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Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of…

by Lesley Chamberlain

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After the fall of the Romanovs, and not too long before he became the first Premier of the Soviet Union, Lenin planned a forced emigration for some of the more ideologically problematic Russian intellectuals. While the Lenin’s efforts were nothing like the later mass purges of Stalin, he did much to ensure that the transition from the monarchy to the USSR and its state capitalism, including making sure that the influence of intellectuals who weren’t wholly sympathetic to Lenin’s new economic ideas would never have the ability to peddle that influence.

In September of 1922, well over one hundred intellectuals and their families were forcibly deported from their homes on board two ships, one of which was known as the “Philosophy Steamer.” Chamberlain tells the stories of these people, their lives, their ideas, and what it was like when they ended up in their new homes in Europe. Chamberlain weaves together that is actually quite a bit more than simply the “voyage of the Philosophy Steamer” that the subtitle describes. It’s really a story of exile, displacement of every kind, and ultimately re-shaping one’s life in a foreign land.

Most of the intellectuals aren’t terribly well-known, at least in the United States, but a few might be somewhat familiar, depending on your reading or academic interests. The lives that I was especially interested in, because I previously knew of them, were: the Russian mystic and theologian Nikolai Berdyaev, writer Maxim Gorky, and sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, and structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson. A few very recognizable figures pop up from time to time, including Shostakovich and Nabokov. The fascinating thing about many of the people on the ship (and its sister ship) is that they didn’t want to leave the land of their birth. Ironically, many of them were socialists.

Their fatal flaw, however, seemed to be their collusion with theism, and particularly the Orthodox Church. (Because of the hearty interrelationships between Orthodoxy and socialism in nineteenth-century Russian thought, many of the exiles were both Christians and socialists – a phenomenon we would hardly recognize in our peculiar historical moment, but one that was very familiar to Russians at the time.) Lenin’s materialism simply didn’t have a place for God in his philosophy, and therefore these people couldn’t stick around. In fact, Gorky even considered himself to be an ally of Lenin, and was frankly shocked when he found a member of Lenin’s Cheka knocking on his door one night to take him away.

Much of Chamberlin’s book details what happens when the exiles land at their new homes which, for most of the people she’s writing about, are Prague, Berlin, and Paris. (Sorokin was the exception, who ended up in the United States, and founded the Harvard Sociology Department.) The politics and the opinions of these thinkers were much too diverse to be outlined here, but many of them thought that Lenin’s little experiment would be history in no more than a decade or so, and then they would be able to return home to their former lives.

This book could have easily been just about Lenin or an account of the time spent on the ship, or some other narrowly focused aspect of this story, but Chamberlain strikes a fine balance in integrating all of these. She does, from time to time, take excessive novelistic license in imagining details of certain lines, which can get tedious, but this is an overall enjoyable, well-told narrative of tumultuous time in history, and the seemingly universal precariousness of the intellectual in the twentieth century. ( )
  kant1066 | Oct 2, 2012 |
In September 1922 a steamer with Russian citizens aboard left Petrograd for the West with a group of the "intelligentsia" of Russia, literary critics philosophers and others . This ship and others would eventually carry more than two hundred into exile in what has been chronicled by Lesley Chamberlain in her book, Lenin's Private War. Subtitled 'The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia", the book, a sort of intellectual history and cultural biography, tells the story of this group of Russian thinkers, most of whom would never return to their homeland. This episode can be seen as the beginning of the closing of Russia to the West and one of the critical steps in the Bolsheviks exertion of complete totalitarian control over the arts and philosophy in the Soviet Union. Among the exiles were well-known thinkers including philosophers Nikolai Berdyaev and Nikolai Lossky; historians Myakotin and Kizevetter; and, many other writers, economists, journalists and social scientists. Their crime simply was they had overstayed their welcome. They did not fit into the plans of Lenin. Fortunately, while they were arrested, their end was one of exile rather than immediate execution.

Lesley Chamberlain vividly delineates the character of key members of this group, highlighting the singular importance of Berdyaev and his Christian idealism that was the antithesis of Lenin's Marxist materialism. The book is fleshed out with details from letters, memoirs and other documents that provide a solid foundation for the story she tells. We learn of their arrest and interrogation and the background leading to their ultimate exile. The irony of this exile is explored in the second half of the book which discusses the difficult world they faced in a Europe that came to be dominated by Hitler in the 1930s. Some of these thinkers faced even worse fates in that world than they had in the Russia from which they had been exiled. Ultimately many fled to the United States or merely went into hiding for the duration of the war. Their exile is magnificently told in this book. Chamberlain has provided us with a fascinating story of separation and hope. ( )
  jwhenderson | Aug 13, 2009 |
Lenin's Private War by Lesley Chamberlain is not for the reader who lacks patience for Russian names or long passages on political-philosophy of the early 20th century. However, for those who've read your footnotes in Russian history and want to learn more about Lenin's exhile of Russian intellectuals in 1922, this is the book for you. Thanks to Chamberlain's skill as a translator, many recently-released and little known Russian documents of these events have been used to compile a thorough and fascinating account of these events. Not only does Chamberlain quote previously published memoirs, like those of Nabokov and Berberova, but she's gathered the journals of exiled Russian economists, agronomists, philosophers -- all the best thinkers of the Silver Age-- and even journals of their wives and children, and brings us into their despair, their hopes, their confusion, and their anger over being forced to leave their homes and wander from Berlin to Prague to Paris to New York, whoever would take them in. Chamberlain's purpose is not to create a chain of stories that evoke Oprah-like moments of sympathy. Each account she uses speaks to her purpose of placing these events in their rightful place in history. No one escapes a label -- White or Bolshevik, humanist or populist, realist or mystic -- but in the end, Chamberlain conveys the true significance of this historical chapter in not only Russia's failed march towards communism, but also in the development of 20th century Western political-philosophy. ( )
  kvanuska | Aug 8, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312367309, Hardcover)

In 1922, 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. Lesley Chamberlain creates a rich portrait of this chilling historical moment, evoked with immediacy through the journals, letters, and memoirs of the exiles.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:52:37 -0400)

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