New Orleans: a national humiliation

Anthony Lane reports from the city failed by its president

As you enter New Orleans, you would not know that, two years on, the city is still reeling from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

When I ask a fellow bus passenger, a middle-aged Texan in town for a boozy weekend, about reports of rocketing crime and hundreds of thousands still living in trailers, he upbraids me. "That's a whole loada leftwing crap. Just look at the place".

It's easy to sympathise with this view. The Central Business District of the city is gleaming, full of impressive colonnaded buildings, home to banks and swanky hotels. Indeed, beholding the obvious wealth at the heart of the Big Easy brings to mind Donald Trump's comment when President Bush promised to pump $200bn into the wider Gulf Coast after Katrina. "Now anybody that lived there is going to be a multimillionaire", he said of those whose homes were destroyed.

The main tourist area, the French Quarter, looks similarly unaffected and lives up to New Orleans' reputation of being 'the city that care forgot', the birthplace of jazz and the cocktail. Wandering down legendary, decadent Bourbon Street with its loud bars offering cocktails to go, is an assault on the senses. Not only is a good time guaranteed but the French Quarter feels incredibly safe, with patrols performed not just by local police but also by the Louisiana state police and the National Guard.

It is the latter's presence, however, which hints that all is far from well. The National Guard has stayed in the city at the request of Mayor Ray Nagin, in an effort to stem an explosion in crime. Murder, almost always black on black and located away from tourist hotspots, is reaching epidemic proportions. In 2006, there were 63 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest murder rate in the entire country and ten times that of New York. This figure may well be an underestimate.

One local academic, Prof Mark VanLandingham of Tulane University, has suggested the real one is 96 per 100,000. If true, that would mean New Orleans has twice the murder rate of America's second most murderous city, Gary in Indiana.

Figures for the first three months of 2007 are equally shocking. According to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), overall violent crime increased by 107% in the space of one year. Armed robbery was up 135% on 2006 figures and murder rose by 182%. The crime wave is out of all proportion to the rise in population – thought to have increased by 62% – as residents returned to their gutted homes. (Many seem to have abandoned the city for good and one third of New Orleanians tell pollsters they want to leave.)

In January, there was almost a murder a day, prompting a march on city hall by angry residents. As a result, overnight police checkpoints have been set up across the city and the National Guard has launched aerial patrols. There are also 22 FBI agents on patrol. But a beefed-up federal presence cannot disguise falling police numbers.

Officially, the number of officers is down from 1,668 in 2005 to 1,400 today. However, the latter figure includes sick, injured and depressed officers (there are few who don't have harrowing stories from the aftermath of Katrina). Solidifying the city's reputation as the nation's capital of crime, Fox is setting its latest police drama, K-Ville, in New Orleans.

The city is showing little sign of coping with the consequences of the complete breakdown in the criminal justice system. State charges against 3,000 criminal suspects were dropped in 2006 because of a lack of resources to prosecute them. There were 162 murders last year but only three have seen convictions. Murders often go unsolved because the city does not have the resources to fund adequate witness relocation or change witnesses' identities. Residents are all too aware that drug gangs, often linked to these murders, are living much closer to their homes since Katrina. Armed drugs dealers are now encamped in hundreds of abandoned houses in the Ninth Ward, the worst hit area of the city. Police are widely criticised for not patrolling beyond main streets. Some locals sport T-shirts with the words, "NOPD: Not Our Problem Dude" emblazoned on them.

There is one very safe way of seeing the damage wrought by Katrina and just how little has been done to help those trying to rebuild their lives in areas like the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane Katrina Tour, a guided bus tour run by national tour operator Gray Line, is the epitome of disaster tourism; taking visitors around the most wretched parts of the city. The guide, a witty, middle-aged white woman called Sandra, ended up sleeping on one of the unbroken levees and went two days without food or water before being rescued. "Is anyone here from the government?" she asks. "I want to make sure I punch the right people."

The sheer chaos after the storm smashed the city's flood walls and levees is realised by way of some amazing tales. We drive by the impressive Aquarium of the Americas, the stench from which was apparently unbearable as 10,000 fish gently cooked in the 98 degree heat. Then there is the Superdome, home to 28,000 desperate residents whose plight led to comparisons with the third world.

