Lynton Crosby, who ran Boris Johnson's 2008 and 2012 election campaigns. Illustration: Dan Murrell/New Statesman
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Lynton Crosby, David Cameron and the old dog whistle test

David Cameron and George Osborne agree with Boris Johnson on one thing at least: the Tories should pay Lynton Crosby “whatever he wants” to become their election strategist. So what is it about this rough-tongued Australian that so appeals to them?

It is not hard to imagine the torrent of disparaging comment that will break over the Tories if they put Lynton Crosby in charge of their 2015 election campaign. Many on the left would take the appointment of this rough-tongued Australian as proof that the Conservatives had “lurched to the right”. Crosby’s willingness to campaign on the issue of immigration, seen in elections he has run in both Australia and the UK, would be cited as proof of a disreputable urge to play the race card. Placing him in charge of the Tory machine would be treated as confirmation of a general coarsening, with the leadership adopting a narrow, retrograde and ultimately hopeless strategy of appealing to white-van man.

Nor is Crosby without his critics on the right. Peter Oborne, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, lamented that even though his appointment seems “almost inevitable”, it “would also mean a terrible defeat for everything that Cameron has stood for”, amount to “a public recantation” of the more generous approach adopted by the Conservatives after their general election defeat in 2005, and look “deeply inauthentic”.

Yet one might say the trouble with the whole Cameroon project is that it has seemed inauthentic. The manner of its leading exponents has often been so tentative as to suggest that even they do not really believe in what they are doing. This problem was exposed with embarrassing clarity during the 2010 general election campaign, which appeared to be based on the premise that David Cameron is a nicer man than Gordon Brown. As soon as Nick Clegg looked, on first gaining access to the nation’s living rooms through the leadership debates, as if he, too, might be nicer than Brown, the Tories were in trouble. They had no idea what they wanted to say. Veterans of that campaign recount with a shudder how, if in the space of a few days you’d asked four members of the Tory high command – George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Ed Llewellyn and Andy Coulson – to tell you the theme of the campaign, you’d have got four different answers.

Cameron and Osborne know that if they allow such a debacle to recur in 2015, their political careers will most likely be over. They are therefore desperate to obtain Crosby’s services, even though he worked with Michael Howard on the 2005 campaign, which ended in failure.

Ferocious discipline

So who is this highly prized but, to the wider public, still largely unknown Australian? He was born in 1957 in Kadina, South Australia, the youngest of a cereal farmer’s three children. Farming did not attract the young Crosby. He took a degree in economics from the University of Adelaide and, after standing once unsuccessfully for election in his own right, began work for Australia’s main right-wing party, the Liberals, in Queensland, where he swiftly rose through the ranks. His métier turned out to be winning elections for other people rather than himself. He is a witty, foul-mouthed, workaholic election addict, with deep insights into political strategy and a ruthless eye for the other side’s vulnerabilities: he likes nothing better than to peel voters away from opponents by forcing them to defend positions that will be unpopular with their own supporters. His appearance may be that of a nondescript man in his mid-fifties, but his talents have made him one of the most successful behind-the-scenes political operators of recent times. John Howard, who as Liberal Party leader won four successive general election victories in the period 1996- 2004, did so with Crosby at his side as his campaign manager.

If Crosby is to come and work again for the Tories, he wants to be paid a huge sum of money, to compensate him for the lucrative lobbying work he would otherwise be doing. He also insists on complete control of the campaign, including the polling that will help to inform it. This would have to be transferred from Populus – the company co-founded in 2003 by Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s present head of strategy – to Crosby|Textor, the company set up in 2002 by Crosby and his business partner Mark Textor. My expectation is that these demands will be met, which will dismay some of those who believe they are already doing perfectly good work for the Tories.

Michael Ashcroft, who used polling by Populus for Smell the Coffee, his study of what went wrong with the Tory campaign in 2005, has recently used the Conservative Home website, whose parent company  he owns, to declare: “I believe it would be a mistake to hire Lynton Crosby . . . I do not think he is needed and would become a distracting influence.”

Crosby could still refuse to work for the Tories. He has been known to say he is not going to rejoin the team, but my guess is that when it comes to it he will be unable to resist the temptation. Would this be the disaster that some so confidently predict? Nobody can know for sure how a campaign will turn out, but it would be foolish to count on Crosby getting things wrong. In the autumn of 2007, Boris Johnson’s first attempt to become Mayor of London was floundering, with critics suggesting that his eagerness to tell jokes betrayed a flippant amateurism that made him unfit to run a capital city. Osborne prevailed on Johnson to let Crosby take charge of his campaign.

The jokes ceased. For journalists covering the contest, this was an unwelcome development. We found ourselves cut off from our most reliable source of colour. For months at a time, it was impossible to get near Johnson. Crosby was subjecting him and the rest of the Tory team to the kind of ferocious discipline that used to be inflicted on languid recruits at the Guards Depot at Pirbright.

Johnson’s most recent biographer, Sonia Purnell, relates how, at his first dinner with Crosby, the candidate was told: “If you let us down, we’ll cut your fucking knees off.”
    
Before writing this piece I asked Johnson what it had been like having his campaign run by Crosby. He was “an absolutely brilliant campaign manager”, Johnson said. “I’ve never known anyone so good at motivating a campaign.” He had “a thing called the pink cardigan”, and “all these hordes of young people working for him”. At the end of each day, he would throw the pink cardigan to someone who had “monstered the Labour Party or done something particularly distinguished”.

Johnson recalled how, one evening, “I tottered to the end of a gruelling encounter with some Tory London councillors. I tried feebly to motivate them on various themes, and I was leaving them at about 9.30 at night, feeling rather wan about things, and I got a text from Lynton which said: ‘Crap speech, mate.’”

