Rowan Williams in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images
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Between church and state

As Rowan Williams prepares to step down after nearly ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury, a former aide ponders the challenges confronting his successor.

Politicians are accustomed to the media distorting whatever they have to say for dramatic effect – every discussion is a row, every initiative a push for power. So it is with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anglican apparatchiks have been busy playing down the suggestion that their Church is planning to appoint a “global president” to relieve the next archbishop of some of the workload. The line is that Dr Rowan Williams, in a valedictory interview in the Daily Telegraph, merely said that the job was too big for one person. The Telegraph thought otherwise.

But the story stirred some emotions, not least relief that Tony Blair had converted to Roman Catholicism and so would not be available for the job. And it drew attention to just how political is the role of archbishop of Canterbury. Not only is Williams presented as a more virulent opposition to the present government than the Labour Party, but what he has to say is presented in the media about as sympathetically as Boris Johnson’s denials that he wants to be prime minister.

Lambeth Palace is treated as another chamber of parliament on the south bank of the Thames. It follows that the next archbishop, due to be announced shortly, walks into a highly political job. But should it be so? Should the archbishop want it to be so?

In Faith in the Public Square, his last book as archbishop, Williams calls the Church a “political seminar . . . God transforms society and not just human individuals”. This theme characterised his decade in office. Last year, while I was working for him, I heard him say in one of the speeches included in the book that “it’s not a matter of the Church binding its vision to the agenda of this or that party, not a matter of the Church creating a political party to embody its vision and its priorities. Much more, it’s a matter of the Christian gospel motivating a grass-roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality.”

We start, therefore, with a paradox – the Church of England is deeply rooted in British political life, yet it transcends party politics. Williams has managed this difficult relationship with the nation’s politics remarkably well. With carefully chosen interventions, the outrage of politicians and in some quarters of the media may be seen to have demonstrated that he has got this aspect of his job bang on.

When he suggested in 2008 that our legislature might recognise aspects of sharia in our civil law, some of the more excitable newspaper commentators ranted about tongues being cut out and adulterers being stoned to death. It was left to the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley calmly to point out on BBC radio that, among a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim in the UK, only one person is prevented from marrying according to the rites of his or her own culture – and that this is inequitable.

Since then, Williams may have been more measured in his contributions but he’s hardly been less of a political animal. He has spoken out frequently against welfare cuts, successfully fronted the campaign to prevent the government selling off our national forestry to its mates as tax dodges, quietly held David Cameron’s feet to the fire over his “big society” rhetoric, criticised our policies on Europe and, of course, caused a minor storm in Westminster with a leader comment on the quality of our political life when he guest-edited the New Statesman in June last year.

It’s a tough act to follow. Whoever succeeds him in the early days of 2013 will need to maintain the momentum that Williams has established, without being taken hostage by any parliamentary faction. It’s a prospect complicated by the politically atypical nature of the Christian world-view. If one is to generalise, Christian politics are often economically progressive and socially conservative. As Andy Flannagan, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, puts it: “The reality is that the group of passionate believers working with Citizens UK on a living wage campaign are also campaigning for a financial transaction tax, while also running a drug rehab centre and also campaigning for the definition of marriage to remain the same. Where do you fit those folks into your broadsheet?”

I very much doubt that the next archbishop of Canterbury knows that he is archbishop yet. More to the point, I rather doubt that the sometimes leaky Crown Nominations Commission, which is meant to come up with a name for the Prime Minister to carry to the Queen, knows either, though I hear that the odd bishop’s summer holidays have been interrupted by these grandest of headhunters.

All we do know is that, to maintain the political momentum, it will need to be someone of personality and guts. In Cameron’s summer reveries, he must have wished to be presented with a candidate who has neither. Or one who has plenty of both but would happily wave the Prime Minister’s pet proposals for gay marriage through General Synod. Yet there are precious few of those and it might be a tad overambitious to suggest that Dr Jeffrey John, the openly gay Dean of St Albans, was denied the bishoprics of Reading and Southwark under the current incumbent of the See of Canterbury in order to be fast-tracked to become his successor.

