Europe is not just another geopolitical power block. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Slavoj Žižek: Only a radicalised left can save Europe

Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis, says Slavoj Žižek.

After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant eurosceptic parties in countries like France and UK, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naivety in their surprise and indignation, in their wonder at how the victory of the populist right was possible. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French Jewish pop singer – “we’ll do an oven load next time” (Le Pen denies this was intended to be anti-Semitic) – his daughter Marine Le Pen publicly criticised him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant if this family conflict is staged or real – the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilised one, is what defines today’s populist right. Beneath the civilised public face, there lurks its obscene, brutal underside, and the difference concerns only the degree to which this underside is openly admitted. Even if this obscene underside remains totally out of sight, even if it there are no slips in which it breaks through, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s spectre, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.

There is no surprise in Le Pen’s message: the usual anti-elitist working class patriotism which targets trans-national financial powers and the alienated Bruxelles bureaucracy. And, effectively, Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: addressing the worries of ordinary people, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumbed to the temptation to defend her: she rejects the non-elected Bruxelles financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interest of the international financial capital, prohibiting individual states prioritising the welfare of their own population; she thus advocates a politics that would be in contact with worries and cares of the ordinary working people – her party’s fascist outbursts are a thing of the past. . . What unites Le Pen and the European leftists who sympathise with her is their shared rejection of a strong Europe, and the return to the full sovereignty of nation states.

The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. It begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practised by the Bruxelles experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist tried to convince him of the need for violence against enemies, evoking the proverb “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, to which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Bruxelles technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs all around Europe, but where’s the omelette you are promising us?”

The least one can say is that the economic crisis of 2008 offers large proofs of how is it not the people but these experts themselves who, in their large majority, don’t know what they are doing. In western Europe, we are effectively witnessing a growing inability of the ruling elite – they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making it sure the Greek debt will never be repaid. At the end of December 2012, the IMF itself released research showing that the economic damage from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling its own advice on austerity in the eurozone crisis. Now, the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive… now, after hundreds of thousands of job have been lost because of such “miscalculations”.

It is as if the providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Recall the ongoing EU pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures – this pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls superego. Superego is not an ethical agency proper, but a sadistic agent which bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them; the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. This is what is so terribly wrong with the EU’s demands andcommands: they don’t even give a chance to Greece, because Greek failure is part of the game.

Therein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests all around Europe: the protesters know very well what they don’t know, they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers, but what their instinct is telling them is nonetheless true – that those in power also don’t know it. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense; it is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition – a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrable complex situation, a blind common sense reaction of “things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffers, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less…”. Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.

However, can the idea of a united Europe be reduced to the reign of the Bruxelles technocrats? The proof that this is not the case is that the US and Israel, two exemplary nation states obsessed with their sovereignty, at some deep and often obfuscated level perceive European Union as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in the public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double, the extreme right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the New World Order (Obama is in secret collusion with the United Nations, international forces will intervene in the US and put in concentration camps all true American patriots – a couple of years ago, there were already rumors that Latino American troupes are already in the Midwest planes, building concentration camps. . .). This vision is deployed in hard-line Christian fundamentalism, exemplarily in the works of Tim LaHaye et consortes – the title of one of LaHaye’s novels points in this direction: The Europa Conspiracy. The true enemy of the US are not Muslim terrorists, they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by the European secularists, the true forces of the anti-Christ who want to weaken the US and establish the New World Order under the domination of the United Nations… In a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power block, but a global vision which is ultimately incompatible with nation-states, a vision of a transnational order that guarantees certain rights (welfare, freedom, etc). This dimension of the EU provides the key to the so-called European “weakness”: there is a surprising correlation between European unification and its loss of global military-political power.

So what is wrong with the Bruxelles technocrats? Not only their measures, their false expertise, but even more their modus operandi. The basic mode of politics today is a depoliticised expert administration and coordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilise people, is through fear: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive state itself, with its burden of high taxation, fear of ecological catastrophe, fear of harassment (Political Correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by populist racism; however, a closer look soon reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect for (ethnic, religious, sexual) others shares a basic premise with anti-immigrants: the fear of others clearly discernible in the liberals’ obsession with harassment. The other is fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other. . .

No wonder the topic of “toxic subjects” is gaining ground recently. While this notion originates from popular psychology that warns us against the emotional vampires who prey on us out there, this topic is expanding much further than immediate interpersonal relations: the predicate “toxic” covers a series properties which belong to totally different levels (natural, cultural, psychological, political). A “toxic subject” can be an immigrant with a deadly disease who should be quarantined; a terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented and who belongs to Guantanamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologue who should be silenced because he is spreading hatred; a parent, teacher or priest who abuses and corrupts children. What is toxic is ultimately the foreign neighbour as such, so that the ultimate aim of all rules governing interpersonal relations is to quarantine or at least neutralise and contain this toxic dimension.

On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. . . And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the other deprived of its otherness – the decaffeinated other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight. . .

Is this detoxification of the immigrant Other not the main point of Nigel Farage’s Ukip programme? Farage repeatedly emphasises that he is not against the presence of foreign workers in the UK, that he highly appreciates the hard-working Poles and their contribution to the British economy. When he was asked on LBC about why he said that people wouldn't like to have Romanians living in the appartment next to their own, the contrast was immediately drawn with German neighbours – what worried him, he said, were people with criminal records being allowed to enter the UK. This is the stance of the “civilised” anti-immigrant right: the politics of the detoxified neighbour – good Germans versus bad Romanians or Roma. This vision of the detoxification of the Neighbour presents a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. In what conditions does it arise?

Walter Benjamin’s old thesis that behind every rise of fascism there is a failed revolution not only still holds today, but is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Rightist liberals like to point out similarities between left and right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al-Qaeda – does this not rather indicate how fascism replaces (takes the place of) a failed leftist revolution? Its rise is the left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction which the left was not able to mobilise. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “islamo-fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not correlative to the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries? Today, when Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 30 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, up to a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union? As Thomas Frank has shown, the same goes for Kansas, the homegrown US version of Afghanistan: the very state which was till the 1970s the bedrock of radical leftist populism, is today the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism. And the same goes for Europe: the failure of the leftist alternative to global capitalism gives birth to anti-immigrant populism.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror – however, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. If, by taking advantage of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban are “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal”, what stops liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy. . . And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Farage and Le Pen: their rise is the obverse of the demise of the radical left.

The lesson that the frightened liberals should learn is thus: only a radicalised left can save what is worth saving from the liberal legacy. The sad prospect that lurks if this doesn’t happen is the unity of the two poles: the rule of nameless financial technocrats wearing a mask of populist pseudo-passions.

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
Show Hide image

What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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