Graveyard shift

The construction of a museum of tolerance in Jerusalem – on the site of an ancient Arab cemetery – h

"You can't build a museum on the bones of our grandfathers and call it the Museum of Tolerance," Mustafa Abu Zahra told me, as we walked round what remains of the largest Arab cemetery in West Jerusalem. Beyond the trees and the stone tombs that cover the southern half of the cemetery, we could see the white metal fence that enclosed the construction site of a project that has aroused fierce opposition in the six years since its inception. Even its name seems a mockery of the spirit of religious co-operation that the city of Jerusalem - so central to the adherents of three related faiths - is supposed to represent: "It's not about tolerance or love between nations,' said Abu Zahra. 'It's about the violation of a sacred site."

I'd met Abu Zahra at his shop in the Musrara quarter. When I arrived, customers were drinking coffee in the front, and Abu Zahra was receiving visitors at a desk in a storeroom piled high with sacks of rice and tinned goods. Yet he is not just a shop owner and businessman: he is also mutawalli, or guardian, of Mamilla Cemetery. When his guests had left, he drove me round the walls of the Old City to his diminishing realm, amid the air-conditioned shopping malls and upmarket hotels of West Jerusalem.

The journey took only five minutes, but it exposed some of the cultural contrasts that inform the debate about Mamilla's future. Abu Zahra's shop sells everything from figs and spices to cornflakes and cleaning fluid, but once we'd left the market stalls and crowded streets around Damascus Gate, we found ourselves in a very different part of the city.

Mamilla used to lie on the edge of the impoverished no-man's-land that divided the Israeli and Jordanian sections of the city, but since Israel conquered and annexed East Jerusalem in the Six Day War of 1967, it has become a prime piece of land. Jerusalem's best-known hotel, the King David, is 200 metres up the hill; the Waldorf Astoria group is investing $100m (£60m) in another luxury hotel on the street that runs along its southern border. The American consulate in West Jerusalem and Mamilla Mall lie within sight of its gates.

It is probably not surprising that Mamilla's paved avenues, dusty paths and open spaces have gradually been eroded. In 1958, ten years after the state of Israel came into being, its western half was appropriated for Independence Park, and in 1964 a multi-storey car park was built on its northern edge. Yet it is the plan to build the Museum of Tolerance where the car park used to stand that has piqued those such as Abu Zahra, who sees it as nothing less than an attempt to erase the history of the Arab presence in Jerusalem.

The Museum of Tolerance is being developed by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), an "international Jewish human rights organisation", named after the renowned Austrian Nazi-hunter. It already owns the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the Tolerance Centre in New York; in 2004, it inaugurated the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem at a ceremony attended by Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California and the son of an Austrian policeman who joined the Nazi Party in 1938. The celebrity architect Frank Gehry designed a flamboyant building in steel and glass, but the initial phases of ground-breaking and construction unearthed several hundred skeletons.

Religious and civic organisations demanded that the SWC abandon work and seek another site. The waqf, or religious trust, which is responsible for Mamilla, petitioned the high court to stop the building work, as did a human rights organisation representing three Jerusalem families whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery. In February 2006 the court issued an injunction, and work stopped for two years. But on 28 October 2008 the high court ruled that it could resume, and placed the onus on the Muslim authorities to accept the SWC's offers to reinter the remains elsewhere, clean up the modern Muslim cemetery to the south of the site and establish an appropriate monument to those who were buried there.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the SWC, claims that "all citizens of Israel" - Jews and non-Jews - would be the "real beneficiaries" of the decision. "Moderation and tolerance have prevailed. The museum . . . will be a great landmark promoting principles of mutual respect and social responsibility," he says. Others point out that the SWC campaigned for 15 years to remove a Carmelite convent from the grounds of Auschwitz, arguing that nothing should be built on the "single largest unmarked human graveyard in history", and say Mamilla should be accorded similar respect.

Rabbi Hier says the comparison is "ludicrous", not least because "the Arabs" did not treat the site as a cemetery when it was a car park. He maintains that the religious leaders of the Muslim community have ruled that the site was mundras, or abandoned, and says that in 1946 there were plans to build a university on the land. But critics say he has misread the nature of such schemes. According to Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a professor of geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is one of the leading authorities on the city's recent history, they were "curiosities" that were never likely to be implemented.

Shattered stone

Besides, what the Mufti of Jerusalem might once have sanctioned is not the point, Ben-Arieh says: what matters is the way in which Israel is treating an important Muslim site located within its sovereign territory. Gershon Baskin, an Israeli Jew who runs a joint Palestinian-Israeli public policy organisation called Ipcri, recalls the reaction when Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and discovered that many graves in the cemetery on the Mount of Olives had been damaged or destroyed.

