The final table at the 2009 World Series of Poker. Photo: Getty Images
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Las Vegas: the last honest place on earth

Poker is pure social Darwinism – a revelation of character as well as capacity. And where better to play it than Las Vegas, a city that is brutally upfront about its desire to separate you from your money?

I once knew a girl who had grown up in a small town on the North Island of New Zealand. The town was populated by descendants of Scottish Protestants, who had established a place of sober, hard-working respectability. On Friday and Saturday nights, the young people would go to a barn outside the town limits, where there would be music and dancing and the young men would get drunk and fight each other. None of this spilled over back into the town: no one would say anything about the bruises on the butcher boy’s face; and if a couple had found an intimacy at a dance, that wouldn’t alter the formality of their relations during the rest of the week.

This is how Protestant countries work. Civic spaces are designed for polite, hard-working respectability, and young people let off steam and the sinners do their sinning in self-contained places outside town limits. The US is a very Protestant country, and Las Vegas is its barn.
Actually it’s two barns, a couple of miles away from each other. The original one, Fremont Street, Downtown, is a ramshackle place. Apart from the slickly remodelled Golden Nugget, the one-time Glitter Gulch is a couple of shabby blocks of casinos and bars and souvenir shops covered by a canopy and blasted at night with music and air-conditioning and lights (“The Fabulous Fremont Street Experience!”), surrounded by slums and bail bondsmen storefronts. The other, the Strip, is the gaudy place of postcards and movies and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, where high-rise casino-resorts stretch out along Las Vegas Boulevard.
 
It all began with a 1930s gambling roadhouse. The Club Pair-O-Dice was built up in the 1940s and 1950s with oil and Mafia money, and properly established itself after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 shut down America’s playground. The mountains behind, and the intolerable heat, remind any summer visitor who is foolish enough to stray too far from air-conditioning that this is a place in the middle of the desert without any reason to be, except for cupidity, profit, pleasure and need.
 
In July, I’d driven in from LA in the company of two old friends. We followed Interstate 15 through the Mojave Desert shimmer of heat, truck stops and Joshua trees and the occasional sun-blasted forsaken town. Both of my companions are Londoners who have been living in Los Angeles for about 15 years. One has made it big in Hollywood as a writer and producer of network television shows. The other is a professor of the history of science at California State University.
 
The Money and I had planned this trip some months ago. The Professor had joined us at short notice, leaving his wife and two small children behind. The Professor’s wife had been unresisting, maybe even encouraging. Because this is America, it is understood that men need to get together, to drive through the desert, that men need to drink cocktails and argue about politics in the Bellagio bar. But I wasn’t here to let off steam. I’d come to Vegas for a meeting of the board of the UK Poker Federation, and to take part in the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
 
The WSOP began in 1970 as a publicity stunt, as so many things in Vegas do. The Downtown casino owner Benny Binion invited the six best players in the world – most of them Texan – to compete against each other in cash games in several variants of poker, after which they voted on who had played the best. Most voted for themselves but after the second-place votes were tallied, Johnny Moss was declared the champion. The following year, seven players returned for a freeze-out tournament, in which players put up $5,000, received the same number of chips and the player who had all the chips at the end was the winner. This was again Johnny Moss.
 
The game that was played was Texas Hold ’em (“the Cadillac of poker games”). Each player is dealt two hole cards, followed by a round 
of betting, after which the “flop” of three communal cards is dealt, followed by a fourth card, the “turn”, and then the final communal card, the “river”, with a round of betting after the reveal of each communal card. The player makes the best five-card hand available out of any combination of his or her hidden hole cards and the five communal cards of the “board”. It’s a game of discipline and nerve and courage, which has become by far the most commonly played variant of poker. As the cliché goes, the tournament version is “hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror”.
 