There is a bracing realism to Crosby’s style. He does not seek to evade inconvenient truths with English politeness. But I put it to Johnson that it was a pity Crosby had forced him to stop telling jokes. “This is all hysterical nonsense,” he said. “The awful truth is that the electorate won’t take you seriously unless you take yourself seriously. If you don’t take yourself seriously they don’t think you’re taking them seriously.”

Londoners reckoned Johnson was serious enough to elect as their mayor in 2008, and to re-elect for a second term in May this year when Labour had been well ahead in the polls. Some of the credit for turning Johnson into a professional belongs to Crosby, though Labour prefers to place all the blame for defeat on its candidate, Ken Livingstone.

Blow your own foghorn

Johnson told me the Tories should do “whatever it takes” to hire Crosby to run the 2015 campaign: “Push the boat out, break the piggy bank, kill the fatted calf.” One cannot help being struck by this rare example of Johnson agreeing with something that Cameron and Osborne want to do. The appointment would be popular on the Tory back benches, which assume Crosby would treat the Liberal Democrats far more roughly than Cameron has done. In the mayoral elections, he proved expert at harvesting Lib Dem votes for Johnson.

But what about Crosby’s first campaign for the Tories in the general election of 2005? To begin with, things went well. On 26 March 2005, Andrew Grice, in the Independent, wrote of Crosby: “Since the pre-election campaign began in January, he has helped the Tories to set the political agenda for a sustained period for the first time since Black Wednesday in 1992. He is credited with turning a rusty party machine into the Rolls-Royce it was in Margaret Thatcher’s heyday.”

But in his book The End of the Party, Andrew Rawnsley gives the liberal intelligentsia’s view of what happened next: “After a slick start that worried Labour, the heavy emphasis the Tories put on immigration made them look opportunistic, monomaniac and unattractive to centrist and floating voters. In a well-timed speech in Dover [delivered on 22 April 2005, Tony] Blair charged his opponents with seeking ‘to exploit people’s fears’ and skilfully punctured Howard’s posturing on the issue. ‘The Tory party have gone from being a One Nation party to being a one-issue party.’”

Michael Howard won 33 more seats than the Conservatives had got at the previous general election, but only 0.7 per cent more of the vote. He managed to scandalise the intelligentsia without gaining large new support from Labour voters who were indeed worried about immigration. Crosby denied after the campaign that he had used a “dog whistle” to send surreptitious messages: “It was more like a foghorn.” Whatever instrument it was, few voters obeyed its instructions.

Rupert Darwall, a former adviser to the chancellor Norman Lamont who worked for Crosby during that year, said the campaign “didn’t come off because the Conservatives didn’t have an economic policy”. There was a boom, and Gordon Brown’s reputation as chancellor was still intact. Like Johnson, however,
Darwall has the highest respect for Crosby. “I’ve never come across such a good manager,” he told me. “He inspires the people working for him. He selects people he trusts and he doesn’t micromanage. The irredeemable sin is screwing up and not telling him.”

On being asked what economic policy Crosby would wish to pursue in the 2015 campaign, Darwall said: “He would reconfirm the view that getting control of borrowing is crucial. Normal people don’t buy the Keynesian thing that to get borrowing down you have to borrow more. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls would have a very hard time. I think Lynton Crosby would be a nightmare for Miliband.”

When I protested that commending deficit reduction for month after month with workaholic discipline sounded dull, Darwall replied: “It is disappointing for the media. It is not disappointing for the people who work in the campaign.”

Crosby’s partner Mark Textor has expressed their contempt for much of what appears in the media. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald this summer, he argued: “Most is borderline trivial, certainly irrelevant. But that has never discouraged the commentators.”

One of John Howard’s strengths, in the victorious campaigns he waged with Crosby’s assistance, was his ability to say things that antagonised the Australian intelligentsia but appealed to ordinary Australians. In 1996, Howard defeated the Labor leader Paul Keating, an eloquent figure much admired by the intellectual elite, by appealing instead to core Labor voters who became known as “Howard’s battlers”. Howard carried conviction by choosing what looked like big challenges – a major tax reform, for instance – and sticking with them rather than cutting and running. His opponents will never forgive the ruthless way he exploited the question of immigration in the election of 2001. Howard was not charismatic, but he convinced voters that he had the Australian national interest at heart.

Senior Cameroons hope Crosby can work out how to appeal to the “strivers” identified by the Prime Minister in his speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham last month. These Tories recognise that one speech does not constitute a campaign, and are confident that Crosby has the professionalism needed to construct the latter. A close observer compared No 10 to a country house where everyone is very friendly and polite but no one knows who is in charge, nor even whose job it is to do the washing-up.

Almost everyone is fed up with this situation. The Tories want to be told what they need to do to win the next general election, and they think Crosby can tell them.

Crosby naturally refused to talk to me before I wrote this profile. He said he is not running for anything and is sick of being misrepresented by British journalists. I did, however, manage to have an enjoyable and illuminating talk with him last December, when I was updating my biography of Boris Johnson. It was clear that he had a keen understanding of his candidate’s strengths, and of the need to stop Livingstone from turning this year’s mayoral election into a straight Labour-Tory fight. Johnson did not emerge from that campaign as a horrible right-wing extremist, but as a person some Labour voters in London felt comfortable about supporting.

At the end of our conversation, Crosby presented me with a Boris Johnson campaign mug. I remarked that when I got it home, my wife, who is a Labour councillor in London, might well smash it. He thereupon gave me a Boris Johnson umbrella, saying as he did so: “This’ll really piss her off.”

Here is a man who delights in provoking Labour. The cleverest way to oppose him might be to be very nice about him. I am not sure he would know how to deal with that.

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

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