So, it will come down to the usual, orthodox suspects. The price on the former bookies’ favourite John Sentamu of York has lengthened as it’s dawned on observers that his principal qualifications for the job are being evangelical and black. The short-odds favourite spot has been filled by Christopher Cocksworth of Coventry, who is young enough to be favourite next time, too. Richard Chartres of  London, unkindly called “the Prince of Wales in drag” because of his closeness to the heir to the throne since they were undergraduates together at Cambridge, could still be the leader who ushers in women bishops while keeping traditionalists (like himself) on board. Graham James of Norwich showed well in the hard going of a report on homosexuality. Then there are dark horses such as John Inge of Worcester and Nick Baines of Bradford.

To be honest, they all seem wearied by the whole Canterbury candidacy gig and only one of them – best left nameless –would still kick fingers away to get the job, such are the obvious political pressures of the role. By contrast, the mood in the Church’s superstructure remains rather buoyant. Far from sharing the illiterate media view that Williams is a weirdy-beardy, the Church of England’s civil servants have been close enough to his political and social contributions during the past decade to want the next archbishop to keep up the parliamentary pace.

“The office can’t help but be thought of as political,” a very senior Church official told me recently. “Nor can its incumbent operate in a space hermetically sealed from the world of regular politics – precisely because the heart of the archbishop’s calling is to articulate the teachings of the gospel about how we as individuals form societies that work together for the common good. Salvation doesn’t come in isolation.

“It’s the worst kind of secularising instinct that presumes that a religious leader with a prominent position in public life can be a true advocate for and exemplar of the Christian message by confining himself to being part superadministrator of the Church’s business and part constitutional ornament, wheeled out on grand state occasions.”

That echoes Turbulent Priests?, a pamphlet written by Daniel Gover and published last year by the think tank Theos. It assessed the political contributions of the three archbishops of Canterbury since 1980: “[Archbishops’] participation in political debate helps lift that debate, however briefly, above the short-term and partisan, and (changing metaphors) ground it in more substantial (and often more accessible) ethical considerations.”

But the voice of Mandy Rice-Davies echoes down the decades: they would say that, wouldn’t they? And what of those who aren’t in the Christian tent? An irony is that the Church of England, established in law, is our state church, with the monarch both its supreme governor and head of state, but that our national religion is at its best when it’s a thorn in the side of that state. It follows that an archbishop of Canterbury would more usually be a friend of Her Majesty’s Opposition than of her government. So, at present, there is a knuckle-dragging faction on the Tory back benches which would happily see the Archbishop butt out of what it considers its sovereign territory. “The Church should get back to its prime business of praising the Almighty, saving souls and considering its own diminishing position in this society,” Brian Binley, the MP for Northampton South, has said.

We might surmise that the last bit of that statement is somewhat bold, coming at a time when the diminution of his own party’s position in society is accelerating so quickly. But it is also very odd – first, because Tories such as Binley are among the first, along with the rightwing press, to demand the voice of the bishops when issues such as marriage, abortion and euthanasia are on the agenda. These, I presume, they consider matters of personal morality, as if morality were absent from other areas such as taxation, unemployment, immigration and asylum, the running of the economy, or, for that matter, European policy. Perhaps Binley believes they are amoral issues, but I rather doubt he’d say that publicly.

The Archbishop occupies a seat in the upper chamber of the legislature, and as long as he does so, he has a duty, not a choice, to participate. The other side of this is that his is arguably the most powerful unaccountable political job in the realm. Even the monarch gets to sit in the House of Lords only once a year – and then she can’t vote. The Archbishop is there all year round, voting away on behalf of a mixture of his own conscience and that of his congregants. And third and most importantly, he honours the gospel imperative to serve the poor – not just the economically poor, but anyone who is vulnerable, marginalised or weak.

Is Christianity essentially socialist? The new archbishop will be enthroned in Augustine’s seat in a failing economy with a hardline, Conservative-led government (and, after this month’s reshuffle, who doubts that that is what we have?). As a Church, we are drawn inexorably towards the question of where today our faith is rooted, economically and politically. In short, the new archbishop will be examined to establish whether he is Labour or Conservative.

Williams’s successor will, inevitably, avoid the question, taking refuge in that line about transcending party politics. But frankly it is hard to construct a case for the interests of the poor being best served by concurrently cutting welfare payments and the top rate of income tax, by making those who are already suffering most pay the price of the economic collapse while protecting the financial elite who precipitated it, and by continuing to pretend that wealth creation is of itself serving the common good by virtue of mystical trickle-down benefits, when events since 2008 demonstrate that trickle-down hasn’t worked. The rich have run off with the money.

