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After the coal rush

Not all of Kent is a tourist haven like Canterbury or as middle class as Tunbridge Wells. With the m

Betteshanger was the last of Kent's four main coalfields to close. On 26 August 1989, the pit drew its last coal - the same day of the same month, by chance, that Mick started to work there in 1952. "Thirty-seven years to the day," he says, leaning back in his chair at the Bettes­hanger Social Club. His friend Brian remembers his first day down the mine, too: it was his 15th birthday. But he was away on holiday when it closed. Brian's daughter picked him up from the airport. "Dad, I've got something to tell you," she said. He went straight to the pit, collected his tools and left. The two men have been friends for most of their lives and both went to work at the pit, after the customary 13 weeks' training, as soon as they left school aged 14. They have been coming to the social club for most of that time, too. The miners would gather here after work and have a cigarette, a cup of tea and a pie (the pies were famous, made to a secret recipe that recently lured ex-miners from all around the county to a reunion), before catching the bus back home to Deal, a lane-threaded seaside town nearby.

Now in their seventies, Mick and Brian come to the club every week for a coffee morning. They arrive together, sit at the same table and leave after an hour or so of conversation. Their memories, like their lives, are intertwined: they look to each other to remember names, dates and stories. Mining shaped their families. Their wives worked at the colliery - Brian's as a cleaner in the office and Mick's in the canteen - and their fathers, who had moved to Kent not long after Betteshanger opened in 1924, were both miners before them. Mick's family came from Wales and Brian's from Lancashire. It helped if mining was in the family - you knew what to expect when you went underground for the first time.

Coal was discovered in Kent in 1890 but many of the early collieries failed and were shut within a few years. Only four survived: Betteshanger, Chislet, Snowdown and Tilmanstone, of which Betteshanger was the largest, employing at its peak well over 1,000 people (the number had dropped to about 600 by the time the pit closed). The influx of miners apparently horrified the genteel residents of Deal, who put up "No miners" signs in their shops and cafés. The mines were under private ownership until nationalisation in 1947, and conditions at the pit were basic - there weren't even baths until 1934, so the miners would travel home each day blackened by coal dust.

Until the mines were mechanised in the early 1970s, the job was manual, men at the coalface with picks and shovels. As Mick puts it, "A lot of people would visit and say: 'I wouldn't work down here for a gold brick.'" Mick became a supervisor ("He went management," Brian says), mostly working nights. Brian, who had done a five-year mechanic's apprenticeship, moved to work on the machines above ground.

The community grew up around the mine. "We are close-knit. The work itself brings you together," Mick says. His friend agrees: "We worked together, lived together and, on a Saturday night, 80 per cent of us would come to have a drink here with our wives."

Looking back, both say they knew that the pit's closure was inevitable. Betteshanger had a long history of industrial action. In its early years, it attracted miners from all corners of Britain who had been blacklisted in their areas after the General Strike in 1926. Miners from the pit took part in the strikes of 1972 and 1974 and marched in London with the Betteshanger Brass Band. (The pit's red-and-blue banner, emblazoned with a picture of a miner gazing at the Houses of Parliament, hangs in a corner of the pool room at the club.)

But after Margaret Thatcher defeated the miners' strike in 1985, they knew that the end wasn't far off. Neither Mick nor Brian worked for the duration of the year-long protest. Brian says he was lucky - the bank let him off paying his mortgage - but others he knew lost their houses. In some cases, families broke up under the strain. "Brothers," Brian recalls. "One worked, one didn't. As soon as we started back to work, they were fighting."

After the pit closed, the miners were offered help to find work. A jobcentre was set up on the site but many went on the dole. Mick got a job on Deal pier. "I said I was the pier master," he says, "but I was just sweeping." Brian, grateful for his father's instruction to get a trade, found a job at a toolmaker's in Ramsgate. Both worked multiple jobs and were made redundant again at least once before they retired.

Not many other miners still live in Bettes­hanger. Mick and Brian live on Circular Road, a loop of 77 houses that were purpose-built for the pit's deputies and safety workers. Brian pulls a notebook from the breast pocket of his jacket. He is compiling a record of all the people who have lived in each house, from the day they were built. He dismisses the project as a "silly thing", but is taking it seriously. The book is filled with lists of door numbers and names; he says he knows many of the residents now.

