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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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Living, eating and dreaming revolution

The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation.

A hundred years after he came to power, Lenin’s is a face that everyone recognises. We all have our impressions of the man: my own include a marble version by the coat racks in a Russian archive where I work in Moscow, and a lump of a statue on the square nearby. In Soviet times, almost all public buildings had a portrait of the leader on display, although when it came to private space a calendar with kittens was what most people preferred.

The Lenin portraits are becoming rarer now – they have been disappearing for almost 30 years – but if you happen to be near Red Square you can still drop in on the man himself. Inside his ugly mausoleum, Lenin is deader than the clumsiest urban bronze. His very suit is dowdy, as if cut for some unloved great-grandparent. The cult that put his statue into every small-town square in Russia has drained the last sparks of humanity. Ostensibly so reverent, it turned its hero into a wax doll. His lips no longer moved, of course, but Stalin reduced him to a prop, a grotesque ventriloquist’s puppet.

Intrigued by this historic conjuring trick, I resolved to find out about the real man. My search began on a spring afternoon in the old part of Zurich, Lenin’s final European home. When he left it, in April 1917, he ceased to be an illegal conspirator, another exiled Russian in scuffed boots and bat-like coat. Accompanied by his wife, his ex-lover and an assortment of supporters, he strode through Zurich Central Station and embarked on the most momentous rail journey in history, the ride that took him on to Russia and his future as the world’s first Soviet head of state. But he started out from a European city and he always saw the continent as his political home.

Another trick the Soviet ventriloquists pulled off was to turn Lenin into their exclusive property, a Russian figure towering above the outside world. The man would never have agreed. He revered Germany and German intellectuals; he admired Europe’s cultural and economic successes. He even learned his rhetoric by watching Sunday speakers in Hyde Park. Walking round Zurich, I could not forget that he was largely made in Europe, part of a pan-Continental socialist movement whose heyday ended with the First World War. Whatever happened later, he always saw his revolution as European, even global.

Lenin loved Switzerland: he liked the mountains and the bracing walks, and he did not mind about the food. As other parts of Europe shut their doors to foreigners, Switzerland became his haven, a place where he could work and talk. Above all, he enjoyed its libraries. His favourite, beside the medieval Predigerkirche, still looks as it did when he worked there. Although he lived five minutes’ walk away (in cramped and airless rooms above a sausage factory), it was here that he passed some of his happiest hours. He was sure to be waiting outside when the doors opened each morning, ­eager to claim his customary desk and line up his pre-sharpened arsenal of pencils.

That Zurich library was the place where, in 1916, Lenin completed his extended essay “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, a work that helped to justify his revolution the following year. The research for it was prodigious. In a few months, he read 148 books and 232 articles in English, French and German, including works by Aristotle and Hegel. In a different age, he might have lost himself in books; he would have made a formidable headmaster.

The Soviets exaggerated Lenin’s so-called genius, but he was certainly tenacious and quick. What he was missing was the gene for self-doubt and humility. The man’s arrogance left others panting in his wake. Years earlier, in his student days (when he was balding fast), friends used to joke among themselves that he had such a big brain that it was pushing his hair out.

The baldness became a defining feature, but what Lenin’s acquaintances in Zurich remembered was a small and energetic man: informal, quick to crack a joke. He was a good listener, too, which is surprising in a character more usually associated with dictatorship. When Russian exiles came to Switzerland he was always keen to question them, to know each secret of their lives and thoughts. He listened to Swiss workers, too, and took an interest in the minutiae of local industrial production. A new arrival might be made to perch on one of Lenin’s battered chairs and detail every aspect of his work. But everyone was also catechised about the revolution and the working class.

Lenin lived entirely for the cause he served and expected his followers to do the same. Whatever else helped him to power, that single-mindedness was critical. “Lenin is the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day,” a fellow exile wrote of him, “who has no thoughts but of revolution, and who even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution.”

The wartime debate among socialists in Europe is largely a forgotten one. Soviet propagandists ensured that Lenin would appear to dominate, as confident as any prophet with his eyes fixed on the way ahead. But the reality was more confused, and even Lenin sometimes worried that his destiny was falling behind schedule. Just days before the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, he told Swiss workers that he feared he might never live to see the revolution he was working for. At such times, he put his faith in the idea that life must constantly improve, accepting Marx’s view of History (with a capital H) in the same breath as Darwin’s natural selection or human technological progress. Capitalism was wrong, imperialism was worse, and therefore working people must eventually defeat both threats and liberate themselves. Lenin was never fatalistic – he was obsessed with action and leadership – but whenever the machinery of revolution stalled he was sustained by that logical certainty.