The smug refrain, from parliamentarians and some clerics alike, is very often a quotation from Jesus: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is a neat little demarcation that apparently sorts the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. It certainly conforms Brian Binley’s world-view: the big boys will manage the money, while the church makes jam for the fete. The trouble is the passage in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say that at all.

Leo Tolstoy pointed out that Christ “not only does not encourage any obedience to power but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar”. That may stand as the pithiest brief for the next archbishop of Canterbury as he faces the little Caesars across the Thames from Lambeth Palace.

The question arises of how many in Westminster can work with the new archbishop if he chooses to heed Tolstoy’s words. To do so, the common ground they must find is working for the common good. In truth, that has been an idea successfully annexed by the political left since Margaret Thatcher championed individualism over collectivism in the 1980s and consequently froze out a Church of England that had historically been characterised as “the Tory party at prayer”. (Relations between the Church and the Thatcher government weren’t helped by the publication, in 1985, of Faith in the City, a report into urban poverty and a “call for action by Church and nation”  commissioned by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Stung by the Church’s insubordination under Runcie, Thatcher hand-picked his successor, George Carey, who proved to be altogether more emollient.)

Cameron at least nodded in the direction of a notion of the common good with his talk of the “big society”, even if his faith in it faded in and out with his Christian faith, a religious conviction like radio reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns, as he put it in a phrase borrowed from Boris Johnson. And it was telling that Tim Montgomerie, the Christian editor of the influential ConservativeHome website who is a proponent of Tory “modernisation” on issues of social justice, should have reacted so intemperately to Williams’s guest-editorship of the New Statesman. As he saw it, his party was being accused of what he hoped it had left behind.

As for the Labour Party, like the Church of England, it is working out its future relationship with the archbishop by examining the one that is passing. “What Rowan Williams has achieved is to continuously restate the importance of compassion in the public realm and the emphasis on the common life that we all share, one that reaches beyond the transactional elements of orthodox economics,” Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham and head of the party’s policy review, told me. “These types of intervention will be ever more important as the character of the country shifts through the process of austerity, where the poor are increasingly demonised and the weak pick up the tab for a financial crisis that is not of their making. We will need such alternative voices all the more in the future.”

Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham, who is a former chief secretary to the Treasury (and a Christian), sets the bar even higher for the new archbishop. “It seems to me that, with Rowan as Archbishop, there has been a new intellectual self-confidence about the Church of England. In a period when the question ‘Where do our values come from?’ has been a pressing one, his has been a distinctive, compelling and authoritative voice. He has managed to be pretty fearless in speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalised, taking a lot of flak at times for doing so, without being partisan or gratuitously giving offence.”

No pressure, then. If that isn’t a big enough challenge for the new archbishop, there are two other mighty obstacles to effective political engagement. The first is those troublesome folk in the media. As the Christian Socialist Flannagan puts it: “Rowan’s voice has challenged vested interests in the financial and corporate sector who have multimillion-pound PR departments to speak for them. His successor will have the challenge of articulating the incredible breadth of what is going on in and through all the different strands of the Church in the UK, be that debt advice centres, youth work or homeless shelters. But he will be doing that into a media milieu that increasingly doesn’t want complexity in its reporting of the Church. It wants boxes. It wants the UK to be like the US. It wants liberals and conservatives, or liberals and evangelicals. It wants ‘nice Christians’and ‘nasty Christians’.”

The other political stumbling block is the Church’s own executive. When in early 2011 Williams signed a petition against the government’s proposed forestry sell-off, I was told in no uncertain terms that “the Archbishop doesn’t sign other people’s letters”. I replied that, on the contrary, he just had. This self-important panjandrum looked pained and asked me unsmilingly where I thought we’d be if we allowed the Archbishop to do what he wanted. Sir Humphrey Appleby would find today’s Church of England his natural habitat.

The Crown Nominations Commission must come up with a candidate who can cope with the politics not just of Westminster, but of his Church. What does that candidate look like? Flannagan is in no doubt: “Rowan led with the nuance necessary, rather than retreating to the safety of a tribe. I pray for another like him.”

George Pitcher was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary for public affairs from 2010-2011. “Faith in the Public Square” is published by Bloomsbury (£20).

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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