In the World Series of 1972, eight players took part, this time putting up $10,000 as the entry fee. The winner was “Amarillo Slim” Preston, who had a genius for self-publicity that exceeded even Benny Binion’s; and with this, the Main Event, the Big One, took off in the American imagination.
The modern era of poker began in 2003 when the appropriately named Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee, qualified for the Main Event on the internet site PokerStars for a $39 investment and beat 838 other competitors for the first prize of $2.5m. When I first played the Main Event, in 2006, there were 8,773 entrants, many thousands of whom were online qualifiers.
 
The lobbies and bars and streets of Vegas were filled with tribes of online players wearing their website-branded caps and T-shirts and hoodies. (We’re now in the postmodern era, ever since the US government, in one of its typical reflexes of puritanism and economic protectionism, shut down online poker in America in April last year.)
 
The WSOP events are no longer at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. The casino chain Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) bought the Horseshoe in 2004 just for the World Series brand and moved the event from Fremont Street to just off the Strip, in the Rio Casino’s convention centre. This was all part of Downtown’s dwindling. There is no economic or legal connection between the city of Las Vegas and the Strip, which is incorporated into Clark County rather than the city. Strip casinos are superbly well-engineered machines for separating people from their money. None of those proceeds goes to the city.
 
Five years ago, Las Vegas was the fastest-growing city in the United States, with an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent. The unemployment rate now is above 12 per cent. The crime rate is high, and getting higher. This year, the projected figures are for 130 killings and 16,500 cases of violent crime, which is two and a half times the national average.
 
The biggest police anti-crime initiative that I saw when I was there in July was the clampdown on pedlars selling bottles of drinking water without a licence. They are a common street sight, almost as common as the Mexican families flicking cards advertising erotic services on Las Vegas Boulevard, and the tourists traipsing along the Strip in the desert heat are grateful. But as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported of one family group that had been warned off by a security guard outside Planet Hollywood, “Dolores Smith, 20, acknowledges that the water she and her cousins are selling for $1 is un-fair to licensed businesses that overcharge.” This is an interesting and very Vegas usage of the word “unfair”.
 
The journalist Marc Cooper published a very good book about the city nearly ten years ago that was called The Last Honest Place in America. Its thesis was that Las Vegas is brutal but self-evident: it’s all about money. Anyone can wander into the high-end casino-resorts, and people do, streams and streams of them, looking for bars and nightclubs and adrenalin adventure, drinking luminous cocktails from giant glasses, girls in tiny skirts and high heels, boys trying to act like high rollers, the prostitutes waiting in the casino bars, with the looks they send out that manage to be both candid and modest, You’re a discerning and attractive gentleman. You and I maybe could . . . ? and the disabled people rolling slowly through the aisles between slot machines in wheelchairs and mobility scooters – because, as the recession deepens, the proportion of disabled people in Vegas has risen noticeably: Mammon has finally found its Lourdes. And, if you’ve got a dollar in your pocket, you’re entitled to play. But Cooper’s book was published when Vegas was indisputably the gambling capital of the world. It’s lost some of its swagger recently. It has become more expensive. Profits from the casinos of Macau now exceed those of Las Vegas, which need to protect their income stream from the likes of Dolores Smith.
Nonetheless, I still love Vegas, its calculated gaudiness, its relentlessness, the haven it has made for smokers and gamblers and pleasure-seekers. In other contexts, I might find it decadent rather than magnificent that a resort in the desert has more championship golf courses than anywhere else in the world. The water comes from the Hoover Dam and, I’m sure, is also diverted from helplessly thirsty towns in southern California. As the journalist and president of the International Federation of Poker, Anthony Holden, says, “I love its nerve and its boldness and that every year something new happens.”
 
The conversations with cab drivers here are better than any you’ll find anywhere else, such as when the ex-marine explained to me the difference between gay and straight couples travelling in the back of his cab: “They want to give each other blow jobs? The straight couples ask you first. The gays just do it.”
 