In Zurich, I was struck by the absurdity of it. The mere idea of progress was becoming obsolete in 1917. For evidence, you need do nothing more than stroll from Lenin’s quarters to the Cabaret Voltaire, which still stands on the bottom corner of his street. When he was living up the hill, this was the home of Dada, the wartime movement that rejected order, reason and virtuous self-improvement. Even as Lenin was proclaiming Soviet power, there was something quaint, even old-fashioned, in the idea that human beings could perfect their world.

However innovative early Soviet culture proved, attracting artists from across the world, I suspect that at its heart there was a measure of nostalgia. The First World War blew great holes in the dream of human perfectibility. Soviet fantasies were attractive precisely because they offered to patch those up, to make things better, get us all back on our feet.

But revolutions need more than beautiful ideas. The Soviet state was born in violence and shaped with merciless determination. Lenin played a central role in its creation. In some ways its eventual character – anarchic provincialism cropped and stretched to fit a template as unkind as the mythical Procrustean bed – remains the best guide to the inner workings of the man. He was ever labouring, crushing himself as well as history to fit a shape. But no biographer is satisfied with that. Yearning to look beyond the politics, each seeks to turn the leader into someone like ourselves.

***

His sex life is a favoured starting point, but the reality of that was dull. Lenin met his future wife when he was 24 and remained with her (more or less) until he died. Nadezhda Krupskaya was serious, loyal and committed; she made a perfect consort for this gifted and difficult man. The only other woman in the case was a well-to-do mother-of-four, Inessa Armand, with whom Lenin had a brief physical affair. Instead of engaging in torrid rows with his wife, however, Armand befriended her. The pair would sit and mend the leader’s clothes. They also shared the burdens of their man’s unending party work: the ­letter-writing and accounts, the maintenance of international contacts. Lenin was an exile and a socialist, but somehow he missed out on all the absinthe and late-night cigarettes.

It bears repeating that Lenin’s priorities were exclusively political. He chose his friends for their commitment and broke with almost all of them on points of principle. He was the first to suffer from his own relentless discipline, giving up pleasures such as chess and music because they distracted him. Even the hiking that he loved was designed to maintain his fitness for the day when revolution came.

Abjuring sentimental pacifism, he carved out a position on the far left of the European anti-war socialist movement, enjoining the working class to turn its weapons on the rich. His message was bloodthirsty even by wartime standards, but his tenacity got him noticed. In April 1917, when officials at the German foreign ministry were looking for someone to destabilise the Russian empire and destroy its capacity to fight, Lenin’s was the name that topped the list. It was the German government that got him home and German gold that helped finance his subsequent campaign.

In Russia’s capital, Petrograd, the revolution was already two months old. Lenin was not the first exile to come home to brass bands and popular applause. A few weeks previously, the Georgian socialist Irakli Tsereteli had arrived from Siberia and immediately assumed a prominent role in the directly elected Petrograd soviet. Three days before Lenin, the grand old man of Russian Marxism, Georgy Plekhanov, had arrived at the Finland Station to a hero’s welcome. The crowds turned out for other liberated exiles, too, including the well-known Bolshevik Lev Kamenev and a louche young man called Joseph Stalin. In the chaos of springtime Petrograd, each made some impact on the revolutionary cause, but none had the volcanic force of Lenin. He stepped off the train from Finland, after eight days of relentless tension, at 11.10pm on Easter Monday. His feet had barely touched the ground before he began his first great speech. His words were shocking, electric and terrifying.

Lenin’s secret was simple: he would give shape to Petrograd’s inchoate disappointment, bringing new focus to the people’s anger, fear and hope. But that first night his audience thought he was mad. He dismissed any thought that democratic Russia had been coping splendidly without him. This went against the grain for some; at the point when he returned, the revolutionary government was moving towards agreement on the conduct of the war, a painful process that involved calming the fears of Russia’s allies (Britain and France) and indicating how liberties should not be taken by its enemies (Germany and ­Austria-Hungary). In thrashing out this policy, Petrograd’s ill-assorted leadership had begun to coalesce: the businessmen with monocles, the professors and lawyers, the writers and the whey-faced former exiles of the left. There were dissenters on all sides, including left-wing members of Lenin’s faction, but the majority saw merit, even hope, in fragile unity. In his first breath in Petrograd, Lenin savaged the lot of them.

He told his listeners that workers had no interest in the capitalists’ war. The people should be armed, but their opponents were the bourgeoisie – the landowners and businessmen – not German proletarians. Lenin also insisted that his party should stop co-operating with the representatives of the old bourgeoisie, the men in suits who still sat in the government. Only the soviets, he said, could speak and act for workers as the next stage of the revolution dawned.

Within three months this clarity, which looked insane on that first night, became his party’s greatest strength. But Lenin’s very popularity turned him into a political target. In July 1917, accused of treason in connection with that fabled German gold, he fled to Finland in fear for his life.