We go by impressive cemeteries. New Orleans, by long tradition, buries its dead above ground. The storm tore the tops off many graves with the effect that the skeletons of the long-since-departed floated next to the corpses of Katrina's 1,600 victims. Despite having the footage, American TV networks did not broadcast such images. The bus goes past houses belonging to the guide's friends, one of whom saved 65 people by cramming them into her home which has since been looted 17 times.

Another spent 10 days living on top of his home and bore witness to a deer trying to avoid the rising water by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, only to be gobbled by a shark swum in with the Gulf of Mexico. Chemical and oil spills, death by poisonous snakes, sharks, corpses and skeletons: it is anarchy even Hobbes would have found difficult to imagine.

But the true horror is more banal; it is in the sheer scale of what remains to be done, two years on. There are so many homes boarded up, still marked by paint indicating how many people – and their pets – were found dead there. Trailers are parked outside thousands of properties as people rebuild their homes. Many are beyond repair. Nine hundred houses are torn down each month in the city. There are hundreds of 'for sale' and 'now leasing' signs outside properties with smashed windows. Some of the most beautiful houses built in the richer Bayou area in the 19th Century are unscathed because they were constructed a few feet above ground (residents of old were worried about the possibility of flooding). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now requires properties most at risk to be raised three feet above ground and we see a few strange-looking homes which have been raised several feet, almost as if they are on stilts.

The bus takes a turn off one of the main roads and goes through the Ninth Ward, trailers and crumpled homes everywhere. We are in closer proximity to residents than at any other point in the trip and we see children walking barefooted. A certain queasiness sets in and the bus windows begin to feel almost like the screens at a zoo. I'm not surprised on later learning that the locals hate the tour and the gawping it entails.

The long-term damage to the economy is also obvious. We go past the place where a newly-opened 55ft shopping mall once stood and then by the rollercoasters of a derelict theme park which would take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. The local oyster beds were all destroyed, we are told, along with 10,000 boats. Environmental damage is apparent from the swathes of dead trees on the outskirts of the city. Marshes are still dying, due to the effects of salt water.

We see one of 50 new city landfills where debris from 2005 is still being dumped. According to Nagin the city has had to clear up six times as much debris as New York did after 9/11. A gigantic NASA compound can be seen on the horizon. Despite being badly hit, the federal government made sure it was operational just six weeks after Katrina, says the guide disgustedly, neglecting to mention that her tour was up and running only 10 weeks after that. Indeed, for all the sentimentalism about rebuilding the city, when I ask if the tour donates its profits to the victims of Katrina, the reply is a little frosty. "We've given $3000", she says. Considering that it runs twice daily, has a capacity of 40 and charges $35, I fail to disguise my surprise at such thinly-veiled parsimony.

But it is a brilliant tour, one which brings home the neglect and incompetence of Bush's administration. By the end, however, it becomes a desensitising experience as one gutted home leads on to another. "Too much. It's just too much," says the woman behind me, as the three hour trip draws to a close.

Reconstruction in New Orleans and beyond has been painfully slow. Public services in the city are in dire straits. In his recent State of the City address, Nagin said, "Healthcare in our city is in crisis…our mental health patients have been abandoned". Despite rocketing mental illness, the 300 public and private psychiatric beds destroyed by Katrina have not been replaced. The Louisiana State University hospital is on the verge of opening a 10-bed unit situated in a temporary building. Even if the city could provide more beds, it is questionable whether it could find or fund mental health workers to practice there. Higher education is in a bad way. The American Association of University Professors recently took the highly unusual step of marking out all of the city's universities for criticism.

Yet the greatest anger is directed at the failure of Road Home, the programme through which residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged, are compensated. Incredibly, along the entire Gulf Coast there are 87,000 households living in mobile homes and travel trailers and another 33,000 living in federally subsidised apartments. The federal government is supposed to provide the money to residents based on estimates made by the state of Louisiana about the level of damage their properties sustained. But the programme has an estimated shortfall of between $2.9bn and $5bn, with the result that a stunning four fifths of Road Home applicants have not received anything.

