people and very poor people . . . A city losing its soul. Sleek, black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar . . . Thirteen-dollar sandwiches. Google Glass. That’s your opening paragraph, visiting journalists. You’re welcome.”

The question of whether rampant social inequality is changing San Francisco is a straightforward one, and the answer to it is yes. Yes, tech money is driving the freaks, the queers, the broke artists and ordinary working-class families out of the city, helped along by 30 years of backward housing policies, greedy landlords and inefficient social care. That much is obvious.

What is just as interesting to those with an eye on the digital future is how the local politics of San Francisco is changing technology. The industry that is having the most profound effects on the way all of us live, that is changing what it means to be social, has its geographic hub in a place where social tensions have never been higher.

When “techies” and tech reporters talk about San Francisco, what they usually mean is a small chunk of this already small city – the central bustle of the Mission, the Tenderloin and the sprawling former docklands south of Market Street (SoMa). Twitter is located here, thanks to a generous tax break from the city authorities; it’s where lots of the start-ups are based, and it’s where a great many of the tens of thousands of new tech employees who have moved here in the past few years are choosing to live. It’s also where the tension between the dazzling digital future and the grotty hypocrisy of the present is most cartoonish.

On my first day, walking past a pop-up futurist conference called Quantum Leap, I am obliged to step around several homeless men sleeping in the baking sun. A few yards away, in the line for artisanal coffee whose $20 price tag is apparently justified by a special brewing method, young entrepreneurs discuss their starting salaries while an elderly woman dressed in grimy plastic bags yells, “How dare you?” at nobody in particular. San Franciscans are rightly annoyed when recent visitors boggle at their city’s social contradictions. Unfortunately, it’s the first thing you notice. When you get used to not noticing it – because otherwise you’d never be able to drink your coffee and get on with your day – that’s a different problem altogether.

There is something slightly creepy about the bourgeois cybertopia of Start-up City, all hi-tech doodahs and rustic jumpers. Valencia Street is where good hipsters go when they die. There are a lot of little dogs, but not a lot of little children. There are artisanal cheese parlours, “destination” bakeries and tasteful shops where you can buy a variety of specialist instruments for disappearing up your own backside, or those of others. The weather is always beautiful, a perpetual late spring where it’s never quite cold enough to wear your fanciest overcoat.

It’s all a little bit Pleasantville – if you ignore the vagrants, addicts and angry activists. That’s the sort of ignoring that takes practice. “In downtown SF the degenerates gather like hyenas, spit, urinate, taunt you, sell drugs, get rowdy, they act like they own the centre of the city,” wrote Greg Gopman, a former start-up CEO, on his Facebook wall last December. “There is nothing positive gained from having them so close to us.” One of his friends replied that the presence of so many homeless people was an embarrassment when “we’re supposed to be a gleaming utopia of what a city could be”.

There are half a million long-term homeless people in the US, and a third of them live in California. Still suffering from the stripping of inpatient mental health facilities in the Reagan years, people with nowhere else to go often find themselves in downtown San Francisco, with its clement weather – specifically, they find themselves in SoMa and the Tenderloin, which is where many of the non-profits set up to meet their needs are based.
 

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Howard Street, where I’m staying, has many short-term-occupancy hotels and charity hostels. The street reeks of excrement; the lack of public toilets is an ongoing problem, and the many homeless people in the area have no choice but to relieve themselves in the street. Next door to the bedsit hostels is Startup House, a dormitory-style live-work space where hopeful young tech entrepreneurs from outside the city can rent a bunk bed for more than the cost of an apartment in other American cities. Over two weeks I lose count of the times I am warned, as a small white woman, not to walk down the street by myself; there is a sense of mutual hostility, of different communities that, with more or less reason, can’t look one another in the eye.

The place where I’m staying is a repurposed warehouse full of artists and start-up kids, all of them progressive, alternative weirdos who would be weirder still in a town where rainbow-coloured hair, veganism and a fondness for music that goes bleep weren’t entirely mainstream. They have far more in common with me, a foreign reporter from thousands of miles away, than they do with their next-door neighbours. I know them (how else?) from the internet, and they would probably be perplexed to hear anyone describe them as cool kids – like nearly everyone else in this city, they see themselves as outsiders, as people who have fought hard to find their place in a mean and vicious world. They are still fighting.

Tale of two cities: San Franciso's hi-tech boom is widening the gulf between rich and poor

My friends aren’t millionaires but some of their friends are, and they’re all hustling to make enough money to stay in the city where some of them have lived since they were born. Half of them are running a new company together through Y Combinator, the most prestigious of the start-up “accelerators” that lend seed capital to fledgling companies and that helped launch Airbnb, Dropbox and Scribd, along with hundreds of companies that haven’t made millions.

