The new Randlords

South Africa is booming. The economy is enjoying its biggest surge since the Second World War - and

United States of America Boulevard: there was a time when no self-respecting black-township resident would have wanted an address so redolent of US imperialism. Just a decade or so ago, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were township street names of choice. One might have thought that Hugo Chávez would now be keeping South African sign-makers busy. No chance, or at least not in Cosmo City, a flashy new housing estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Here the US of A Boulevard is among the most sought-after addresses - as is Las Vegas Crescent - because it is here that members of the new, black middle class are flocking in droves, in search of mock-Tuscan villas and a share of the consumerist new South African dream.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, his first speech brimmed with vintage redistribution rhetoric. To be fair on the "old man", it had been forced upon him by anti-apartheid radicals, who feared he had gone soft behind bars, but not surprisingly the markets dived. Since then, however - indeed, since the very next morning - the economic policies of the African National Congress have moved to the right. Now, as South Africa celebrates the anniversary of Mandela's inauguration on 10 May, bigwigs in the ruling party are embracing capitalism with such relish that President Thabo Mbeki, the very man who unleashed this capitalist fervour, is expressing unease over some of his old comrades' pursuit of bling, and the long-quiescent unions are muttering that it is time to take "back" the party.

"This is banker heaven," one American banking executive told me recently, shortly after my return after nearly a decade away. He did not need to explain. All around us in a trendy Johannesburg mall were members of the "Black Economic Empowerment" (BEE) crowd, many no doubt celebrating deals to secure equity from historically white-run firms, a key part of the government's policy to level the economic playing field. I found the scene all the more riveting given that I had last visited that mall in 1993 when, as a newly arrived foreign correspondent come to cover the bloodbath threatening the transfer of power, I had been the only customer in an Italian restaurant. The proprietor was convinced that South Africa was heading for the abyss, and sold up. How wrong she was (on both counts).

Buoyed by the surge in global commodities prices, and steered by Mbeki's prudent fiscal policies, South Africa's econ omy is enjoying its most concerted spurt since the Second World War and Johannesburg is booming. For the past two years the economy has grown at about 5 per cent. This is not as high as it needs to be if unemployment is to come down, but to have ventured such a prediction at the start of my first stint would have led to widespread rolling of eyes. Yet now, consumer confidence is at a 25-year high; the Johannesburg Stock Exchange's top 40 index has gone up nearly 250 per cent in the past three years; house prices are up more than 125 per cent since 2003; new car sales soared by nearly 16 per cent to an astonishing 714,000 last year.

And for once in South Africa's history, it is not just white people who are prospering. Leaf through the pages of City Press, a Sunday newspaper aimed squarely at black South Africans. I remember it for its doughty political coverage, but not much else. Now it has a glitzy motoring section. "Two BMW 3-Series for the price of one", ran a typical headline two weeks ago. Beneath it was a story headlined: "Mercedes-Benz B200 pricey but quite nice". According to figures quoted by the business magazine Finance Week, the number of "super-rich" (those earning more than four million rand - £285,000 - a year) has risen by 50 per cent in the past five years. While blacks, Asians and people of mixed race accounted for less than 25 per cent of this category in 2001, they now account for 34 per cent; that figure is expected to rise to over 40 per cent by 2011.

So what happened to the idealism of the ANC cadres I knew back in the early Nineties? The cynical or simple answer is that many have been seduced by easy money. The Johannesburg of 2007 reminds me as much of Vladimir Putin's Moscow - a boom in construction and car sales and a flowering of oligarchs - as of the unhappy Joburg I knew in the early 1990s.

"We [black South Africans] must have business role models," says one of the better-known members of the ANC billionaire elite, who has had dozens of directorships handed to him on a plate primarily because of his "struggle" credentials. "Are you denying us the right to make money?" says another. They have a point. It is hypocritical for western commen tators to argue, as they often have, that the governments of newly independent African states have no idea how to run an economy - and then condemn their supporters when they prove rather canny capitalists.

But the arguments of the new black "Randlords" are a little lame. Their talk of having been "deployed" into business may be true, but it is also a convenient euphemism for the acquisition of serious money.

Overtaken by greed

The simpler truth is that many "struggle" veterans have appreciated that after years of fighting the good fight they do not need to stay poor. What is more, it is rather easy to become rich, given the desperation of white businesses to prove their commitment to the new era by finding a black partner, and, in many cases, any old black partner.

The rise and fall of the "Queen of BEE", South Africa's most prominent black businesswoman, who had to resign in disgrace recently from more than a dozen boards because of a huge conflict of interest, was a reminder of the perils of the new culture. Mbeki himself has taken to bemoaning the "money, money, money" way. Last year he used the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture to castigate those for whom "success and fulfilment means personal enrichment at all costs and the most theatrical and striking public display of that wealth".

