October 2007

Elizabeth Bachner


Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia by Lesley Chamberlain

It should be one of the most notorious moments in history: in 1922, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself made a list of prominent intellectuals -- scholars, writers, scientists, philosophers -- to exile from Russia. He shipped off over sixty “undesirables” and their families on September 28 and November 16. This unilateral move directly opposed socialist ideals, and marked a frightening social and political turning point in the Twentieth Century. Yet, until now, this chapter has largely been unwritten. If you close your eyes and listen to some of the details, you’ll think you’re hearing about an entirely different historical moment. Lenin suggests that his followers should “clean(se) the Russian land of noxious insects, scoundrel fleas…” His list of categories of men who should be banished includes, with no qualifications, “writers” and “physicians.” Deportees were questioned about their political views in an attempt to “insinuate the reality of an anti-Soviet effort,” when it’s clear from the files that many of them weren’t anti-Bolshevik at all, and that their answers to the questions didn’t matter. Pre-fabricated excuses were used instead -- they were accused of being “idlers” or “parasites.”

Lesley Chamberlain, a cultural critic and novelist who does her own translations of the rich source material, has written extensively on Freud and Nietzsche as well as Russian history. Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia was published in the United Kingdom last year, and has now been reissued in America. U.S. readers should find particular resonance in Chamberlain’s astute account of one pivotal moment in the transition from a potentially freeing, progressive political system into a deadly dictatorship.

Readers familiar with Soviet history will be interested to note that Lenin chose the party upstart, Joseph Stalin, to oversee his forced banishment project. They will be even more jarred by the bizarre detail that while Stalin was “slow to take the initiative in Lenin’s eyes,” Leon Trotsky stepped forward, unprompted, to aid in the expulsion campaign when Lenin was ill. There has been much academic and historical debate about the differences between Leninism versus Stalinism, particularly in regards to the initial intellectual ideals of Russian Marxism. The Lenin in Chamberlain’s study (if we had any doubts) is as Stalinist as Stalin, if Stalinism is characterized by a cult of personality around a dictatorial leader and constant purges by ubiquitous secret police. If the diverse group of passengers shipped out of the country forever in September and November of 1922 can be characterized as a whole, their ironic similarity is that all were passionate supporters of Russia, not tsarist Russia or what would later come to be known as Leninist Russia, but the Russian country, the culture, the potential, the soul. According to Chamberlain, Russia’s dusha, its powerful spiritual-intellectual culture, was in direct rivalry with Marxist-Leninism as a source of national optimism, and Lenin set out to crush it.

The flavor of Lenin’s fear -- his panicked suspicion of philosophy and of intellectual engagement for its own sake -- will be familiar to readers who have studied Hitler’s exiles. It is not so much a fear that the philosophers are inherently bourgeois or will champion a decadent capitalism, or even that they will be idle -- in fact, most of the intelligentsia exiled by Lenin were believers in hard work, in community service and volunteerism, in (as the philosopher Berdyaev put it) learning “the use of a shovel.” Nor is it a fear of “counterrevolution,” in Lenin’s sense of that term. It is, to a large extent, a terror of the very idea of thought itself.

Here is where Lenin meets Stalin, of course, but also where Leninism and Nazism, so often poorly and hastily conflated, truly share ground. And here is where American readers will see unwelcome similarities to the current moment. Chamberlain notes that Berdyaev, who was shipped out from Moscow in the fall of 1922, took on a lifelong study of totalitarianism thirty years before Hannah Arendt attempted the task, and this detail should be a reminder to study history. One could argue that Lenin’s motivation wasn’t genuine fear or panic, but rather a motivation of those forces to seize power. Yet, at a certain point, both come together into a now too-familiar brand of tyranny.

Chamberlain relates this “neglected chapter of Lenin’s biography” that yields “the richest possible material to help us understand his tainted genius.” But she also tells a second story -- that of the exiled intellectuals. What were they thinking? How did they process and experience their forced journey? What was their legacy in the worlds of philosophy, scholarship and thought? Boris Odinstov, who was a professor of soil science and had been an advocate of agricultural reform, wrote:

Amongst us, professors and writers, you will find professors of all disciplines and orientations, but you will search in vain for politicians who are dangerous to the usurpers of power in Russia. What have they expelled us for? What is is? Stupidity or fright? I think both… (they) are such cowards that they are afraid of every independent and honestly-expressed opinion, and out of stupidity they are exiling us to where we will have every opportunity to express the truth.

Like so many exiles, they (as Tatyana Frank, wife of Seymon, put it) “consoled themselves with the thought that Russia would soon be liberated and we would soon return.” And, like so many exiles, they never saw that day of homecoming. Chamberlain shows how their absence shaped not only Russian history, but world intellectual history, and maps how Lenin’s Philosophy Steamer was only the tip of the iceberg.

Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia by Lesley Chamberlain
St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 0312367309
432 Pages