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The empire strikes back

On the eve of an eagerly awaited Ashes series, Peter Wilby reveals how the forces of globalisation a

Whoever designed this summer’s cricket programme must have had a sly sense of humour. Immediately after the newest, brashest form of the game, the World Twenty20, comes the oldest, most traditional contest of all: an Ashes series between England and Australia comprising five five-day Test matches, starting in Cardiff on Wednesday. White clothes, red balls and ancient rituals of lunch and tea replace the coloured costumes, white balls and dancing girls that greet each Twenty20 boundary. It is as though a performance of the St Matthew Passion had been preceded by a karaoke session.

It is one of cricket’s strengths that it is infinitely adaptable, and that a short game can be as demanding of players’ skills as the longer versions. For cricket connoisseurs, however, there can be no doubt about which form of the game is superior. There are rarely empty seats for the first three days of a midsummer Test in England, and never for the Ashes. For a few weeks between Wimbledon and the start of the football season, cricket will hold public and media attention, with Kevin Pietersen’s Achilles attracting the coverage normally reserved for Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal. Yet the survival of the traditional game hangs by a thread. Earlier this year, when England visited the Caribbean, where cricket once brought normal life to a standstill, most support came from England’s travelling “Barmy Army” – and even they couldn’t half-fill the region’s modest stadiums. Tests during England’s most recent tour of Pakistan, in 2005-2006, attracted roughly 10,000 a day only by giving away 70 per cent of the tickets. The first Test between South Africa and Australia in Johannesburg this year, for the unofficial world championship, attracted average crowds of fewer than 15,000 spectators a day in a ground that holds 34,000.

The rulers of English cricket would never admit it (they have spent more than a century denying the need for change, until desperation forces it upon them) but, in most countries, Test matches might not survive another decade. The Ashes may go on for longer – much depends on whether England remain competitive, as they have managed only spasmodically for the past 20 years. But, as the former Somerset captain and writer Peter Roebuck observed, “the remarkable thing is not that shorter matches have been introduced, but that the longer version endures”.

The rise of India has changed everything. The subcontinent now generates 70 per cent of world cricket’s revenues and doesn’t hesitate to exercise the power and influence that brings. Cricket has always been a vehicle for national self-assertion. The ruling elite of Victorian England saw it as part of the empire’s civilising mission, binding its far-flung subjects into loyalty to the mother country and its values. “To play it . . . honourably,” said Lord Harris, the governor general of colonial Bombay in the 1890s and a former captain of Kent, “is a moral lesson in itself and the classroom is God’s air and sunshine.”

Later, the game would unite the scattered populations of Australia, becoming an expression of Australianness: aggressive, unsentimental, egalitarian, unadorned by frills and refinements. In the West Indies, cricket began as a proclamation of white settler supremacy – no black player was allowed to become the regular captain until 1960 – then turned into an assertion of black autonomy and self-respect. Now India, an emerging world power in politics and economics, finds in cricket an arena where it may dominate.

It offers by far the largest and most lucrative market for the game. As the academics Nalin Mehta, Jon Gemmell and Dominic Malcolm put it in the current issue of the Sport in Society journal, “cricketers are the biggest brand names in the [Indian] consumer economy”. The Indian Premier League (IPL), a Twenty20 competition between city-based teams that is modelled on the English football Premiership, offers players previously unimaginable sums for a couple of months’ cricket. For 2008, the league’s first year, global media rights and team franchises were sold for $1.7bn and some players commanded contracts worth more than $1m. This year, security fears during a general election forced the league into exile in South Africa, but that seems likely to be a temporary setback. Across the world, many of the best professional players no longer aspire to a Test place but want an IPL contract.

Leading England players are still bound by contracts that supposedly limit their freedom to play elsewhere. But the IPL offered Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, the two star players, £450,000 over three weeks. The ECB dared not stop them from joining the league, even though they risked injury ahead of the Ashes. Flintoff’s agent has already suggested that leading players will in future refuse contracts from their national boards, offering themselves, like golf players, to the highest bidders from tournaments around the world. Now that England’s attempt to enlist Allen Stanford as saviour has ended in disaster – the Texan was arrested on fraud charges in the US – most such bidders are likely to be Indian.

Once, the English would have enlisted their Australian allies to keep the uppity natives in their place. In 1996, after a series of wrangles over, for example, who should host the next World Cup, England, Australia, the West Indies and New Zealand drew up a secret plan to split world cricket by playing each other and nobody else. Anything on those lines is now inconceivable, because leading players would opt to follow the money to India. Talk of “mercenaries”, lacking commitment to their national team, rings hollow when Pietersen is a South African (and by no means the first one) who opted for England to maximise his income. Moreover, the Twenty20 game, enthusiastically embraced in India, was invented in England to shore up the budgets of penurious county clubs.

India’s new power represents an astonishing reversal of history. For a century, from the first Test match against Australia in 1877, England was the undisputed ruler of world cricket. The Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC), formed in 1909 by England, Australia and South Africa, administered the international game, but was in reality a front for the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), based at Lord’s in north London. This was a private club of the English elite that had governed the domestic game and laid down the rules (or “Laws”, as they are pompously called) since 1787. The ICC (renamed the International Cricket Council in 1989) became an independent body only in 1993. Until then, England and Australia retained a veto over any decision taken by other cricketing nations. When a World Cup was first created (involving matches of 50 overs each side), the first three tournaments, in 1975, 1979 and 1983, were all held in England.

