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China’s Paid Trolls: Meet the 50-Cent Party

The Chinese government hires people to distort or deflect conversations on the web. Ai Weiwei persuades an “online commentator” to tell all.

In February 2011, Ai Weiwei tweeted that he would like to conduct an interview with an “online commentator”. Commentators are hired by the Chinese government or the Communist Party of China to post comments favourable towards party policies and to shape public opinion on internet message boards and forums. The commentators are known as the 50-Cent Party, as they are said to be paid 50 cents for every post that steers a discussion away from anti-party content or that advances the Communist Party line.

Below is the transcript of Ai’s interview with an online commentator. As requested, an iPad was given as compensation for the interview. To protect the interviewee, relevant personal information has been concealed in this script.

Question: What’s your name, age, city of residence and online username?

Answer: I cannot make my name public. I’m 26. I have too many usernames. If I want to use one, I just register it. I won’t mention them here.

What do you call the work you do now?

It doesn’t matter what you call it: online commentator, public opinion guide, or even “the 50-Cent Party” that everyone’s heard of.

What is your level of education and work experience? How did you begin the work of guiding public opinion?

I graduated from university and studied media. I once worked for a TV channel, then in online media. I’ve always been in the news media industry, for four or five years now.Over a year ago, a friend asked me if I wanted to be an online commentator, to earn some extra money. I said I’d give it a try. Later, I discovered it was very easy.

When and from where will you receive directives for work?

Almost every morning at 9am I receive an email from my superiors – the internet publicity office of the local government – telling me about the news we’re to comment on for the day. Sometimes it specifies the website to comment on, but most of the time it’s not limited to certain websites: you just find relevant news and comment on it.

Can you describe your work in detail?

The process has three steps – receive task, search for topic, post comments to guide public opinion. Receiving a task mainly involves ensuring you open your email box every day. Usually after an event has happened, or even before the news has come out, we’ll receive an email telling us what the event is, then instructions on which direction to guide the netizens’ thoughts, to blur their focus, or to fan their enthusiasm for certain ideas. After we’ve found the relevant articles or news on a website, according to the overall direction given by our superiors we start to write articles, post or reply to comments. This requires a lot of skill. You can’t write in a very official manner, you must conceal your identity, write articles in many dif­ferent styles, sometimes even have a dialogue with yourself, argue, debate. In sum, you want to create illusions to attract the attention and comments of netizens.

In a forum, there are three roles for you to play: the leader, the follower, the onlooker or unsuspecting member of the public. The leader is the relatively authoritative speaker, who usually appears after a controversy and speaks with powerful evidence. The public usually finds such users very convincing. There are two opposing groups of followers. The role they play is to continuously debate, argue, or even swear on the forum. This will attract attention from observers. At the end of the argument, the leader appears, brings out some powerful evidence, makes public opinion align with him and the objective is achieved. The third type is the onlookers, the netizens. They are our true target “clients”. We influence the third group mainly through role-playing between the other two kinds of identity. You could say we’re like directors, influencing the audience through our own writing, directing and acting. Sometimes I feel like I have a split personality.

Regarding the three roles that you play, is that a common tactic? Or are there other ways?

There are too many ways. It’s kind of psychological. Netizens nowadays are more thoughtful than before. We have many ways. You can make a bad thing sound even worse, make an elaborate account, and make people think it’s nonsense when they see it. In fact, it’s like two negatives make a positive. When it’s reached a certain degree of mediocrity, they’ll think it might not be all that bad.

What is the guiding principle of your work?

The principle is to understand the guiding thought of superiors, the direction of public opinion desired, then to start your own work.

Can you reveal the content of a “task” email?

For example, “Don’t spread rumours, don’t believe in rumours”, or “Influence public understanding of X event”, “Promote the correct direction of public opinion on XXXX”, “Explain and clarify XX event; avoid the appearance of untrue or illegal remarks”, “For the detrimental social effect created by the recent XX event, focus on guiding the thoughts of netizens in the correct direction of XXXX”.

What are the categories of information that you usually receive?

They are mainly local events. They cover over 60 to 70 per cent of local instructions – for example, people who are filing complaints or petitioning.

For countrywide events, such as the Jasmine Revolution [the pro-democracy protests that took place across the country in 2011], do you get involved?

For popular online events like the Jasmine Revolution, we have never received a related task. I also thought it was quite strange. Perhaps we aren’t senior enough.

Can you tell us the content of the commentary you usually write?

The netizens are used to seeing unskilled comments that simply say the government is great or so and so is a traitor. They know what is behind it at a glance. The principle I observe is: don’t directly praise the government or criticise negative news. Moreover, the tone of speech, identity and stance of speech must look as if it’s an unsuspecting member of public; only then can it resonate with netizens. To sum up, you want to guide netizens obliquely and let them change their focus without realising it.

Can you go off the topic?

Of course you can go off the topic. When transferring the attention of netizens and

blurring the public focus, going off the topic is very effective. For example, during the census, everyone will be talking about its truthfulness or necessity; then I’ll post jokes that appeared in the census. Or, in other instances, I would publish adverts to take up space on political news reports.

Can you tell us a specific, typical process of “guiding public opinion”?

For example, each time the oil price is about to go up, we’ll receive a notification to “stabilise the emotions of netizens and divert public attention”. The next day, when news of the rise comes out, netizens will definitely be condemning the state, CNPC and Sinopec. At this point, I register an ID and post a comment: “Rise, rise however you want, I don’t care. Best if it rises to 50 yuan per litre: it serves you right if you’re too poor to drive. Only those with money should be allowed to drive on the roads . . .”

