The interior of the Old Bailey criminal court in London in May 1910. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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The decline of the British trial

Once, UK courts were full of reporters and members of the public. Now, with the exception of rare spectacles, the press and public benches are usually empty – and we are all poorer for it.

“What thrill at the theatre or cinema compares with the excitement of attending a criminal trial, of beholding in the flesh the man or woman who may be guilty of some secret or bloody deed, and watching, half fearful, half shrinking, the great game played by judge and counsel with the accused’s life as stake?” So wrote Harry Hodge in his introduction to the first edition of Penguin’s Famous Trials series, launched in 1941 at the height of the Second World War.

The trials Hodge chose to introduce the series were of notorious cases from the preceding several decades: Madeleine Smith, the 21-year-old Scottish beauty charged in 1857 at the high court in Edinburgh with poisoning her lover; Dr Crippen, accused in 1910 of murdering his wife and fleeing the country with his lover, Ethel Le Neve, disguised as a boy. “All Great Britain was agitated over the trial,” wrote Hodge of the Smith case, which ended in the Scots law verdict of “not proven”.

By the time of the fifth edition of the series, in 1955, with the price now raised from a florin to half a crown, Hodge’s son James, the new editor, wrote that “the real murders described in this book are even more horrifying that those usually found between Penguin green covers”. They included that of Neville Heath, the sadistic killer of two young women in the immediate postwar period, and of George Lamson, a doctor who was hanged for poisoning a relative with a slice of Dundee cake to secure his share of an inheritance. “Factual and unbiased accounts of criminal trials broaden our outlook and give us fleeting glimpses of other modes of life,” wrote Hodge junior.

Heath’s trial in 1946 was such a hot ticket that people queued all night under blankets outside the Old Bailey in London for admission to the 30 seats in the public gallery, as if it were Wimbledon.

In some ways, the opening days last month of the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, all pleading not guilty to charges related to the News of the World phone-hacking affair, were just like old times: the crowds, the queues, the bustle and excitement. Seventy journalists, representing all the British press, not to mention Al Jazeera, El Confidencial, and the Wall Street Journal, were on hand to report. Curious onlookers hung around in the street outside, gazing at all the frantic activity. But this was very much a throwback to another era.

When I first started covering criminal trials in the early 1970s, long queues were still common for high-profile murder cases. The public gallery would be full, people craning their necks to see the accused brought up from the cells. Today many murder trials take place without a single person in the press box or a single member of the public in the gallery.

So, whatever happened to British trials and why do they often pass us by unnoticed, except for the opening day’s prosecution case and the jury’s verdict?

One reason is that before daytime television the warm, centrally heated public galleries of courts provided the enthralling – and free – entertainment of which Harry Hodge wrote so enthusiastically. What could be a more absorbing way of spending a day than seeing the accused in a murder or kidnap case being cross-examined by a scathing QC (or, previously, KC) or sentenced by an unforgiving judge? But now, with a hundred television channels offering entertainment that blurs the lines between real and fictional crime, why bother to leave the house?

The other major reason for the decline of trials in the public consciousness is that the press no longer stimulates interest in them by sustained coverage. When there were three London evening papers with a total circulation of more than two million, trials accounted for a significant section of the news in the capital. A major murder case would lead to increased circulation.

An important factor in the interest in a murder trial was that cases could end with the judge donning his black cap and proclaiming that the accused be taken from this place and hanged by the neck until he was dead. The former editor of the Evening News Lou Kirby once told me that the abolition of hanging in 1965 significantly decreased interest in such trials. But even after Albert Pierrepoint had hung up his noose, with its 450 notches in it, there was still a healthy interest in and coverage of murder trials in the national press.

When Rosemary West stood trial in Winchester in 1995, charged with the murders of ten young women, every national paper had a reporter in court every day. Such was the demand for press seats that we were informed by court officials at the start of the trial that if we failed to turn up for a single session, we would forfeit our seat for the entire trial. The Times had two full-time reporters there and some papers regularly sent in their “colour” writers so that they could stare at West for a moment or two and tell their readers that they had “locked eyes with the face of evil”. There were no fewer than five authors – Gordon Burn, Andrew O’Hagan, Howard Sounes, Brian Masters and Geoffrey Wansell – also present. An overspill court had to be provided to hear the opening address from a smart, up-and-coming prosecuting counsel called Brian Leveson.

But the days when criminal trials were reported in detail have ended. Forty years ago, there were seven Press Association reporters at the Old Bailey, while the Mail, Express, Times and Telegraph all had staffers there. Now there are only two PA staffers and no national paper still has a dedicated reporter there, the last incumbent being the Telegraph’s admirable Sue Clough. Like much of the press, they have switched their attention to greater coverage of celebrities – a mere tweet being enough to justify a story and an accompanying photograph – without the bother of time-consuming staff absence from the office. Few papers can still afford to dedicate a reporter to cover court cases in anything more than a sketchy fashion and too often the court report you read will have been written by a hard-pressed but uncredited agency reporter. Much of the detail, in which the devil operated, has been lost.

“The glory days are certainly over,” said one veteran reporter in the press room in the bowels of the Old Bailey in late September, when I visited the court. A significant murder trial with nine defendants in the dock was kicking off, the jury sworn, but there was little interest from the national media. Experienced court reporters shake their heads sadly and regret the drift.

“Newspapers and broadcasters are so driven by focus groups and marketing surveys that they have lost sight of what news actually is,” says Guy Toyn, director of Court News, Britain’s only specialist court agency. “When we publish material on our website, we often get responses like, ‘Why haven’t we seen this in a national newspaper?’ The fact is people are still absolutely fascinated by the dark and surreal side of life that is only ever revealed in court stories . . . For a regional newspaper, it is easier and cheaper for them to rewrite a company press release than actually dig out a great story – or to pay someone to do it for them.”

