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Empowerment: The new political territory

Gordon Brown talks of placing power in the hands of people themselves, but a splurge of Whitehall in

In the 20th century the key political battleground in British politics was the relationship between the state and the citizen. Labour traditionally favoured the collective, the Conservatives the individual. New Labour realigned those ancient nostrums by becoming as comfortable with the notion of aspiration as redistribution. This change allowed us to claim victory in the battle of ideas over the past decade. The challenges we are now witnessing in the 21st century call for further change. Victory in the battle of ideas over the next decade will go to the party that can facilitate a paradigm shift in the relationship between state and citizen.

Interestingly, all three main political parties are toying with the notion of moving power from one to the other. Nick Clegg wants a "People's NHS" to realign the Liberal Democrats as less big-state and more individual-citizen, but many in his party oppose such talk. David Cameron talks of "shifting power from the state" to charities and communities, but they simply lack the capacity to deal with the modern challenges brought by a globalised economy and a diversified society. And while it is welcome that Gordon Brown embraces "a new politics that places power . . . in the hands of people themselves", a splurge of Whitehall initiatives seems to point in the opposite direction. This half-in, half-out approach won't work. Uncertainty has to make way for clarity.

Some of new Labour's most senior and thoughtful leaders are arguing the case for change and suggesting how it might be done. They are calling for a new marriage between an active state and active citizens, with each empowering the other. There are three principal reasons - at least from the point of view of progressive politics - for leading this change.

The case for change

The first is born of failure: the growing gap between politics and the public. In the UK, membership of political parties has halved in the past 25 years. But our country is far from alone in witnessing record levels of cynicism and disengagement. Average turnout at national elections across the OECD has fallen by 10 per cent in just 20 years. And yet, in many respects, public involvement in civil society is increasing, not diminishing. Half of all Britons volunteer regularly. Over one-third of people who don't vote at general elections do participate in a charity, community group or campaign. Alternative forms of political activity - whether boycotting goods or lobbying MPs - is rising, not falling. And while 61 per cent of people do not believe they can influence decisions about their local area, 63 per cent say they are prepared to do so. My conclusion is that the public is not so much turned off by politics, as by the way politics is done. Or, for that matter, the way public services are run. Public disengagement is a symptom of disempowerment. Too often we shut people out when we should be letting them in.

Our political system was framed in an era of elitism, when rulers ruled and the ruled were grateful

Second, such a change is in keeping with the times. In a world of massive insecurity and constant change, people are looking for greater control in their lives. At the same time, public expectations have rightly moved up a gear. People nowadays are more informed and inquiring. Ordinary consumers are getting a taste for greater power and more say. The problem, a decade after Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of big government, is that while people may have become more empowered as consumers, they do not yet feel empowered as citizens. Ours remains a "them and us" political system. It was framed in an era of elitism. Rulers ruled - and the ruled were grateful. Economic advance and universal education have swept aside both deference and ignorance. Now the internet redistributes knowledge and offers us the chance of being active parti cipants rather than passive bystanders. These changes open up the potential for a more participatory form of democracy.

Third, equity demands that it should be so. Despite rises in living standards and falls in poverty in the past decade, a deep inequality gap still scars our country. We all pay the price: the wasted potential of the alienated young; the taxpayers who pay the price of social failure; and the decent, hard-working families that live in fear of crime. Over many decades social mobility slowed down when it ought to have been speeding up. Action by this government has halted that process. The glass ceiling has been raised, but it has not yet been broken.

I believe it can only be done by shifting the focus beyond the welfare-state solution of retrospectively correcting the symptoms of inequality - such as low wages and family poverty - towards an approach that proactively deals with the roots of disadvantage before they become entrenched. By cutting taxes for the low-paid. By giving more people a real stake in society. By enabling people, regardless of wealth or status, to take greater control over their lives. By recognising that it is power that needs to be more fairly shared in our society. The sense of hopelessness that clouds the poorest communities in our country grows out of disempowerment. Of course beating crime, creating jobs and rebuilding estates can help. But I believe that this cloud of despondency can only be dispelled through a modern, participatory politics that allows both local communities and individual citizens to share more evenly and directly in power.

These fundamental shifts in the structure and culture of 21st-century Britain call for new Labour to resolve its ambivalence about the modern roles of the state and the citizen. From the mid-19th century the state took on more responsibilities. In large part this accretion of power was necessary and it was right. State action was needed to guarantee clean water and safe streets. The expansion of a market economy relied on legal rights and clear rules which, again, only the state could uphold. And in the creation of the welfare state - with its jewel in the crown, the National Health Service - the state offered equity and security as an antidote to the deprivation and injustice of an era of economic upheaval and total war in a way that charitable endeavour and employer philanthropy could never hope to match.

And yet, by the last quarter of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that too much state could be as bad as too little. When Labour got on the wrong side of that argument, we lost. The Berlin Wall was about to tumble and with it the ideological perversity of state communism. In econo mic policy, western governments had demonstrated a poor record of picking winners, but losers had developed a consistent habit of picking governments. State regulation had come to stifle market innovation. So, in the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s - most notably the privatisation programme - power was moved from the state to the market. And in the new Labour reforms of this century - most notably the creation of institutions such as an independent Bank of England, NHS foundation hospitals, city academies and now trust schools - power has been moved again from the state to new service providers. What neither Thatcherism nor Blair ism has successfully done is moved power from the state to the individual or to the community.

