The New York Times
Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsiaby Lesley Chamberlain
In 1922, Vladimir Lenin personally drew up a list of some 160 "undesirable" intellectuals--mostly philosophers, academics, scientists, and journalists--to be deported from the new Soviet State. "We're going to cleanse Russia once and for all" he wrote to Stalin, whose job it was to oversee the deportation. Two ships sailed from Petrograd that autumn, taking Old… See more details below
In 1922, Vladimir Lenin personally drew up a list of some 160 "undesirable" intellectuals--mostly philosophers, academics, scientists, and journalists--to be deported from the new Soviet State. "We're going to cleanse Russia once and for all" he wrote to Stalin, whose job it was to oversee the deportation. Two ships sailed from Petrograd that autumn, taking Old Russia's eminent men and their families away to what would become permanent exile in Berlin, Prague, and Paris. Through journals, letters, memoirs, and personal accounts, Lesley Chamberlain creates a rich portrait of these banished thinkers and their families. She describes the world they left behind, the émigré communities they were forced to join, and the enduring power of the works they produced in exile.
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Lenin's Private WarThe Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia
By Chamberlain, Lesley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Chamberlain, Lesley
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Night Before Who were the men on the Philosophy Steamer? Lenin thought of them as the class enemy, but how did they think of themselves, and what was their world like before it was so violently disrupted? The contrast between the machinery of the totalitarian regime and the lives of real people it affected leaps out of the reminiscences of writers like Berdyaev and Lossky. The most famous name on Lenin’s list of unwanted minds, Nikolai Berdyaev, was surprised at the extreme nature of his treatment by the Bolsheviks, because he thought that both he and they were socialists. But he became resigned, sold his possessions and, like his fellow professors, resolved to face his ill-wishers with courage and stoicism. On 27 September, by that well-known railway line which links Russia’s ‘Asiatic’ with its ‘European’ capital, he arrived in Petrograd from Moscow. The first, easy stage of his irreversible journey abroad was now behind him. The trains were not in the best of conditions that year, but that was nothing new. As a Russian Berdyaev felt he belonged to a people more resilient than most, one which had shown inrecent years that it could put up with almost anything. After his experience during the Revolution, when a bomb dropped in the courtyard of the family home and then again during the Civil War when a basement near his bookshop was blown up, nothing frightened him.
A train without heating and without water he hardly noticed. He was forty-eight. With him on his last Russian train were his fifty-one-year-old wife Lidiya Yudifovna, Lidiya’s younger sister Evgeniya Rapp, estranged from her husband, and their mother Irina Vasilievna Trusheva. Though she would live another eighteen years, Berdyaev’s mother-in-law was not in good health and walked with a stick. The Berdyaevs were a conscientious family of an old-fashioned kind, who looked out for each other, as well as for strangers in need. Berdyaev’s Petersburg colleague, Professor Lossky, not himself to be expelled for another two months, had offered to put up the party for the night. His address was Kabinetskaya Street, about ten minutes’ walk south from where the Fontanka river flowed under the city’s central thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt, and about the same distance from the Moskva railway station. In fact the station was still referred to as the Nikolaevsky after the last tsar, Nicholas II. The tsar was murdered in 1918 but Russia was only slowly becoming Sovietized. At the station Berdyaev, a wealthy man while still in his own country, called a cab, while a few streets away preparations were made for his arrival. Interesting Russian families from the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia came together in a subdued Petrograd that night: the Berdyaevs and the Losskys, and the Trushevs and the Stoyunins, the families into which the two men had married. The Berdyaevs, with their family seat in Kiev, were aristocracy. Nikolai’s father was a military man, and his mother half-French. Her mother was the Comtesse Choiseul. French was thus one of Berdyaev’s languages from infancy, and a maternal influence was Roman Catholicism, which took its place alongside his father’s Orthodoxy. Berdyaev never disdained his privileged background. Instead, like two of Russia’s most famous aristocratic revolutionaries, Alexander Herzen and Peter Kropotkin, he aspired to the classic imperative of noblesse oblige.1 Kropotkin was already an adult when he rebelled against his army background, but Berdyaev left military cadet school in his mid-teens. Like Herzen he studied philosophy and in the 1890s philosophy led him directly to Marxism, and thence to a repudiation of it and a clash with both the tsarist government and the upcoming Bolsheviks.