Local newspapers, also now a dying breed throughout Britain, relied on the courts as a staple of their coverage, a role noted approvingly by the judiciary. As Lord Denning wrote in The Road to Justice in 1955, “a newspaper reporter is in every court. He sits through the dullest cases in the court of appeal and the most trivial cases before the magistrates. He says nothing but he writes a lot. He is, I verily believe, the watchdog of justice.” No more.

Currently more than 1.5 million cases make their way through the 330 magistrates courts of England and Wales every year and around 130,000 cases through the 91 crown courts. Who notices? In Scotland, there are attempts to cut the number of courts to save money, which has met resistance; Sheriff Kevin Drummond told the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee: “I do not care whether the court is conducted in the back of a large furniture van; it should go to rural locations.” Quite right.

This is an international issue, too. Ed Vulliamy, in his haunting book about the aftermath of the Balkan conflict, The War is Dead, Long Live the War, noted that, when the stories of the appalling atrocities visited on the Bosnians were rehearsed in front of the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, “the public and press galleries were often empty”.

It was the Scottish lawyer William Roughead, who recognised the importance of the trial in society and pioneered its coverage. Joyce Carol Oates has acknowledged this in the New York Review of Books: “Roughead’s influence was enormous and, since his time, ‘true crime’ has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it . . . his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales.”

So, perhaps it should be no surprise that Scotland has pioneered the televising of trials. This summer, the Scottish courts authorised the televising of a murder trial, shown on Channel 4. The retrial of Nat Fraser, for the 1998 murder of his wife, Arlene, was filmed with the (eventual) permission of the participants over a period of six weeks at the High Court in Edinburgh.

England and Wales followed suit this October and the filming of legal arguments and the final judgments at the Court of Appeal are now allowed. “Justice must be seen to be done,” said the then courts minister, Helen Grant, announcing the move. The next step will be the filming of the sentencing process in crown courts, although “victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will . . . not be part of broadcasts.”

The media organisations that use filmed court proceedings will supposedly cover the costs. This will not solve anything. As Helena Kennedy QC has written: “Voyeurism and money is behind this agenda and the justice system will not be the beneficiary.”

Nick Davies, the reporter who put in heroic work on the phone-hacking scandal, has written in the Guardian that criminal and civil courts “are probably the most productive single sources of stories in this country”. He is right. A morning in a magistrate’s court will tell you more about the state of the nation in terms of education, class, family, employment, immigration, consumerism, honesty, addiction to drink and drugs, sexual politics, housing, health and alienation than a dozen think-tank reports.

During the Olympics last year, I reported for the Guardian from the special court set up to deal with offenders arrested in connection with the Games. The court became a microcosm of world attitudes to the whole business of the Olympics and sport but it was almost empty of press or public. One case I covered was that of a Lithuanian man arrested for making Nazi salutes and monkey noises during his country’s basketball game with Nigeria; his puzzled defence was that this was perfectly normal behaviour where he came from and no one had ever complained before.

I also reported from Edinburgh’s Sheriff Court during the Festival there last year. What emerged was a portrait of a society where drink and drugs were the almost inevitable lubricant of social and criminal life. “No drink was involved,” said the prosecutor in one case, adding “unusually for this court”. Again I was alone in the press gallery in three different courts, where once would have been reporters from the Evening News and the (now defunct) Evening Dispatch.

Not for nothing has the trial formed such a key part of our film and television lives, from films such as Witness for the Prosecution back in 1957 to those 250 episodes of Crown Court that ran between 1972 and 1985. Neither is it a coincidence that so many of our most eloquent politicians come from a background in the courts, where an ability to charm and convince are important.

The late Labour leader John Smith, who had been an admired criminal advocate, was once said – and I hope this story is true because I have told it a few times – to have gone below court to express his regret to a client who, despite Smith’s best efforts, had been convicted. “Don’t worry,” said the defendant, albeit in dialect, “you were so good, I almost believed you myself.”

I am always amazed when someone says that they have never attended a trial. When friends come to London from abroad, I often encourage them to visit the Old Bailey or the Royal Courts of Justice, which seem just as vital to an understanding of the country as Tate Modern or Hyde Park. Does it matter? Yes, it does. Partly for the old reason (see above) that “justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done” – or, as J B Morton wickedly added, “has to be seen to be believed”. But also because trials are essential to our understanding of how our society operates.

In the oft-quoted words of Lord Atkinson, in his judgment in Scott v Scott, in 1913, “the hearing of a case in public may be, and often is, no doubt, painful, humiliating, or deterrent both to parties and witnesses . . . but all this is tolerated and endured because it is felt that in the public trial is to be found, on the whole, the best security for the pure, impartial and efficient administration of justice, the best means of winning for it public confidence and respect”.

To win that respect, the criminal justice system has to smarten up its act. There are far too many interruptions for legal arguments that could have been dealt with by email prior to the trial; far too many delays because a defendant has been brought late to court by whatever lackadaisical private security company has the job that week; far too many sighing judges because barristers or advocates arrive in court unbriefed.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the writing of Franz Kafka’s great novel The Trial, (although it was not published for a further decade). How fitting for the memory of Josef K if we were once again to take seriously the trial as a legal process that directly or indirectly affects the lives of millions of us, costs us billions of pounds a year, both in terms of its actual processes and its consequences behind the bars of our jails, but that now receives far too little attention. Time to halt the decline of the British trial.

Duncan Campbell is a former crime correspondent for the Guardian

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