Labour's choice

For the past decade new Labour has been caught between two philosophical traditions: a Fabian social-democratic model, where progress is secured through the state exercising power on behalf of citizens, and a mutual model, where it is secured not through the state controlling, but the state empowering communities and citizens to realise their own advance. Of course these traditions share common ends - the eradication of poverty, for example - but they prioritise different means: the dispensing of state benefits on the one side and the opening up of educational opportunities on the other. The twin changes we are now witnessing - globalised economies and assertive citizens - call for this decades-long divide between statists and mutualists to be resolved decisively in favour of the latter.

Too often, governments - including new Lab our - have fallen for the fallacy that once the commanding heights of the state have been seized through periodic elections, progressive change automatically follows. In truth this works neither for citizens nor for governments. People are left confused and disempowered. Governments end up nationalising responsibility when things go wrong without necessarily having the levers to put them right. Progress in the future depends on sharing responsibility with citizens so that they become insiders, not outsiders.

None of this suggests the state has no role. Quite the reverse. Economic uncertainty and mass migration, global warming and global terror make the case for an active state. People want to know they are not alone. But they also want to control their own destiny. So the modern state has to step forward where citizens individually cannot act - providing collective security and opportunity - but step back where citizens in dividually can - exercising personal choice and responsibility.

Cameron and his Conservative Party have drawn the wrong conclusion from the modern world. It is not an active state or active citizens that are needed to meet the challenges of the modern world. It is both. It is only the state that can equalise opportunities throughout life and empower its citizens. Equally, only citizens can seize those opportunities and realise their own aspirations to progress. The right wrongly rejects the state's role. What is needed is a different sort of state: one that empowers, not controls.

A future agenda

This narrative should run through government policy like through a stick of rock. A new assumption should guide the whole government's policy: power should be located at the lowest possible level consistent with the wider public good. That would involve Whitehall being scaled back. Local police and health services would be made directly accountable to local people through the ballot box. Local councils would be freed from much central government control as their system of financing moved from national taxes to local ones, with local communities having the right through referenda to determine locally decided tax rates. As in the United States, Canada, Australia and many other countries, locally elected bodies would be able to borrow either from the markets or through local bond issues. The aim would be to get local services better attuned to the needs of local communities.

The right wrongly rejects the state’s role. What is needed is a different sort of state: one that empowers, not controls

Where local services are failing, communities would have the legal right to have them replaced. Community courts and restorative justice should spearhead a reinvigorated effort to deter and prevent antisocial behaviour. A new form of public ownership - community-run mutual organi sations - could take over the running of local services such as children's centres, estates and parks. And, as individual citizens, parents would get new powers to choose schools and NHS patients to choose treatments. People in old age, those with a long-term condition, families with disabled children or people in training could choose their own publicly funded budgets instead of conventionally provided services.

Progressive politics cannot stand still. It is the Conservatives' job to conserve. Labour must always be a party of change. Our own recent history tells us this is so. After we lost the 1992 election, many people thought they would never see a Labour government again. What changed was that we did. Building on the efforts of Neil Kinnock and John Smith, Tony Blair's courage in transforming his party was a first step to us winning power. We should never forget that lesson. One of new Labour's key strengths has been its preparedness to face future challenges rather than taking comfort in past achievements. Our willingness to change has forced even our most strident opponents into contemplating changes they once thought abhorrent. Now change beckons once again.

In the past decade we have made good progress as a nation in reducing poverty, improving services and creating jobs. A decade ago, those were the principal challenges we as a country faced. Today there is, of course, more to do on each of those fronts, but in addition there are new challenges to meet. In this new world the old top-down approach to governance will no longer work. It is not just that the public has reached the limits of what it will pay in taxes, although it has. People in low- and middle-income families are under pressure and feeling the pinch, so, inevitably, public spending growth in the period ahead will be lower than in the period just gone. But it is also that, just as the global credit crunch and its consequences have exposed the limits of untrammelled free markets, so the entrenched problems of social exclusion in so many communities and unfulfilled potential among so many of our citizens expose the limits of centralised state action.

What made for progress in the past will not secure progress in the future. What is now needed is an approach in which doing things with people rather than to them becomes the key to unlocking progress, whether that is improving health, fighting crime, regenerating neighbourhoods or protecting the environment.

Just as at other points in our history an old orthodoxy has been swept away by a new one, so I believe this is an idea whose time has come. In 1945, the new idea was for power to be vested in the central state and its policy expression was nationalisation. In 1979, the new idea was for power to be vested in the free market and its policy expression was privatisation. In 1997, the new idea was for power to be vested in reformed institutions and its policy expression was modernisation. Now the new idea is to vest power in the citizen and the community and to make its policy expression empowerment.

This is the new political territory. Neither the right nor the left has yet, in truth, fully come to terms with it. Whoever does so first will, I believe, win both ideologically and electorally. It really is time to make a reality of Nye Bevan's famous dictum that the purpose of getting power is to give it away.

Alan Milburn is MP for Darlington and honorary president of Progress. This is an extract from "Beyond Whitehall: a New Vision for a Progressive State", published on 18 September by Progress. Available free of charge from: http://www.progressonline.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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