The good news, however, for those who fret from afar that its new elite have been overtaken by greed, is that there is more to South Africa's revolution than just conspicuous consumption. Day by day the country is becoming more "normal".

Society remains, of course, in many ways unthinkingly racist. How is it that so many whites still talk of their gardeners as "garden boys" when they are referring to adult men? Yet, despite Mbeki's Africanist insistence, aired in his weekly online columns, and repeated to me in person, that racism still poisons society, my impression is that race relations have improved vastly. It is far rarer now, as a white man, to be met with the pre-emptive cringe that used to be the hallmark of so many interracial encounters. I remember, soon after my arrival in 1993, hearing of the experience of a black American colleague. She was queuing in Thrupps, the Fortnum & Mason of Johannesburg, and a white woman looked over her shoulder at the French cheeses in her basket and said: "Oh, what good taste your madam has." "I am the madam," my friend replied. That encounter is impossible to imagine now.

The country is also no longer so out of date. In the Nineties many whites, and not just Pretoria civil servants with their beehive hairdos and floral print dresses, or their shapeless suits and grey shoes, dressed as if in a Fifties sitcom. Black South Africans were by and large no more contemporary: township style was a scruffy T-shirt and jeans. I remember Dali Tambo, the designer and chat-show-host son of the late ANC leader, shaking his head in despair over South Africans' dress sense. Since then there has been a collective make-over. Go to one of the half-dozen malls that have opened in Soweto in the past year or so. They are little different from the malls in Johannesburg's suburbs - or, indeed, the rest of the world.

What's getting worse?

So where is the catch? My second morning back, I was reflecting on my impressions of the "new normal" when I met up with a former senior government official and ANC stalwart. What should I keep my eyes on, apart from the boom, I asked? "Corruption, incompetence, unemployment and crime," he said. "They are all getting worse."

South Africa has between 20 and 40 per cent unemployment. Trevor Manuel, the well-regarded finance minister, who has just overseen South Africa's first budget surplus in recorded history, concedes that this keeps him awake at night. After dithering, the ANC is rolling out vast infrastructure projects, in particular for the 2010 World Cup. But 5 per cent growth will not make inroads into unemployment.

Manuel shrugs off the charge that he could have been bolder in seeking higher growth. Speaking to me before he delivered his budget speech, he also rejected the idea that a surplus was an "embarrassment of riches". Rather, he suggests it is an insurance policy against harder times. But he is also the first to rail against the incompetence of swaths of the government which are unable to spend his bumper revenues. He bemoans the lack of a skilled workforce, and concedes that credit levels are dangerously high, because South Africans, particularly members of the black middle class, borrow to the hilt.

"The situation reminds me of Bolivia or Peru," says one businessman. This is not, as you might think, the caustic one-liner of a disillusioned "whitey". Rather, it is the view of Moeletsi Mbeki, the president's younger brother, one of the government's more trenchant critics. In particular he is appalled by the Black Economic Empowerment policy. It is, he says, just a cosy arrangement between white business and the black elite that will return to haunt South Africa.

There are many places in South Africa where the Bolivia/ Peru analogy rings all too true. There is not much bling in Boikhutso, a down-at-heel township in the old Western Transvaal. The main road is at last tarred and more houses have electricity than in the old days. But life is still grim, with unemployment over 50 per cent. It is places like this that spew out the young men who feed the crime wave, possibly the main disincentive to investors as they choose between South Africa and other developing markets.

Crime was appalling ten years ago when I left after my first stint. Now, anecdotally at least, it is just as bad. Take the 24 hours before I wrote this article: the family of a prominent regional politician was held up by a gang at gunpoint at the family house in northern Joburg; millions of rand were stolen in a raid on a military base in Pretoria; a Capetonian I met had been bound with his family and frogmarched through a wood by gun-wielding thugs, expecting to be killed.

The greatest threat to Mbeki's legacy is not crime, however, but a backlash against bling. This is the tussle that will come to a head in December at the ANC's five-yearly conference, when radicals have vowed to take on the centrists, including Thabo Mbeki. I accompanied him recently to Soweto on one of his rare township tours. Bridget Ngeleza, an unemployed secretary, watched his progress from the garden of her shoebox bungalow. She was far from starry-eyed, but thought his embrace of capitalism was right.

"He wants people to help themselves," she said. "He doesn't like to spoon-feed people." My guess is that she reflects the bedrock of the party. It may be ugly, but the era of bling has some years to run yet.

Alec Russell is the southern Africa correspondent of the Financial Times

South Africa’s wealth by numbers

16% increase in number of dollar millionaires in 2005

$11,000 average annual income, compared to $1,750 for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa

25% rise in demand for credit in 2006

3 number of South African billionaires on Forbes's 2007 Rich List

55 number of BMW dealerships in the country (plus one Rolls-Royce and two Porsche showrooms)

Research by Shabeeh Abbas and Jonathan Pearson

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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