Obama unmasked

What's going wrong for the man who would be president? Our US editor Andrew Stephen reports from Was

We at the New Statesman must take some of the blame, I suppose. Barack Obama had been a senator for just ten months in 2005 when we devoted a cover to his face, anointing him as one of ten people likely to have an impact on the world. It was only during 2007, however, that the American media fell head-over-heels in love with Obama; when he trounced Hillary Clinton in the Democratic party caucuses in Iowa on 3 January, it seemed that the electorate was swooning in a headlong rush to the altar with Obama, too. By the end of the first week of the '08 presidential election year, the media had all but handed over the keys to the White House to him.

So it all came as a shock to the pundits and pollsters on the night of 8 January when, despite predictions of an overwhelming Obama triumph, it became clear that the voters of New Hampshire had given Hillary Clinton the victory over Obama she badly needed. The reason for the media's distortions, I believe, is that Obama's relationship with the press and the electorate is still at the stage of starry-eyed infatuation. Yes, he is a mesmerising political orator who offers a magic elixir that somehow contains both stimulants and sedatives: that we need not worry about the present or future, because we can look forward to a new dawn of hope and reassurance in the safe hands of President Obama. Exactly how and why this would happen is not clear, but it is heady and exciting stuff.

I suspect that the longer the relationship continues, however, the more Obama's many faults and shortcomings as a presidential candidate will emerge. In his speech admitting defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, for example, a hint of his bad-tempered haughtiness emerged. He is not the fresh-faced young idealist the media like to portray, but a hard-headed 46-year-old lawyer whose monumental drive and political calculations make the Clintons seem like a pair of amateurs. The media and electorate may have fallen in love with him spontaneously, but Obama has been carefully plotting his strategy to seduce them for decades.

A little "blow"

Even dedicated political operators such as the Clintons, for example, did not publish self-promoting memoirs at the age of 33 - but that is exactly what Obama did, revealing his use of cocaine ("a little blow") before anybody else could beat him to it, for example. In those memoirs, Dreams from My Father, he burnished a personal and political résumé that, in places, seemed almost unbelievable - so I was not surprised to read in his introduction to the reissued edition of "selective lapses of memory" and "the temptation to colour events in ways favourable to the writer".

I'll provide two brief examples of how Obama did just that. He wrote movingly of a turning point in his life when, as a nine-year-old, he read in Life magazine of a "black man who had tried to peel off his skin". But the Chicago Tribune - it and the Chicago Sun-Times being honourable exceptions to the media quiescence I have described - reported that "no such Life issue exists", and an exhaustive search of similar magazines failed to find any article remotely similar to the one Obama had described. The Obama media machine, too, obligingly enabled television crews this month to interview Obama's very elderly Kenyan "grandmother"; the only problem was that the woman in rural Kenya was not Obama's grandmother, but the alleged foster mother of Obama's father. "Give me a break . . . this whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," huffed Bill Clinton, visiting Dartmouth College on the eve of the New Hampshire vote, telling his audience the US media are not being tough enough on Obama.

Politically, there is remarkably little difference between the three leading Democrats - Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Obama was not in the Senate in 2002 and did not therefore vote for the resolution that authorised the invasion of Iraq. But he has not been the sainted man of peace his supporters portray, either. In his three years in the Senate he has kept his head safely below the parapet, leaving two congressional colleagues - Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania - to spearhead opposition to the war on Capitol Hill. In 2006 he voted against a Senate resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops and has also voted to continue funding the war.

Most recently, he said he would not hesitate to send US troops into Pakistan without Pakistan's permission to hunt down terrorists, and he insists that the US must not "cede our claim of leadership in world affairs". He wants the military to "stay on the offensive, from Djibouti to Kandahar" and to increase defence expenditure. Like most identikit US mainstream politicians, he talks of "rogue nations" and "hostile dictators", and says the US must maintain "a strong nuclear deterrent" and be ready to "seize" the "American moment". He appeared to support Israel's attack on Lebanon, but then said "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people" - which, in turn, he denied saying.

In the meantime he let his mentor and fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, swing alone in the wind after Durbin - perhaps the most liberal Democrat in the Senate - compared US interrogation techniques of prisoners in Guantanamo with those of the Soviet Union, Nazis and Khmer Rouge. He voted to reauthorise the Bush administration's repressive Patriot Act, and says that as president he would not rule out a US first-strike nuclear attack on Iran.

His equivocations and contradictions thus proliferate. He promised solemnly on coast-to-coast live television on NBC in 2006 that he would complete his six-year Senate term and definitely not run for the presidency. He voted in favour of President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. I am not the first to see Obama's self-portrayal as almost Christlike: a young black man is tormented by racism and gets into drugs, and only his own inner goodness rescues him from the ghettos to which he was surely consigned. Human foibles - that he smokes and likes playing poker, for example - are determinedly kept under wraps.

Dysfunctional

The sad point of all this is that the reality of his life is actually much more fascinating than the manufactured version. His background is strikingly dysfunctional but by no means economically underprivileged. His eccentric white American mother met his Kenyan father when both were students at the University of Hawaii, but like so many male politicians - Bill Clinton, for one - his father, an alcoholic who ended up fathering several families before being killed in a car accident in Kenya in 1982, was literally and figuratively absent from his life. He abandoned Obama and his mother to take up a scholarship at Harvard when the young Barack was a toddler. So much for his Kenyan "relatives".