And I love that you can play poker here all of the time, with many hundreds of games to choose from at any moment in the day. Every cash table, it seems, has at least one of the following: a cocky young man wearing enormous headphones, an implacable white-haired gentleman, an American Oriental who’s a dangerous opponent and a ferocious old lady with dyed red hair who bets aggressively, and whose ancient hands are covered with heavy jewellery and raised veins.
 
This is what I was here to do. In a fog of jet lag, I set about trying to raise my stake for the Main Event. I spent my days and nights in Vegas, as the Money and the Professor sampled cocktails and swimming pools and Vegas steaks, playing poker tournaments.
The Money, who has a slightly inflated opinion of my poker capacities because I managed to make it into the prize money in the 2007 Main Event, backed me in a couple of smaller WSOP tournaments. Staking arrangements are common in poker, with the player, as the phrase goes, selling off pieces of him or herself.
 
I had a meal with the Money and the Professor after I was knocked out of my first WSOP tournament this year after about six hours of play. Glumly, I apologised for the failure of his $1,500 investment and reported back on my exit hand (ace-ten, both diamonds, on an ace-king-jack flop with two diamonds: the subsequent two cards didn’t bring me my flush or my straight and I had to make the long walk out 
of the tournament room). We were eating at a very fancy steak joint at the Bellagio where, somewhat giddy with the food and the wine and Vegas, the Money ordered the best grappa in the house to finish off the meal. The waiter mildly observed, “That’s a dangerous thing to say in a place like this,” and fetched the order. 
 
I never did see the bill. They wished me luck on getting to the Main Event. All the top poker players in the world play the Main Event. Even some of the worst do, along with many visiting celebrities. Shane Warne and Teddy Sheringham play the Main Event. Even Jason Alexander (“George” from Seinfeld) plays the Main Event. I was having trouble accommodating myself to the likelihood that I might not be part of it.
 
Several days later, I was back at the Rio playing WSOP event number 59, a $1,000 buy-in. After the first 20 minutes or so, I was, as they say, in the zone. I knew where I was in pots; I knew which players I could bluff, which would find it unable to steer away from confrontations. It was clear who the good players at the table were and, therefore, which other players I needed to target, whose chips were up for grabs. I felt like I’d done five years before, the last time I’d played the Main Event, when I was at the top of my game and my form – when I proved, at least to myself, that I could function, even thrive, at this level and in this company.
 
Poker is a revelation of character, as well as capacity. As Al Alvarez reminds us, it is “social Darwinism in its purest, most brutal form: the weak go under and the fittest survive through calculation, insight, self-control, deception, plus an unwavering determination never to give a sucker an even break”. I was feeling so in control that I even had space in my heart to feel sorry for the gentleman at the other end of the table.
 
He was thickset with a kindly face and a white goatee that matched the colour of his dapper little cap. He was shaking, unmanned by nerves. 
I never found out how he had ended up in this tournament; maybe he was a wealthy tourist who had entered it on a whim, but he had neither the stomach for it nor the skill. Any time he forced himself to play a hand, the agony of the event was written on his face and body. He gave his chips away, some to me, some to the clever, taciturn Australian on my right, and when he had lost them all, when his tournament life was over, the relief of it returned him to some kind of version of himself.
 
There were over 4,500 entrants to this event. It would last for four days, with a first prize of $654,000. I wasn’t dreaming of this yet, nor even really of surviving long enough to get past 90 per cent of the field and into the money. At this stage the plan was to accumulate chips, with the thought of having enough to put me in some kind of decent position going into day two. I felt confident; I was on top of things.
 
And then my composure failed me. A new player arrived at our table, a glowering young man wearing enormous headphones and a baseball cap who sat down with towers of chips in front of him. I raised in middle position with pocket tens. He reraised in the dealer position. The flop came down jack high. I checked, he bet, I raised, and he reraised, putting me all in for the rest of my chips. I looked at him. He glowered back at me. I had put him on ace-king. Possibly he had a big pocket pair, higher than my tens. He might have had ace-jack. Or, he was playing position. The later you act in a betting round, the stronger your hand becomes. When you’re the last to act, you have leverage. If you have mountains of chips, you have greater leverage. 
 
