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Leaving Afghanistan: is it finally time to be positive about this blighted nation?

The Afghan presidential election has been declared a success – but as the west finalises its pull-out, what the country's prospects?

There is seldom an excess of good news coming out of Afghanistan, but until the triumphant success of the presidential election on Saturday 5 April, optimism was in notably short supply among the Kabul-based foreign press corps. There were good reasons for this. As the election drew closer and the number of attacks by the Taliban increased, Kabul was particularly badly hit and institutions associated with foreigners or the foreign-backed government were targeted with remorseless precision. In January, a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, the Taverna du Liban, killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. The Serena Hotel was hit on 20 March, killing nine; and, in what could have been a bloodbath of about two dozen foreign (mostly American) aid workers and their children, an attack apparently aimed at a guest house followed on 28 March. The Independent Election Commission was attacked the following day, just two weeks after four of its staff had been kidnapped in the eastern Nangarhar Province. The interior ministry was hit by a suicide bomber on 2 April, killing six more.

In all, three foreign journalists have been shot in the past month alone: Nils Horner on 11 March and, on the day before the election, Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Many expats in Kabul fled, the government closed several restaurants and guest houses used by foreigners, and the foreign press corps seemed understandably and uncharacteristically rattled. Their reporting at times reflected that sense of panic.

The steady crescendo of attacks added to the growing sense of exhaustion with the apparently interminable conflict: 13 years after the west went in to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, to destroy al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the troops were now withdrawing with neither objective wholly achieved. What remained of al-Qaeda had moved to the Pakistani borderlands and elsewhere, while the Taliban now control swaths of rural southern Afghanistan. Casualties among Afghan regiments on the front lines are reaching levels that are said to be unsustainable: as many as 800 police and army are being killed every month and some regiments have lost 50 per cent of their fighting troops; a few in Helmand have desertion rates approaching a similar level.

If the Afghan troops were exhausted, their American backers increasingly seemed to have lost any remaining interest in the bloody complexities of the Afghan conflict that they had fought so long and with so little obvious gain. “No one is talking about Afghanistan in Washington any more,” says Mark Mazzetti, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times security correspondent based in the US capital. “There is deep fatigue in DC and across the US over America’s longest war. It is no longer high on anyone’s priorities and in addition the White House feels a deep animosity against Karzai.”

This all matters very much, because the western-installed government in Kabul relies almost entirely on western financial support: without sustained backing it can’t pay for elections, the army, the civil service, medical and educational facilities or tele­communications. If the funding stops, or is significantly reduced, the government is unlikely to be able to defend itself – just as happened to Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which fell to the mujahedin in 1992 after Mikhail Gorbachev cut off the money and the arms supply from the Soviet Union. “The changes which have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 may be irreversible,” says Barnett Rubin, who recently stepped down as an adviser to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But they are also unsustainable.”

There were many other fears – the stuttering economy, the increasing reliance of the economy on aid and narcotics, government corruption, the poorest and most illiterate population in Asia – but looming over them all was what one Afghan official described, mixing two English metaphors, as the white elephant in the room: Afghanistan’s age-old ethnic divisions, which many observers feared could be exacerbated fatally by an indecisive election outcome.

If no one succeeds in gaining a 50 per cent majority in the election (as seems likely) there will be a run-off on 28 May, and in all likelihood it will be between a Pashtun and a Tajik candidate. That could in turn put huge stress on the principal fault line that has divided the country ever since it assumed its modern borders under Dost Mohammad Khan from the late 1850s onwards.

Afghanistan has always been, like Lebanon, a country built less on any geographical or ethnic logic, and more on the contingencies of 19th-century imperial politics. Indeed, considering its ancient history, Afghanistan has had only a few hours of political unity. More often it has been “the places in between” – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours.

For much of its history its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival empires. Only very rarely have the parts come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right; and as the more gloomy commentators have pointed out, it need not take much to rip the country apart again and exacerbate tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures in Afghan society: the old rivalry between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes and the blood feuds within lineages. After all, Afghanistan briefly splintered in a patchwork of warlord-controlled ethnic fiefdoms in 1993-94, between the collapse of the mujahedin regime and the rise of the Taliban.

