Show Hide image

A state of collapse

Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to strengthen “co-operation between p

Since 2003, we have been told repeatedly that the principles of the "two-state solution" envisaged in the so-called road map will lead to a peaceful settlement in the Middle East; and since Barack Obama was inaugurated as US president ten months ago, we have been told that he is preparing to put them into practice. Yet far from leading to the fulfilment of the "two-state solution", Obama's presidency seems more likely to lead to its demise. The committee that awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize cited his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples", but his attempts to force the Israelis and Palestinians into meaningful negotiations have only revealed the differences between them, and how empty the concept of the two-state solution has become.

On 4 November, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said what is supposedly the unsayable - that unless settlement expansion stops, Palestinians may have to abandon the goal of an independent state. Even the compliant Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was forced to acknowledge that the Israelis had put him in an impossible position: already gravely weakened by his hastily retracted decision to help defer a vote at the UN on the Goldstone report on human rights abuses during Israel's offensive in Gaza last December and January, he admitted that he can no longer justify his conciliatory stance as a means of winning concessions. He has since announced he will not stand for office in elections to be held in the Palestinian territories in January.

Yet the deadlock had been apparent for some time. The speech made by Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, on 14 June, in which he endorsed for the first time the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was reported as a "historic" breakthrough, but it fell far short of acknowledging Israel's internationally recognised obligations. The demilitarised entity that he envisaged in the West Bank barely merited being called a "state". Meanwhile, Hamas has attached similarly sweeping provisos to the idea of establishing a state within pre-1967 borders. "Hamas struggles for an end to occupation and for the restoration of our people's rights, including their right to return home," Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, said in an interview in the New Statesman two months ago.

There are now more than four million descendants of the Palestinians made homeless refugees by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Some would say their right to return is symbolic, others that it is a matter of personal conscience which no politician can barter away. Yet, given that its implementation in even a partial way would mean the end of Israel in its current form, insisting on such a condition is nothing more than a restatement of the cause of the original conflict. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley put it in the New York Times earlier this year, "Acceptance of the two-state solution signals continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by other means".

Israel's determination to resist meaningful compromises is apparent in the way it confronted the Obama administration over the "natural growth" of settlements. Israel maintains that people who are born in a settlement in the occupied territories should be allowed to live there when they grow up, and that the settlements should be allowed to expand “naturally" to accommodate them. It is an absurd argument: research suggests that "natural growth" includes significant numbers of incomers with no previous connections to the settlements. And besides, it does not address the existence of the settlements themselves. Yet it has served Israel's purpose: "It has provided a smokescreen behind which Israel can pursue more significant and urgent construction that, when completed, will truly render the occupation irreversible," says Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

The Jerusalem Light Rail, or JLR, is a case in point. The construction of Line 1, which is intended to run from the settlement-suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev in the north-east of the city to Mount Herzl in the west, is three years behind schedule, but in the past month or so the tracks have begun to climb the hill past the medieval walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. What used to be a four-lane road has been reduced to two, with inevitable effects.

One Sunday evening last month, I took a taxi back to my hotel in east Jerusalem. When we reached the north-west corner of the Old City, my driver gestured at the cars queuing down the hill towards Damascus Gate, just beyond the commonly accepted divide with the Palestinian quarters. He believed the JLR would not persuade drivers to leave their cars at home - in the long run, he said, it would generate more congestion and pollution. Others believe it will have even more profound implications for Jerusalem's future: the scheme's planners say it is intended to fulfil the vision of the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, of a city with "modern neighbourhoods with electric lines" and "tree-lined boulevards", but critics say it will fulfil another element of Herzl's Eurocentric vision. "The true objective," says Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, "is to entrench irreversibly the 'Judaisation' of Jerusalem, and perpetuate its current reality as a unified city with a predominantly Jewish population under Israeli control." The international community does not recognise Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem after the Six Day War of 1967, which means that settlements such as Pisgat Ze'ev are built on illegally occupied land, yet the JLR will bind them closer to the Jewish districts in the western half of Jerusalem, and make the task of partitioning the city even harder.

Other events in the summer, such as the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, and a series of announcements about planned building projects, provide further evidence of Israel's intention to preclude meaningful negotiations about the city's future. In September, it said it was beginning work on 500 new apartments in Pisgat Ze'ev, and in August it vowed to build on the important “E-1" site, which lies between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, and drives a wedge through the heart of the West Bank.

Elsewhere, Israel has been building bypasses in an attempt to redraw the map of the West Bank, continuing the construction of the hated "separation fence" and forcing thousands of people off their land by appropriating water required for irrigation. As Halper sees it, these actions were Israel's way of telling Obama to "go to hell" while he was preparing a peace plan to present at a UN summit in September.

