Margaret Thatcher leaves Downing Street for the last time. Photo: Getty Images.
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Where were you when she left Downing St?

Piers Morgan, Tony Benn, Billy Bragg and others tell us where they were on 22 November 1990.

Malcolm Rifkind

The day before she went she had a meeting individually with each member of her cabinet. We knew as a result of that discussion that she was considering stepping down before the second ballot, but I only knew her decision the following morning.

We had gathered in the anteroom outside the Cabinet Room for a cabinet meeting as we normally would, and at that point we still did not know if she was going to stand for the second ballot. She arrived in the anteroom and then went through to the Cabinet Room, and we followed. Normally the cabinet meeting would start with the formal business, but on this occasion she said she had a statement that she'd like to share with us, and that's when she announced that she was stepping down.

In making that statement she actually broke down – just for a couple of seconds, and I think it was Willie Whitelaw who passed her her glass of water and she collected herself and then carried on. She was really remarkable. Having made her statement, she began the cabinet meeting as normal, and for the next hour or hour and a half, it was as if she didn't have a care in the world.

At the end of formal business, we would normally have gathered our papers and left immediately, but because it was the final occasion, we sat around chatting informally.

I was one of those who – I didn't say, "You should step down," but that was the thrust of what I was saying. She asked, "If I stand again, will you support me?" I had voted for her in the secret ballot in the first round. But I said to her, "I can promise that I will never vote against you," meaning that I would abstain. She says in her memoirs that what I said was "some small comfort", rather sardonically.

Like many people, I had mixed feelings about her resignation. I feel she was the best peacetime prime minister of the 20th century, and at most times I'd have gone to the ends of the earth for her. But she was sometimes very difficult, and towards the end, in those later years, those times became more frequent. So I think the decision to step down was the right one.

Paddy Ashdown

I was walking through Glasgow Airport when it was announced over the Tannoy. The entire airport burst into spontaneous applause; it went on for about five minutes. There was real heart in this. It wasn't only clapping, but shouts of joy as well. People were hugging one another and shaking each other's hand. It was as if the city had collectively won the FA Cup.

Helena Kennedy

I was at the Old Bailey, acting for a gangland boss in a series of armed robberies. At lunchtime someone came into the Bar mess and announced that Mrs T had resigned. There was wild jubilation, a cheer went up and wigs were tossed in the air. Even Conservative lawyers felt she had finally lost her purchase on reality and had to go. I was exhilarated. She had become such a hate figure.

Even police and prison officers were expressing pleasure to see the back of her. But there was my client, sitting with his head in his hands. "I'm gutted, sheer gutted. That woman put the Great back into Britain. She was tough. You 'ave to be. She didn't put up with all them slackers and wasters on the dole. Them immigrants. She loved this country, just like Churchill did. They've stabbed her in the back, that shower of nonces in the cabinet. You have to watch yer back when yer at the top."

He ranted on about the absence of testosterone in male Tories and the size of Mrs Thatcher's balls until we were called back to court. "'Elena, always remember to watch yer back. It's yer mates that always do for you in the end."

Roy Hattersley

All I can remember is that I did not believe it. I was driving into the House of Commons and a television journalist, complete with camera, seemed to shout, "She's gone." Who could she mean? Not Margaret Thatcher – or at least not gone permanently. I had seen her on television, the night before, saying she was staying. Surely her going to Brussels, Washington or Grantham would not be worth the fuss. I assumed the journalist had got it wrong. It sometimes happens. Then, in Neil Kinnock's office, one of his people told me it was true. I rejoiced – which was a mistake. Had Margaret Thatcher (and the poll tax) remained, Labour would have won the 1992 general election.

Piers Morgan

I was running the Sun's Bizarre show-business column at the time, and the newsroom was absolutely explosive all day long. Kelvin MacKenzie was the editor, and always loved Margaret Thatcher, as did his boss Rupert Murdoch, so there was a real sense of sadness and anger. I felt curiously disengaged from the whole thing. My professional world was gripped by far more important things, like whether Bros were going to break up or not. But, on a personal level, I felt sorry for her that she was leaving in such demeaning and treacherous circumstances. I think she later went slightly power-mad and bonkers, but that should not negate the good things she did, the real sense of pride she brought back to the stamp "Made in Britain".