Just before this month’s election, some of the more perceptive observers noted that despite the bomb attacks there were huge queues forming to register voters across the country and excitement at the well-attended rallies; but still, caught up in the fear generated by the Taliban assault on Kabul, few predicted what was to come on election day. For, in just 12 hours on 5 April, the general mood changed from anxious and frightened to jubilant and triumphant. The scale of participation in the election was unprecedented – so vast, that all over the country ballots began to run out as early as midday.

More than a third of all Afghan provinces reported shortfalls, so unstoppable was the enthusiasm of the electorate. Despite heavy rain, nearly twice as many people – an extra two and a half million Afghans – voted in this presidential election as in the previous one in 2009: seven million out of a total electorate of 12 million. There were the odd attacks on remote polling stations and 1,200 complaints about fraud. But this was nothing compared to the mess that had been predicted, or the fraud that took place in 2009. For the first time in its history, Afghanistan was going to witness a relatively peaceful transfer of power by the ballot box in a remarkably unflawed election.

By the evening of 5 April, few could disagree that the political landscape had changed in a fundamental way. “Despite the cold and rainy weather and possible terrorist attack, our sisters and brothers nationwide took in this election and their participation is a step forward and it is a success for Afghanistan,” said a relieved President Karzai in a televised official statement.

Most excited of all were the Kabul elite, who had worried that all they had built up was about to disappear. “Huge huge day for Afghanistan,” tweeted the media mogul Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s biggest channel. “A historic event ends peacefully with millions casting their votes. A massive victory for our people . . . and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban . . . Politically, this is the beginning of the end for [them].”

One reason for the unprecedented turnout at election rallies and in the election itself was the exceptional quality of the presidential candidates. They are, by any standards, an unusually smart and talented group. According to all the opinion and exit polls, there are three front-runners among the eight candidates who have just stood for president. The most brilliant is Dr Ashraf Ghani, or, as he renamed himself for the election, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The new nomenclature is important: Afghanistan is still a semi-tribal society where clan and ethnic allegiance means a great deal and can bring in block votes from rural areas.

The Ahmadzai are one of the two leading clans of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe; their only rivals are the Hotaki Ghilzai, among whom the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is the clan elder. The Ghilzais as a whole are the rivals of the Durrani Pashtuns, whose two leading clans are the Popalzai and the Barakzai. Hamid Karzai is the chief of the Popalzai and his preferred successor – and Ashraf Ghani’s main rival for Pashtun votes – is Zalmai Rassoul, who is a Barakzai from the royal family. Behind the sophistication, sharp suits and cosmopolitan CVs of all three leading candidates for president lie the tribal blocks that have defined Afghan politics for a century and a half: Ahmadzai Ghilzai v Hotaki Ghilzai; Ghilzai Pashtuns v Durrani Pashtuns; Pashtuns v Tajiks.

According to the polls, at the time of writing, Ashraf Ghani leads the race; and there is little doubt that he is the best qualified of the three contenders. A PhD from Columbia University, former World Bank official, former chancellor of Kabul University and minister of finance, Ghani has a quick wit and a formidable brain. When I was researching my book on the first Afghan war, Return of a King, Ashraf was one of the first men I visited in Kabul and the hours I spent with him in his austerely beautiful library house, filled with books, good rugs and Nuristani furniture, were probably the most revelatory of any in the whole five-year research project.

Although his specialisation in history lies well down his list of interests, coming far behind anthropology and economics, in a two-hour tutorial he gave me a long list of all the principal Persian sources for the war, many of which he was able to take down from his own shelves.

On my subsequent trips to Kabul, Ghani sent round any other books or snippets he had found, always refusing any sort of payment. Yet the same straightforward frankness and lack of dissimulation that makes him such a generous host and dedicated scholar can also cause him to be irritable and irascible. When he disagreed with some remarks I had made at a lecture in Delhi last year, he steamed straight up to the podium at the end and told me I was talking “bullshit! Bullshit!”

