Chamberlain: Lenin’s Private War

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A review of Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War.

[Hat tip to Adam Kirsch @ The New York Sun]

Lenin’s First Purge

It was Stalin who pointed out that while a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic. He knew what he was talking about: like Hitler and Mao, he imposed himself on the world’s consciousness by murdering so many people that the moral sense was stupefied. Rather than face the impossible task of sympathizing with all communism’s victims, one at a time, many intellectuals took refuge in Hegelian fatalism. The millions of Russians who died because of the Russian Revolution– in the Civil War, famines, forced collectivization, Cheka prisons, Gulags– were written off by fellow-travelers as a sacrifice demanded by history, so that a better future might be born. One of the major efforts of post-World War II writers, in every genre, has been to reverse Stalin’s equation, to force us to reckon life by life, rather than in deadening plurals.

Lenin‘s Private War” (St. Martin’s, 414 pages, $27.95) by Lesley Chamberlain, is a significant new contribution to this reparative effort. Out of the many millions of Communism’s victims, she focuses on a group of 67 intellectuals, arrested on Lenin’s direct orders on the night of August 16, 1922, and deported to Germany that autumn. They were not all philosophers– they included historians, economists, literary critics, journalists, and mathematicians–and they were not all deported on a single ship; it took two tourist steamers, sailing six weeks apart, to deposit them and their families at the Baltic port of Stettin. But the episode has entered history as “the Philosophy Steamer,” a shorthand for this act of aggression against the Russian intelligentsia.

Why focus on the deportation of a few dozen intellectuals, when the years before and after the voyage of the Philosophy Steamer witnessed so many deaths? Indeed, the men whom Lenin selected for expulsion–the expulsanty, as they were called–could even be considered lucky. If they had stayed in the Soviet Union, they would certainly have died in Stalin’s purges 15 years later. Even in 1922, Lenin’s decision to banish these potential threats to the state, rather than torture, imprison, or kill them, was unusually mild.

The reason Ms. Chamberlain tells their story, then, is not that the Philosophy Steamer stands out as an episode of exceptional cruelty. It is, rather, that she sees in these individual fates an emblem of the fate of Russia under communism. What these thinkers and writers represented, she argues, was a vital tradition of spiritual idealism, inherited from the 19th century, which could have sustained a moral opposition to communism.

[continue reading]

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