Brian wants to memorialise a place transformed and the people long since departed. He seems to miss much of his former existence - his friends, the camaraderie, the miners' sports clubs and choirs, the trips to the beach they would organise every year, the way that no one bothered to lock their front door. "You used to walk into other people's houses and put the kettle on. They'd come in and say, 'Oh, have you made me one?'"

It took time to dismantle the pit, and even longer to replace it. For years, the land was left derelict. "[The place was] wrecked and ruined," Mick says. It was a similar picture around the country. After the last few pits were privatised or closed, the New Labour government, under the stewardship of the then deputy prime minister, John Prescott, eventually established a task force in October 1997 to examine the future
of the former coalfields. The Coalfields Regeneration Trust emerged from one of its recommendations and began making grants to former mining communities in 1999.

In 2000, the newly created South-East England Development Agency (Seeda) bought up land at Betteshanger and invested nearly £20m in regenerating the old pit site. But, according to Barry Roberts, chairman of the Betteshanger Social Club, most of the money didn't go on the village. Instead, it was used to create Fowlmead Country Park, on the other side of the main road, where the pit's dumping ground used to be. Now, there are carefully landscaped paths, saplings planted in neat rows and tarmacked routes for cyclists. Despite the transformation, Brian and Mick still call the park "the tip".

Fowlmead is considered to be a success, but attracting new industry to the area has been more problematic. A hopeful sign at the turn-off to Betteshanger points to a business park. "No one ever turned up," says Roberts. Much of the land, prepared into plots for industrial buildings, lies empty. There's a rumour that an agricultural college is moving in but no one knows for sure. It would be a welcome arrival - over 20 years after the pit closed, there is simply not enough work.

The main employers locally are large-scale commercial farmers, whose workers, townspeople say, are mostly immigrants - those willing to work for little in pitiful conditions. One woman, who asked not to be named, said that members of her family had worked for a salad-growing company; they had come home every day with their clothes covered in stains from washing vegetables in chemicals.

Another major employer in the area is Pfizer, which has its only British research and development facility nearby in Sandwich. In February this year, however, Pfizer announced that it would be closing the 2,400-worker facility - a decision that was described at the time as a "body blow" for east Kent by the local Tory MP, Laura Sandys.

Family business

Mick and Brian say that the government has been hyperactive since Pfizer's announcement, desperate to attract replacement industry to the region. They point out the contrast to the apathy they witnessed after the mines closed. Even after the Coalfields Regeneration Trust was set up, many residents in the area felt that its efforts were concentrated on the northern coalfields and that the mining communities in the south-east were neglected. Gary Ellis, the trust's chief executive, points out that Kent is "geographically isolated and, in percentage terms, a very small part of the former coalfield areas". But, he says, the trust has made grants to the county in every one of its funding rounds.

According to Brinley Hill, a local community development manager at Dover District Council, there is a more fundamental problem. People assume that Kent is a wealthy place, able to provide for itself. Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells are emblems of middle-class comfort, but not far from those prettified towns are areas of deep poverty, unusual in the south-east of England outside London. Since 2007, eight of the 12 districts in Kent have experienced an increase in deprivation, with Dover (which covers Deal and Betteshanger) leaping 15 places up the national scale (to 127th out of 326 local authorities in England). The neighbouring district of Thanet is the worst off in the county, ranking nationally at 49.

Hill's father was a miner and he laughs at the strange kind of family business they have concocted. "He did mining; I do regeneration," he says. In the years after the pits closed, efforts weren't helped by the "massive lack of trust" that was felt in the community. Miners and their families, he observes, can find it hard to move on. "Mining communities go back many years," he says. "In the east Kent area, families travelled from all around the country to work there. Memories go back - of grandparents walking from Wales or down from Durham or Scotland. There's such fondness about that."