A Farsi video of him describing the writer and Tory MP Rory Stewart as the “son of a donkey” is still doing the rounds in Kabul. It dates back to a feud Ghani embarked on a decade ago when he accused Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation of lifting furniture designs from those developed by his wife, the Begum Rula Ghani, a formi­dable figure in Kabul society and a force in her own right.

An old friend of Ghani’s told me he feared his temper almost as much as he admired his mind. “I’m very fond of him – he’s a smart guy,” he said, “but he can be super-temperamental and is capable of totally losing the plot. I can’t even count the number of times he has thrown me out of his house. I can understand how frustrated such a bright man must be by all the idiots in Kabul – but it does worry me. If he doesn’t have the right handlers if he gets to power, he is the sort of man who could easily order an execution in a fit of anger one evening, and deeply regret it when he calms down the following morning – by which time it will be too late.”

When Ghani first stood for election in 2009, he lost so badly that the media dismissed him almost as a joke candidate. But he learned from his campaigning errors and has worked hard to make himself more appealing. As he already had strong support among the new urban youth, he concentrated on winning over rural areas. As well as adding the tribal suffix to his name, he has made himself look more tribal and less of an urban technocrat: he has grown a rather elegant salt-and-pepper beard and in his campaign photographs is usually seen wearing a mountainous Ghilzai turban.

Ghani’s most controversial – and arguably cleverest – move was to form an alliance with the Uzbek warlord and alleged war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls huge vote banks in the north. In 2009 Ghani had denounced Dostum as “a known killer”. This time he offered him the chance to become vice-president. “We need to come to a politics of inclusion, not exclusion,” he explained to Christiane Amanpour of CNN. “We must have people in the system who fought each other; without bringing these elements to genuine reconciliation and peace, we will not move towards stability.”

Like Ghani, his Tajik/Pashtun rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah is fluent, sophisticated and intelligent; but he is a smoother, suaver, less academic figure than Ghani. Ghani wears immaculately pressed white shalwar kameez; Abdullah Abdullah prefers bespoke Savile Row suits. Ghani’s home is full of low Afghan wooden chairs; Abdullah has beautiful Italian furniture. He also owns an extremely rare and valuable collection of Company School paintings of life in Afghanistan by the Delhi artists brought to the country by the British Elphinstone mission from 1808 onwards. His most recent wife, a gifted young analyst, half his age, is described by those who have met her as “the Penélope Cruz of Kabul – only much more beautiful than Cruz”.

Of the three candidates, Abdullah is the most engaging company: witty, charming and irreverent. When I last paid him a visit, he expressed irritation that Tom Ford, the then creative director of Gucci, had declared Karzai to be “the chicest man on the planet”. “I liked what Tom Ford did at Gucci,” he said, brushing a speck of dust off his cuffs. “But I would dispute that judgement.”

Abdullah rose to power as the adviser to the Tajik war hero and “Lion of the Panj­shir”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and his house and election posters are covered with images of his former boss and hero. In the winter of 2000, a few months before Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda on 9 September 2001, Abdullah Abdullah was part of the secret meeting at which Massoud and the then almost unknown Hamid Karzai met on an island in the middle of the Oxus river to discuss how they could co-ordinate political action against Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

At the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, which followed the US defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, it was Abdullah and his Tajiks who supported Karzai for the post of provisional president. “Never before had someone from one part of the country asked someone from another part to rule in their stead,” Abdullah remembers. “It was a historic moment. I played my part. But I was very naive. I thought under his leadership we would build Afghanistan into a modern state, step by step. It was
doable, had we not missed so many opportunities. Many of those opportunities will not be repeated.

“For me, it is even more sad that I was part of this from the beginning. We had so much hope for a new start, and so many worries today. Now a new generation is looking
forward rather than looking to the past. But the great golden opportunity of 2001 will never be recovered.”

