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Who owns the future? How the prophets of Silicon Valley took control

In an era when politics is bereft of grand visions, bioengineers and Silicon Valley tech geeks are claiming the mantle of leadership and prophecy. But what do they want and where are they leading us?

For much of the 20th century, politics was a battle between grand visions of the future. Communists, fascists and liberals sought to destroy the old world and build a new one in its place. Lenin, Stalin and Mao tried to dismantle the structure of human society, and to engineer scientifically something far better. In the process, they treated communities, families and human beings as mere clay, killing tens of millions of people while explaining that “in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs”.

Hitler and his minions employed even more ruthless methods in the service of even more ambitious plans. The Nazis aimed to remake the human animal ­itself, rather than just human society. They planned to re-engineer human biology, speed up evolution and create superhumans. Whatever you think about people such as Lenin or Hitler, no one can accuse them of being narrow-minded.

Liberals were perhaps more moderate in their ambitions but not by far. Custodians of utopian Enlightenment visions, liberals hoped to create paradise on earth through mass education and technological progress. They overturned millennia-old hierarchies, empowering women, minorities and the young. Even more astonishing, after millions of years of evolution during which families and communities were the stable building blocks of human societies, liberals gave centre stage to the individual. They freed people from parents, neighbours and elders, creating a new “society of individuals”. In the process, they might have condemned us to hitherto unknown levels of alienation and loneliness. The liberal vision was more benign than the communist and fascist visions but it wasn’t less radical. It seems to us unremarkable and even trite simply because we live in it.

Whatever their disagreements about long-term visions, communists, fascists and liberals all combined forces to create a new state-run leviathan. Within a surprisingly short time, they engineered all-encompassing systems of mass education, mass health and mass welfare, which were supposed to realise the utopian aspirations of the ruling party. These mass systems became the main employers in the job market and the main regulators of human life. In this sense, at least, the grand political visions of the past century have succeeded in creating an entirely new world. The society of 1800 was completely destroyed and we are living in a new reality altogether.

In 1900 or 1950 politicians of all hues thought big, talked big and acted even bigger. Today it seems that politicians have a chance to pursue even grander visions than those of Lenin, Hitler or Mao. While the latter tried to create a new society and a new human being with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and supercomputers. In the coming decades, technological breakthroughs are likely to change human society, human bodies and human minds in far more drastic ways than ever before.

Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and ­intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.

On top of that, we are also developing the ability to create cyborgs. Cyborg engineering does not limit itself to using only
organic structures but makes use of inorganic parts as well. It merges the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and fix damage. This may sound like science fiction but it is already a reality. Monkeys have recently learned, using electrodes implanted in their brains, to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies. Paralysed patients are able to move bionic limbs or control computers by the power of thought alone. If you wish, you can control the electronic devices in your house using a “mind-reading” headset. The headset does not require any brain implants, because it functions by reading the electric signals passing through the scalp. If you want to turn on the lights in the kitchen, all you need is to put on the headset, imagine some pre-programmed mental sign (your right hand moving, for instance) – and the lights turn on. You can buy such headsets online from around £200.

Yet even cyborg engineering is still ­relatively conservative, inasmuch as it assumes that organic brains will go on being the command and control centres of life. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software that can surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds free from the limitations of organic chemistry.

Life scientists have recently come to believe that life is really just data-processing and that living beings are a collection of biochemical self-replicating algorithms that natural selection improves ever so slowly. Computer scientists and mathematicians have simultaneously honed their skills in deciphering and writing algorithms. If organisms are indeed algorithms (a big IF, but this is the current orthodoxy) then it should be feasible to create non-organic life. After all, algorithms are algorithms. As long as the maths works the same, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon, silicon or plastic? This opens the possibility that after four billion years of milling around inside the small pond of organic compounds, life will  suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up unimaginable new shapes.

 

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In science fiction ruthless, Hitler-like leaders are quick to pounce on such new technologies, putting them in the service of this or that dangerous political vision. Yet flesh-and-blood politicians in the early 21st century, even in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, are nothing like their Hollywood counterparts. They don’t seem to plot any Brave New World. The wildest dreams of Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei don’t go much beyond atomic bombs and ballistic missiles: which is so 1945. As for Barack Obama and David Cameron, they can barely manage to enact health and education reforms. Creating new worlds and new human beings is far beyond their agendas.

Hence, the novel technological vistas notwithstanding, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early 21st century, politics is bereft of grand visions. No political party has any far-reaching conception of transforming the world. No political party aims to turn society upside down, let alone create superhumans. Compared to the ideological wars of the mid-20th century, present-day debates seem like scholastic hair-splitting. While one needed a telescope to follow the visions of a Lenin or a Hitler, today, when it comes to the basic outlines of human societies, you need a microscope to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or between Labour and the Conservatives.

Yes, Ed Miliband and David Cameron had somewhat different visions of the European Union, the NHS and tax policies. But the differences are nothing like those between the communist and fascist visions a century ago. No party is in favour of creating a British empire, abolishing private property or gassing minorities. This sounds so obvious that we never bother to note it. But that’s the point. A century ago it was anything but obvious. There were powerful political parties with millions of followers that openly preached imperialism, genocide and the abolition of private property.