Consequently, many have failed to return. The population is thought to be around the 250,000 mark, well below the pre-Katrina population of 455,000.

Some fault the private firm put in charge of Road Home and hired by the outgoing Governor Kathleen Blanco on the basis that the private sector would be more efficient. Others ask why the state government, enjoying a budget surplus, cannot itself put more money into Road Home. But the real blame game is between the state government and FEMA.

The federal government agency's Donald Powell, President Bush's co-ordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, blames the state government for awarding grants to those ineligible for compensation. The federal government, Powell has argued, takes full responsibility for the flood damage due to the failure of the federally-managed levees but is not responsible for the hurricane's wind-related damage. Not true, says the Louisana Recovery Authority, pointing to the fact that in June 2006, the federal government approved the state's application for all to be compensated.

FEMA's position and the Road Home shortfall has resulted not only in many residents being denied the compensation to which they are legally entitled but has also led to the federal government now trying to claw back some $485m from those who have been helped – a sum it spends every 42 hours in Iraq. It is little wonder that Nagin recently lashed out at the "unfulfilled promises" of the federal government as well as "an unprecedented bureaucracy, a misguided Road Home programme, a state government flush with cash while citizens go broke trying to come home".

For her part, Blanco, a Democrat like Nagin, has blasted the amount of money given to the state. Louisiana, she says, was "low-balled" by the federal government, pointing out that neighbouring Mississippi, which was also hit by Katrina, has been given $5.5bn in grants compared to $10.4bn for Louisiana even though the latter sustained five times as much damage. The differential treatment, Blanco and many others claim, is down to Mississippi having a Republican governor who helped to get Bush elected. Moreover, hurricane-related spending decisions were signed off, until the 2006 Congressional elections, by the Senate Appropriations Committee which was chaired by a Republican Senator from Mississippi.

Just how badly some are suffering becomes clear at a protest 80 miles away in Louisiana's state capital, Baton Rouge. Apart from a few white hippies and volunteers, almost all of the 200 protestors are black and yet to receive compensation for the damage to their homes. Their placards say "Show Me The Money", pouring scorn on the federal government's claim to have spent $110bn on the Gulf Coast since Katrina. The anger is palpable. Some speakers on the steps of the Capitol building are almost screaming despite having megaphones to hand. Nagin has also joined them. He is an eloquent and impressive speaker, with an easy ability to command applause and share in the protestors' frustrations. I ask a nurse what she thought of the speech. "It was great – for all the good it will do".

Nagin has the unenviable task of radiating optimism to residents about the future whilst emphasising just how bad things are in order to get more federal funds. His poll ratings have plummeted as anger over crime and the lack of reconstruction has risen. Lakeisha, a waitress, calls him 'crooked', a word that gets used a lot. As the protest breaks up, I talk to one man, still living in his damp, rotting house and carrying a placard stating, 'Louisiana has the best politicians money can buy'. I ask if that's true of Nagin as the mayor glad-hands right next to us. "Him too. Everybody is."

There is no reason to think this is the case. Nagin made a name for himself before Katrina as a 'corruption-buster'. What such comments reflect is a dangerous contempt for, and anger at, all politicians and the institutions of government as well as the fact that in Louisiana, politics has long been a byword for brazen corruption. (Indeed, just as the city and state attempt to convince Congress that any extra money will be wisely spent, one Louisiana congressman, William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption. Amazingly, he was re-elected in 2006, despite the allegations swirling around him and the FBI discovering $90,000 hidden in his freezer.)

Another, more considered, critique of Nagin is that, as a relative newcomer to the choppy waters of Louisiana politics – before he became mayor, Nagin was a cable television executive with no previous political experience – he has been unable to navigate through a plethora of vested local interests. It must be frustrating to be simultaneously tarred by association with Louisiana politics and damned for not being well versed in it.

The flip side of being a passionate speaker is Nagin's loose tongue which has got him into trouble more than once. Campaigning for re-election last year and in need of black votes, Nagin pledged that New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city", i.e. predominantly black.