Bay Area venture capitalism has its own dialect; the frequency with which people employ it is a reasonable indicator of how much of the Kool-Aid they’ve drunk. That’s another buzzword, as it happens; during the last tech boom, the catchphrase “Keep drinking the Kool-Aid” was used by dotcom workers encouraging one another to stay in the game, a reference both to the Jonestown massacre and to Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In the San Francisco of legend, the one I grew up reading about, the drugs were acid, sex and weed. Now the artists are off their heads on calamity capitalism and very expensive coffee.
 

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“Make something people want”, the Y Combinator slogan, is one of the unofficial mottoes of Startupland. On Folsom and Ninth, behind a nondescript warehouse door, is Heavybit – a start-up incubator hosting newborn companies that are designing widgets and magic gizmos straight out of Star Trek. “Incubator” is the right word; this is an intensive-care nursery of Bay Area capitalism, where baby start-ups are tended to by mentors and investors and kept functioning with a constant supply of coffee and nutrition bars.

The young people working here are fashionable, multiracial, excited. I’m not allowed to tell you what they’re developing. When I ask, several hardware engineers compete to come up with things they might be making: “America’s first unicorn breeding programme!” “Instagram for cats!” “A fitness tracker for your invisible friend!”

“Start-up kids” aren’t all white and Asian men in their twenties and thirties but that’s mostly who we’re talking about. The conversation about why the tech boom has rewarded a very specific, privileged demographic is everywhere in San Francisco, in cafés and bars and on the blogs and journalism start-ups read by the scene, and the reasons given are always the same: women didn’t learn to code early enough, black and Hispanic families don’t value education in the same way. Tech success is most likely to look like a nerdy white guy in a hoodie – a lot like the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Of course, not every Bay Area bazillionaire is a nerdy white, middle-class guy in a hoodie, but enough of them are that the class, gender and racial disparities are uncomfortably obvious, especially if you’re new in town.

SoMa is the Wall Street of the Twenty-Teens, populated by venture capitalists and well-dressed young hopefuls, although that’s likely to mean a slightly more expensive hoodie rather than a suit. Smart, ambitious young people now go into tech in the way that they once went into banking – because their mothers told them to go the hell out there and make some money.

“This new breed, they’re not hackers,” says Jamie Zawinski, who left the tech industry to run the DNA Lounge, one of the most popular music venues downtown. “Not in the true, original sense of the word. They’re not interested in taking things apart, in exploring, in building things. They got into this line of work because someone told them it was a good career, and it’s disgusting – and that’s why I don’t do it any more.”

Zawinski was one of the founders of Netscape, “the first web browser that mattered”, and is often touted as an example of a techie who has worked to keep San Francisco’s vaudevillian weirdscape alive and dancing, rather than just getting out with his pile.

“I’m interested in building things, in how technology can change the world and the way we interact with each other, and how these weird little prosthetics they’re building can improve your life,” Zawinski says. “They’re interested in cashing out. Fifty per cent of their conversation is about finances. I don’t think they even realise it. It’s a dramatic failure of imagination.”

He warms to his theme. “That’s all any of these fuckers talk about. It’s disgusting. They’re just so focused on cashing out and making money, not actually building anything real, just working hard enough to get by. That changed around ’97, ’98, but it got really bad about four years ago. It’s the second bubble.”

There are two things every child knows about bubbles: they are beautiful, and they burst. Time and again, I am told that San Francisco is “a bubble” – referring both to the gorgeous, insular never-neverland where workers in the city’s tech and associated industries live and play and to the localised economic boom that has fuelled the fat years. Those who have been around for a decade or more remember what happened when the dotcom bubble of the 1990s finally popped: a lot of people lost their jobs and homes, and rental prices in the city came down, but not drastically. Rents are now higher than ever – rising more than three times faster than the national average – and despite intra-industry deals of dubious legality to keep tech wages down, they show no sign of dropping.

Zawinski is right: money is more important than ever to San Francisco’s fast-moving youth cohort. But if you lived in the most expensive city for yuppies in America, where you need a $70,000 salary just to pay your debts and make the rent, you might be worried about money, too.

“We want to make money because here, we have to,” says one photographer who now works as an engineer at a start-up, and hence is able to afford lunch. “By here, I mean San Francisco, but also America. Our generation is fucked. We’ll get no social security, we have no retirement, no savings, no job security.”

The young people entering the tech industry today are of a generation that does not necessarily long for riches, but desperately wants to be able to afford a decent standard of living without having to avoid its reflection in the mirror every morning.

“Most of us tech people will never be the 1 per cent,” says the photographer. “We’re aiming for the 10 per cent, which might allow us to have our parents’ lifestyle. We’re just trying to get by in a world that’s not giving us the same chances the baby boomers had. What did I do as an artist? I went and got an engineering degree.”

Sometimes when you’re dying of thirst, you have to drink the Kool-Aid.

