Nowhere else to go

It is too easy to believe that anyone who votes for the BNP in the 3 May elections is a racist or a

Under grey skies at Oldham Athletic football ground, a group of schoolkids stands on the steps of our 1964 double-decker anti-racism bus, wearing Hope Not Hate T-shirts. All except one boy, a pale-faced 11-year-old in an ill-fitting school uniform, who is standing at the back of the bus studying the floor.

"Come on, lad!" his teacher calls out. The boy stamps his feet one after the other. His expression says he wishes he were invisible. In big letters behind him, a sign reads: "Celebrating Modern Britain".

"Come on, J!" His friends are calling him. He drags off his hoodie and pulls on a yellow Hope Not Hate T-shirt over his white school shirt. He takes his place on the steps of the bus for the photograph. J turns out to have a lovely smile.

"That's a big step for him," one of the mums says. "His family are all BNP. It's more than 40 per cent on our estate voted for BNP in the last election." When I ask her why, she shrugs. "Because there's nowhere else to go," she says, in a matter-of-fact way. "Not really, when you think about it. Working families feel let down by Labour. It's like it's a London party for southerners. It's all about spin. There's Iraq and all that. Local lads dying out there from the regiments round here - cannon fodder." And why isn't she voting for them? "Because they aren't a proper party, that's what people don't realise. They're not like the other parties. They're extremists as bad as the ones in the mosques."

On 3 May, the British National Party will contest a record number of seats in the local elections. A total of 827 across England and Scotland, and more than twice the number the party has ever fielded before. The Hope Not Hate battle bus - which took a 1,700-mile drunk's scribble of a journey from London to Glasgow organised by the Daily Mirror and Searchlight - was an attempt to engage with those parts of the country most likely to connect with a far-right message.

It also turns out to be a tour of an angry, alienated Britain - the estates and shopping centres and market towns mainstream politics is no longer reaching. On estate after city centre, supermarket after community hall, we meet the same feeling that there is no longer any party left to speak for the working man or his wife or children, or his elderly parents.

At times our trip on a 1964 Leyland Titan with a grindingly slow top speed of 38mph (downhill and in fair winds), without such mod cons as heating or a petrol gauge, feels like a journey into a vacuum, the ground vacated by the political parties as they rush to the milk-and-honey heartland of Middle England. Every day brings its own surreal hybrid of celebrity visits to soap opera sets, interviews with pop stars, tea on sink estates and leafleting of supermarket car parks.

We meet people left on council waiting lists for housing, whose estates are no-go at night because of antisocial behaviour, and whose schools are failing and knife-ridden. People whose experience of the NHS is distressing and whose home is between two burnt-out properties.

One day in the West Midlands we spend a morning with white working-class shoppers, followed by Sugababes, and then an evening eating baltis and drinking Guinness at a Sikh-Irish pub.

In Thurrock, in Essex, a man tells us proudly that the local BNP candidate is a young woman in her twenties. "Not a thug with a pit bull," he says. I find this strangely shocking, as if women shouldn't be fascists, or at least young people should be idealists.

He looks at me curiously. "Maybe she is an idealist. Have you thought of that?"

It is too easy to believe that everyone voting for the BNP is a racist or a fool, when in fact it is no coincidence that the party is flourishing in old industrial areas where jobs are scarce and hope is thin on the ground.

In the BNP heartland of Dagenham, where the car industry has been ravaged, BNP leaflets are fresh in the doorways of the estates, and the party's presence is strong in the old mill towns and the once-proud Potteries. In the multiply disadvantaged Sandwell, the BNP 4x4 follows us at a distance, watching the kids come and take the badges and balloons.

In the towns where Tory recession and abandonment have bled into the disinterest of the national Labour Party, nationalism is both listening and offering a voice to quiet, bottled-up rage.