Heavily criticised in the national media and lampooned as the Willy Wonka of American politics, he apologised and then hilariously claimed his words were consistent with his previous pledges to reduce racial divisions. "How do you make chocolate?" he asked. "You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about".

Perhaps more damaging to the reputation of Nagin and the city was the choice of Ed Blakely as recovery tsar. Blakely makes Nagin look like a paragon of diplomacy. Showing total contempt for the people he was supposed to be helping, Blakely was once quoted as calling many New Orleanians "buffoons" and has compared the city to "a third world country". On another occasion, he suggested the state should learn about birth control, comparing it unfavourably to California. It was an ignorant as well as insulting remark: on average, Louisiana actually has fewer children per family than California. Worse still, when back home in Australia, Blakely went on local radio and accused the city of exaggerating its pre-Katrina population so as to maximise funds from the federal government after the storm. He apologised and blamed "a serious medical condition" for his comments. With recovery chiefs like this.

Proposals made by both Nagin and Blakely to raise more money for recovery have not progressed. Both have spoken of issuing so-called blight bonds, using damaged properties as collateral to borrow $300m. Until recently, however, the city had a bond rating of junk, stymieing such ideas. There are a plethora of blueprints, action zones, commissions and recovery agencies, but no money with which to proceed. What progress has been made is the result of loans, donations from foundations and a partial recovery of the city's tax base thanks to the return of tourists.

But however justified the criticisms of Nagin, Blakely, Blanco et al might be, as one of the organisers of the Baton Rouge protest says, "No state or city government, no matter how efficient, could have coped with this". New Orleans has been in need of a Leviathan but has instead been dealt the most uncaring and incompetent administration in modern American history.

The charge sheet against Bush's management is damning. Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers required $62.5m to maintain Louisiana's flood control project, only for the administration to cut the budget to just $10.5m. There was a 44% reduction in spending on the levees between 2001-2005. Bush downgraded the status of FEMA, which had warned in 2001 that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three most probable disasters to befall the US. FEMA was placed in the charge of the Homeland Security department, miring it in "a dysfunctional bureaucracy", according to Hillary Clinton.

The shockingly indolent response to the disaster was, of course, a national humiliation. Some of the last people to be rescued, in nearby St Bernard, were saved not by American troops, but by the much-lampooned Canadian Mounties. And now, given the desperate shortage of cash, New Orleans is once again embarrassing the country.

Nagin recently announced that he is in contact with foreign governments who offered aid in the wake of Katrina. Their offers, totalling $854m, were rejected by the Bush administration. In an unprecedented act, Nagin has decided "to go around the federal government" to see if any of those offers are still on the table.

Whether New Orleans is in better shape to withstand another hurricane of Katrina's magnitude – it was a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit the city – is an open question. The city successfully lobbied Congress for a strengthening of its levees and flood defences, guaranteeing it "100-year protection". But work on the new defence system will not be completed until 2011. There is no doubt that it is a big task. Though maintenance before the storm cost very little, Katrina left 225 miles of levees in need of repair with the result that the corps has been given $5.7bn. According to Col Jeff Bedey, the commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, the system "is stronger today than it was pre-Katrina".

However, the colonel was careful not to give categorical assurances and some engineers have stated that a prolonged Category 2 hurricane would flood the city once more. Ivor Van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre, whose pre-Katrina warnings about the dangers facing New Orleans were ignored, maintains that there are still "weak links" in basic flood defences. According to an internal army corps report, because of the rush to offer as much protection as quickly as possible, new pumps installed in 2006 have failed to work correctly. Water has recently seeped through cracks in flood walls that have supposedly been restored.

But the potential for further ruin goes beyond the city. Nearby Terrebonne is thought to be most at risk of flooding and Congress has approved a $900m levee system. The Bush administration has yet to give the nod to construction with the result that residents have had to tax themselves $80m in order to provide 'interim protection'. The main consoling thought for anxious residents waiting for 2011 is that Katrina is often described as a '1 in 400' event. That anxiety is not helped by constant reports of what remains to be done. 'Hurricane hype' is amusingly lambasted by weather presenters on the very news programmes that generate it.