David Owen, from Time to Declare, 1991

Margaret Thatcher . . . had been brought down over the European Community, not the poll tax. She had beaten me in the 1987 election and there is from the vanquished to the victor a certain gallantry due, and in my case genuinely felt. I sensed at times we were partners in the counter-revolution and I shared some of her convictions. Nevertheless, I did not share her attitude to a whole range of social and civil liberty issues.

Margaret Thatcher's downfall was due to hubris. Her excessive self-confidence was by then being flaunted day by day in the face of friend or foe alike. The tragedy that the Greeks identified followed: Nemesis.

A N Wilson

I was working as a journalist on the London Evening Standard when Margaret Thatcher fell, so I was able to get into the House of Commons gallery and watch the drama of her final Commons appearance before she left office. I had never voted for her, but she struck me as truly magnificent on a human level. Her qualities of personal greatness outshone what you might think of her "policies".

Peregrine Worsthorne

My immediate reaction to the news – which I heard while sitting at the editor's desk in the Sunday Telegraph – was to write a piece saying that this act of modern "regicide" would rightly put the Tory party out of office for a generation. Almost certainly she would have lost the next election, but that would have done much less long-term damage to the party than the horrible spectacle of her treacherous colleagues, one by one, stabbing her in the back.

As it happened, I think I may have been the last person – outside of her family and staff – to visit her on her final night. It was a painful experience. Normally it was she who brought the proceedings to a close. Not on that night. I thought the long silences would never end. Finally, walking down the grand staircase after a farewell photograph, I ran into Carol coming up, carrying a string bag, which, she said, contained "Mum's cold chicken supper". The servants, it seemed, had already decamped.

Will Self

Sorry, can't remember – it was during the lost years (mine and hers).

Tony Benn

I was in London. My diary describes the occasion as follows:

"I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for Dispatches on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher had resigned. Absolutely dazzling news and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that.

"To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock's speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked. I spoke myself but the House was empty."

Lady Carla Powell

I was not very surprised when Margaret Thatcher resigned – Charles had been with her in Paris when the news came through that she had failed to get the majority she needed in the Conservative Party leadership election. The night before her resignation Charles came home from No 10 well after midnight and told me he thought it was all over, although she was going to sleep on her decision. He went in at 6am the next morning and rang to tell me she had made up her mind to go. He was pretty emotional about it for a normally buttoned-up Englishman.

I found it hard to believe that someone who had towered over British politics for so long could so easily be toppled by a cabal of frightened Lilliputians. It taught me that politics is as much of a dirty business in Britain as in any other country.

A L Kennedy

When Margaret Thatcher finally fell off her perch – or rather was pushed – I was out of the loop. At that time I was working as a writer with groups in hospitals and prisons and various types of centre, or visiting isolated writers with disabilities in their homes, so every day I saw people being ignored, bewildered, defrauded, bullied and humiliated by the benefit system, failed by what was left of the NHS and the welfare state.

I was helping people to write – which allowed them to vent, claw back a little dignity, maybe start making more demands, maybe have the satisfaction of creation – but it also woke them up and made them more aware of their grim situations. The days were long. And badly paid. And I had the least of the problems in any given day.

On the day she went I was getting a lift home through Glasgow and I noticed that people on the pavements were all smiling – laughing – folk were, in fact, dancing. They were making a point of dancing in the street. Literally. With strangers. Angry, on-your-grave dancing. Still here and you're not dancing. And in the car we turned on the radio and heard the news. Those people were still dancing, even in the early evening. And it did make me feel happy, but not that happy. I didn't think anything would be different in the morning . . . and it wasn't.

James Naughtie

I was in the editorial meeting for The World At One. Just after 9.30, someone noticed a strange piece of copy on the Reuters financial wire, of all places, and tentatively interrupted the meeting to say that the prime minister seemed to have resigned. Panic, excitement, adrenalin rushes . . . and then the ruling that Radio 4 couldn't mount a special programme at 10am because we wouldn't have enough to go on! So the news bulletin told listeners that the Thatcher era was over, and they then listened to a programme about birds until we were allowed to hit the airwaves at 10.30.

Looking back, it still seems inexplicable, and would strike producers today as utterly barmy. Even then it was bizarre, though we soon got into our stride, decamping to the green off Parliament Square and rolling interviews that went on all day, it seemed. But I still remember not getting on the air quickly enough . . .

Kitty Ussher

I was at my desk in my tiny little room, in my first year of university. I was trying to read something very complicated when a friend burst in shouting: "She's gone, she's gone!" I had Radio 1 on and there was a terrible 20 seconds, trying to find Radio 4.