If today’s tech industry is what yesterday’s financial sector was, there is one important difference. In finance, making money is the ideology, as well as the effect of that ideology. By contrast, much of the tech sector is driven by an ethos that is liberal, or at least progressively libertarian – it’s supposed to be about making things, breaking things, challenging conventional power and its monopoly over information. It’s about disruption.

There are even decent numbers of self-described anarchists filing on to the unmarked Google buses that have become the default symbol of how tech money is taking over the city. (I won’t go on about them here, in case I fall foul of the San Francisco Chronicle, but the short version is that these buses, which ferry workers from the city to the tech giants’ suburban campuses, have become the focus of the campaign against new money.)

At the heart of the San Franciscan tech industry is a paradox. It’s a paradox about creativity coming to terms with its place in capitalism. Hacking, computer engineering, the entire ethos of changing the world with communications technology, is supposed to be about more than money – but money is what a job for a big tech firm now means. And money changes things. “Don’t be evil” was the mantra of Google, but there is some anxiety that “evil”, or at least callousness, is attaching itself to tech corporations anyway. Google, like other Bay Area firms, is anxious to preserve its benign social reputation; none of its employees was allowed to speak to me on the record about gentrification and cultural anxiety. Tech workers don’t want to see the Mission emptied of poor families. But it’s happening anyway.

Tech still sees itself as an upstart industry challenging power, even when it has become that power. It sees itself as a field of outsiders, which is why it is difficult for tech workers to comprehend that they are now the privileged insiders who are resented by artists and communities of colour. The graffito “Techies go home”, scrawled on the sidewalk outside one business in Oakland, was posted on Twitter by an angry, anguished tech worker who explained that she was “born here”.

San Francisco’s growing inequality has been described, inaccurately, as a culture war; in fact, it’s a simple class war. The cultural anxiety is experienced almost entirely by tech workers, their associates and friends. Most of the tech entrepreneurs you meet in San Francisco are alternately embarrassed and defiant about money, whether they have it or merely hope to have it, and struggling to come to terms with what that money is doing to the city they love. In line for another overpriced coffee – hey, I never said the Kool-Aid wasn’t tasty – another start-up employee tells me he’s thinking about making a video game based on gentrification. The gamer would play a local
resident trying to build schools and cheap grocery stores as the incoming bourgeoisie sets up cocktail bars. It’s a joke. It isn’t meant to be cruel.
 


 

Bubbles are fragile, but from the outside they can seem hard to breach. I take a drive through the city with my friend Meredith, another artist who is struggling to stay afloat in San Francisco. “Financially, this city just exhausts creative people that don’t have a lot of money supporting their art, somehow. Everybody else is hustling constantly just to break even.” Her current sublet – a small, leaky room with no kitchen on a houseboat in Sausalito, for $600 a month – is up in 30 days. She still hasn’t found another place to live. “I don’t know if I’ll stay.”

Meredith is a fixture on the San Francisco arts scene, the former editor of the underground magazine Coilhouse, and a recording artist on, of all things, the theremin. “I spend a lot of time staring at the city from across the bridge,” she says. “I spend a lot of time wishing I felt like I belonged.”

Artists aren’t the only people locked out of this “gleaming utopia”. Raquel Donoso, of the Latino Community Foundation, tells me that “about 40 per cent of Latino families do not have a computer and internet access at home. That included East Palo Alto. This is in Silicon Valley, where there’s tremendous opportunities and tons of money. People are losing their jobs and they can’t even get unemployment insurance, because everything is online. Our families are basically locked out of that world.”

There is nothing wrong with making things that people want. The problem is that personhood and desire are constrained by capital; money affects whose wants appear to matter. The kids in Startup House may want a pizza delivery drone, but not in the same way low-income families want health care, or the elderly men lying in their own faeces on Howard Street want a safe place to sleep. There is nothing wrong with making things people want. It’s just that too little attention is being paid to the things people need.

The wants and needs of young, healthy, middle-class people with connections and a reasonable amount of spare cash are overrepresented among Start-up City’s priorities. For one thing, those are the problems with solutions that sell. For another, given a few million dollars and a team of semi-geniuses, those problems are easy to solve. Structural social injustice and systemic racism are harder to tackle – and that’s where the tech sector has, until recently, thrown up its hands.

“We can’t do anything about it” is what I hear, time and time again, from business representatives and rich individuals. And no – individuals can’t do a great deal about 30 years of awful housing policies and structural tax exemptions that prevent wealth from being redistributed. But corporations that are now wealthier than many national economies might be able to do something.

Google, in response to the Google bus protests, has just announced a scheme to subsidise public transport for schoolchildren. It’ll cost millions, but that’s a snip for a firm that earned $16.86bn in the last quarter of 2013. “I don’t think that just because gentrification happens, people can sit back and say it’s OK,” Donoso says. “Forcing people out of their homes is not OK. We have to have a discussion about what kind of community we want to build and live in, and how to maintain that community.”
 