For his part in revolutionary disturbances at the University of Kiev, Berdyaev found himself in a mild form of internal exile from 1902–4. Thereafter, and especially after the 1905 Revolution, he embarked on a packed career as a teacher, social campaigner and public ?gure that only ended with his death abroad in 1948. All this was consistent with Berdyaev’s position as an intelligent, a member of the ultimately mixed-class intelligentsia. From cradle to cathedra, his task was to help the Russian peasantry and lower classes ?nd their place in a more digni?ed and just social system than tsarism represented. Berdyaev met Lidiya, the daughter of a notary, in Kiev in 1904, just after his return from exile and her release from prison. Both the Trushev girls were well educated, and had spent a year or so in Paris perfecting their accomplishments. But in the way of the educated Russian middle class Lidiya and Evgeniya were also socially aware, and had in their late teens naturally fallen into the Populist way of ‘going to the people’ and teaching both general subjects and political awareness in the backward countryside. After indulging in ‘revolutionary activities’ in 1903 they were held for three months in prison, where they went on a hunger strike.2 The meeting of Berdyaev and Lidiya ful?lled an idealistic yearning for love and understanding on both sides, and after Lidiya divorced her ?rst husband in 1904 they married. Neither partner seems to have had a pronounced sensuality and according to Berdyaev their marriage was unconsummated, leaving him saddled for life with ‘the fateful problem of sex’.3 Nevertheless they forged a lifelong bond of shared religiosity and social commitment, coupled with the habits of leading a cultivated life. They read the classics, listened to music and followed political developments from day to day, and they lived frugally. Nikolai’s character was stormy and solitary, Lidiya was nervous and sometimes hysterical, but somehow this quintessential pre-Freudian pair complemented each other perfectly.
It is probable that Lidiya and Evgeniya when young were too hastily married off to men who were of the right class but were not choices of the heart, since Evgeniya also left her husband, Rapp. As an unmarried woman, she became – rather like Martha Freud’s sister Minna – part of her sister’s family and a devoted friend of her brother-in-law. Indeed, when Lidiya died Evgeniya cared for Nikolai in his last three widowed years and he dedicated his autobiography to her. The Losskys were both less political and less eccentric than the Berdyaevs. Nikolai Lossky’s provincial origins were also far more modest, though not lowly. His paternal grandfather was an Eastern-rite Catholic priest and his father was a forest warden who became a district police superintendent. Nikolai was one of ?fteen children. They lived in a small town near the Russian–Latvian border, in what was a largely Polish area. A bright, quiet boy, he made his way with ease through school until he ran into a political barrier. In his late teens he fled abroad from the repercussions of being a political critic of tsarism and began his tertiary studies in Switzerland. In his twenties he married into the educated middle class, what one might call Russian haute bourgeoisie. Lossky was also a philosopher, but one in the academic tradition, which removed him, at least in manner, from the more individualistic and charismatic world of Russia’s mystical thinkers. Berdyaev’s warnings and predictions and visions concerning the social and spiritual life of his contemporaries never pretended to be scienti?c, whereas Lossky, in his quest for goodness and truth, laid stress on rationality and method and could expect to have his work reviewed in an international professional publication like Mind. Yet in practice the distance between the contributions to philosophy of Berdyaev and Lossky was not so great, because both were thoroughly Russian, working in a different time-frame from Anglo-American argument and differing also from Continental European philosophy. They reached back to structures of thought long discarded by mainstream rational thought in the West. At a time when Wittgenstein and Russell were insisting on the primacy of precise language coupled with mathematical logic, Lossky was trying to revive the work of the seventeenth-century rationalist and deist, Gottfried Leibniz. Berdyaev drew his inspiration, even more radically, from the mystical tradition born in Ancient Greece. His sources were Plato, neo-Platonists like Plotinus, the Greek Church Fathers, Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century and the anti-rationalist Jacob Boehme two hundred years later. In his History of Russian Philosophy, written in the early 1950s, Lossky would write of Berdyaev: Berdyaev is particularly concerned with the problem of personality.
It is a spiritual not a natural category. It is not a substance, it is a creative act…Some of his thinking is not in strict conformity with the traditional doctrines of the Orthodox and Catholic churches…4 Berdyaev, paradoxically much more modern in spirit than Lossky, was interested in what today would be called performative acts of cognition. He was a maverick ?gure, who took chances and refused to belong to any particular time or tendency. His vocabulary was often vague and mystical but one of his achievements was to grasp the importance that twentieth-century thinkers would accord to subjectivity. That September evening in 1922 the two philosophers sat for hours ruminating. There was much to report, Berdyaev was garrulous, and both were well informed. The city of St Petersburg, where Lossky had studied, married and was bringing up his children, was part of the family identity and a part of it which perhaps had taken the greatest battering of all in the last decade. ‘Piter’, as it was colloquially called, had been renamed Petrograd at the beginning of the war with Germany, because the tsar found the traditional name too Germanic. The linguistic move, though intelligible, was discom?ting, and became a token of the city’s self-alienation in the early years of the Soviet takeover. Prior to having its status as capital city removed, and being further renamed Leningrad in 1924, Piter would be deliberately run down as the hub of European Russia, and something of that debilitation could already be felt. In 1922 the philosophy department where Lossky had worked for sixteen years was under Bolshevik pressure to close. An Institute of Red Professors was already working up a suitable sociology to underpin Soviet academic life. The St Petersburg girls’ high school which Lossky’s mother-in-law, Mariya Stoyunina, had founded with her husband and run in the family name for more than thirty years, had recently been forced to go co-educational and change its name to a number. As Gymnasium No. 1, however, it was still functioning, on the lower floors of the building where the Losskys lived in Kabinetskaya Street, and with its reputation for excellence intact.5 Amongst Madame Stoyunina’s present pupils was the Losskys’ second son Boris and his friend ‘Mitya’ Shostakovich, already a pianistic prodigy. Shostakovich’s sister Mura also attended, as did Olga and Yelena Nabokova, sisters of the future novelist Vladimir Nabokov, before the family fled in 1919. The Nabokovs, a well-known conservative family, were in a dangerous situation following the Revolution, because Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, the novelist’s father, had been a minister in the Provisional Government which the Bolsheviks overthrew. Had Nabokov senior remained in Russia he would have been in danger of his life.
The Stoyunina school remained, for a few more months, one of the great clearing-houses for the children of the Russian pre-revolutionary professional class to establish themselves in their parents’ footsteps. Before the merger of some establishments, and the closure of others, prior to the complete Sovietization of schooling, privileged boys had gone to the Shidlovskaya Academy. All the top people, across the political board, from the man who was briefly Prime Minister in 1917, Alexander Kerensky, to Lev Trotsky, now Lenin’s Commissar for War, sent their sons there. But now in these mixed, transitional times, a perekhodnaya situatsiya, as Russians say, patterns were breaking. The Kerenskys had also fled abroad. No one could know what kind of world was about to emerge after November 1917, least of all the young Shostakovich whose life and music would be tormented by Soviet ways. Daily life in 1922 had the character of a switchback. On the one hand things felt almost normal after the Civil War and the Famine, while on the other persecution, imprisonment and murder lurked around every corner. Despite the goods in the shops and the cafés and theatres restored to life, and happier faces on the boulevards, the political year had been horri?c, with the show trials of the clergy from April to June, and the trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), Lenin’s former allies, in July. Sentences of death were passed on men whose only crime was to belong to the opposition. In the midst of the trials, in May, the head of the Orthodox Church was arrested. Patriarch Tikhon was held inde?nitely while the Bolsheviks replaced his church with a more compliant model, called, with deliberate and heavy irony, zhivaya tserkov, ‘The Living Church’. The growing power of this fake institution enraged Berdyaev as he prepared to leave the country.6 The very term was a typical Bolshevik ploy, meaning the opposite of what it said and designed to deceive simple minds. The way the Communists tampered with the Church, and murdered its priests, con?rmed general suspicions about the nature of the revolutionary ruling ideology. The great Russian philosopher of the previous generation, Vladimir Solovyov, had warned, just before his death in 1900, of the coming of Antichrist. Frank, Karsavin, Ilyin, Vysheslavtsev, Aikhenvald, all prominent members of the intelligentsia, felt the spirit of Christian Russia was in danger. Lossky, a devout, lifelong believer, sustained by a personal God the way Berdyaev was not, did not express himself so passionately, but he had no doubt of the evildoings of the day which coupled with the usual human vices to blight the new era. In his eloquent autobiography Lossky remembered how he had been forced to wait for a chair of philosophy in Petrograd until the relatively late age of forty-six. He was not a man to bear grudges, but he might have wished for an easier career path, especially as he was not the kind, unlike the flamboyant Berdyaev, to build his worldly adventures into his writing. The member of Faculty who had stood in his way for years, and who had even once told him, ‘you get a chair over my dead body’, or words to that effect, was now a leading member of the ‘Living Church’. Every generation has its godless opportunists and the one in Lossky’s midst was a moral philosopher – and priest – called Professor Alexander Vvedensky.
The Living Church member Berdyaev focused on, however, was Robert Yurievich Vipper. Vipper, a sixty-three-year-old historian and expert in religious studies, was the Bolsheviks’ replacement for Tikhon as head of the new Church. Vipper had compared the present moment in ecclesiastical history with the great watershed in European history when Martin Luther dissented from Rome, but that to Berdyaev was an outrage. Far from being equal to the emergence of Protestantism, the phoney Living Church was an invention of ‘the bureaucratic Petersburg mind’ on which the whole phenomenon of Bolshevism could be blamed. On the eve of his departure from Russia most of Berdyaev’s key ideas about the country’s fate were already formed. This one concerned the harm Russia’s modernization would wreak, if guided by ‘the bureacuratic Petersburg mind’ to follow Europe down a secular, rational and technocratic path. It is a commonplace of Western political science that Soviet Communism evolved partly as a substitute for and continuation of Russia’s traditional collective religosity. The ruthless wielders of political power in twentieth-century Russia, ?rst Lenin then Stalin, derived at least some of their authority from the religious craving of the people for unity and belonging. But as an alternative to these theories, which highlight Russia’s unique weaknesses, Berdyaev concentrated instead – half a century and more ahead of his time – on what European thinkers after the Second World War would call the danger of ‘the Enlightenment project’. In his battle with Bolshevism and with Communism this was the message he repeated over and over, that without a sense of the transcendent it was dif?cult to see how humanity could remain in touch with its greater aspirations towards spiritual freedom and moral self-determination. Technology, the rise of a world entirely geared to human need, and in which nature appeared to be reduced to a convenience, was for Berdyaev likely to blunt the kind of sensitivity in human beings essential to their re?ned cultural survival. And so Berdyaev had a heated exchange with the Losskys about ‘the bureaucratic Petersburg mind’.7 To any Russian it would be clear that Berdyaev was referring in part to the city’s founder, Peter the Great, who built his stone palaces on the marshy banks of the Gulf of Finland against vast natural odds. The phrase also evoked the spirit of Pushkin’s poem ‘The Bronze Horseman’ which dramatized the struggle of the humble individual against the mighty power of the ruler. One of its subtexts was the moment when the eighteenth-century tsar who opened Russia’s window on Europe exposed his people to his ‘Enlightenment’ experiments with new ‘technology’. Pushkin wrote about this fundamental clash of homespun Russian and modernizing Western values in the nineteenth century and Lenin enacted it again with his Soviet experiment in the twentieth. If there was such a thing as ‘the bureaucratic Petersburg mind’ it evidently spanned three centuries. In each case the problem was a process of Europeanization and rationalization imposed upon formless, suffering, traditional Russia. Lenin stood for reason as a principle of social order, and he stood for technological advance, but both of these worked in opposition to the traditional forces of religion and tradition – and a perverse kind of goodness.
Watching Berdyaev, with his long hair and hard, bright, visionary eyes, from across the table, Boris Lossky and his elder brother Vladimir, already at university, had their ?rst intellectual taste of ‘the magni?cent ?gure of the Moscow oracle’ that night. They resisted him, because he was not how they supposed a philosopher should be. A more plausible intellectual model was their father, a Fabian socialist and a Westernizer who loved England. They considered Russia’s recurring struggle between tradition and modernization. What Lenin had introduced to it was the Marxist class war. That was why both these distinguished families were on their way out of Russia. The Losskys were indeed Russian haute bourgeoisie, who led domestic and professional lives on a par with their counterparts in Berlin and Paris and represented a level of civilization the growing Russian metropolitan middle class could be proud of. They kept a French-speaking maid, Mazyasiya, and a governess for their children. They went to concerts and opera, they travelled, they knew languages and they kept abreast of international developments. Then suddenly, into this almost Proustian world, at a time when Lyudmila Lossky was expecting their fourth child, Leninism broke in. The day Andrei Lossky was born, in May 1917, the family could hear the sound of riderless horses galloping down neighbouring Ivanovskaya Street. The Bolsheviks had attacked and were seizing control of a ‘bourgeois’ printing press. A group of Cossacks sent to defend the printers was thrown into confusion when the raiders frightened their horses and caused a stampede. The incident was one of a series contrived by the Bolsheviks since the February Revolution to weaken the Provisional government and, coinciding with Lyudmila’s con?nement, it passed into family legend. A year later, when the Losskys’ ten-year-old daughter Marusya died of diphtheria in one of those outbreaks of disease which seemed already to set the seal on Russia’s isolation from the world in 1918, the Losskys began to feel ever more vulnerable. Through 1920 and 1921, at the height of the famine which killed millions on the lower Volga and thousands in the cities, they only survived with the help of food parcels sent by a former Stoyunina pupil who had married in England. (Her name was Natalie Duddington, née Ertal, and she would earn a name as a proli?c translator into English of Russian literature and philosophy.) Contact with abroad marked the Losskys out politically while they were still in Russia, but it helped them reshape their later lives. Three-year-old Andrei was so grateful for the gifts of tinned milk delivered to his family via the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was working to ease the Russian famine, that he fell in love with that notional Anglo-Saxon world where the word ‘milk’ originated and grew up an Anglophile. Meanwhile his father Nikolai wondered already if the family should not emigrate, when, hard on the heels of Civil War and hunger, he had to struggle to come to terms with the cold-blooded murder of several of his close colleagues and their wives, and one of the country’s great poets, Nikolai Gumilyov, in the so-called Tagantsev Affair of August 1921. The GPU, still known by its pre-1922 name the Cheka, was growing in notoriety. Nikolai Lossky knew he had to make plans to move abroad even if he was reluctant to act on them. Berdyaev would never have emigrated, had he not been forced. He identi?ed his whole being with something he felt to be Russian Truth, and for which he needed to be in Russia to contribute. Berdyaev believed in Russian exceptionalism, and in his own. He did not think the Russians were a Western people and hoped the distinction would work to their advantage. As things looked to him in 1922, Russia had not surrendered itself to European civilization and ‘the international city’. It still had indigenous culture and religion, and could make a world of its own. Its unique flower was still in the making, and, although the internationalist Bolsheviks were trampling the seeds, Russia was the country where he wanted to be. In fact, Berdyaev agreed with much that had been said by the Austrian theorist of history Oswald Spengler in his recently published Decline of the West,8 that Russia was the rising civilization in Europe, in the latest stage of its history. The urgency of Berdyaev’s desire to rescue Russia from a great mistake made him excited that September night and his voice grew louder. The Bolsheviks were changing the streets, the institutions, the university, the language. They didn’t understand the sacredness of traditional life.
On the other hand Berdyaev was ready to concede that the Revolution was good for the soul, that people needed shaking up, so he didn’t altogether disapprove of the present upheaval, only the prospect of a barbaric outcome. A man waiting for the Russian people to be reborn, he was a ?ery type who might have been invented by Dostoevsky. Always ?erce, always angry that anyone should doubt he was right, he was a fervent judge of the moral condition of the world. Lossky, saner, more prosaic, couldn’t agree. But at the same time he simply couldn’t understand who would want to destroy his way of life. What had the Losskys and their kind done? His boys and their friends, as they inherited the best of what Russia had to offer, helped ?ll the world with talk of literature and music and art, and they led gentle lives. What was wrong with that? Another of the men on the boats, the writer Osorgin, would express exactly the same middle-class consternation in a novel he wrote a few years later, depicting the destruction of educated life after the Revolution. Copyright © 2006 by Lesley Chamberlain. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Lenin's Private War by Chamberlain, Lesley Copyright © 2007 by Chamberlain, Lesley. Excerpted by permission.
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