After that we went out on to the streets in Oxford, normally a very reserved place, but that day there were just gaggles of people standing on the street talking to each other and celebrating.

All the day in the TV room we watched the news unfold. Someone placed a Thatcher Spitting Image candle on top of the TV and as the day wore on it just melted all the way down. We all had a great day, except one of my Tory friends who just stayed in her room and cried all night.

Iain Dale

I remember having had rows the night before the resignation with two Tory MPs who owed their seats to Margaret Thatcher, yet intended to switch their votes away from her in the second ballot. I went home to my dingy flat in Walthamstow feeling angry and let down – almost tearful.

The next morning, I was at my desk in Grosvenor Gardens (I had just set up a lobbying company) when I heard the news on the radio. The world stood still for a moment. I wasn't surprised that she had stepped down, but it was still a shock. Only a few days before, my three-year-old niece, Emma, had asked: "Uncle Iain, is it possible for a man to be prime minister?" We were about to find out.

Peter Preston

I was standing in the Guardian newsroom when John Cole told me she was out. I thought that the long Downing Street deep freeze could finally be over for the paper. I'd been inside No 10 only twice through the Thatcher years, once because the president of Italy, an ex-journalist, wanted to meet me, once because Bill Deedes got to choose who went to his farewell dinner. Now, maybe, normal relations might be back on the menu. That would make an immense difference to what we wrote, and how we thought – because, simply, we'd have to stop to listen more.

She'd only been to my office once, too, as it happened, a staff conference meeting while she was still opposition leader. "This room could do with an element of defenestration," she'd announced, bafflingly. It turned out to mean she was too hot and wanted a window open.

Simon Heffer

I was in Brisbane awaiting the start of the first Test match between Australia and England of the 1990-91 tour. With great foresight, my then editor had decreed that nothing much would happen in politics that winter and that I could spend part of it, therefore, writing about cricket.

I recall eating a room service dinner (I was trying to write a preview of the Test match) in a state of shock, watching on television film of Wapping, the miners' strike and the poll tax riots. I knew the rest of the Tory party, and I knew what was coming. I was not disappointed. The Australians I met were in disbelief, and mostly asked if she could have a retirement job running Australia.

England were thrashed in the Test match. I arrived home on the morning she left Downing Street in tears, and the man we now call Sir John Major left No 11 for the Palace.

Lynsey Hanley

I was in a history lesson at secondary school. Our teacher, Mrs Green, came in and said: "I don't know if anybody's interested, but Mrs Thatcher's just resigned." And the whole place just erupted. It felt like the end of this huge oppression, which sounds ridiculous – we were only 14. But it really was this massive feeling of relief, as big as when the Berlin Wall came down. The funny thing was, a lot of the parents loved Mrs Thatcher, because they were able to buy their council houses.

Michael Portillo

I was in the thick of things and I think my recollections might be worth something, so I think I will save them. Sorry!

Charles Kennedy

I was relaxing in the bath at my London flat when the newsflash announced the dramatic news. Before I'd had time to digest the enormity of what had happened, the phone rang. It was one of my closest friends – an ardent Scottish Nationalist – who was happy enough, but amazed by the perfidy of the Tories. We speculated about who would now emerge as her successor, agreeing that this would probably be an Alec Douglas-Home moment. So, step forward Douglas Hurd. That chat, looking back, was proof positive of how many of us Scots have never really understood the Tory party.

I had resigned as editor of the NS and saw the television news pictures at home after shopping. I actually felt sorry for Mrs Thatcher, watching the stricken old woman scuttling into the large black car, her power apparently over. So I was not sorry to miss Charter 88's impromptu celebratory party that night, I didn't even know about it.

Stuart Weir

I was teaching at a primary school in Kilburn. One of the teachers ran into the staffroom waving the Evening Standard with the headline that Thatcher had resigned. I suddenly noticed smiles on faces that I had never seen smiles on before. I rejoiced, too, just to stay in the vibe, but I had mixed feelings. To my mind – and I still feel this way – Thatcher should have faced the people, not be dragged offstage by a bunch of guys trying to hang on to power. Like her or loathe her, Mrs T gave Britain its groove.

Bonnie Greer

I remember coming up out of Westminster Tube station holding the Evening Standard, and it was the front-page story. I was looking at the back page and holding it out in front of me, and this group of women was looking at the front of it – a group of grannies from the north of England down for a day trip, as it turned out.