Once there, he pondered the bleak news from Petrograd. The war was going badly for Russia. The tsar might no longer be in charge, but nothing else in the army had changed for the better. As the summer wore on, desertions ran to tens of thousands and regimental discipline collapsed. Meanwhile, the pressure on production workers, especially those in the armaments and transport industries, grew ever more intolerable, while prices rose and food supplies remained erratic. Strikes once again left factories at a standstill, but the left-liberal government had no convincing answers. Even some socialists, in so far as they remained committed to defensive war, appeared to share responsibility for the mounting hardship, rage and fear. Only one party stood out from the rest, the one that had been calling for an end to fighting all along, the one that promised workers their time had come.

***

Lenin had won that argument, but he remained cautious. State power in a tormented Russia was a prize few cared to win. From July to early September, the leader urged compromise and creative delay. But something changed in mid-September. In his borrowed Finnish dacha, Lenin may have heard that the provisional government was at last considering peace talks with Germany, a development that might eliminate his party’s obvious political edge. Drawing on ideas that he had explored back in Zurich, he may have thought the time was right for a European revolution that Russia had a duty to lead. Whatever the reason, he started calling for an armed uprising. His letters even outlined the strategic moves. Once again, his followers were horrified. As he had done when he reshaped his party’s policy in April, Lenin faced the task of convincing them.

It was a job that called for all his bullet-proof self-confidence. With the government cracking down on dissent, even the journey back to Petrograd was risky. Disguised in a wig, Lenin arrived in such secrecy that he surprised his own lieutenants. Two weeks before his celebrated coup, he was a beardless refugee, hammering a suburban table as his comrades sat and stared. But the speeches that he gave that October were among the best he ever made. He did not view his revolution as a local matter, nor merely as a power-grab. In Zurich, he had come to see his country as the weakest link in the chain of global imperialism, the link whose rupture would begin the liberation of the world. If lost, this moment might not come again. As he put it to a midnight meeting in a borrowed room way out of town: “History will not forgive us if we do not take power now!”

This is the Lenin everybody knows, the one in all the portraits. He strides towards the future or he rages at the crowd, but everything he does is right and he can be relied upon to know the way ahead.

In fact, the coup in late October that overthrew Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government was a disputed affair: to the end, some of Lenin’s comrades urged a democratic deal and power-sharing. Then came the details, practical and gritty, which Lenin trusted to a group of stalwarts working round the clock. He provided the leadership – he never seemed to tire in those first critical weeks – but he relied on Leon Trotsky and his armed detachments of Petrograd workers, on members of the Baltic fleet, on his Latvian guards. In the provinces, where his revolution encountered early resistance, the comrades clung on through sheer energy. The Bolsheviks’ hour might have come, but none of Russia’s problems had been solved.

It took arrogance to hold the line throughout the civil war. As Russia tore itself apart, Lenin proved as obstinate as he was merciless. He could order the deaths of tens of thousands – terror became a propaganda tool – and he encouraged class-based hate without compunction. Yet all this was his duty, not some sadistic rampage. Tight-lipped and sober, always with a pen to hand, he never ventured to appear in military uniform. He took no joy in bloodshed, never witnessed executions. There was no white horse for this man to ride, nor did he tour the front lines of his own long war. As flies swarmed on the corpses in the streets and other people’s libraries were burned for fuel, he worked an 18-hour day and never grudged the paperwork.

His authority was legendary. At his new office in Moscow in the Kremlin, Lenin was the ultimate arbiter, the indispensable voice of the future. There was no proper challenger. But that was also his final problem, because it meant there could never be an heir. However loftily he towered over politics, the private Lenin knew that he had failed. He had seized power for the world, but even Europe let him down. In Germany and then Italy and central Europe, the spark of revolution flickered briefly and died. Soviet Russia was becalmed in a sea of hostile capitalist powers, unable to proceed with its global communist mission. Lenin died in January 1924. His revolution had not brought about the future he had planned for it.

At the end of my journey, the biggest surprise is not the monstrosity of Lenin’s vision (we are all familiar with that) but the sentimental clutter in which he lived. His apartment in a respectable part of Petrograd, where he spent three months in the spring of 1917, returning every night from late-running meetings at the headquarters of his party’s paper, Pravda, does not reflect futurism or the glories of a communist new world – the rooms could have been designed for characters out of Dickens. Every cushion and pillowcase is edged with fancy needlework, each surface crowded with knick-knacks. Lenin may have changed the course of history, but his imagination stopped at beaded lampshades and a matching shaving set. The effect is suffocating, yet it was this gentility for which so many died.

Imprisoned in a sanitorium by his final stroke, Lenin must have pictured these old rooms, revisiting the wooden clock, the copper bath, his mother’s framed studio photograph. That embalmed corpse is very dead; the horror is all here.

Catherine Merridale is the author of “Lenin on the Train” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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