“Imagine the outrage if the Palestinians were building a Museum of Tolerance - or anything else - on what was once a Jewish cemetery," he says. "Would it matter if the cemetery was not active and in use since 1948, or that it was being done legally?

“The Wiesenthal Centre project in Jerusa­lem is a disgrace to the Jewish people, the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. Shimon Wiesenthal would be turning in his grave if he knew what is happening in his name."

When construction at Mamilla resumed, several months after the high court verdict, hundreds more skeletons were exhumed and transferred to a mass grave. It wasn't possible to see what was going on behind the high white fence that sealed the perimeter of the site, but the British artist Sarah Beddington filmed from the windows of a nearby building for a video installation that featured in an exhibition called "The Other Shadow of the City".

Abu Zahra estimates that Mamilla is now a tenth of its original size, and the erosion of its borders is still going on. Recently, a section in the south-eastern corner of the cemetery, beyond the deep stone basin called Mamilla Pool, which was often used as a water source for armies besieging the Old City of Jerusalem, has been fenced off as a workman's yard, and the Jerusalem Municipality has begun storing rubbish bins in the south-west corner.

Even the few remaining graves are not safe: many of the headstones have been defaced or destroyed. "They have eliminated every stone here that has the name of the man inside, because they don't want anyone to claim them," says Abu Zahra. He believes that if the museum is built, it will not be long before the rest of Mamilla is appropriated by developers. "They will find a way to take more of the land, and step by step they will destroy the cemetery."

As we walked, he pointed out the shattered headstones of some of the tombs and translated some of the inscriptions on the few that remain intact. There was one commemorating the death of the "deceased martyr Ameen Abdelmo'ti Abu al-Fdel al-Alami, Sheikh and Imam" who died in 1346AH or "after Hejira" (AD1927), a reference to the Prophet Muhammad's journey from Mecca to Medina in AD581, which marks the beginning of the Islamic age.

Some people claim that Mamilla has graves dating to the era of Salah ah-din (or Saladin), who drove the Crusaders out of the Holy Land and recaptured Jerusalem, though archaeologists suggest most of them are no more than 400 years old. What no one disputes is that it contains the graves of sheikhs, imams, scholars, military leaders and members of the city's most important Arab families. "The name means 'a piece of heaven on earth', and it was a great honour to be buried there," says Raed Duzdar, whose ancestor is buried in the south-east corner of the plot, overlooking the site of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Ahmad Agha Duzdar was the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem between 1838 and the early 1860s. In 2005 the Turkish consulate helped Raed Duzdar renovate his grave. The tall, white stone, engraved with a red star and crescent and inscriptions in English and Arabic, was destroyed a few weeks later. All that is left of it is a few fragments of shattered stone.

Duzdar does not know who committed the act of vandalism, but he blames the authorities that allowed the SWC to develop the northern part of the site. "The government and the municipality say they're preaching tolerance, but they are allowing this ugly thing to be done to us in Jerusa­lem." He says that the sanctity of the cemetery is eternal. "No religion would accept the destruction of graves. It's very sinful."

Project stalls

Since the high court's verdict, Baskin has come up with various plans to stop the project. He was a signatory to another suit filed at the high court, claiming that the Israel Antiquities Authority, which prepared the site for construction, had misled the court about the number of burials it unearthed. Baskin has tried to persuade the Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, and his predecessor Ovadia Yosef, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to declare the site "unclean" because of the remains disinterred in the construction process.

Yet Baskin never held out much hope that any of the suits would succeed and began to fear that the museum was a "done deal". Yet last November, it seemed there had been an unexpected reprieve - work on the site appeared to stop, and the announcement that Gehry had left the project seemed to confirm it had begun to falter. The SWC maintains that it has spent the past two months removing pipes from the site. However, it has conceded that it is redesigning the project "to reflect today's world economic realities"; the budget has been cut from $250m to $100m, and the size of the complex has been halved. Rabbi Hier says that the SWC already has half the funds in place, and it will soon be holding a competition to find an Israeli architect to redesign the museum.

Gehry has denied that his decision to quit was prompted by "perceived political sensitivities", and Rabbi Hier refuses to acknowledge the anger over the destruction of Mamilla, saying that SWC members intend to "refocus all of our energies on bringing to Jerusalem, and the people of Israel, a project of crucial significance to its future". Baskin believes it will be a disaster if the rabbi succeeds, and yet, in some ways, the damage has already been done - no matter what happens next, the SWC will not be able to reinter the human remains dug from Mamilla. Nor will it be able to undo the offence it has caused the likes of Abu Zahra with its ill-considered attempts to spread "a message of tolerance between peoples".

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the NS

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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