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Book Review: The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia

Bryan Appleyard

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The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia
by Lesley Chamberlain
Atlantic 25 pp414
(Not yet published in the United States)

In September 1922, in St Petersburg, Lenin's political police loaded 25 families onto the German ship Haken. Six weeks later, about the same number were loaded onto another German ship, the Preussen. The ships steamed out into the Gulf of Finland and the families waved goodbye to Mother Russia.

In the greater scheme of things, it was a small incident. After the first world war and, in Russia, civil war and the murderous imposition of Bolshevism, the enforced exile of fewer than 200 people was a cruelty that scarcely registered on the 20th-century imagination. Lenin could, after all, have had them shot. In the event, they were permitted to sail into exile and, as Lenin intended, out of history.

This moving, deeply thoughtful book thwarts that intention. It does so by portraying the ships' departures as a moment when the western imagination confronted its darkest, most intractable problems. The solutions of Lenin were murder and exile. Our faith is that he must have been wrong. But it is only, as Lesley Chamberlain acknowledges, a faith.

On board those ships was a peculiarly Russian mix of philosophers, critics, historians, mystics and theologians. They were divided by many things, but they were united by three big things. First, they had all been identified as threats to Leninism; second, they were famous, and executing them would have alienated foreign supporters; third, they had all seen the malignancy that lay behind the hyper-rationalism of the Bolshevik revolution. They had seen, in other words, the fatal weakness in the Enlightenment Project and were seeking an alternative. Chamberlain calls them "the shipped-out mystagogues".

The book's true subject, therefore, is the confrontation between reason and faith. But the banality of that formulation simply does not do justice to the depth and passion that Chamberlain brings to her story, nor, indeed, to the complexities of what we mean by faith. The reason this is such a good book is that the author feels the conflict within herself. She sees herself as a rational secularist and humanist, but, equally, she sees how catastrophically those causes have failed in the past. As a result, she understands the evil of Lenin but also grasps his deep and entirely logical attraction for western intellectuals; on the other side, she sees the vagueness, eccentricity and, frequently, just plain madness of her mystagogues, but also their honesty, heroism and high decency. In almost every sentence, one feels the pressure to codify this conflict into a coherent statement, and the impossibility of the task.

At one level, Russia is the issue. A nation perpetually in turmoil about its identity, it swings violently between its unique native mysticism and the Enlightenment. St Petersburg is the supreme symbol of the latter, a city built as a monument to 18th-century rationality. All the more poignant, then, is it as the point of departure for those steamers. Chamberlain's writing rises to its highest point when she captures this terrible poignancy. She speaks of the unreality that great artists such as Gogol perceived in "Peter the Great's dubious 'European' creation". "Westerners educated on the guidebook myth of the Venice of the North cannot easily grasp this mystical-nihilistic Russian view of St Petersburg, but Pushkin made it the mood of The Bronze Horseman which described the devastating floods of 1824, and Blok, who had only been dead a year when the Philosophy Steamer sailed, seemed to concur when he said St Petersburg was the point of departure for infinity." This is history written in letters of fire.

But what did it all mean? The mystagogues were a strange bunch. At one end of the spectrum was the formidable and infinitely lovable Nikolai Berdyaev, a true mystic admired by Saul Bellow for his insistence on the irreducible mystery of the human experience and our need for something greater than ourselves. Then there was the literary critic Yuly Aikhenvald, much more of a rationalist and, indeed, a man who could have lived with and improved communism. Or there was Lev Karsavin, not a great thinker but a good man and a true believer in Christian Russia who never abandoned his hope that his country would abandon oppression and revert to its "mighty destiny" but who was rewarded with death from TB in the Gulag in 1952.

These men and many others debated furiously as the ships sailed, and they continued to do so in Berlin, Paris and Prague. There they mixed with other exiles, not least Vladimir Nabokov, an aristocratic, disdainful genius who preferred to distance himself from this bizarre shower. But, as Chamberlain makes clear, he was one of them, embarked on the same quest to find the immaterial truth that Lenin had so coldly attempted to destroy.

The book ends, like War and Peace, with a long essay that seems to leave the story behind. Conventional historians might object to the way Chamberlain keeps bringing herself into this complex narrative. But, in fact, the essay is true to her aim of exposing the intractability of the central question -- can we reason our way to paradise or are we destined to struggle forever with our unreasonable anguish and impulses? Of course, no resolution is possible. The only certainty is that this rag-tag army of thinkers was infinitely superior to Lenin's and later Stalin's goon squads. They exposed the evil of what we would call today "identity" politics, and the reduction of people to ideas and "isms".

But there is one imaginary resolution that is not an idea but a list of Russian names -- Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn and the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. These mighty geniuses are the heirs of another list (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev and Pushkin) and the very fact of their existence is testament to the survival against unspeakable odds of the metaphysic that is art.

The Philosophy Steamer has its difficulties. One is the readability of a narrative strewn with so many characters and ideas. Also there are occasional flaws. Her estimation of Wittgenstein, an essentially religious thinker, is simply wrong; AJ Ayer would be a better example of the aridity of analytical philosphy in the West. But, forget all that and simply revel in the glorious spectacle of the failure of Lenin's attempts to murder art, history and faith. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

Read the entire article on the Sunday Times website (new window will open).

Posted: 04-Apr-06

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