One very good reason politicians lost their appetite for grand visions is the terrible outcome of the ideological wars of the 20th century. If thinking big leads to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, humankind is far better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats.

Another factor is that the biggest 20th-century achievement weighs down on politicians of all shades and colours. The mass education, welfare and health services now demand enormous resources and constant care and attention. Moreover, any attempt to achieve some new grand vision would likely upset this behemoth. So politicians play it safe and devote most of their efforts to just keeping the system running. They tweak here and there but are afraid to make any real structural changes.

Third, after the smoke of the 20th-century
ideological wars cleared, neoliberalism was left standing as the ultimate victor. And neoliberalism, having shaped the economy and society to its own taste, now preaches inaction. Like Zen gurus, so the neoliberal masters advise the politicians: just do nothing. Each person should focus on his or her immediate job, without losing sleep over the long-term consequences. Builders should build, singers should sing, engineers should engineer – and let market forces take care of all the rest. They will chart our way forward better than any philosopher or statesman. Governments and political parties generally follow this advice and focus on managing the state and its day-to-day crises, without giving much thought to the more distant future. Governments manage – and, generally speaking, they are doing a fine job of it – but they no longer plan or lead.

Yet the mantle of leadership and prophecy has not gone unclaimed. Abandoned by politicians and political parties, it has been picked up by business entrepreneurs and corporations. If you want to hear grand visions about the future of humankind, you will waste your time in Downing Street, the White House or the Kremlin, but your ears will start ringing once you approach Silicon Valley. That is where you will find the Lenins of our time. Let me make this absolutely clear: the tech wizards of Silicon Valley aren’t communist. Nor are they anything like as ruthless as Lenin. I am comparing them to him only in the audacity and scope of their visions, and in their aspirations to tear down the old world and build a completely new world in its place.

For when it comes to audacity and scope, even Lenin couldn’t hold a candle to the silicon prophets. Lenin and his followers still thought and operated within the confines of existing economic models and realities. They took for granted that resources are scarce, that demand must be balanced with supply, that human beings are essential for the economy and that work is a vital ingredient of human life. In contrast, today’s visionaries are looking towards a post-scarcity future, in which algorithms replace human beings in the economy, supply no longer puts the lid on demand and life no longer revolves around work.

At the core of this vision is the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or killing terrorists. However, Google, Apple, IBM and other tech companies are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence – based on machine learning and big data – that can outperform human beings in all of the above tasks and many more besides.

This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important for the economy –intelligence or consciousness? As long as the one always went hand in hand with the other, this question was a pastime for philosophers. In the 21st century, it is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for the economy, intelligence is mandatory but consciousness by itself has little value.

 

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In 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, published The Future of Employment, in which they surveyed the likelihood of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years. The algorithm developed by Frey and Osborne to perform the calculations estimated that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 per cent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 per cent chance that the same will happen to sports referees, 97 per cent that it will happen to cashiers and 96 per cent to restaurant cooks.

For paralegal assistants, tour guides, bakers, bus drivers, construction workers, veterinary assistants, security guards, sailors, waiters, bartenders, archivists, carpenters and lifeguards the probability of redundancy ranges from 67 per cent to 94 per cent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, and for occupational therapists it is 0.3 per cent.

Even if new professions come along to compensate for the losses, they will probably require much more creativity and flexibility. It is far from certain that a 50-year-old cashier or bus driver will be able to make the necessary readjustment. Whereas the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a vast new class of urban workers, the 21st century might witness the rise of a vast new class of economically useless people.

If this indeed happens, it will pose a far bigger challenge than the Industrial Revolution and will demand new social and political models far more ambitious than those offered by Marx, Lenin or Mao. Socialists and communists tailored a new ideology to answer for the novel needs, hopes and fears of the industrial proletariat. The 21st-century class of useless people will also generate new wants, dreams and worries. To answer them, the silicon prophets are coming up with fantastic socioeconomic models, fit for a post-scarcity society in which human beings no longer produce anything and are merely consumers.

Yet the silicon prophets don’t stop there. They dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness. Google recently established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is – drums please! – “to solve death”. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In an interview last March Maris said: “If you ask me today, ‘Is it possible to live to be 500?’ the answer is yes.” He backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. The Google Venture fund is investing 36 per cent of its $2bn portfolio in life sciences start-ups, ­including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an analogy from American football, Maris explained that in the fight against death, “We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.”

The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has confessed that he aims to live for ever. “I think there are probably three main modes of approaching [death],” Thiel explained. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” Many people are likely to dismiss such statements as teenage fantasies. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. His private fortune is estimated at $2.2bn and he is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

As a historian, I am in no position to ­comment on the feasibility of such visions. Yet, as a historian, I know that what people hope to achieve is often far more important than what they can actually do. The 20th century was shaped by the communist attempt to overcome human inequality, even though this hope was never fulfilled. Our century might be shaped by the attempt to upgrade human beings and overcome death, even if this hope is a bit premature. The spirit of the age is changing. Equality is out, immortality is in.

This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

Yuval Harari is a historian and the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (Vintage). More info: ynharari.com

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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