As we trundle through Leicester and Lincoln, Nottingham and Sheffield, we meet the same faces again and again - men and women who feel ignored, put upon, let down. These are the communities spitefully mocked by the middle classes, who prefer to caricature the "chav" underclass as feckless, ignorant and thuggish. Yet if you ask them they'll tell you it is Westminster that isn't "bovvered".

In Yorkshire, we meet Andy Sykes, a former BNP organiser turned anti-racist, who tells us why he joined the party in 2002. "I started going to meetings because I was afraid," he explains. "I started believing the stuff they were pushing through my letter box about paedophiles and rapists and murderers."

The BNP understands that people are feeling frightened and abandoned. It is slipping into the vacuum left by mainstream politics and setting out its stall, countered only by handfuls of local activists and MPs.

They don't tell people that they didn't support England in the World Cup because of its black players, or that their constitution states that a black or Asian person can never be British. They raise valid issues and then exploit them with dizzying distortions, a bombardment of half-truths and semi-facts, all in a language littered with buzzwords designed to inflame feelings of outrage and paranoia: paedophilia, jobs, Islam, 7/7, immigration. They find a tiny blister and then they rub and rub until it is a running sore.

They will tell you it is because of asylum-seekers that your grandmother's heart operation is being delayed - when in fact the amount given to asylum-seekers is less than 1 per cent of what is spent on the National Health Service each year. They will say these people are bringing tuberculosis into the country and that they are criminals, when the British Medical Association refutes any claim about TB and the Association of Chief Police Officers confirms there is no higher rate of criminality among asylum-seekers (and that, in fact, asylum-seekers are far more likely to become victims than perpetrators of crime).

They speak to people's perception that crime - especially violent crime - is on the rise and that eventually all the jobs they can do (and it's all right for Middle Englanders in their gated communities, plugging in by laptop to a global job market) will have gone abroad, and they'll wake up one day and everyone will be speaking Hindi or in that homogenised black-white patois common to inner-city youth.

And all the while, the same language is being whispered by extremist Muslim leaders to young black and Asian youths in our young offenders' institutions, sink estates and prisons: "No one is listening to you, except us. You are nothing, nobody to anyone but us."

Towering heroes

We met some towering heroes on our tour: the boxing legend Brendan Ingle - trainer of Prince Naseem, Herol "Bomber" Graham and, now, a generation of white and Asian Sheffield kids; Chris Keen on the deprived Stoops Estate in Burnley, a great big ex-rugby player of a community worker; Joe Sargonis, a Nottingham Forest football coach offering teenagers alternatives to gun culture.

But if I could have taken the alienated voters of Dagenham anywhere, it would have been to Oliver's Gym, a sweat-soaked, old-fashioned boxing club on a Salford industrial estate.

Here is J the schoolboy's biggest idol, effortlessly jumping rope - a 5ft 10in British Pakistani Olympic boxing hero. "Look at that gym in there," Amir Khan says, taking a breather. "English, Jamaican, Pakistani, Irish, we all train together. We're all treated equal and we all treat each other the same."

According to the BNP, Khan shouldn't be allowed to represent Great Britain. And, with more candidates than the National Front contested at its peak during the Seventies - as the BNP website boasts - there is a real danger that it will increase its foothold in some groups on 3 May.

Some, of course, are only paper candidates, but the party is standing full slates of regional candidates in areas such as Stoke, Leeds, Thurrock and Sunderland, as well as Scotland and Wales. Once elected, these candidates acquire no track record of doing anything to help communities. In fact, it rather suits them if alienation worsens, because they already have their scapegoats in place.

Still, Khan, at least, is optimistic.

"I think racism's going to die out," he says, jumping up into the driving seat of our bus. "It's got to, right? 'Cos in the end, what's the colour of your skin got to do with anything?"

Ros Wynne-Jones is senior feature writer for the Daily Mirror. http://www.mirror.co.uk/hopenothate

Ros Wynne-Jones writes about poverty in the UK and abroad for the Daily Mirror and The Independent.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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