Abdullah was Karzai’s minister of foreign affairs from 2001 to 2005. They soon fell out and have had a difficult relationship ever since, especially after Abdullah withdrew from the 2009 election when it became clear that the polls were hugely rigged in Karzai’s favour. Abdullah chose not to take part in the run-off, citing his lack of faith in the ability of Karzai’s administration to hold a “fair and transparent” second round. “I have great respect for his father,” Abdullah told me, “but Hamid? Let’s just say he is one of the greatest actors that Afghanistan has ever produced.”

It was partly to thwart Abdullah that Karzai encouraged a third major candidate to stand. Zalmai Rassoul is a bespectacled former nephrologist who was chief of staff to his cousin Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, when he was exiled in Rome. Rassoul was fast-promoted by Karzai to be his minister of foreign affairs. A nephew of the great king Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) and a senior member of the royal family, which the Karzais have served faithfully for three generations, he is described by one of his friends as “a shy, moderate, blue-blooded, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking aristo”. He is widely said to be Karzai’s preferred choice as successor.

Rassoul is the oldest, greyest and least charismatic of the three presidential front-runners: on the two occasions I have met him – once at an audience in President’s Karzai’s office and the other at a dinner party thrown by the French ambassador – he was almost completely silent. On campaign, he reads prepared speeches and looks ill at ease having to kiss babies and perform all the usual idiocies of electioneering. Yet he is also said to be intelligent and urbane, an able administrator, and fluent in French, Italian and English, as well as most of the regional languages. It is also said he warms up slightly over a glass of cognac at the end of dinner.

The intelligence and polish of the candidates, and the enthusiasm with which Afghans have embraced them, are not the only reasons for the uncharacteristic optimism in Kabul. The election took place without accusations of large-scale rigging or any Taliban “spectaculars” to disrupt voting. This reflects the fact that security, though far from perfect, has not collapsed since Nato troops withdrew from front-line combat roles at the end of last year. For nearly a year, Nato has been doing almost none of the actual fighting in Afghanistan and its role has been limited to training; yet there has been no clear change in the battle lines between the government and the Taliban: security may have got worse in northern Helmand, where few from the government now venture at all, and also in Badakhshan; but to balance that it has improved notably in and around Kandahar. In July last year I travelled in complete safety to the Karzais’ home village of Karz, several miles outside Kandahar, a journey that would have been impossible a year earlier.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Afghanistan has changed beyond recognition since 2001. It is the fastest-urbanising country in Asia. Its cities have grown exponentially – Kabul alone has 20 times the population it had in 2001 – and people are travelling much more widely. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. Schools are opening everywhere, and while there is much that still needs to be done, literacy is growing fast. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few believe they can roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pashtun force, with few supporters north of Kabul.

Afghanistan’s regional relations are also a cause for some optimism. Karzai success­fully balanced the role of its important neighbours and manipulated India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, as well as the US and UK, to advance Afghanistan’s geopolitical and economic objectives. Just as the Ottoman empire survived for a century because none of the powers that surrounded it could allow any of their rivals to benefit from its collapse, so Afghanistan is likely to survive intact because a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interests of all of its neighbours.

The one anxiety is Pakistan, whose army has long been fixated on the idea that it cannot allow a pro-Indian government in Kabul and, because of that, has long turned a blind eye to the Taliban operating from bases in its territory. Nevertheless British diplomats in Islamabad take the view that the Pakistani army has changed its views and policy in the past couple of years and now fears internal jihadi instability more than it fears India.

Certainly Pakistan’s terrible self-crucifixion seems to be consuming the country at the moment, and there is hope that who­ever wins the election in Afghanistan may be able to improve relations and persuade Pakistan finally to crack down on the Quetta Shura and take out the Afghan Taliban bases within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

What then of Hamid Karzai? There were many predictions that he would never give up power without a fight, and would find some pretext to delay or rig the election. But Karzai is acutely aware of his pivotal role in his country’s history and has become much more concerned with his legacy than anything else. He lived up to all his promises to oversee a peaceful transition of power.

However much he may be disliked by US officials, he remains popular as a unifier in Afghanistan and he will be remembered as a historic figure.