Hill has worked closely with local people to try to rebuild relationships, improve the area's economic prospects and restore the sense of community that seemed to ebb away after the pits closed. Gradually, small local regeneration projects have got off the ground - he enthusiastically lists the cosmetic improvements at the Betteshanger Social Club, with its new kitchen, fresh paint and sprung floor for tap-dancing. "It's the best it's ever looked," he says.

The immediate future for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust looks promising, too: the government has just awarded £30m to the trust to invest over the next two years, ensuring its ability to make small grants to communities such as Betteshanger until 2013.

Beyond that point, however, the outlook is less certain. Ellis says that the trust, like many other government-funded public bodies, has been instructed to come up with an "exit strategy", so that by March 2015 (just before the next general election), the organisation will no longer be dependent on government money. The idea, a cornerstone of the Prime Minister's "big society" strategy, is that the trust will be able to function as a social enterprise, generating its own income streams through the various projects it supports, so that it becomes, in government-speak, "self-sustaining".

Ellis is aware that this will not be easy and he emphasises the need for continued direct intervention, not least because "some of the former colliery sites still need to be cleaned up". He points out, too, that many of the projects that the trust supports are already generating their own revenue. "We've got groups coming to us saying, 'We are sustainable; we have income streams coming from different places,'" Ellis tells me, "but, as a result of the public expenditure cuts, some of these income streams have now disappeared."

The public spending cuts have also affected the regional development agencies, including Seeda. By 31 March 2012, the agency will no longer exist and strategic and financial support for local industry and programmes will be either reassigned or terminated.

A fair Deal

In a large, converted church in Deal, three miles down the road from Betteshanger, Paula Moorhouse runs the Landmark Centre, a community association. The deconsecrated church was going to be turned into a supermarket until a local activist lay down in front of a bulldozer; the protest helped save the building.

Moorhouse says that she is not connected in particular to former miners in the community; her work focuses instead on the younger gen­eration and trying to tackle youth unemployment. She also runs gardening groups for those with mental health problems and dad-and-toddler groups for young parents. But she notes the miners' legacy. Deal, she says, has an unusually strong sense of community and people with little to give will empty their pockets for charity. She receives support from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which gave her funding to set up the centre's weekly job club to help young people into work.

Moorhouse needs all the financial support that she can get. Because of a long-standing, inherited debt problem, the Landmark Centre is in a precarious financial situation. Moorhouse is not able to apply for major donor funding and has to gather revenue however she can, mostly by hiring out rooms in the building. She has cut down staff members to three (herself, an assistant and a cleaner) and depends on volunteers to support the rest of the work. "We have a boot fair here, once a month, and I have a lady sitting on the door. She won't let people in unless they've put a few pennies in the box. That can raise me £25 in a morning."

Moorhouse looks, for a moment, a little desperate - her monthly fuel bills alone are more than £2,000. But she is evidently indefatigable. She does the job because she loves it and feels a duty and deep attachment to the area. She was born and grew up in Woodnesborough, a nearby village surrounded by apple orchards.

It seems the Landmark Centre is already a beacon of the big society. "That's what we say . . . We're a prime example." She has been working with mental health teams and Sure Start programmes for years, she says: a perfect example of local, interagency collaboration. The council had apparently been planning to open a new community centre in Dover modelled on hers - it was going to be called "Landmark II" - but the funding was cut.

The irony is not lost on Moorhouse. The day after we talk, she will be having a meeting with someone who runs a mental health group locally. Its property is being sold and now it has nowhere to go. "At the moment, the group meets three times a week and [for members] that's their lifeline. If someone with mental health issues suddenly loses their lifeline, there can be dire consequences."

Such financial insecurity seems to be common in this part of Kent. For Moorhouse, her set-up at the centre in Deal is, in essence, "hand to mouth". She has spoken to the council and it has offered its continued support, but she has yet to see what that means. For the moment, she will ignore the rhetoric and "get on with it" in her usual way.

You can understand why people in east Kent are sceptical of David Cameron's attempts to cut back the state and conjure up in its place
a big society. The overstretched, overworked managers of the Betteshanger Social Club and Deal's Landmark Centre already rely on the goodwill of countless volunteers - those who give up their time and money to make tea, run clubs and set up football academies.