His mother, who died in 1995, subsequently remarried an Indonesian student destined to become an oil company executive, and the newlyweds took the young Obama to live in Jakarta when he was six. He duly attended a local school that the Fox News channel gleefully but inaccurately labelled a madrasa. His middle name, like his father's, is Hussein - though Obama insists that his father was not, in fact, a Muslim but an atheist. The adult Obama now attends the evangelical Trinity United Church of Christ in Chi cago and says he is a devout Christian.

The young Obama acquired a half-sister when he lived in Jakarta (she is now a Buddhist), but his mother sent him to live permanently with his white grandparents in Honolulu when he was ten. He then began a new, elitist life that even he describes as "a childhood dream": surfing in Hawaii and attending the renowned private Punahou School, founded by Congregationalist missionaries in 1841 and known to local people as a school for the haole (whites). Its annual tuition today costs $15,725.

Far from being the brilliant student his image suggests, Obama was a consistently B-grade pupil. He went on to attend Occidental College, a perfectly respectable private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, but hardly an academic powerhouse; its present-day endowment is $377m. He transferred to Columbia University in New York and completed his degree there, and finally graduated with a degree from Harvard Law School at the age of 30. His upwardly mobile ascent had begun, and Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He began his professional political career when he stood successfully for the Illinois General Assembly (the state senate) in 1996.

Here we come to one of the major contradictions between Obama's image and reality. The media, both here and in Britain, assume that Obama has the black vote sewn up - a Daily Telegraph columnist, with stupendous racism, casually asserted on Monday that Hillary Clinton has lost an opportunity because American blacks now "have one of their own to support" - but Obama is regarded with suspicion by most African Americans. My postman, for example, screws up his face with disdain at the mere mention of Obama's name. He alienated much of the black political Establishment in 2000, when he ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent congressman for an Illinois district, Representative Bobby Rush - a former Black Panther and current leading member of the Congressional Black Caucus. His congressional district has more black people than any other in the country, and Obama lost to Rush by 31 points.

In a career that has seemed - until now, at least - to be unstoppable, he nonetheless went on to win the Democratic nomination to run for the US Senate in 2004. The seat was being vacated by a retiring Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, but Obama had a tremendous stroke of luck: the former wife of his strong Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, made sordid allegations about their sex life and Ryan was forced to drop out. He was replaced by Alan Keyes, a former black activist and diplomat who had morphed into a figure of the far right and become one of America's fully paid-up political lunatics. Obama, having won national attention for the first time by delivering the keynote address at John Kerry's Democratic coronation convention in Boston the previous July, won by a 70-27 per cent landslide.

Which brings us back to his entry to the Senate in 2005 and our cover of him less than ten months later. Part of Obama's contrived sainthood is an undertaking that he will not take funds from lobbyists or political action committees. But, like the Clintons and just about any other American politician, he has assiduously done just that. According to the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton has so far raised $78,615,215 and Obama $78,915,507; Obama's campaign has relied heavily on people such as Kenneth Griffin, a Chicago-based hedge-fund manager who reportedly earned $1.4bn last year.

The further away you get from Chicago, though, the more the saintly image takes hold. Publications like the New Yorker may coo for pages over "the conciliator", but the two Chicago newspapers are much more interested in Obama's close 17-year friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a long-time Obama donor and property developer awaiting trial on charges of attempted extortion, money laundering and fraud. A low-income housing project received more than $14m from taxpayers while Obama was a state senator, but he consistently denied that he had done any favours for Rezko.

The hope mantra

That was until the Chicago Sun-Times unearthed two letters Obama wrote to state officials in 1998 urging them to grant extra funds for Rezko's project. Democrats and Republicans alike in Chicago, too, are intrigued by the question of why Obama paid $1.65m for a mansion in the city's south side in 2005 - $300,000 less than the asking price - on the very same day Rezko's wife happened to buy the house next door for the asking price. In their tax return for the following year, Obama and his wife, Michelle, who is vice-president of a non-profit hospital organisation, reported taxable income of $983,826 for 2006, down from $1.6m the previous year.

"Hope" is the mantra word in Obama's magic elixir, but Bruce Reed - president of the Democratic Leadership Council - points out that tens of millions of Americans are supporting Obama not because of what he's done, but because of what they hope he might do. "We don't need leaders to tell us we can't do what we need to do," Obama said in a typical stump speech on 7 January. "We need them to say 'yes, we can', to say 'yes, we believe'."

Huge crowds roar their approval over lines like this, long on beautifully delivered rhetoric but short on facts and concrete undertakings. A casual observer might assume Obama is proposing a vastly more ambitious health-care plan than Clinton; in fact, the reverse is true.

Those who know Obama say privately that he has a healthy sense of entitlement that often manifests itself in an imperious, thin-skinned manner. We caught just a glimpse of this peevishness in his concession speech in New Hampshire, I thought - of a man somehow denied his rightful Schadenfreude over the second humiliating defeat of Clinton that he and the American punditocracy had confidently anticipated. Obama's latest book may be called The Audacity of Hope, but it really should be called The Audacity of Hype.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked

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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