A businessman pauses to check his phone outside the Bank of England. Photograph: Bloomberg
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The Age of Entitlement

The new super-rich have no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society. They live in a mirror-lined bubble – and a legally entitled one. Can anything beyond another crash change things?

Nobody loved Bowater House in Knightsbridge. The demolition of this late-1950s, modernist mess in 2006 was greeted with general relief. Yet it did have one virtue. Through its core was cut a wide opening for a roadway that gave us all a view of Hyde Park and of a sinewy, thrilling Epstein sculpture of a family group, urged on by the god Pan and racing on to the green sward.

There is no such large opening in One Hyde Park, the building that replaced Bowater House. Instead, Pan has been relegated to the end of a much smaller public road that has been intimidatingly designed to look private. The great people’s invitation into the park has been lost. The public realm has not been abandoned altogether, however. At ground level there are shops, punctuated by some very limited planting. So, if the people care to struggle across the hellish confluence of roads that forms the heart of Knightsbridge, they can peer through the windows to see Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, Rolex watches or McLaren cars. Things they cannot have.

One Hyde Park was developed by the Candy brothers and the Qataris and was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, the current incarnation of the once-idealistic Richard Rogers practice. The 86 flats start at £20m; a penthouse sold in 2010 for £140m. The building is an aesthetic, planning and social catastrophe. An inaccessible, menacing fortress looming over Knightsbridge, it symbolises the dark wealth of the entitled elite who have claimed the boroughs of Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea as their own. But it is just one big sign of a ruthless landgrab among many little ones.

Staff at the Kensington High Street branch of Carluccio’s – a pleasant, neighbourhood place – dread being sent over to South Ken. That’s banksterland. Mothers disrupt service with their giant baby buggies, the children are rude and even the toddlers snap their fingers at the waiters. Then there are the shops. In Knightsbridge’s “golden triangle” of streets and around Brompton Cross are all the “flagship stores” of the highest of high-end retailers. I used to like going there to watch and marvel at the very rich and to see the beauty that money could buy. Once in a while, feeling a bit flush, I might buy something. Not any longer.

Recently, in an idle moment, I wandered in - to the Ralph Lauren shop at Brompton Cross. I noticed a pair of shoes, quite nice, about £300, I reckoned, allowing for the location and the general flagshipness of the place. The shoes were £750, a price that bore no possible relation to either the cost of manufacture or the quality of the design. These people, I realised, don’t care about only fairly affluent me or my class any more. They’d rather I left, because they can sell all their stuff at any price, in effect, to the bonus boys and girls.

“Almost by definition, these things aren’t for you,” John Lanchester tells me on the phone. He is the author of Capital, the 2012 novel that defined the moral climate that led to the last financial crash. “The whole thing about luxury goods is that they’re an inter - national language. The prices don’t track the middle-class, aspirational market; they’re for the super-rich, who don’t really care what things cost. In fact, they want them to cost more, because the price signifies only that most people can’t afford them.” (Lanchester captured entitlement in the character of Arabella in Capital, a woman so ignorant, vain and greedy, she did not even understand the possibility of being unable to afford something. Now I see and hear Arabellas all around me when lunching in central London.)

Perhaps it was ever thus: the rich have always been different. But that’s not true. Some - thing big, something moral, has changed. Driving through Knightsbridge (occasionally one must) I noticed a huge, absurd, orange and, in London, practically undriveable Lamborghini illegally parked. Once, I would have been amused, but now I feel angry because I know – we all know – it was probably bought with stolen money.

“Shocking” is too soft a word to describe the crimes of the financial sector. They are almost thrilling in their creative abundance – laundering money for drugs cartels; defrauding old people, small businesses, investors and shareholders; rigging markets; sugarcoating dud loans to look like good ones; loading the world economy with ever greater levels of risk and throwing millions of people out of work. And so on. All the time, they were enriching nobody but themselves. The banks and their buddies have been on a crime spree that would have glazed over the eyes of Al Capone.

Yet here they still are, with their undriveable orange cars, their buggies, their dark fort - resses and their rancid sense of entitlement because, in short, they don’t get it. Apparently the bonus boys see “casino banking” as a flattering term rather than the insult intended. Furthermore, the use of vast sums taxpayers’ money to save the banks is seen as no more than their God-given right.

“I live near Wall Street,” the economist Jeffrey Sachs said at an event. “The sense of entitlement is beyond quantification. They could not figure out why anyone might be mad at them for having nearly destroyed the world economy, taken home $30bn a year of bonuses, gotten bailed out to the tune of another trillion dollars and then lobbied for no regulation afterwards . . . I don’t think they were kidding anyone except themselves. I think they don’t get it.”

