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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Sunday Book Review

Writing in the Seattle Times Douglas Smith, a resident scholar at the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies, reviews Lenin's Private War by noted British historian and critic Lesley Chamberlain:

In late 1922, two ships departed Petrograd for Germany. On board were dozens of the finest minds in Russia, expelled from their homeland on the order of Lenin as part of his war against the intelligentsia. In "Lenin's Private War," Lesley Chamberlain recounts this little-known episode, one that was to have disastrous consequences for Russia and figure as a dark omen for the country's future.The idea of exile had come to Lenin earlier that year. Increasingly angry at many intellectuals' refusal to fall in line with Bolshevism, and committed to imposing a regime of strict ideological conformity, he began making a list of professors, writers, scientists, philosophers and journalists suspected of deviating from official doctrine.

In August, hundreds of men were arrested in Moscow and Petrograd and charged with a variety of prefabricated crimes. They all received the death penalty but were given one chance to save themselves: Leave the country for good.Their relatively small number — 69 were eventually forced to emigrate — belied the importance they held for a country still overwhelmingly rural and poorly educated. The writer Maxim Gorky called them "the creators of Russian science and culture." Lenin had a different word for them: an unprintable synonym for excrement. The exiles were permitted to leave with nothing more than two suitcases. But they carried with them something no border guard could confiscate: "Your fate is to accept the yoke," wrote the poet Vladislav Khodasevich of the people he was leaving behind, "To live in bitterness and woe./ But I have packed my Russia in my bag./And take her with me anywhere I go."

They "felt they were bearers of a special sentimental heritage being destroyed in Russia," observes Chamberlain, "and which they should preserve, even at the cost of their own alienation." The steamers landed in Stettin on the Baltic Sea, and from there the passengers made for Prague or Berlin and later Paris, all centers of vibrant Russian expatriate communities. In the second half of her book, Chamberlain tells the story of Russia Abroad, that other Russia spawned by the upheavals of revolution and war that became a surrogate homeland for the new émigrés. Intellectually, the deportees were a heterogeneous group. They were Christian socialists, Orthodox monarchists, Formalist literary critics, Eurasianists, but they all rejected the Bolsheviks' crude materialism.

Although most remained unknown outside Russia, a few — the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the linguist Roman Jakobson, the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin among them — went on to become prominent intellectual figures in the West. A noted British historian and critic, Chamberlain is the author of an earlier book on the history of Russian philosophy, and "Lenin's Private War" is infused with a deep understanding of the rich history of Russian thought. Indeed, her book is less a study of the formation of the Soviet police state than a reflective, nuanced survey of the intelligentsia from the late 19th century to the outbreak of the Second World War.

To Chamberlain, Lenin's action was an attempt to expel idealism, which was to have no place in the modern Soviet state founded on the purportedly rational scientific laws of Marxism. The banishment of these ideological misfits deprived Russia of its most articulate voices of resistance to the Bolsheviks' grandiose schemes of social engineering and helped pave the way for the horrors of the Stalin years.Nevertheless, the Soviet Union never succeeded in keeping out all dissident ideas, and the exiles' writings stole across the border, inspiring hope and fueling the imagination of later generations of independent thinkers.

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