These aren't overnight projects but established efforts, conceived long before the formation of this government and sustained by the support of a willing community. They don't need a directive to tell them to do what they are already doing - what any community with a sense of togetherness does. What they need is enough backing from the state to stay open so that they can continue to serve those who depend on them.

Mick finishes his tea at the Betteshanger Social Club. He says he was watching the ITV morning show Daybreak and it "latched on to Cameron's . . . What's he trying again?" He tries to remember the phrase. "Volunteering for everything." He goes on to recount the film that the programme had shown, about people going into schools to volunteer as teaching assistants. "But now, that's somebody else's job gone," Mick says. "The more people volunteer to do these things, the less people are going to have a chance to work. This is what upsets me."

Mick isn't especially political. He imagines that if he won the Lottery he might morph into a "raging Tory" - a notion that he finds amusing. But Brian shakes his head. "We're all in this together," he says and laughs.

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the New Statesman

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

AKG-Images/Russian State Archive for Film and Photography, Krasnogorsk
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What caused the Russian revolution? Look to the powder keg of Petrograd

How unrest exploded in 1917 – with help from Russia’s Terrible Twins.

Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.

The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”

But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not. Its Achilles heel was the supply of fuel and food by a broken transport system during the coldest winter in years. In early 1917 bread riots broke out in many cities. But only one of those cities was the crucible of revolution.

Petrograd was unusual, by Russian standards and those of the modern world. The fifth-largest metropolis in Europe, it was an industrial sweatshop of 2.4 million people in a predominantly rural country. Seventy per cent of the city’s workers were employed in factories with a staff of over 1,000, a proportion unmatched even in the conurbations of Germany and the US. Sucked in by the war boom, they lived amid squalor: more than three people on average to every cellar or single room, double the figure for Berlin or Paris. About half the homes lacked water supply or a sewage system; a quarter of all babies died in their first year.

Yet wealth and privilege were staring these workers in the face: the main factory district, on the Vyborg Side of the Neva, lay just across the water from the imperial palace and the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. This cheek-by-jowl polarisation contrasted with more suburbanised industrial centres such as Berlin, London and Paris. Equally important, Petrograd was a large garrison, with over 300,000 soldiers in and around the city. That, an eyewitness said, was like placing “kindling wood near a powder keg”.

Today the barracks and the sweatshops are gone. But even in modern St Petersburg one can see why Petrograd literally walked into revolution in 1917. A 90-minute hike will take you from the Finland Station on the Vyborg Side, across the Liteiny Bridge, west along the embankment to Palace Square and then left down Nevsky Prospekt to the Moscow Station. Maybe an hour, if you cross the Liteiny Bridge and turn east to the Tauride Palace and Smolny Convent. Along these axes, within the space of a few square miles, the drama of 1917 played out.

Thousands of spectators looked on and many recorded what they saw. Some were foreign residents and journalists, whose impressions are the stuff of Helen Rappaport’s lively narrative Caught in the Revolution. Sticking closer to raw sources is John Pinfold’s Petrograd, 1917, which is lavishly illustrated with postcards and prints from the Bodleian Library’s collections. Some of the city’s biggest factories were British-owned and British-managed: the Thornton Woollen Mill, employing 3,000 workers, belonged to three brothers from Yorkshire. Many of the luxury stores along Nevsky Prospekt – tailors, dressmakers, food emporiums, bookshops – were British or French, catering for expatriates and wealthy Russians in the days when French was still the lingua franca of the elite.

For months it had been clear that trouble was brewing. “If salvation does not come from above,” one Russian duchess warned the French ambassador, “there will be revo­lution from below.” Yet few anticipated how Petrograd would stumble into a new era.

Thursday 23 February (tsarist Russia still followed the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West) was International Women’s Day, a red-letter date for socialists. Thousands flocked across the bridges and the frozen river from the Vyborg Side and other industrial areas and marched down Nevsky Prospekt demanding bread. Trams and other obstacles were pushed aside. “I have heard the Marseillaise sung many times,” wrote Florence Harper, an intrepid American journalist, “but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be” – with raw class hatred.

