The taste for freedom: questions raised by campaigners for Scottish independence signal directions for a refreshed democracy for all Britons. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
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Union does not mean uniform

Are we moving to a federal United Kingdom and a written constitution?

Throughout the 15 years of devolution the defenders of the old United Kingdom have comforted themselves with the belief that only Scotland and Wales had changed and that the British constitution remained intact.

To give reassurance that Britain would not fundamentally change, the sovereignty of parliament was reaffirmed in the 1997 white paper that preceded devolution, Scotland’s Parliament, which declared: “The United Kingdom Parliament is and will remain sovereign in all matters.” This claim was repeated in the 1998 Scotland Act’s assertion that the Scottish Parliament “does not affect the power of the Parliament of the UK to make laws for Scotland”.

Now with more devolution to Scotland on the way and with even more inevitably to follow, the reality is slowly dawning: Britain cannot be Britain without Scotland and yet Britain cannot keep Scotland unless Britain itself changes.

It is now time to admit the truth – and end years of denial – that it is not just the Scottish part of the British constitution that was in need of overhaul. What is happening in Scotland is rocking the British constitution to its very foundations and has forced us to have a fundamental reappraisal.

No one can now ignore the basic fact that the United Kingdom is no longer and will never again be the all-powerful centralised unitary state of the constitutional textbooks. With one parliament, two legislative assemblies and a high-powered London authority taking powers from the centre, Britain is not the unitary state we were taught about at school.

Nor does the old theory of an undivided Westminster sovereignty conform to the new realities. In its own sphere the Scottish Parliament holds undisputed power and its decisions are not overruled by Westminster.

The idea of parliamentary sovereignty has taken a bashing because referendums, reflecting popular sovereignty, are now in effect required before important constitutional decisions are made.

But does this mean we are becoming a federal state? The classic case against federalism in the UK was put in the 1970s by the Kilbrandon commission, which said that it was “not a realistic proposition”. The commission concluded that the UK would be “dominated by the overwhelming poli­tical importance and wealth of England. The English Parliament would rival the United Kingdom federal Parliament, and in the federal Parliament itself the representation of England could hardly be scaled down in such a way as to enable it to be outvoted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” But is this asymmetry, with England 85 per cent of the whole, an end to the federalist’s dream?

Federal systems are typically characterised by a clear division of powers between different tiers of government, a set of autonomous institutions, a formal division of competences, rules for the resolution of conflict and arrangements for the policing of the distribution of competences. To make all that work there is usually a codified constitution that places defined boundaries on the powers of the national parliament, in contrast with the traditional British assertion of parliamentary sovereignty.

Today, with the passing of the Scotland Act 2012 and other developments, we not only have a far clearer division of powers between Westminster and the devolved legislatures, but also a procedure for the adjudication of disputes between Scotland and Westminster. In practice, one parliament cannot simply overrule the other and the UK Supreme Court is able to pronounce upon the constitutionality of Scottish legislation – as demonstrated by its 2011 decision in Axa General Insurance Limited v the Lord Advocate. It is now accepted that where conflicts about legislative powers arise, a resolution will not be imposed by the Westminster parliament under the old theory of its unchallengeable sovereignty but will be adjudicated by the Supreme Court.

And we have also moved from the constitution of the old legal textbooks by dev­eloping a mechanism through which constitutional change can happen without a constitutional crisis, regular referendums or Westminster imposition: where there is a consensus on reform, this can be agreed between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament in the form of an order in council under Section 30 of the Scotland Act.

These arrangements are as yet only partially in place for Wales and operate differently in Northern Ireland but our changing understandings on finance also mark a departure from the notion of the unitary, centralised state. Finance is no longer wholly centralised but a mixture of national and devolved taxation. While there is no agreement yet between the Westminster parties on the final range of tax-raising powers that the Scottish Parliament will have, there is a sufficiently strong consensus emerging that can form the basis of a tax-sharing agreement, which over time Wales may also wish to adopt. And it looks as if the Barnett formula, the mechanism for the UK-wide distribution of resources, would not be altered without at least a serious attempt at a cross-national agreement.

Thus many of the defining characteristics of a new constitution are already coming to life and there is no constitutional bar to proposals – set out in reviews by David Steel and Menzies Campbell – for formal partnership arrangements between the nations of the UK which might include a mutual requirement for statutory consultation and even reciprocal powers of initiation, enabling one government to request formally that another take action to facilitate policy objectives.

