- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007


By Lesley Chamberlain

St. Martin’s Press, $27.95, 414 pages


The 20th century had more than its share of ruthless despots, but it’s a pretty good bet that Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov, better known by his soubriquet Lenin, will always have a place near the top of any list of them. When the writer Maxim Gorky, himself a supporter of the Bolsheviks, went to plead with Lenin for the life of one of the Romanov Grand Dukes, who were then being shot en masse on the grounds that he was a fine historian, Russia’s new ruler told him that the revolution had no need of historians.

Apparently, Lenin’s twisted worldview also had no use for free-thinking intellectuals in general, and “Lenin’s Private War,” the latest book by Lesley Chamberlain, that most insightful of historians now studying the newly revived history and culture of Russia, tells the extraordinary story of the mass expulsion from their motherland of its finest economists, philosophers, scientists and thinkers. In short, the intelligentsia, that word so associated with Russia, was no longer wanted there after the Bolshevik Revolution.

In fact, there were so many of these people and their families that there was not just one “philosophy steamer”: Two German ships had to be chartered to take them across the Baltic at the end of September 1922 to the German port of Stettin. In a sense, these early refugees from totalitarian tyranny were lucky.

Not for them the agony of the S.S. St. Louis, unable to deliver its human cargo to its intended place of salvation: They were well received not only in Germany but in the various places some of them traveled on to from there, particularly France and Czechoslovakia. And of course, they well knew that they were fortunate, all things being relative, to escape a harsher judgment at home. As Leon Trotsky put it in his inimitable way to Louise Bryant, the widow of John Reed:

“You ask me what the explanation is of the decree to expel abroad elements hostile to the Soviet regime … they are potential weapons in the hands of our possible enemies. In the event of new military complications … all these unreconciled and incorrigible elements will turn into military-political agents of the enemy. And we will be forced to shoot them according to the regulations of war. This is why we prefer in a peaceful period to send them away in good time. And I hope that you won’t refuse to accept our far-sighted humanity.”

To Russia’s new masters, any dissent was treason, and by their reckoning it was important to sweep independent thinkers out of the country. The timing of this is significant: The expulsion occurred three months before the proclamation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Dec. 30, 1922. Clearly the new Communist state was not going to be a paradise for freethinkers.

Ms. Chamberlain is an expert on the rich idealist heritage of 19th-century Russia, which was so much a part of the European intellectual vortex. She believes that in order to transform the nation — and indeed the region — as it expanded into the Soviet empire it was necessary to stifle the vibrant philosophical tradition that had flourished in Czarist Russia, for all its repressiveness as a society:

“Now clearly Russia’s misfortune after the Revolution was the loss of a rich cultural life… . The country was extraordinarily creative in the two decades Lenin plotted to seize power but when he succeeded in grasping it the culture began to shrink. Lenin’s insistence on intellectual conformism was why later critics would lament the ‘lumpenization’ and ‘banalization’ of the country after 1922.”

So if the exile of this creme de la creme of Russia’s intelligentsia was a misfortune for them, its ripples set the scene for a wider tragedy in the country they loved and to which they had contributed so much:

“The sailing of the Philosophy Steamer signalled to millions of Russians over the next four generations that in 1922 their country began to shut the door to the outside world. When Glavlit, the censorship agency, was founded on 6 June it was the first attempt by the Soviet state to bring literature under state control. Together with the GPU, Glavlit would henceforth control newspapers and publishing within Russia and prevent undesirable ideas from getting in. Having banished the unwanted thinkers, the regime now made sure that their words could not return. The implementation wasn’t perfect, but it was enough to ensure that in its key discourses as well as its geographical location Soviet Russia remained a separate country from ‘Russia Abroad’ for the next seventy years.”

Ms. Chamberlain does not end her story with the disembarkation of these distinguished emigres at Stettin. She goes on to recount their recreation of their “Russia Abroad” wherever they found a perch. The most common destinations were the capitals of Germany, Czechoslovakia and France, and this book devotes a chapter to the Russia-in-exile in Berlin, Prague and Paris.

In the Slav city of Prague, the sympathetic government of Thomas Masaryk provided a great deal of institutional and financial support, believing that Communism in Russia was a transient phenomenon and that their guests would sooner rather than later be going home. Realpolitik set in, however, and after Britain and France gave diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union, state subsidies to the Russian community ebbed almost to nothing, and by the end of the 1920s, Prague’s Russian University and so much around it was no more.

Russian culture flourished in both Berlin and Paris, with newspapers and other institutions vibrant points of light on the intellectual scene. The advent of Hitler put a crimp in this, first in Berlin and then after 1940 in Paris as well, although individuals continued their increasingly lonely efforts to keep the tradition alive. Most hospitable to exiles, France ironically did the most to extinguish emigre Russian thinking by welcoming its practitioners into their institutions and so eventually diluting it within the dominant culture.

What struck me most in reading this book is how successful Lenin was in his vicious enterprise. These were the best and the brightest in their country, which had been an integral part of European culture, and yet none of those on the boats had names that anyone other than scholars of Russian history would recognize.

Within the academy, some were recognized in their exile by honorary degrees and by positions, and of course they were all free to publish their work, but Lenin did a pretty effective job of marginalizing them in the larger world just as he had erased them from the scene in their native land.

In recounting this sad chapter in Russian history, Ms. Chamberlain writes that “my preference … has been to consider the human story and its significance.” In doing so, she has not only honored the individuals so shabbily treated but has shone a spotlight on an important tradition of idealist philosophy so integral to Russian thinking, which Lenin could not, for all his efforts, quite extinguish.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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