Magazine article The Spectator

Short-Listing Doomed Intellectuals

Magazine article The Spectator

Short-Listing Doomed Intellectuals

Article excerpt

THE PHILOSOPHY STEAMER by Lesley Chamberlain Atlantic Books, £25, pp. 414, ISBN 1843540401 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

So powerful was the image of Russia created by the extraordinary group of writers, artists and philosophers who dominated their country's intellectual life at the beginning of the 20th century that it persists even today. Much of our admiration for Russian ballet, art and literature dates from that era, when the achievements of Russia's creative class first became widely known abroad. Tragically, that image, and the accompanying admiration, are long out of date. Not only did the Bolsheviks comprehensively destroy Russia's creative class, for 75 subsequent years they did their best to prevent its reemergence.

Lesley Chamberlain's latest book on Russia relates one of the lesser-known chapters of that story. The deaths, by starvation or execution, of Russian poets and thinkers like Osip Mandelstam and Nikolai Gumilyov, as well as the persecution of others, among them Anna Akhmatova, are now well documented. But others were not murdered. Instead, they were sent into exile abroad. Still, for people whose lives and livelihoods were intimately connected with the Russian language, this punishment ended their productive lives almost as efficiently as a firing squad would have done.

Chamberlain's focus is on one particular group of expellees, personally chosen in 1922 by Lenin himself, with the help of Stalin and a host of newly empowered, mostly semi-literate secret policemen. Their fate clearly interested Lenin greatly. Under his guidance, the Politburo itself conducted 'as many as 30 discussions' to come up with the perfect list of intellectuals to send abroad. Among the categories of potential expellees Lenin wanted explored were 'antiSoviet professors of the Archaeological Institute, ' 'professors of the Institute of Railway Engineers, ' 'Anti-Soviet figures connected with the Bereg publishing house' and 'anti-Soviet agronomists and cooperatists, ' along with writers and physicists.

There was even a special category for 'antiSoviet members of the Petrograd intelligentsia', many of whom would have been known personally to the Soviet leader.

Chamberlain is surely correct when she writes that the 'Philosophy Steamer', as the boat which took these distinguished people out of Russia came to be called, is 'in its way a neglected chapter of Lenin's biography'.

Nothing reveals more about the mentality of Lenin -- a man who always believed his real enemies were found among his own revolutionary allies -- than these careful deliberations over who, exactly, was to be deported, and how, exactly, they were to be arrested and tried. …

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