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“Eviction after 20 years”, reads a hand-drawn sign in an apartment window on Market Street. A few doors down, the shopfronts of the late-night Whole Foods – an expensive organic supermarket which is, apparently, also a major cruising spot – display large, stylish posters of smiling peasant farmers in faraway countries with cheerful motifs about “ending poverty”. Poverty many thousands of miles away can and should be alleviated, preferably with a small donation at the checkout. Poverty that you have to step over to get into your office is disturbing, and then embarrassing, and then – finally – annoying.

The likes of Google and Twitter make much of their commitment to philanthropy. Until recently, however, that generosity has not extended to their own backyard.

“Think about the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fords. Even here in the city, Levi Strauss started here,” Donoso says. “All of those businesses really made philanthropy a part of their DNA and it was about solving our local issues. I don’t necessarily see that in the [hi-tech] sector. People see themselves as more global.”

A large part of what political theorists term “the Californian Ideology” – a heady brew of progressive techno-libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism – is based on lack of faith in governments to solve social problems. “The centre of power is here,” said the venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya during last year’s US government shutdown, in an interview with the website This Week in Startups. “Where value is created is no longer in New York, it’s no longer in Washington, it’s no longer in LA. It’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area . . . Companies are transcending power now. We are becoming the eminent vehicles for change and influence, and capital structures that matter.”

“This anti-government ethos is really troubling and short-sighted on the part of those techies who hold it,” says Gary Kamiya, a journalist and lifelong San Franciscan and the author of the guidebook Cool Gray City of Love. “They don’t understand certain basic things about how society functions, like the concept of the tragedy of the commons – that if everybody is only out for themselves, you’re unable to come together to create things that can only be done by joint action.”

For the luckier San Franciscans, the argument that techno-capitalism is a good substitute for the state isn’t hard to make – not when their employers provide everything social democrats expect the state to supply, from transport and health care to yoga rooms, video arcades and laundry service at the office. There is little reason to believe in solving local problems collectively when evidence of the failure of collectivism is sleeping in the sun on every sidewalk.

What would the tech industry look like if it weren’t being cannibalised by capitalism? According to Mitch Altman, an inventor and founder of the Noisebridge hackerspace in the Mission, it would be much more exciting. “In the hacker scene all over the world, the vast majority are doing things because they think it’s awesome – they love it, they’re passionate about it,” says Altman, who is a figurehead of the hackerspace movement, a global network of free spaces where people of all abilities can work together on tech, art and engineering projects. “When people do things because they love it, they’re putting things into the world that wouldn’t be there. Not every techie is rich. Some of them are scraping by on a few hundred dollars a month, and some are squatting.”

Noisebridge has been open since 2007, and is tucked away above a taquería in the middle of the Mission, where gentrification is doing its worst cultural violence. Up a dingy flight of stairs is a wide, bright space, stuffed to the rafters with arcane computer components, matchstick sculptures, 3D printers and wired-looking young people typing frenetically on many-stickered laptops. It looks like a scene from a mid-Nineties movie about hackers.

“There’s a reason why Noisebridge started in the Bay Area,” says Altman, whose long, greying hair is dyed pink and blue. “Since the Gold Rush this has been a place which has attracted weirdos. That’s one of the reasons I love it here. I’m a total misfit and I love being surrounded by misfits. The people who live here mostly really want to live here, even though the people who are moving in with lots of money with Google jobs and things like that [also] want to be here.”

There are still a great many people in the Bay Area who believe that information should be free, even when a two-bedroomed flat in the Haight is eye-wateringly expensive. There are still hackers and engineers whose first priority is to take the lid off society and put it back together more efficiently, and those hackers, according to Altman, “need community. Even introverted geeks need community, and it’s hard to find community. It’s always going to be hard work.”

Community is the key. The biggest tech firms in the Bay Area have capitalised on the social value of community. From Google, Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and WhatsApp, the power of networks is being monetised even as the communities in which those businesses are based twist and change. What they are trying to work out now – what everyone in the Bay Area is trying to work out – is what it means to build community. “It isn’t as if there is a template or an accepted rule for how we’re all supposed to be members of a polis,” Kamiya says. “A city is a very peculiar thing.”

San Francisco is more peculiar than most. For better or worse, the class and cultural anxieties of this city are sending ripples around the globe. Tech is not what’s tearing San Francisco apart. America is what’s tearing San Francisco apart – America, and the vanishing chance it offers its citizens to build pleasant lives without brutalising others by proxy. The paradox at the heart of the hi-tech industry, the struggle between idealism and the inhumanities of capital, will leave its mark on the technologies future generations inherit. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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