The predominating emotion is not anxiety but depression. "Everyone's depressed", says Ben, another organiser of the Baton Rouge protest. Despite having just over half its 2005 population, suicide prevention calls are up 800%. People speak of 'Katrina fatigue' – hardly surprising given the never-ending slew of bad news stories relating back to the hurricane, which can involve anything from 'ailing theatres' to having the highest rates of bankruptcy and heart attacks in the country. Nagin claims the death rate in the city is up 47% and the state as a whole continues to rank 50th in health surveys. There are a startling number of people coughing, despite the very warm summer heat.

The city at times seems almost cursed. I came across the story of one broken man whose home in the neighbourhood of Gentilly was badly damaged by the storm. He returned and spent the better part of 2006 using his life savings to rebuild it while he lived outside in a trailer, frequently fending off would-be looters. Just as he was about to move back in, a tornado ripped through the city in February, leading to 30,000 households going without power and a state of emergency being declared. It also slammed his trailer against his house. He is now living in a second trailer. He was lucky only by comparison with his neighbour, 86 year old Stella, who was killed in her newly refurbished home when her old trailer was thrown against it.

The other prevailing feeling is anger. Iraq hangs over New Orleans, almost as pungent as the smells due to poor drainage, another post-Katrina blight. Indeed, in another unguarded remark he was made to regret, Nagin suggested Katrina demonstrated God's anger at the US for going to war. Most New Orleanians are quick to link the cuts in flood defences preceding the hurricane with the president's $1 trillion war of choice. 'Make levees, not war' T-shirts are available in most tourist shops. "All that Road Home money, it went on the war", says Ann, a hotel worker who also recalls the Asian tsunami. "All that aid to a country no one had heard of, and in the US, we get nothing".

This anger is expressed most acutely by blacks. The racial divisions in the city, which was 67% black before Katrina, have always been stark. As Nagin said in his 2005 State of the City address, "Parts of our city are mired in violent crime, unemployment…and children are trapped in failing schools". Those parts were black and remain so. The anger and despair felt by blacks has been likened by Barack Obama to the situation in Los Angeles in the 1980s before race riots overtook the city in 1992.

New Orleans feels like a city at a crossroads. There is a danger that the "quiet riot" identified by Obama becomes audible and violent, that the city fails to get a grip on crime and that tens of thousands continue to wait for compensation. On the other hand, help may now come from a Democrat Congress, prodded into action by all three of the party's main presidential candidates who have promised more money should they be made president in 2008.

The city continues to be helped by a veritable army of volunteers. The work of charities like Habitat for Humanity has been invaluable. While no substitute for government action, the American volunteer culture is a truly impressive and noble sight to behold, as children from all around the country use their holidays to rebuild victims' homes. In especially rough areas like Treme, citizens are attempting to reclaim their neighbourhoods by way of rallies and public meetings. Recently, the first school in the Lower Ninth Ward was reopened, a 'Herculean effort' say local officials, considering that other dilapidated schools have had to house guard dogs to stop constant looting of pipes as well as the wood used to board the schools up.

Leaving the city centre, you are struck once more by its wealth and the fundamental strength of the city's position as a hub for big business and tourism. For all the public squalor, private investment is gathering pace. The city is manna from heaven for property speculators and 150,000 building permits, worth $3.7bn, have been issued. Furthermore, 62,000 out of the city's 81,000 businesses have now reopened. There is one particularly striking billboard, advertising a $400m, 70-storey tower which will be the tallest building in the state when completed in 2010 and which hopes to attract the affluent to condos priced between $375,000 and $3.3m. It seems somehow fitting that the proprietor is none other than Donald Trump.

The city of New Orleans has proven itself to be George Bush's domestic crucible, laying bare the sheer incompetence and callousness of the president. The administration's criminal neglect has meant that two years after Katrina, hundreds of thousands of American citizens endure a soul-destroying existence and the daily humiliations and indignities of trailer park life. Their homes destroyed, their humanity crushed and their promised compensation denied, they have become a diaspora of human detritus, left to rot by the pioneers of compassionate conservatism.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit