Understanding the Taliban

Rethinking the war in Helmand has made the British army revise some of its basic assumptions. Workin

There is a popular slogan seen stencilled on American gun trucks: "We do bad things to bad people." Prince Harry had those words on the back of his cap. In the Afghanistan War, the difficulty is working out who those bad people are. An even tougher question is: which of them to kill, and which to put in positions of power and authority?

Winning the war here is not for the squeamish, and a long way from the "ethical foreign policy" of early new Labour. It all boils down to dealing with those bad men. Some of them are already our allies. Others, including men who are currently trying to kill our soldiers, will have a place as our future allies. As one intelligence officer said to me: "In this country, you get to power because, at one stage or another, you've done something really awful. You can't waste time looking for the good guys."

He was probably exaggerating. But you can still see the problem in Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold and opium bazaar, wrested back into coalition and government hands last December. I was present during that combat operation and watched as the Afghan flag was raised in the town centre. I have just returned from a trip back.

If you believe the chief of police of Helmand Province, Brigadier Moham mad Hussain Andiwal, the new district governor of Musa Qala is a "war cri m inal" who was invol ved in the slaughter of prisoners, and is a leading heroin dealer - although, given their past history, he may be overegging things a little. Andiwal is referring to Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Taliban com mander who switched sides and was appointed governor of the town in January by President Hamid Karzai, with British backing.

Karzai also sent back to Musa Qala its former police chief. Known to all as Commander "Coca", Andiwal is remembered by the British soldiers in the town two years ago chiefly for rumours that he and his men were kidnapping young boys from the streets.

Today - however unsavoury their pasts may be - both "Coca" and Mullah Salaam get cautious and qualified support from Britain. They get it because they are doing what the British need: establishing a presence for the Afghan government in a dangerous corner of Helmand, and helping to persuade both ordinary Afghan farmers and one-time enemy fighters that the smart move is to reject the Taliban.

Salaam, as a "reconciled" Taliban commander, has been in many ways a disappointment. When I was in Helmand last year, there was talk of his bringing over a large band of Taliban fighters to the government side. This never happened. But he has proved to be a persuader, travelling from village to village having outreach shuras (meetings) and telling people that the return of British and Afghan forces is the way ahead. He is doing so at great risk to his own life.

"I'm a marked man," he told me. "When you return to Musa Qala, I will most likely be dead."

I had tracked down Salaam while he was out of town, preparing to return to his governor's compound in liberated Musa Qala. The word was out that the Taliban were hoping to greet him or Coca with a suicide bomb.

With his great, bushy, black and silvery beard, flowing robes and curled slippers, Mullah Salaam cuts a striking figure. As his comments were being translated, he kept uttering a strange, rasping noise. He was in a gloomy mood, his head sinking steadily between his palms as he contemplated the gap between promises of redevelopment in Helmand and the grind of reality.

"I have promised the people so much," he said, "but we have delivered so little and people will turn on me. Everything comes so slowly." It wasn't foreigners such as the British he blamed, particularly. "The whole government here, they are all criminals," Mullah Salaam said. "They keep the money for themselves."

Situation report

It is very easy to be critical about British intervention in Afghanistan, particularly for the commentators who rest easy in their armchairs. If you looked at an honest situation report after two years of bloody fighting in Helmand, it would have to include some strong negatives: towns deserted due to fighting; an opium harvest so vast that some suggest only a lack of space prevents it getting any bigger; an enemy that still roams free in great swaths of the cultivated "green zone"; and an electricity supply to the towns which has got worse. Add to that an alliance with "friendly forces" which have proved to be deeply corrupt.

Where is the good news? It certainly does not come from winning the war. Soldiers will tell you that, despite some clear territorial gains, we are nowhere close to it. And yet, among the British, morale is pretty good. It comes not because there is an end in sight, but from a series of tactical successes and a sense that a strategy for a victory of sorts is at last evolving - and the resources to achieve this are gathering on the horizon. Above all, there is a feeling of relief that this is not Iraq.

As I reported in this magazine three years ago, it was hard to find a British officer in southern Iraq who believed the invasion had been a good idea. The aftermath was equally depressing: in Basra, soldiers complained of training Shia militiamen who were policemen by day and planted bombs to kill them at night; officers complained of supporting a Iraqi governor who was stealing oil revenues and in league with death squads. "In Afghanistan, the police may be just as corrupt," one senior officer told me, "but at least here they are on our side. They want to go and kill the Taliban."

For the soldiers, Afghanistan has, at least until now, provided an enemy that shows its face and which can be fought with the weapons soldiers have to hand, from SA80 rifles to artillery guns. At a higher level, however, commanders are less convinced by such logic. But they, too, learned bitter lessons in Iraq - and, after two years of sometimes pointless fighting in Helmand, there is a feeling that a road map of sorts is emerging which could ultimately lead British forces to some kind of success. Working with the likes of Mullah Salaam in Musa Qala is part of that new strategy.

Rethinking the war in Helmand has posed a challenge to some basic assumptions, among the greatest of which is our understanding of the enemy. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, when American and British forces first arrived in Afghanistan, a basic misunderstanding became the doctrine. Because the Taliban had sheltered al-Qaeda, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were wrongly labelled as a joint force.

More than six years later, the mistake is in continuing with those assumptions, imagining that the Taliban who fight British troops are merely proxies for Osama Bin Laden. Instead, as military intelligence officers will tell you, the new Taliban insurgency is a battle not for international jihad, but a struggle by tribes, factions and strongmen against an unpopular Afghan government that appeared to have abandoned the largely Pashtun south of the country.

While religious ideology, madrasas, training camps and volunteering for al-Qaeda have a role in creating the fanatics who come to Helmand to die in large numbers, Taliban commanders in the field, who send young Talibs into battle against the British, are often local men with local grievances, local pride and local ambitions, even if they take advice from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. "You can't look at him and say that religion or ideology has anything to do with why he is fighting," said one British officer, talking of a prominent Taliban commander around Musa Qala. Tribal allegiance and the Pashtun code of honour, as well as the simple provocation that foreign troops represent, all play a part in motivating such men.

What this boils down to is a classic insurgency where some of our most ferocious enemies are potential allies. Few Afghans or Britons now believe that progress can be made without some form of reconciliation process taking place - or without working with those bad men. Most importantly in such an insurgency, as Mao Zedong said, "The people are like water and the army is like fish." Without the tacit support of the population of Helmand, the Taliban would flap around on dry land.

Imposing security

A T-shirt on sale at Kandahar Airport, and worn by some soldiers in Helmand, bears the words "Taliban Hunting Club". In Helmand, there has been plenty of killing. You can measure the rise in violence by the bullets and bombs. Each successive brigade in Helmand, except the last, has expended ammunition in ever greater quantities.

However, the grim truth, as soldiers in Helmand tell you, is that much of the bloodshed has been to no effect. Although a central zone of stability in the province has been gradually expanded, whole parts of the countryside have been "cleared" time and again, only for the Taliban to return. One former British commander bluntly called it "mowing the lawn". A scorecard would read simply: "Many Taliban dead; precious little territory gained."

And yet - as some commentators seem to have missed - the lesson is being learned. Last October, when a new British brigade took command in Helmand, its then commander, Brigadier Andrew MacKay, declared "a concept of operations" where the deaths of enemy soldiers were no longer a measure of success. "The population is the prize," wrote MacKay. A campaign based on counter-insurgency principles, he said, needed operations not so much designed for "kinetic effect" (inflicting physical damage on the enemy), but calibrated to "influence" the population: decreasing support for the enemy and increasing the standing of the Afghan government.

Defeating the Taliban was not the end goal of the campaign, he explained in an interview. Even if thoroughly beaten, they might linger on as a nuisance like the Real IRA "for a hundred years". The tactic was to disrupt them just enough for the Afghan government to be able to re-establish control - and to consolidate its hold with real gains for the local people.

Of course, such "hearts and minds" thinking was always part of the theory. The original British plan for Helmand, taking lessons from counter-insurgency in Malaya, spoke of "inkspots" of security, within which the population could see tangible development gains and in which solid support for the Afghan government could be established. These inkspots would, in theory, expand and then merge.

The reality was different. An understrength British force arriving in the summer of 2006 was spread thinly across the province. With little mobility, it became beleaguered in a series of encircled platoon houses, under constant Taliban attack. Even though the army successfully fought off the attacks, the towns became battlegrounds devastated by fighting. Development went backwards and support for the Taliban grew.

Since then, British objectives have been far more cautious. While UK troop strength has more than tripled (with more than 7,000 deployed to Helmand), MacKay's aim in the past six months was to get away from "mowing the lawn" and concentrate instead on consolidation: creating a lasting presence of British and Afghan forces that not only expands the so-called inkspots of security, but has a "civil effect", making life obviously better for ordinary people.

In practical terms, this has involved a big expansion of the chain of British forts - known as FOBs, or forward operating bases - as well as similar increases in patrol bases and checkpoints for the Afghan army and police, despite ongoing shortages in their numbers.

One example can be found around the market town of Sangin in northern Helmand, which was fought over and reduced to rubble during the first year of British intervention. A ring of new patrol bases has been positioned around the town. They have not halted the fighting, but they have brought a measure of relief to the town centre. The population has returned and some reconstruction has begun. A few bazaar traders even dare fly the Afghan national flag.

MacKay's philosophy of "population is the prize" had its greatest effect during December's military operation to retake Musa Qala, a town that in effect had been handed back to the Taliban just over a year earlier.

The deployment of thousands of British, American and Afghan troops around the target area achieved such an "overmatch" of forces, that, after some initial fierce fighting, the Taliban were forced to flee, allowing the recapture of the town with minimal destruction of property.

But key to the future was the arrival of a team of military development experts - a so-called "stabilisation team" - a day after the Afghan flag was raised. I watched as they unfolded precise blueprints for the construction of a new mosque, for the rebuilding and reopening of a school, and for roads and improvements to local water and power.

Three months later, when I returned, the impact of this strategy could be seen. The mosque project was still being held up by bureaucracy, but a small road had been built, the market had reopened, a health clinic was in operation, the school was up and running, with more than 800 pupils, and a cash-for-work scheme had been set up employing more than 300 people every day.

But if Musa Qala is the success story, it is still clear that fundamental problems remain. Even here - despite the concentration of British efforts - tangible gains for the population are slow in coming.

The most glaring problem is the limits to what the British soldiers themselves can do. While the strategy places "civil effect" centre stage, any kind of reconstruction requires an input from non-military sources, whether from the Foreign Office, from Afghan officials, or from civilian contractors. With the security situation still so unstable, their involvement is proving painfully slow in getting off the ground. "We have got to learn, and learn fast, to deliver aid and reconstruction not only when it's all quiet and peaceful, but under the noses of the enemy - while the mortars are still raining in," said one senior officer.

Yet the slow delivery of aid and reconstruction projects is not just down to security. It is also because British strategy relies on delivering most of its multimillion-pound aid budget by channelling it through the Afghan government in Kabul. For the soldiers on the ground - whose security depends on rapid action to win over the population - such a strategy can be hard to fathom. "All we can do in imposing security is buy time for the Afghan government to step up and do its job," said a British officer. "The problem is that we can't and won't stay here for ever; things have to move faster."

Meanwhile, the situation is getting more dangerous for the British. A softer, more end-focused approach will in all likelihood mean more bloodshed, not less. Getting the "hearts and minds" right means leaving the base and mixing with the population - and thereby facing a daily and increasing threat from suicide bombs, mines and roadside explosive devices.

Even as Helmand moves from blunt conventional war to a smarter counter-insurgency, don't expect a quick fix.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

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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