This sounds like I’m inviting attacks but the aim is to anger netizens and divert the anger and attention on oil prices to me. I would then change my identity several times and start to condemn myself. This will attract more attention. After many people have seen it, they start to attack me directly. Slowly, the content of the whole page has also changed from oil price to what I’ve said. It is very effective.

What’s your area of work? Which websites do you comment on? Which netizens do you target?

There’s no limit on which websites I visit. I mainly deal with local websites, or work on Tencent. There are too many commentators on Sohu, Sina, etc. As far as I know, these websites have dedicated internal departments for commenting.

Can you tell which online comments are by online commentators?

Because I do this, I can tell at a glance that about 10 to 20 per cent out of the tens of thousands of comments posted on a forum are made by online commentators.

Will you debate with other people online? What sorts of conflicts do you have? How do you control and disperse emotion?

Most of the time we’re debating with ourselves. I usually never debate with netizens and I’ll never say I’ve been angered by a netizen or an event. You could say that usually when I’m working, I stay rational.

When the government says, “Don’t believe in rumours, don’t spread rumours,” it achieves the opposite effect. For example, when Sars and the melamine in milk case broke out, people tended to choose not to trust the government when faced with the choices of “Don’t trust rumours” and “Don’t trust the government”.

I think this country and government have got into a rather embarrassing situation. No matter what happens – for example, if a person commits a crime, or there’s a traffic accident – as long as it’s a bad event and it’s publicised online, there will be people who condemn the government. I think this is very strange.

This is inevitable, because the government encompasses all. When all honour is attributed to you, all mistakes are also attributed to you. Apart from targeted events, are individuals targeted? Would there be this kind of directive?

There should be. I think for the Dalai Lama, there must be guidance throughout the country. All people in China hate the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong somewhat. According to my understanding, the government has truly gone a bit over the top. Before I got involved in this circle, I didn’t know anything. So I believe that wherever public opinion has been controlled relatively well, there will always have been commentators involved.

How do your superiors inspect and assess your work?

The superiors will arrange dedicated auditors who do random checks according to the links we provide. Auditors usually don’t assess, because they always make work requirements very clear. We just have to do as they say and there won’t be any mistakes.

How is your compensation decided?

It’s calculated on a monthly basis, according to quantity and quality. It’s basically calculated at 50 yuan per 100 comments. When there’s an unexpected event, the compensation might be higher. If you work together to guide public opinion on a hot topic and several dozen people are posting, the compensation for those days counts for more. Basically, the compensation is very low. I work part-time. On average, the monthly pay is about 500-600 yuan. There are people who work full-time on this. It’s possible they could earn thousands of yuan a month.

Do you like your work?

I wouldn’t say I like it or hate it. It’s just a bit more to do each day. A bit more pocket money each month, that’s all.

What’s the biggest difficulty in the work?

Perhaps it’s that you have to guess the psychology of netizens. You have to learn a lot of writing skills. You have to know how to imitate another person’s writing style. You need to understand how to gain the trust of the public and influence their thoughts.

Why can’t you reveal your identity? Why do you think it’s sensitive?

Do you want me to lose my job? Whatever form or name we use to post on any forums or blogs is absolutely confidential. We can’t reveal our identity, and I definitely wouldn’t reveal that I’m a professional online commentator.

If we do, what would be the purpose of our existence? Exposure would affect not just me, it would create an even greater negative effect on our “superiors”.

What do you mean by “superiors”?

Our superior leaders – above that should be the propaganda department.

Is your identity known to your family? Your friends?

No. I haven’t revealed it to my family or friends. If people knew I was doing this, it might have a negative effect on my reputation.

You say: “If I reveal inside information, without exaggeration this could lead to fatality.” Do you think that the consequence would be so serious?

With my identity, I’m involved in the media and also the internet. If I really reveal my identity or let something slip, it could have an incalculable effect on me.

If you say you want to quit, will there be resistance? Are there any strings attached?

Not at all. This industry is already very transparent. For me, it’s just a part-time job. It’s like any other job. It’s not as dark as you think.

How many hours do you go online each day and on which sites? Do you rest at the weekend?

I go online for six to eight hours nearly every day. I’m mainly active on our local BBS and some large mainstream internet media and microblogs. I don’t work over weekends, but I’ll sign in to my email account and see if there’s any important instruction.

In daily life, will you still be thinking about your online work?

Now and then. For example, when I see a piece of news, I’ll think about which direction the superiors will request it to be guided in and how I would go about it. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard.

Do you watch CCTV News and read the People’s Daily?

I usually follow all the news, particularly the local news. But I generally don’t watch CCTV News, because it’s too much about harmony.

Do you go on Twitter? Who do you follow?

Yes. I follow a few interesting people, including Ai Weiwei. But I don’t speak on Twitter, just read and learn.

How big a role do you think this industry plays in guiding public opinion in China?

Truthfully speaking, I think the role is quite big. The majority of netizens in China are actually very stupid. Sometimes, if you don’t guide them, they really will believe in rumours.

Because their information is limited to begin with. So, with limited information, it’s very difficult for them to express a political view.

I think they can be incited very easily. I can control them very easily. Depending on how I want them to be, I use a little bit of thought and that’s enough. It’s very easy. So I think the effect should be quite significant.

Do you think the government has the right to guide public opinion?

Personally, I think absolutely not. But in China, the government absolutely must interfere and guide public opinion. The majority of Chinese netizens are incited too easily, don’t think for themselves and are deceived and incited too easily by false news.

Do you have to believe in the viewpoints you express? Are you concerned about politics and the future?

I don’t have to believe in them. Sometimes you know well that what you say is false or untrue. But you still have to say it, because it’s your job. I’m not too concerned about Chinese politics. There’s nothing to be concerned about in Chinese politics.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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