At our last meeting, I was able to ask him about his rule and hopes for the future. It was Ramadan and we were sitting at the desk in his office, eating our way through a huge platter of Afghan fruit: melons, grapes, figs and mountains of tiny Afghan cherries. Due to the fast, most business in Kabul had come to a halt and Karzai, having more time on his hands than usual, had agreed to spend three evenings with me talking about Afghanistan’s future.

I asked him first if he had any regrets.

“No,” he said. “I think I’ve done well. I stood up to foreign powers. Which I would do again. I did my best with the neighbours. Which I would do again. I established good relations with India, China, Russia, the Arab world. Managed, against all odds, relations with the west.”

And what of his own future?

“I will stay here. I am building a place just over the wall, near the French embassy. I am looking forward to taking a few days off. To have my own time. To relax. So I can recuperate fully.”

You feel this has aged you?

“People tell me it has aged me a lot. Just today, during the prayers, a friend of mine told me I look like an old man.

“I do look like an old man. I look much older than 55.”

So what was he most looking forward to, leaving the prison of this palace?

“I don’t feel imprisoned – not at all. I feel responsible, not imprisoned. And when I no longer have this responsibility, I’ll be free like a bird to go around this lovely country. I will visit people, go to bazaars . . .”

Could he really do that?

“Security is a fact of life all over the world, not just Afghanistan. The US president has much more security than I do when he goes out on to the streets of America.”

Did he really think he could stay in Kabul safely?

“Why not? I am optimistic.”

Wasn’t it delusionally optimistic to be so hopeful? Didn’t he think civil war was a possibility?

“This idea is just part of the American psychological warfare against me,” he replied, launching into what is now an obsession of his: the ill-intentions of the US “Deep State” to weaken and fragment Afghanistan.

“They keep telling the Afghan people that if they are not here after 2014, Afghanistan will collapse, Afghanistan will go into civil war, and all that. It’s complete rubbish.”

And he thought the future was bright? Even with the Taliban controlling so much of the rural south? Even with the economy in such a bad way?

“I am very optimistic,” he repeated. “Let me be clear. As long as the west has nothing bad up its sleeve for this region, Afghanistan will do very well. Mark my words.”

Afghanistan has been through so much in the past 40 years – the 1973 coup d’état, the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the 1.5 million deaths and six million refugees in the decade of resistance that followed, the collapse of the mujahedin government and the civil war of 1992-96, the seven long years of Taliban medievalism and Arab Afghan/al-Qaeda encroachment, and most recently the 100,000 casualties of the past 13 years of fighting between Nato and the resurgent Taliban. In that war, the US alone has already spent more than $700bn, enough to build every living Afghan a luxury apartment serviced by world-class health and education facilities – and to throw in a top-of-the-range Land Cruiser for each and every citizen, too. Instead, at the end of this, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia, the joint most corrupt country in the world, boasting the highest illiteracy rate and worst medical and educational facilities outside a few war zones in sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take it several decades even to approach the living standards of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Against this background, it may seem mad to share Karzai’s optimism. Certainly, there are many reasons to hesitate to do so. Every Afghan I know well, however patri­otic they may be, has an exit strategy in place: a second passport, a secret bank account far away, a small apartment somewhere safe and relatively peaceful, just in case Kabul does go belly up.

Equally, there are a million things that could still go wrong: the withdrawal of US military and civilian aid; Indo-Pak rivalry leading to renewed support by Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy; or a growing Pashtun/Tajik fracture following a disputed election run-off in May.

But this month, for the first time in many years, it has been possible to suspend disbelief and to imagine a happy ending to this long and tragic tale. With foreign troops in Afghanistan, it was always possible for the Taliban to portray themselves as a legitimate, patriotic resistance movement fighting for freedom from foreign rule. With those foreign troops now either withdrawn, or locked up in their barracks, and with a free vote having taken place across the whole of Afghanistan, without systematic rigging, and with unprecedented public support and swaths of the population standing up to be counted as democrats, that legitimacy of resistance is now over. It is possible to hope that a new era of Afghan history might have just begun.

William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan” is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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