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Seymour Hersh-extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

Is it always a journalist's duty to report the truth, even if it may damage innocents?
I'm a total First Amendment Jeffersonian. It's their job to keep it secret and my job to find it out and make it public. But once one gets some information, one doesn't run pell-mell into it. You spend some time making sure just what the downside is. At the New York Times in particular, I had the experience of telling the intelligence community: "I'm going to do this, and if you have people in harm's way, we're going to do this in a few days -- get them out." But most of the time it's not that dramatic.

You know, maybe six or seven times in 40 years I've had a story and I've communicated to the government what I'm doing, which we always do, and the president or the secretary of defence has called up my editor or publisher and said: "If you write this story, American national security will be damaged." And in every case except one where we delayed briefly, we wrote the story and, son-of-a-bitch, the Russians didn't launch paratroopers into the foothills of San Francisco the next day. At a certain point this claim about national security becomes something more. It's always political security.

Are there times when you have a scoop, or a piece of information, but let it go?
You're constantly not publishing everything you know. That's part of the game. You leverage what you know and sometimes you'll have a phrase that will indicate to someone on the inside that you really know more than you're writing. It's a self-protection measure. Sometimes if I'm into a sensitive story . . . it's hard to talk about this stuff -- but sometimes I'll indicate I know more.

For example, some kinds of intelligence are useless to us. Suppose one were to determine where the American attack submarines with nuclear arms are at any given time. How useless is that to a newspaperman? Some of the most secret secrets in the government are not very useful. But sometimes it is useful to tell people more than you actually write, to negotiate language with the other side -- that is, the government. Sometimes we don't do that. I'll add that this administration is actually more pleasant to deal with, because, unlike the Reagan-Bush years, they are not either taunting you or threatening you. The people I have dealt with here at a high level are almost rational. There's nothing quite as arrogant as somebody who thinks he's seen all the secrets.

Look, let's say you're a major player in a law firm billing $1m-$2m a year and you come down to $160,000 a year to work inside. What's it all about? It's all about: "My God, I really know what's going on. I've seen the top-secret stuff from the intercepts and the CIA. And then some punk reporter comes in and knows something he shouldn't know and I'm a person raged, not only because he knows it, but because that's what I'm in this job for -- I wanna know." I actually had people say to me during the Vietnam war when I was getting very critical -- I was just then working for a wire service (AP) -- I had people say to me: "If you only knew what I know, you would know how wrong you are." It's a cliché to say it, but it's true: they really do get it into their heads that they know more than you.

Do you ever worry that your phone is bugged?
Some people I only talk to in their home or their office, but I arrange the calls here. Even in the Nixon/Bush years, I could say this: there are certain people I would call on a Sunday morning at their home from my home. We'd have very good talks, and it's a very good time to work for me. I can't call people at their office. And as long as they were talking to me from their home on a Sunday morning about stuff, I would feel comfortable. If somebody suddenly stopped talking to me on a home phone . . . To bug me legally they'd have to get a warrant. Bush and Cheney did so many illegal things, but once you have something illegally you can't use it very much. If the 9/11 attacks taught us one thing, it's that the agencies collect lots of wonderful stuff they don't share with anybody.

You rely a lot on unnamed sources. Is that a dangerous technique, or an invaluable one?
Look at the serious press in the UK, France, America: every single day there are unnamed sources. I love the notion that somehow investigative reporters are held to a higher standard with unnamed sources.

My view is that I'm glad we don't have the British standard. In America we have this wonderful notion that you have to prove malicious intent. In England it is more difficult: you have to be just wrong -- it doesn't matter what your intent is. But I believe people in my profession should be held to an extremely high standard. I welcome the fact that people can sue me and go after me. I know American reporters who have described an unnamed senior CIA official and I knew . . . the name of the person they were not naming -- and the reason they didn't name him is that he had a certain bias which would have mitigated the story.

That happens all the time. It happened when I worked at the New York Times and I'm sure it happens elsewhere - people will have a source, but if they named him denouncing, let's say, the Bush administration, if you said who he was, he would be devalued. And by saying "a higher-level former senior intelligence official" you can cover that. I hate that. Therefore, the way in my own mind that I cope with that anomaly, that disgrace, if you will, is that I say I welcome people suing me.

I've been in a lot of litigation. I welcome that on the grounds that it is an appropriate measure. I think I've been in seven. We were in court once and the critical issue was that the judge was going to make me reveal my sources. I was going to have to say that we conceded the point and be found guilty of libel. The judge was a Reagan appointee in Chicago a couple of decades ago, and the Reagan appointee ruled that I didn't have to name sources. I went on camera and we went to the judge, and we gave an account of six people and gave a description of them, and the judge accepted that they were real -- that I was serious and I had sources. But if he hadn't, I think I would have had to concede the case.

How bad are British libel laws?
I had one case involving [Robert] Maxwell, a famous case in 1981 in England, after I wrote a book called The Samson Option. Basically, the British press had me accusing the former publisher of being an Israeli agent. I didn't quite say that -- he was an asset, he wasn't a spy; he just did what they asked him in one case. And we were sued to death and won a huge settlement. So my one experience with the law was fine.

Do you find the libel laws in the UK chilling?
There's no question -- D-notices are chilling. You guys have a very tough system. Every time someone goes up against it in England they end up in jail.