Two states or one?

In the event, Obama failed to produce a plan of any kind. It was all that he could do to force Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands in public. Abbas had always insisted that the resumption of negotiations would be dependent on a complete freeze in settlement building, and his position was officially endorsed by the US - in May, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, said that the US "wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions". And yet, at the end of last month, she made the extraordinary statement that Netanyahu had made "unprecedented" concessions on "the specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements".

It isn't clear whether this pronouncement was a consequence of the undiminished influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a reflection of Obama's wavering will in the face of Israeli intransigence, or evidence of hidden tensions within the US administration, yet Clinton's distorted language suggests that even she was embarrassed to be mouthing such nonsense: the only "restraint" that Netanyahu has offered is to restrict settlement construction in the West Bank to 3,000 homes that have been approved already by the Israeli authorities, and he has not considered any halt to construction in east Jerusalem.

It was Clinton's announcement that prompt­ed Erekat to break diplomatic cover. He said that Netanyahu had issued the Palestinians with an absurd list of preconditions to restarting talks, insisting, among other things, that Jerusalem would remain the "eternal and united capital of Israel", that the issue of refugees would not be discussed, and that Israel would not withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. "This is dictation, and not negotiations," Erekat said.

Such tactics serve only to entrench the paradox at the heart of Israeli policy: by humiliating its so-called "partners for peace" in the Palestinian Authority, and hastening the demise of the two-state solution, it seems determined to bring about what the majority of its citizens fear most - the prospect of Jewish Israelis becoming a minority in a single, bi-national state. Barghouti opposes the colonisation of Palestinian land represented by projects such as the JLR, yet he is glad that it is rendering the two-state solution practically impossible. "For over 25 years, I've supported the unitary, secular, democratic state solution for historic Palestine, because I regard it as the most ethical solution to all involved. It reconciles the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs with the acquired rights of Jewish Israelis," he says.

It may not be as simple as that. Israel's ultra-nationalists are preparing for the day when the Jews find themselves in a minority in historic Palestine by proposing legislation designed to shore up the Zionist vision of a Jewish state. The Netanyahu government has adopted a bill brought forward by the radical ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, which sanctions three years' imprisonment for anyone who mourns the nakba - the Palestinian name for the events of 1947-48, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven from their homes, and the state of Israel was created. And earlier this year, the Israeli Knesset passed the preliminary reading of another bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu: an amendment to the citizenship law that includes an oath of allegiance and stipulates a year's imprisonment for anyone who publishes a "call that negates the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state".

Neither Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens nor the even greater number of Palestinians in the West Bank who would become part of a putative "Greater Israel" could be expected to recognise the contradictory notion of a "Jewish and democratic" state. If the day came when a Jewish minority found itself presiding over an Arab majority, then the focus of both the domestic struggle and the diplomatic and international effort would have to change: instead of attempting to create two separate states, the emphasis would be on securing equal rights for all the new country's citizens. It is a situation with an obvious precedent: Israel is already accused of running an apartheid regime in the West Bank, and the BDS movement targeting Israel for boycott, divestment and sanctions is beginning to assume the dimensions of the one directed against South Africa in the 1980s.

The sanction solution

Some maintain that targeting Israel for sanctions has grave consequences for the fragile Palestinian economy, though its proponents say it is the only effective way to force Israel to comply with international law. Either way, the movement is gathering pace. In the past few months, it has scored some notable successes, including one in the fight against the JLR. The French company Veolia, which owns 5 per cent of the City Pass consortium contracted to operate the line after completion, has come under concerted pressure to withdraw from the project. In 2006, the Dutch ASN bank broke off financial relations with it because of its involvement in JLR, and earlier this year a French court heard a lawsuit by a pro-Palestinian group demanding the project be halted on the grounds that it violates international law. Barghouti claims Veolia has lost billion-dollar contracts around the world as a result, and in September the company said it intends to sell its stake in City Pass to the Israeli Dan Bus Company.

If, or when, it does so, the focus of the campaign will switch to another part of the consortium - the French power generation and urban transport group Alstom. "In the coming weeks, Alstom will feel the heat, particularly in Arab states where it has won lucrative contracts," says Barghouti. The BDS campaign also claims credit for precipitating the financial collapse of one of Israel's most high-profile businessmen, Lev Leviev, whose company, Africa-Israel, built settlements in the West Bank.

Yet it was the British TUC's decision in September to mount a partial boycott of Israeli goods that convinced Barghouti the Palestinians' "South African movement" had arrived: he believes the endorsement of BDS "will reverberate across the world". It may even prove more significant than the best efforts of the Nobel peace laureate and his team of negotiators.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. He is writing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
Show Hide image

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