But in one respect the nations of the United Kingdom have defied localising tendencies and are far closer and more uniform today than they were 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. Our UK-wide system of pooling and sharing risks, rewards and resources means that not only defence, foreign affairs and the administration of our single economic market remain in UK hands, but so, too, does almost all welfare (Northern Ireland excepted) and guarantees for the funding of key services such as health care. Indeed, what is unique about the modern United Kingdom – and distinguishes it not only from the US and other federal countries but also from the European Union – is the extent to which UK citizenship guarantees fundamental social and economic, and not just civil and political, rights. It means that regardless of whether you are Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish you have a right to a UK-guaranteed pension; a right to UK-guaranteed assistance when unemployed; a right to fully funded health care free at the point of need; and a right to minimum standards of protection at work, including a UK-wide minimum wage and tax credits, no matter who you are and where you reside. The system of sharing across the UK creates a form of equality between the citizens of the four nations that no other group of countries can match for its depth and sophistication and this is arguably the defining characteristic of the Union today.

Can you pool and share resources for services as extensive as these while also enshrining the autonomy of the devolved parliaments and assemblies in other areas of domestic policy? I believe that all the evidence suggests that this is what most UK citizens support. Contrary to the Scottish nationalists’ claim that Scotland believes in social justice in a way that England does not, there is in fact no fundamental difference in the attitudes of Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens when an overwhelming majority of people in each of the four nations support a health service free at the point of need, the same generous provision for pensioners and, at least in Britain, the same system of business tax to pay for these. And the citizens of each nation seem happy to contribute to the security of people across the four nations of the UK.

It is therefore possible to imagine support for a system of government in which welfare, the funding of health care, defence, foreign affairs and most macroeconomic issues are managed at a UK level, while the devolved assemblies and parliaments are autonomous in most other areas.

But can England’s interests and needs be met within such a constitutional framework? Lord Irvine once said that the best way of dealing with the West Lothian question was not to ask it at all. Others feel that there is a West Lothian answer as well as a West Lothian question, even if there is little desire on the part of England to have a separate English parliament.

I do of course strongly support the growing movement for regional devolution that responds to what has become a widespread desire for an answer to the growing power of London, but there is a desire to acknowledge specifically English concerns within the current UK parliament. There are two possible routes. The first potential innovation was in fact discussed by the last Labour government. On a second reading of an English-only bill, English members could of course be outvoted by the rest of the UK. So it would be standard practice to have a second vote on a second reading, which would allow a period of reflection. The second – and in my view more difficult – proposal is the McKay commission’s recommendation that in a grand committee-type arrangement, solely English members – or, if it was an English and Welsh bill, solely English and Welsh MPs – could amend and return draft legislation before the final vote by all the UK MPs.

In both these proposals English members would have a procedure for their views to be represented fully and in each case the final decision would rest with all MPs in parliament – and thus the principle that all MPs have equal voting rights in Westminster would not be breached.

No solution is truly federal because the asymmetry of the constitution – through the lack of an English parliament – remains. But in so far as these reforms would entrench a formal division of powers between the different legislatures and support the resolution of disputes through a system of adjudication, many federalists will likely find them appealing. The arrangement is close to “home rule” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the sharing of risks and resources in health and welfare means that not all domestic legislative powers would be devolved. Indeed, I believe that the sharing of risks and resources across the UK in welfare and in guaranteeing the funding of health care now defines the UK and is central to the continued unity of the United Kingdom – and even the nationalists, who desire to maintain a currency union with the rest of the UK (while ceding the power to shape it), recognise the desirability for sharing in some areas.

One further set of reforms might help cement the arrangements. While there are mechanisms for adjudication of disputes between the different tiers of government and for achieving further constitutional change by agreement, there is no arena where consensus between the different parts of the Union can be built. Joint forums for dealing with issues such as poverty and housing where powers converge and co-ordination is required would benefit all parts of Britain. There is an argument that the House of Lords should be replaced with an elected Senate-like forum that represents the nations and regions, is sensitive to their needs and recognises that there are areas so controversial that they may cause such polarisation as to jeopardise the Union.

But whatever the post-Scottish referen­dum arrangements are, the UK already looks more like a constitutional partnership of equals in what is in essence a voluntary multinational association. At some stage it will make sense to codify the new division of powers and the new power-sharing, tax-sharing, risk-sharing and resource-sharing rules in a written constitution. And when this is done, Britain will move as close to a federal state as is possible in a country where 85 per cent of the population comes from only one of its four constituent parts. 

Gordon Brown was prime minister from 2007 to 2010. His book “My Scotland, Our Britain” is newly published by Simon & Schuster (£20)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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