But we get it and we don’t like the rich any more because they all seem tainted. Lanchester points out that real business people – those who do useful things – are as angry as we are, accusing the bankers of wrecking and discrediting capitalism. (I sympathise. I have always regarded myself as a conservative and still do, but these shenanigans have tainted even that gentle world. Like most true conservatives I know, I regard the failure forcibly to end these abuses as a disgrace and a grave threat to the social peace we crave.)

Certainly people’s attitudes to companies in general has changed. Energy suppliers, telcos, retailers are all treated with a grim, resigned mistrust. To be allowed to participate in the society of entitlement, you have to agree to be ripped off. In spite of this, globally, politicians have decided to ignore the insights and sense of justice of their electorates and shown no desire to restructure a failed and still dangerous system, not even to imprison the most egregious wrongdoers. So the Age of Entitlement endures. What does this mean for society as a whole?

First, it is necessary to understand the origins of this psychology of entitlement. Economically, it can be said to be neoliberalism, the cult of free markets and deregulation that swept the world from the 1970s onwards. In neoliberal thought, expressed most trenchantly by Milton Friedman, the job of a company was to obey the law and reward its shareholders; it was not obliged to take on the wider ethical and moral concerns of society. In the 1980s, this became “greed is good”, certainly not what Friedman meant. I witnessed the cult’s apotheosis at the World Economic Forum in Davos in the early 1990s – I sat in on a meeting at which sharky young businessmen more or less said they would trample on their grandmothers for the sake of the bottom line. Viciousness had been validated. That is the enduring view in the financial sector.

“There is no incentive in the financial world,” a very prominent insider told me, “to be moral.” The point is that society rewards company directors with the enormous blessing of limited liability and, in return, should expect them to behave not just technically within the law but responsibly as persons. Failing – or refusing – to understand this underpins the sense of entitlement. Because much of what they did was not tech - nically illegal, the bankers feel that they did nothing wrong. Yet, in our own lives, we know perfectly well that some of the worst things we can do are not illegal. The financiers’ defence is made even more hopeless by the banks having been anything but good neoliberal institutions. Far from believing in free markets, they acted like a cartel and did everything in their power to rig the markets in which they operated.

Coupled with this was a generational change, identified by Jean Twenge and W Keith Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. From the late 1970s onwards, they detected a rise in narcissism among the young. Unlike the generation of the 1960s and early 1970s, these young people did not identify their goals as social or political but solely as personal. “There was a big shift in the 1980s away from the 1960s and 1970s,” Twenge told me, “. . . making a lot of money was no longer suspect. In the 1960s and 1970s it was not cool, but that flipped around.”

So, in the 1990s, a socially and politically quietist, narcissistic and self-seeking generation was well prepared to take advantage of the progressive deregulation of the financial system, primarily orchestrated by the then chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, a card-carrying believer in the doctrines of the hyper-libertarian fruitcake Ayn Rand. After 1997, the British Labour Party drank disgracefully deeply of this toxic, superstitious cocktail. Peter Mandelson declared that he was “intensely relaxed” about people getting “filthy” rich. In the midst of what turned out to be one of the most lethal (and preventable) bubbles in financial history, this was one complacency too far.

Both psychologically and theoretically, therefore, the Age of Entitlement was firmly established by the mid-1990s; indeed, so firmly established was it that it was imper - vious even to the overwhelming evidence of its fragile foundations. The collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management in 1998 nearly brought the US economy to its knees – even though it had Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, creators of the critical equations on which financial neoliberalism was based, on its board. The neolibs sailed on regardless.

And still they sail on. Throughout the crisis, the beneficiaries of the criminality and rigged markets into which neoliberalism had descended continued to enrich themselves. In 2012 the 100 richest people across the world grew $241bn richer, taking their total net wealth to $1.9trn. The poor and the middle classes, naturally, got poorer. Levels of inequality of a kind that threaten the social fabric – especially in the US and the UK – are one of the most alarming legacies of the Age of Entitlement. The crisis is not over; in fact, it may hardly have begun.

Part of the problem is the way the wealthy entitled have managed to make their world so easily selfsustaining. They are certainly good at outsmarting our elected leaders. “George Osborne and his friends go down to the City with some idea,” one hugely rich but very politically aware financier told me, “and the bankers blind them with science – saying, ‘Well, you could try that, but we wouldn’t be responsible for the consequences’ – so, nothing happens.”

The new entitled live in a mirror-lined bubble. Also a legally protected one. I was told of a hedge-fund boss so vile that investors withdrew their money but did not sue, because other hedge funds would then refuse to do business with them. On top of that, they are protected in Britain by libel laws and a tax system that, as John Lanchester points out, not only shields our own entitled from scrutiny but also encourages equally entitled foreigners to come here.