One of them came running up to me and said, oh, is it true, is it true? And I said yes it is. They were all whooping and beaming. Then at that moment a black car went past, and in it was the Queen Mum. So they went from whooping about Thatcher to whooping about that – I think it must have been the best day of their bloody lives. Then I was doing something on parliament green, and it was like a television studio, with cameras everywhere and MPs popping up to give their tuppence worth.

How did I feel about it? Wonderful! Not quick enough, in my view.

Peter York

Newsnight had convened a round table of the usual suspects to give their thoughts on the lady's political passing. I composed what I thought was a rather good conceit. Thatcher wanted a revolution within a revolution; she was always saying, "Let's redo this, let's not rest on our laurels." So I said, "Mrs T was a Maoist" – the kind of sarcastic soundbite I prided myself on.

Back in the green room, musing on what a clever chap I was, I was set upon by a rather attractive, clearly very right-wing American woman. She berated me for my sarcasm and told me, in a roundabout way, that I wasn't fit to lick the hem of the Great Lady's robe. Throughout this she was supported by a stern woman who looked to me like a classic north London left-winger.

It turns out that the "American" lady was the very Canadian Barbara Amiel – not yet Lady Black – and the stern north Londoner was Melanie Phillips. Shamefully, I can't remember who else was on the panel. But I do remember those two women and how the rest of the panel were entirely obliterated by their force field. Fitting, when you think about the circumstances.

Niall Ferguson

In 1990 I was a fellow of Peterhouse – one of the few bastions of Thatcherism in British academic life. The night she resigned the mood at High Table was despondent. Rather a large amount of Château Batailley was consumed and then I and John Adamson sat slumped in my rooms and listened to every single recording we could find of the "Siegfried Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung. As far as I was concerned, that was the night that Britain gave up any hope of seriously reforming its postwar institutions.

Stephen Pollard

I was in a tiny room with three members of the then shadow cabinet (I was a researcher for a Labour MP at the time), watching a tiny black-and-white TV. They were ecstatic, as if a dictator had been overthrown – although one had the perspicacity to say a few moments later that the next election was no longer in the bag.

My own view was less exultant. Far from hating Mrs Thatcher, I always felt that she had been a blessing for the country: a leader who had done exactly what was necessary, and which no patrician Tory or, even less, Labour PM would ever have been capable of.

Billy Bragg

I was in bed in a hotel in Dublin called Blooms. A friend of mine rang from England and said, "Switch on the telly," so I leaned over and switched it on. And there she was, tearfully resigning. And I must say that cheered me up no end. So I got out of bed and went round the corner for a celebratory fry-up, a full English – or a full Irish, I suppose.

The best thing was that I had a gig that night in Belfast. I came on stage holding the Belfast Telegraph above my head, and said, "She's resigned" – and the place just went mad. The adrenalin running through me, I think I could have done ten rounds with Mike Tyson if he'd been in the dressing room.

Belfast was a great place to be that night – people were literally dancing in the streets. It had an incredible vibe; I just don't think a gig in London would have been the same.

David Lammy

I was at SOAS, reading the first year of my law degree. I remember coming out of a lecture, when a real buzz started going around. A huge group of us ran down to a room with a TV to a really powerful scene: friends of mine, students and professors, crying tears of joy.

I had grown up in Tottenham just a street away from the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and had been involved in campaigns against the miscarriages of justice that convicted the Tottenham Three. By the time Maggie resigned, my friends and I at SOAS had been marching against the poll tax, campaigned for retrials for the Birmingham Six, had gone to the Court of Appeal when the Guildford Four were released. When Thatcher vowed to "fight on and fight to win" we thought we might never be rid of her – which is why we were so emotional when she finally went.

Anthony Seldon

I was teaching a lesson on Hitler when it happened. Somebody burst into the room and said: "Thatcher is gone." Everyone was completely silent, even though we knew it was on the cards. I said something pathetic like: "You'll remember this moment for the rest of your lives." I felt strangely moved – I thought she was beginning to get it right, beginning to cut free from many of the people around her and beginning to articulate what she truly believed in.

David Peace

I was a student at Manchester Polytechnic and I was living in Rusholme, in Manchester. I am pretty sure we went to the Hacienda and I am pretty sure Dave Haslam played "Bye Bye Badman" by the Stone Roses and "Margaret on the Guillotine" by Morrissey, and I am pretty sure we cheered and danced and partied like 1979 had never happened. And perhaps there will be similar scenes when she dies.

