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

Lesley Chamberlain




Trade Paperback

432 Pages



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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.


Praise for Lenin's Private War

“This little-known chapter is recounted in fascinating detail by Lesley Chamberlain in Lenin's Private War. It is a tricky tale to tell, because the names involved are unfamiliar. The idealist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev still commands attention, but fellow passengers like the literary critic Yuli Aikhenvald, the religious thinker Semyon Frank, the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin and the medieval historian Lev Karsavin are known only to specialists today. Nevertheless, the writers and thinkers expelled in 1922 represented a grievous loss . . . Ms. Chamberlain, a British historian and the author of Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia, brings these forgotten figures back to life with great skill and sympathy, reconstructing their intellectual milieu and making a strong case for the importance of their banishment as a turning point in the road from revolution to Communist tyranny.”—William Grimes, The New York Times

“Moving, deeply thoughtful . . . Revel in the glorious spectacle of the failure of Lenin's attempts to murder art, history, and faith.”—The Sunday Times (London)

“Infused with a deep understanding of the rich history of Russian thought . . . 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.”—The Seattle Times

“Chamberlain has put together a detailed account of a little-remembered but important episode of that consolidation. She has found new material that the fall of the Soviet Union has made available.”—Associated Press

“A much-needed account, the only one in English, of this shameful moment in Russian history . . . Chamberlain refuses to just report. . . . She insists on making critical sense of her amorphous subject.”—The Chronicle of Higher Education

“[Chamberlain] has not only honored the individuals so shabbily treated but has shone a spotlight on an important tradition of idealist philosophy so integral to Russian thinking, which Lenin could not, for all his efforts, quite extinguish.”—The Washington Times

“In the autumn of 1922, 160 intellectuals and their families were forcibly evicted from Russia, packed in ships leaving from St. Petersburg. Although many of them could be classified as ‘conservatives,’ they were in fact a diverse group that included religious philosophers, historians, journalists, and university administrators. The list was personally drawn up by Lenin; what united these people, in Lenin's eyes, was their unwillingness to wholeheartedly support the new order he sought to impose on Russia. Many were obscure, and their numbers seem tiny, given the millions who were soon to be liquidated under Stalin. But in this sad, unsettling account of the lives of some of these exiles and the process that drove them out, Chamberlain illustrates that this action had immense significance. It was a clear indication that, in the new Russia, independent thought was a ‘bourgeois luxury’ that would not be tolerated. An important book, both for its recounting of individual injustices and its description of how the foundation of totalitarianism is laid.”—Jay Freeman, Booklist

“Lenin, no enemy of intellectuals as such, was at least good enough to send his philosophical opponents into exile, even some who had supported the Whites in the bloody Civil War; by the time Stalin came to power, the exile was to the Siberian gulag or the grave. But it is true, as Chamberlain reveals, that Lenin had developed a rather particular hit list by the summer of 1922, including professors, physicians, writers and especially ‘Petrograd writers’ and ‘Anti-Soviet agronomists and cooperatists.’ Chamberlain catalogues Lenin's quarry, most from Moscow and St. Petersburg. One was the Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, who considered himself a socialist and whose sin of commission was, writes Chamberlain, that he ‘spoke for something decent and good, at once radically modern and medieval, and he was wise about Russia.’ Not so Lenin, who sent Berdyaev and many other Orthodox thinkers out of the country on a slow steamer out of Kronstadt, off into exile to places such as Prague, Berlin and Paris. Some were taken decades later by the Red Army and went to the gulag after all; most, such as Berdyaev, died without ever seeing Russia again. Surprisingly, one of Lenin's targets, the novelist Evgeny Zamyatin, ‘avoided deportation in 1922 but left with permission from Stalin in 1931.’ Almost all of the exiles continued their scholarly and literary work, writing at difficulty and at a distance from their sources; if anything, their stature as critics of the Soviet regime was furthered and enhanced by being outside the country and free to speak. Readers of Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov and other exiles may not know of these figures, many of whom are obscure even to Russians. Though the story is but a footnote to history, Chamberlain makes good work of it.”—Kirkus Reviews

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Lenin's Private War
PART I' ... the Leninist bacchanalia ...'Victor Frank, 'Lenin and the Russian Intelligentsia' 
'Never, of course, have I thought of "chasing away the intelligentsia" ...'Lenin to Gorky, 13 February 19081The 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
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  • Lesley Chamberlain

  • Lesley Chamberlain is the author of many books, including Communist Mirror, Nietzsche in Turin, and Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia. She lives in London.

  • Lesley Chamberlain