“You might as well say, ‘Bond villains, come and live here,’ ” he says. “Our libel laws don’t help. There are a lot of zillionaires about whom we are going to read the truth uncensored only when they are dead. It’s an astonishing situation, when we have such a proliferation of incredibly rich criminals.”

If that is the tragedy, the comedy is almost as alarming. Even the Financial Times last month was stunned to discover that bankers have been invited into schools to teach our children about money. The Royal Bank of Scotland, our most thoroughly disgraced financial institution, was, of course, represented. I can think of many people I could ask for advice about money. None of them is a banker.

Or there is the way the incontinent vanity of the newly entitled spills over into insults directed at their closest political allies. Towards the end of last year, Kevin Maguire reported in the New Statesman that members of the Bullingdon – the clownish club for the cream of Oxford society (the rich and thick) of which Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson were once members – had taken to burning £50 notes in front of beggars.

Most comical, but also most sad, are the attempts by the entitled to fit in with and compromise with the ordinary lives of others. In a remarkable piece for the Sunday Times Style magazine published in December, Kate Spicer interviewed members of the entitled generation that will reap the rewards of the wave of criminality that engulfed our financial system.

Goldman Sachs, Spicer reported, runs a course for partners on “how not to f*** up your kids” which encourages them to take the bewildered brats to the supermarket occasionally. (A friend of mine whom Goldman Sachs attempted to recruit in the 1990s was struck by the way, late at night, there were cars waiting to take the employees home, so that they need never see any street life.)

Unfortunately, the lesson “be nice, be normal” often fails to sink it. Spicer wrote of how Nell, the twentysomething daughter of the strikingly unpleasant former boss of Barclays Bob Diamond, defended her dad on Twitter by suggesting that Osborne and Ed Miliband should “go ahead and #hmd” – “hold my dick”.

Spicer also quoted Alexa, aged 17, who thought it “quite funny – people have no understanding, interest or involvement in something and then suddenly get all het up about it. I went on a drama course. I was one of very few private-school kids. This guy said, ‘Your dad f***** up the country,’ but he had a complete lack of understanding of the situation.”

Sorry, Alexa, but that guy was spot on.

The kids are worried about discrimination. Bankers’ brats now account for between 30 and 50 per cent of the intake of private schools, but they run into trouble when they have to talk to egalitarian-minded university interviewers and tell them that Mummy and Daddy paid for their gap-year adventures.

What is striking, reading Spicer’s interviews and copious other evidence, is that the narcissism Jean Twenge identified as having blossomed in the 1980s is still rampant. The children of the bankers do think they are better than the rest of us and that making money is what matters most.

“You commonly hear from companies now,” Twenge says, “that this generation really have new social goals, helping people and so on. Unfortunately, that is not backed up by the evidence from what the young people actually say. There is no resurgence in the idea that we really want companies to be responsible.”

One final feature of the Age of Entitlement must be mentioned. It is the viciously reductionist mindset behind what now happens in finance. In part, this derives from machines. Computers are like alcohol to Homer Simpson: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Computers made the bubble possible and the 2007 crash (and the next one) inevitable. They created high-speed, mechanised trading and enabled the application of mathematics to the markets – bad maths, as it happened, given that the primary equations were derived from physics that dees not apply to human affairs.

But more important is the reductionism that was implicit in neoliberalism as it became in the hands of the entitled. Money, in this view, is the measure of all things. An angry and very serious financial player told me how he had spent 20 years helping build a company; then the private-equity people moved in and told him he wouldn’t get a penny because he had put no money in. “They were saying all you need to make money is money – you can forget about the decades of work that went in before they even joined the party. They were arrogant beyond belief.”

This reductionism is perhaps the most dangerous assumption of the Age of Entitlement. Money, as Bob Dylan sagely observed, doesn’t talk, it swears, and for this swearing to be effective it must be embodied in an ethical, moral, political and social realm that cannot, in and of itself, be reduced to money. That realm is being eroded rapidly, not only by the entitled, but also by the craven worship of cash that now suffuses the culture. It is this that is successfully disseminating the depraved idea that merely to be rich is to be entitled. To sample the idea, go to the Rich Kids of Instagram tumblr, a website of images of the young wealthy swigging from magnums of champagne and posing next to private jets. The site’s tagline is, “They have more money than you and this is what they do.”

Taxation cannot change this, as the French are learning. The next crash might and several hundred – or several thousand – bankers in prison would help, as would the demolition of One Hyde Park to give us all a view of the green sward. What would definitely change the climate of entitlement would be a dismantling of its psychological basis, the mindset that has created a super-rich class with no allegiance, obligation or connection to wider society. The ears of the entitled need to be unstopped so that we can whisper to them, ever so gently, “If you’re rich be grateful and, here’s another great idea, earn it.”

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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