I did not mourn her resignation and I will not mourn her death, but nor will I celebrate and cheer in blame and hate. For it is much too late now and, to quote Chateaubriand, one should only use contempt with economy, because of the large number of people who deserve it. So I reserve my contempt for those who came after, for those who should have known better.

Roger Scruton

I learned of Margaret Thatcher's resignation in the same way as most: from the news. I was in England at the time, just beginning a new way of life which involved leaving the university and branching out as a self-employed writer and jack of all trades. Mrs Thatcher had not a little to do with this since, as one of her vocal supporters, I had in effect ruined my university career, and as a result of her policies I had discovered how to live outside the university in any case.

I was naturally upset by her resignation, but it convinced me that the old farts who ran the Conservative Party were just as chronically self-interested and anti-patriotic as the yuppies who were wrestling for control of the Labour Party. It was a great time to say "A plague on both your houses", and to recycle the Thatcher idea as a cherished memory rather than a pious hope.

Bel Mooney

I'd just got back from a meeting at my daughter's school when my then husband, Jonathan Dimbleby, rang to say Mrs Thatcher had resigned. It would be false to say it came as a total shock. We knew of rumblings.

I remember feeling first that it was time she went and that to resign was the right thing. A brave thing. But I never shared the visceral hatred of her which poisoned rational political discourse, so I did not share the mood of vicious glee on the liberal left.

As a feminist, I could not help but admire her. I could feel compassion for this woman who had outlived her time and pushed loyalty too far. Not everything that went wrong could possibly have been her fault.

John Harris

I was a 21-year-old undergraduate and part-time music journalist at the now-defunct weekly Sounds. What I most clearly remember is Cathi and Trish, the paper's two in-house Goths, giggling maniacally and singing, "Ding dong, the witch is dead." I was a bit less thrilled. My hope had been to see Thatcher – and Thatcherism – beaten in an election, and this end to the story made me quietly feel cheated.

Brian Walden

I was nowhere exciting, unfortunately, I was just at home. I switched on the television news and there she was. I wasn't surprised by that stage, although in a sense it was extraordinary – she'd stood for three elections and won them all. But by then there was growing hubris, and of course the poll tax, and she'd just become so unpopular. It wasn't anything to do with Europe, which is often cited as the reason. The Tory party wanted to win the election, which is why they got rid of her.

My overwhelming feeling was that there was bitter civil war within the Tory party. And that went on for a long time afterwards, for about 15 years – and that's a high price to pay. Less so now, but it's taken a long time to put out the fire. And that's because Cameron is going to win: the prospect of victory puts a stop to civil war, doesn't it?

Lady Annabel Goldsmith

I found out that Margaret Thatcher had resigned when I came home from walking the dogs and switched on the news. I was deeply upset for three reasons. First, she was an inspirational leader who was driven by ideals and her unshakeable determination. Second, I knew her personally through my husband, Jimmy Goldsmith, and beneath the armour was a kind and decent human being. Third, it made me so angry to see a strong woman brought down by a bunch of scheming, second-rate men.

David Aaronovitch

In the autumn of 1990 I was the BBC's head of political news, shuffling between the news centre in White City and the Westminster operation. So I was in a Tube train carriage when my pager went off with a loud buzz, and supplied me with the two words "Thatcher resigns".

I couldn't just sit there and say nothing. "She's gone," I told the seven or eight people sitting round me. A young black woman opposite looked serious, and then asked, shyly: "She can't come back, can she?" "No," I told her. Only then did she allow herself a smile.

Roger Law

I was at work at Spitting Image, on the modelling bench. I had a phone call from my producer Geoffrey Perkins, who is sadly now dead. He said: "We finally got rid of her. She's finally stepped down."

It was a kind of relief because everybody was sick to death of her. But you knew that she'd dismantled the whole fucking lot. I grew up in a mixed economy, where you paid higher taxes in return for services, and she just dismantled the whole fucking thing. It's abundantly clear that you can't just have expansion for ever.

To celebrate when she'd gone, we had an exhibition at the Barbican called "Cutting Edge". We had a tableau based on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, and we had all the cabinet members there who'd brought her down. We had all the puppets. And Denis Thatcher was there, drunk under the table.

The irony is that all the shit we're in now started with Reagan and Thatcher – and now she can't remember a fucking thing.

Interviews by Kate Ferguson, Alyssa McDonald and David Patrikarakos.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

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