Marchons! Marchons! All day the tide surged along and around Nevsky. Across the river, strikes spread violently through the factory districts. More demonstrations followed on Friday, and clashes escalated with the hated mounted police. Yet life still went on: the Alexandrinsky Theatre, one block off Nevsky, was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy The Government Inspector, its tale of official corruption, incompetence and self-delusion from the era of Nicholas I still richly apt in the dog-days of Nicholas II. By the weekend, however, trams had shut down, most shops were closed and looting was rife. Troops and policemen massed around the main squares. But when the police started sabring the crowds, Cossack troops and even crack Guards regiments sided with the protesters.

On Monday 27 February, with temperatures rising literally as well as figuratively, thousands of mutinous soldiers joined the milling crowds, which were now armed with booty looted from military arsenals. Army officers were particular targets. One of them, bemedalled and swaggering, was pursued along Nevsky by a crowd of women who stripped him of his weapons. A grey-haired woman screaming abuse broke the officer’s sword over her knee and tossed the bits into a canal. By nightfall, the tsarist regime had lost control of most of the city, except the Winter Palace and a few government buildings nearby. It was “a revolution carried on by chance”, Bert Hall, an American aviator attached to the Russian Air Service, wrote in his diary – “no organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who have stood enough and are ready to die if necessary before they will put up with any more tsarism”.

Although Hall’s account was rather simplistic, this was indeed a revolution in search of a leader. On 2 March the tsar abdicated, but plans for a constitutional monarchy evaporated when his brother Mikhail refused the throne, leaving Russia headless. A rump of the parliament dithered and bickered in one wing of the Tauride Palace, while a heaving jumble of soldiers, workers and activists in the other wing congealed into the “Petrograd Soviet”. Aptly, they were on the left of the palace and the politicians were on the right, with little to connect the two sides. The politicians became the Provisional Government but the soviet had authority over the army. “Dual power” signalled a duel for power.

The duel proved painfully protracted. Four coalitions ensued in less than nine months, not to mention seven major reshuffles. Meanwhile the country slipped towards civil war – a process well documented by Stephen Smith in Russia in Revolution, based on a deft synthesis of recent research. Peasants with guns and pitchforks looted the big houses and seized the estates. Workers’ committees took control of much of the defence industry. In the army, “all discipline has vanished”, the French ambassador told Paris. “Deserters are wandering over Russia.” Smith emphasises that February aroused idealism as well as anarchy: a yearning for political rights, decent living standards and, above all, peace. Yet the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, decided to mount a summer offensive against the Germans, which quickly became a disaster, with vast losses of troops and territory. The people were turning against the government but the indecisive duel dragged on.

Enter Lenin. Contrary to Soviet mythology, he was not a “man of the people”. His father belonged to the provincial establishment – a reformist inspector of schools in the Simbirsk region, south-east of Moscow. Lenin’s pedigree was also hushed up by the Soviet authorities: his maternal grandfather was Jewish and his paternal grandmother was a Kalmyk from central Asia, hence those “Mongol eyes” and high cheekbones. Most of all, he was a man who had been going nowhere for years, or, rather, had been going round in circles. Yet when finally he went for the jugular it proved decisive for him – and fatal for Russia.

Victor Sebestyen brings the man’s complexities to life in Lenin the Dictator, balancing personality with politics in succinct and readable prose. Like other biographers, Sebestyen roots young Vladimir’s revolutionary turn in the double trauma in 1886-87 of his father’s sudden death and his elder brother’s execution for plotting to kill the tsar. From now on Lenin’s one-track, control-freak mind was fixed on the goal of a Russian revolution, in defiance of Karl Marx’s insistence that this would be impossible until feudal peasant Russia had first become a bourgeois society.

For three decades, however, the would-be revolutionary was a failure, spending much of his time in exile flitting between Munich, London, Paris and various “holes” in Switzerland – Geneva, Bern, Zurich – endlessly plotting revolution, frenziedly writing revolution, but not actually doing revolution. In fact, Lenin seemed to have a knack of being in the wrong place at the right time: outside Russia in the upheavals of 1905, likewise when war broke out in ­August 1914, and again when tsarism was toppled in February 1917. It was almost as if he was so obsessed with revolution that he could never see it coming.