Isn't there a risk that some high-level sources might be "playing" you?
Of course, that's a categorical risk. I'm doing something sensitive this morning, and there's no question some may have . . . But I consider myself a full-service agency. You can come to me with a secret and I take it to other people and learn things about what you know . . . You have something that they call "compartmented intelligence", above top-secret. You come to me with a secret, and then I write a story that includes things you didn't know. So when the government assesses what I wrote to see who could have leaked it, you're not ever considered to be someone who could have, because they know that you (because of you and your compartment) could not have known what was published by the other compartment. You can come to me with compartmented information and I can go to other people with compartmented information and make it very hard for them to come to a conclusion about who could have been leaking. It's foolproof.

How have you managed to remain an outsider for so long when, for example, Bob Woodward, another great journalist of your generation, has gone mainstream?
There's no way they would deal with me. Bob Woodward, I disagree with his point of view. He starts at the top and goes down. But if he hadn't written, for example, that first Bush book, we wouldn't have known much about Bush's thinking. I think Bob's books sometimes tell a lot more than he may think they do. I'm not saying anything I haven't said to him -- I just wouldn't do it the way he does it. The Obama White House can't abide me. Within a month, they were going behind my back to my editor: "What's your man Hersh doing?"

What do you make of Barack Obama?
Don't get me going on Obama. If he decided to be a one-term president, he could be marvellous, but it's not clear he's decided that.

Did he deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?
Well, no, of course not. It was partly an embarrassment to him and it says more about the people in Sweden [sic]. Let me just say this to you quite seriously. There are people -- for example, one of the defences of [John F] Kennedy was that [Ted] Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger said publicly that he was for sure going to get out of Vietnam after the election in '64. He couldn't do it then because he was going to run against a Republican. They think that's wonderful. My analysis of that is that this was a president who said I'm more interested in my personal politics and the election than the lives of those that are going to die in the next year. And that's true if he really was going to get out -- he didn't have the courage to get out in '63. That's a political judgement. They're made all the time. Johnson kept on making it. He probably never liked that war but he kept on going.

So with Obama, the question is: will he stay in Afghanistan until he thinks it's the right time to get out politically? Or is he going to take a chance of not getting re-elected and find a way out quickly? It's not such a hard way out. There are people to talk to there. There's no evidence any of them are interested in bombing the World Trade Center.

Do you see shades of Vietnam in the current Afghan war?
No -- only in the sense that an American president is making political judgements about a war for his own personal re-election prospects. But it's a whole different scenario. Yes, in the sense that we could have gone to the North Vietnamese very early in that war. There was serious stuff going on, particularly very early stuff between the North and the Diem brothers, and we stopped that by getting them killed. Basically, there's so many ways it doesn't break down, so many ways it's a whole different culture.

On Iran, are we repeating the mistakes that were made on Iraq?
Some of the things are very disturbing. We are getting new leadership at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The next wave there is not going to be as rational. So the trend is going to get worse. There's no evidence yet that Iran has violated any of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty proceedings. By the way, your country is so deeply involved in all this crap. It's amazing to me, as someone who went to the Vietnam war and Iraq war, and now the Afghan war. There's simply no learning curve.

The great [writer] Harold Pinter gave a speech on 15 October 2002. He began by telling an old story about Cromwell. The citizens are all brought to the main square and he announces: "Right, kill all the women and rape all the men. His aide says to him, "Excuse me, general, isn't it the other way around?" And a voice in the crowd calls out: "Mr Cromwell knows what he's doing." And Pinter said, "The voice is the voice of Tony Blair: 'Mr Bush knows what he's doing.' " I keep on thinking that about Gordon Brown, too: it's the same voice. If we have to rape the men and kill the women, then by God we will!

Post-Bush, do you think there's still a risk of a military strike on Iran by Israel or the US?
Yes.

Where do you place yourself on the political spectrum?
I'm your standard left liberal, but I vote for Republicans, I've given money to them. I'm not a pacifist. I would have been tough on Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, but I'd have done it legally. I would have done what the Indians did in Mumbai, what the Spanish did in Madrid after the train incident -- treated it as a crime.

Are you disappointed Obama didn't release those "torture pictures"?
I know a lot about this stuff. Let me just talk about hypocrisy for a second. I do believe Obama when he says there were more terrible things done by individuals than we know, and the record is more complete than we know. Obama's position is that, at a time when we have 130,000 Americans in Afghanistan, putting the pictures out would just inflame people to take action against them. The New York Times has been editorialising against him, but when it had a reporter captured, it thought it was perfectly appropriate not to talk about it publicly for seven months, on the grounds that the paper was trying to protect his life.

So I would say here's the president -- about whom I have many reservations, believe me - saying: "I'm gonna not put these out, because I'm going to save American lives." And he's being criticised quite vividly by the New York Times, which had done the same thing for its reporter. I don't like it. So I give him his due on that one. I have to know what it is. It's horrible, but so what? We know the basic story. And so this is one of the examples when I don't write anything I know. Are you kidding me?!

What would you like to forget?
My Lai.

How would you like people to remember you?
I couldn't care less. I don't believe in life after death.

Are we doomed?
The trouble is that hope sprang anew in America last November. And I think the dashing of that hope is going to be much more lethal than even the cynicism under Bush and Cheney. If that hope is dashed, we'll really be in trouble around the world.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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