I suspected I was winning. I asked for time. My instincts told me to call. I folded.
 
Poker is perhaps unique in that you are betting on an event that has already happened: the deck of cards has been shuffled and dealt; as more cards are revealed, more information is available. In playing a game of incomplete information, part of the agony is when you never find out the answer to the question that has been posed. I suspected that I had the better hand against the heavy-set aggressive kid, but I would never know. Even if I were to have asked him, dragged him out from under his headphones, he would probably have lied. Crucially, poker is also a test of the processing power of the brain and the emotional discipline of the player in response to new information and fresh stimuli. I was still beating myself up over the previous hand when I overplayed the subsequent one, committed all my chips in a toing and froing of action with the Aussie; and when it was over, I had two pairs, he had three jacks and I was out of the tournament. I had felt where I was, I had known where I was, but I was still off-balance from the earlier skirmish, and committed a kind of suicide. It takes only a moment to switch from being on top of things to taking the shameful walk away to the exit door. It happens all the time. I didn’t like that it was happening to me.
 
The day before, while I was playing a tour­nament at Caesars Palace, television screens were showing the final table of the Big One for One Drop. This was the inaugural run of a dizzying, $1m buy-in tournament, the winner receiving over $18m, by far the richest prize in sport, with 11 per cent of the entry money, suitably for Vegas, going to a water charity, the One Drop Foundation. (This year’s Main Event will have a first prize of “only” $8.5m.) The Big One was set up by the founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté, who is a high-stakes cash player as well as a circus magnate. The 2012 Main Event had 6,598 runners, of whom I was not going to be one. With its entry fee still at the 1972 level of $10,000, it’s no longer known as the Big One. Laliberté’s event had 48 entrants, including Laliberté. It was rumoured that he had paid the buy-in for 15 other players. Nonetheless, the event attracted, or enticed, all the best players in the world, along with a few deep-pocketed businessmen. It is probably the closest poker now comes to a true world championship.
 
The British player Sam Trickett came second (with over $10m to console him) to the American Antonio Esfandiari, but he deserved to win. Fearless, poised, always aggressive, always putting the question to his opponents (and we should remember here the origin of the phrase “putting the question”, which was a euphem­ism for interrogation under torture), he played poker of the very highest standard, under extreme emotional duress, for 12-hour days. He made audacious bluffs (some got through, others didn’t), he lost chips, he gathered them again. I lost my composure in under eight hours; he maintained his throughout three days.
 
I can point to the luck that let me down in the various tournaments I played in Vegas. In my exit hand from the $1,500 event, I was only a slight underdog on the flop (approximately 44 per cent to 56 per cent). In one $240 event at Caesars Palace, when we were getting close to the money (with a first prize of $61,000), I was all in, committing all my chips before the flop, with ace-king of spades against my outplayed opponent’s king-nine of clubs. The chances of my winning the hand were slightly more than 72 per cent. My opponent made his flush on the flop.
 
But all poker players, at whatever level, are used to bad beat stories. Like dreams, the only reason you put up with other people telling you theirs is that it then gives you the right to bore them with yours.
 
One of the effects of all this is to remind me how tough it is to be a poker player. Not just the world-class types like Trickett, but any of the ones who can call themselves professionals. In my week in Vegas, I played five tournaments, with entry fees of $1,500, $1,000, $350, $240, and $200. My prize winnings were $732, of which I donated $20 for dealer tips. Add to the buy-in costs the expenses of living and travel that the pros need to find. And the runs of bad luck that they have to deal with. In the poker world, it’s called “variance”. I tried to explain this to the Money before the grappa finished us off. His intelligently Vegas response was to reach into his pocket for his billfold. As Jason Alexander tweeted after his Main Event elimination: “The poker agony is over. Going home. But thrilled for the chance. Next year!” 
 
David Flusfeder is the author of “A Film by Spencer Ludwig” (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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