This life of frustrated waiting took an enormous toll on nerves and health. Sebestyen describes particularly keenly how this ruthless, domineering, often vicious man depended on three women to sustain him. There was Maria Ulyanova, his mother, who provided financial and emotional support until her death in 1916. Then his wife, Nadezhda (“Nadya”) Krupskaya – written off in Soviet times as a mere cook and amanuensis, but who Sebestyen and other biographers show to be an intelligent and devoted partner in the revolutionary project and one with whom Lenin talked out his ideas before writing them down. And Inessa Armand, a chic French divorcee for whom Lenin fell, passionately, in the only real “affair” of his life. A superb linguist and accomplished pianist, Inessa was not only his sharpest intellectual critic but also an intrepid party organiser, undertaking dangerous missions in Russia. Nadya accepted the ménage à trois with remarkable equanimity and the two women seem to have become good friends. Nadya, who was childless, was especially fond of Inessa’s two young daughters.

Lenin might have gone to his grave playing out this pointless life of head and heart but for the accident of the February revolution. Now frantic to get back to Petrograd, he could not see how to travel from Zurich across or around war-torn Europe. His plans to do so became increasingly surreal. A wig to conceal his giveaway bald pate? Maybe a Swedish passport? (Forgeries were easily obtained.) “Find a Swede who looks like me,” he instructed a Bolshevik in Stockholm. “But as I know no Swedish, he will have to be a deaf mute.”

In the end, the kaiser’s Germany came to his rescue, eager to undermine Russia’s home front. To quote Winston Churchill’s celebrated one-liner, “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale tells the famous story with colour and detail, setting it in the crucible of a Europe at war. Her introduction relates how she faithfully retraced his 2,000-mile journey to Petrograd, even leaving Zurich on the same date as Lenin, though this personal odyssey is not then woven into the body of the book. And because her account does not extend as far as the October revolution, we finish the book on a slight sense of anticlimax. But Merridale offers an engrossing account of the physical train ride – in a single wooden carriage, painted green, consisting of three second-class and five third-class compartments plus a baggage room. German guards sat at the back behind a chalk line on the floor, to preserve the fiction that Lenin had no contact with Russia’s enemy.

A martinet as ever, he imposed specific sleeping hours on his Bolshevik fellow travellers, banned smoking in the compartments and corridor, and instituted a pass system to regulate use of the toilet between smokers and those answering the call of nature. After a tense delay in Berlin, the train chugged on to Germany’s Baltic coast, from where a ferry and then more train journeys through Sweden and Finland brought Lenin to the Finland Station in Petrograd on Easter Monday, 3 April.

That night he delivered a tub-thumping, two-hour speech to his socialist comrades explaining that the first phase of Russia’s revolution was over and the second was beginning. Not for him a coalition of the left, let alone the British/French staging post of liberal democracy: the Russian bourgeoisie was locked in to capitalism and wedded to the war. No, the second stage was quite simply to “place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasantry”. To most of his listeners, Merridale remarks, “this was not just bad Marxist theory; it was an invitation to political suicide”. Even Nadya was overheard telling a friend, “I am afraid it looks as if Lenin has gone crazy.”

Once home again, Lenin seemed to succumb to the Petrograd paralysis. He hectored large crowds and churned out endless articles, insisting, “No great question . . . has yet been resolved in history other than by force.” But in June he warned key aides not to let anti-war demonstrations get out of hand: “Even if we were now able to seize power, we’re in no position to hold it.” When the protests did escalate and the government cracked down, he fled to Finland, provoking bitter accusations of cowardice from many of his jailed supporters.

But finally he went for broke. After three months in exile again, he slipped back into Petrograd on the night of 10 October to browbeat the Bolshevik Central Committee into affirming that the time was “perfectly ripe” for “an armed uprising” against Ker­ensky and the Provisional Government, rejecting arguments that they should work for a peaceful transfer of power at the Second Congress of Soviets 15 days later. As Sebestyen observes, “If anything disproves the Marxist idea that it is not individuals who make history but broad social and economic forces it is Lenin’s revolution.”