But by then, the English elite’s control was already threatened. In 1977, the Australian TV mogul Kerry Packer bought up most of the best players and established his own cricket circuit, with white balls, coloured clothing and floodlit matches, all now familiar but then thought revolutionary. The authorities tried to ban the “mercenaries” from playing again in England, only to be overruled by the courts. The matter was settled when Packer, who set up his circus because he was denied Australia’s cricket broadcasting rights, got what he considered his fair share of the official action. But the lesson for Lord’s – repeated during the 1980s as South Africa, isolated by apartheid, tempted leading players into “rebel tours” – was that, to repel further raiders, it must allow the best cricketers an income that reflected their commercial value.

The English reluctance to take professionalism seriously lies at the heart of cricket’s crisis in this country. Cricket, as the historian Ross McKibbin has pointed out, was until the 1950s the most “national” of all sports. Unlike football and rugby league (working class) or tennis and rugby union (middle class), it was played and watched by people across the social spectrum. Its strongholds were not just in the shires and suburban villages, as its literary and artistic representations might suggest, but in the mill-towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Between the wars, the 14 clubs of the Lancashire League – all within 20 miles of Blackburn – got 200,000 spectators a season and sometimes more than 300,000, totals that few county championship clubs could match. The northern leagues attracted overseas professionals, such as the West Indian Learie Constantine, who was paid £750 a season when the maximum football wage was £500.

But cricket never quite escaped the control achieved by the English ruling classes in the early 19th century. The game came to embody patrician values and political attitudes. Style – keeping a straight bat, for example – counted for more than technique and success. The earliest organised games involved dukes and earls raising teams that included grooms, gardeners, butlers, gamekeepers and labourers. The plebs did the bowling, fielded energetically and scored runs inelegantly to leg while aristocrats captained the teams, fielded languidly and batted stylishly, if often briefly and ineffectually. (Rugby had a similar divide between squat, determined working-class forwards who won the ball so that long-striding, socially superior three-quarters could run with it.)

So it remained for generations. Until very recently, English cricket was feudal in its structure. Most players were vassals, poorly paid during their careers and dependent for security beyond retirement on a “benefit” (a tax-free lump sum derived from gate receipts, raffles and collections), awarded by the good grace of their social betters on county committees. Like the passive Russian serfs who so infuriated Lenin, all but a few professionals humbly accepted their lot. The late cricket commentator John Arlott, himself a Liberal Party supporter, doubted there were more than half a dozen Labour voters in the whole county game. If cricket has faced upheavals over the past 30 years, they represent not a workers’ uprising, but a bourgeois revolution which, to borrow from Marx and Engels, “has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’”.

A distinction between amateurs and professionals continued until the 1960s: most county captains and, with one exception (Len Hutton), all England captains were amateurs. Because amateurs were often paid more than professionals, the distinction was a social one, and the fault-line survives to this day. The old-style, straight-talking professional, lacking in social graces, often leaves the England captaincy under a cloud: Brian Close (1967, time-wasting in a county match), Mike Gatting (1988, consorting with a barmaid during a Test), Kevin Pietersen (2009, insubordination) are examples. Players such as the current captain, Andrew Strauss (Radley College and Durham University) – euphemistically described by cricket writers as “thoughtful” – fit the English idea of a natural leader.

English cricket held the plebs at bay not only on the field but also at the turnstiles. It might have retained, even enhanced, its wide appeal, but attempts to make the game more competitive and popular were resisted until there was no alternative. A knockout cup (first proposed in 1873, introduced in 1963), Sunday cricket, a two-division championship, 20-overs-a-side games on summer evenings were introduced only when the county game faced bankruptcy. Until the 1960s, the counties played only three-day matches while the masses were at work; professionals played for a pittance because most revenue came from socially exclusive county memberships. Cricket still prefers small numbers of affluent supporters, many of them in corporate boxes, to a mass following. Black supporters, who keenly attended Tests involving the West Indies until the 1990s, have been largely priced out, along with many Indian and Pakistani fans.

This history leaves English cricket ill-equipped to cope with the game’s new world order. Globalisation, in sport as in economics, can be cruelly destructive of tradition. It favours mass production over craft skills, and international brands over long-established local names. Through TV and the internet, cricket, like football, can now reach a global audience, and the instant excitement and simplicity of Twenty20 – which, some think, might even catch on in America or China – make it a more sellable form of the game than the subtleties of Test matches.

Once, sporting loyalties were based on locality. Now, Manchester United – essentially a multinational business – matters almost as much in Shanghai as it does in Salford. A top football player’s first loyalty is no longer to an international team but, first, to his own brand and, second, to his club. Something similar is happening to cricket, the difference being that while England, with its Premiership, is a football superpower (as it is also a rugby union superpower), it must yield second place to India in cricket. The Delhi Daredevils or Royal Challengers Bangalore will compete for the services of a Flintoff or a Pietersen, as Manchester United and Real Madrid compete for Ronaldo.

To most of the cricketing world, the Ashes series will be a quaint sideshow. But the rivalry with Australia remains English cricket’s most precious asset, the only event that still holds the nation’s attention. Even that may not last much longer. Since the Second World War, England have only occasionally beaten Australia, usually by small margins and often at times of upheaval (as when Packer signed up nearly the entire Australian first team).

England narrowly won the 2005 series – hailed by the editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack as the greatest of all – and yet, give or take a couple of dropped catches, they could easily have lost. That would have made it nine consecutive series defeats since 1989, all by decisive margins. After another defeat in 2006-2007, would the nation then be awaiting this series so eagerly? Would Australia – who, before 2005, increasingly treated India as their more important rival – still be interested? And if England lose badly over the next two months, will 2005 come to be seen as a brief, happy revival of a dying contest?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005. He is writing a socialist history of cricket

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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