On 24 October, Lenin’s comrades tried to keep him tucked away on the Vyborg Side because he was still on the government’s wanted list. But by the evening he could not endure to wait yet again in the wings. Crudely disguised with glasses, a grey wig and a worker’s peaked cap, he took off for the Smolny Institute where the Bolsheviks had their military headquarters. Without a car or tank for transport, he and one bodyguard got on a tram to the Liteiny Bridge and then tramped the rest of the way along the embankment, narrowly avoiding arrest. Like the protesters in their February revolution, Lenin walked into Red October – and finally into history.

Today Lenin’s mummified body still resides in its shrine in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. But in fact, as Sebestyen writes, Tsar Nicholas “did as much as anyone, including Lenin, to bring about the destruction of the Romanov dynasty and to ensure the Communist takeover in Russia” – not just by setting his face against reforms that might have averted revolution, but also because he had “no understanding of the nature of power”. Russia in 1917 was “an ­autocracy without an autocrat”.

In The Last of the Tsars, Robert Service ­examines the mentality of this lost leader. He does so through the lens of Nicholas’s experiences and reflections during the 16 months between his abdication in March 1917 and his family’s grisly end in July 1918. The tsar’s limp surrender of the throne ­continues to amaze. Emotional exhaustion; pressure from the army command; concern for his haemophiliac son; the impossibility of squaring a constitutional monarchy with his coronation oath: one can intuit possible explanations. But it still seems astonishing that this proud scion of the Romanov dynasty, rulers of Russia for three centuries, signed away his throne on a provincial railway station with blank calm – as if, to quote one aide, “he were turning over command of a cavalry squadron”.

The abdication wasn’t something Nicholas discussed during his peripatetic house arrest in 1917-18 around western Siberia and the Urals. Nor did the eks-Imperator (as he was described on his ration card) express any regret about his record as a ruler: he blamed Russia’s woes on alien forces instead. Top of the list were the German invaders and the Bolshevik revolutionaries: he described the peace treaty that Lenin signed with the Kaiserreich, surrendering the Baltic states and the Ukraine, as a “nightmare”. The tsar may have been a devoted husband and father – romanticised in the movie based on Robert Massie’s 50th-anniversary encomium Nicholas and Alexandra – but, as Service writes: “In power and out of it, he was a nationalist extremist, a deluded nostalgist and a virulent anti-Semite.”

Originally the Bolsheviks had envisaged a show trial, like those of Charles I in England and Louis XVI in France. But by July 1918 the time had passed for political theatre: Russia was engulfed in civil war and hostile Czech troops were closing in on Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs were now being held. Service has no doubt that Lenin authorised the killing but – as in 1917 when he was trying to cover up German help and money – any documentation was destroyed. Instead, conveniently in keeping with the Bolshevik slogan “All power to the soviets”, responsibility for the deed was ascribed to party leaders in Ekaterinburg.

Yet even after Nicholas’s death his regime lived on. “As a form of absolutist rule the Bolshevik regime was distinctly Russian,” Orlando Figes remarked in his 1996 classic, A People’s Tragedy. “It was a mirror-image of the tsarist state.” Lenin and Stalin replaced the Tsar-God, and the Cheka/NKVD/KGB continued (even more systematically) the brutal work of the tsarist police state. In a new introduction to a reprint of his book, Figes emphasises that Putinism is also rooted in this Russian past – in the enduring weakness of civil society and the scant experience of deep democracy.

Not that the West can easily point the finger at Russia. In the age of Trump and Brexit, with an ossified EU and a global refugee crisis, we should not be complacent about the sophistication of our own democracy, or about the thin screen that separates peace and civilisation from the law of the jungle.

The American diplomat and historian George Kennan described the Great War as “the seminal tragedy” of the 20th century – seedbed of so many horrors to come. The events of 1917 were its bitter first fruit. As Stephen Smith writes, “[T]here is a great deal to learn from the history of the Russian Revolution about how the thirst for power, the enthusiasm for violence, and contempt for law and ethics can corrupt projects that begin with the finest ideals.” 

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit