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

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9780312427948: Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia

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.

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About the Author:

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.

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Chapter One The 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 like Berdyaev and Lossky. The most famous name on Lenin's list of unwanted minds, Nikolai Berdyaev, was surprised at the extreme nature of his treatment by the Bolsheviks, because he thought that both he and they were socialists. But he became resigned, sold his possessions and, like his fellow professors, resolved to face his ill-wishers with courage and stoicism. On 27 September, by that well-known railway line which links Russia's 'Asiatic' with its 'European' capital, he arrived in Petrograd from Moscow. The ?rst, easy stage of his irreversible journey abroad was now behind him. The trains were not in the best of conditions that year, but that was nothing new. As a Russian Berdyaev felt he belonged to a people more resilient than most, one which had shown in recent years that it could put up with almost anything. After his experience during the Revolution, when a bomb dropped in the courtyard of the family home and then again during the Civil War when a basement near his bookshop was blown up, nothing frightened him. A train without heating and without water he hardly noticed.  He was forty-eight. With him on his last Russian train were his ?fty-one-year-old wife Lidiya Yudifovna, Lidiya's younger sister Evgeniya Rapp, estranged from her husband, and their mother Irina Vasilievna Trusheva. Though she would live another eighteen years, Berdyaev's mother-in-law was not in good health and walked with a stick. The Berdyaevs were a conscientious family of an old-fashioned kind, who looked out for each other, as well as for strangers in need. Berdyaev's Petersburg colleague, Professor Lossky, not himself to be expelled for another two months, had offered to put up the party for the night. His address was Kabinetskaya Street, about ten minutes' walk south from where the Fontanka river flowed under the city's central thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt, and about the same distance from the Moskva railway station. In fact the station was still referred to as the Nikolaevsky after the last tsar, Nicholas II. The tsar was murdered in 1918 but Russia was only slowly becoming Sovietized. At the station Berdyaev, a wealthy man while still in his own country, called a cab, while a few streets away preparations were made for his arrival.  Interesting Russian families from the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia came together in a subdued Petrograd that night: the Berdyaevs and the Losskys, and the Trushevs and the Stoyunins, the families into which the two men had married. The Berdyaevs, with their family seat in Kiev, were aristocracy. Nikolai's father was a military man, and his mother half-French. Her mother was the Comtesse Choiseul. French was thus one of Berdyaev's languages from infancy, and a maternal influence was Roman Catholicism, which took its place alongside his father's Orthodoxy. Berdyaev never disdained his privileged background. Instead, like two of Russia's most famous aristocratic revolutionaries, Alexander Herzen and Peter Kropotkin, he aspired to the classic imperative of noblesse oblige.1 Kropotkin was already an adult when he rebelled against his army background, but Berdyaev left military cadet school in his mid-teens. Like Herzen he studied philosophy and in the 1890s philosophy led him directly to Marxism, and thence to a repudiation of it and a clash with both the tsarist government and the upcoming Bolsheviks. For his part in revolutionary disturbances at the University of Kiev, Berdyaev found himself in a mild form of internal exile from 1902-4. Thereafter, and especially after the 1905 Revolution, he embarked on a packed career as a teacher, social campaigner and public ?gure that only ended with his death abroad in 1948. All this was consistent with Berdyaev's position as an intelligent, a member of the ultimately mixed-class intelligentsia. From cradle to cathedra, his task was to help the Russian peasantry and lower classes ?nd their place in a more digni?ed and just social system than tsarism represented. Berdyaev met Lidiya, the daughter of a notary, in Kiev in 1904, just after his return from exile and her release from prison. Both the Trushev girls were well educated, and had spent a year or so in Paris perfecting their accomplishments. But in the way of the educated Russian middle class Lidiya and Evgeniya were also socially aware, and had in their late teens naturally fallen into the Populist way of 'going to the people' and teaching both general subjects and political awareness in the backward countryside. After indulging in 'revolutionary activities' in 1903 they were held for three months in prison, where they went on a hunger strike.2 The meeting of Berdyaev and Lidiya ful?lled an idealistic yearning for love and understanding on both sides, and after Lidiya divorced her ?rst husband in 1904 they married. Neither partner seems to have had a pronounced sensuality and according to Berdyaev their marriage was unconsummated, leaving him saddled for life with 'the fateful problem of sex'.3 Nevertheless they forged a lifelong bond of shared religiosity and social commitment, coupled with the habits of leading a cultivated life. They read the classics, listened to music and followed political developments from day to day, and they lived frugally. Nikolai's character was stormy and solitary, Lidiya was nervous and sometimes hysterical, but somehow this quintessential pre-Freudian pair complemented each other perfectly. It is probable that Lidiya and Evgeniya when young were too hastily married off to men who were of the right class but were not choices of the heart, since Evgeniya also left her husband, Rapp. As an unmarried woman, she became - rather like Martha Freud's sister Minna - part of her sister's family and a devoted friend of her brother-in-law. Indeed, when Lidiya died Evgeniya cared for Nikolai in his last three widowed years and he dedicated his autobiography to her. The Losskys were both less political and less eccentric than the Berdyaevs. Nikolai Lossky's provincial origins were also far more modest, though not lowly. His paternal grandfather was an Eastern-rite Catholic priest and his father was a forest warden who became a district police superintendent. Nikolai was one of ?fteen children. They lived in a small town near the Russian-Latvian border, in what was a largely Polish area. A bright, quiet boy, he made his way with ease through school until he ran into a political barrier. In his late teens he fled abroad from the repercussions of being a political critic of tsarism and began his tertiary studies in Switzerland. In his twenties he married into the educated middle class, what one might call Russian haute bourgeoisie.  Lossky was also a philosopher, but one in the academic tradition, which removed him, at least in manner, from the more individualistic and charismatic world of Russia's mystical thinkers. Berdyaev's warnings and predictions and visions concerning the social and spiritual life of his contemporaries never pretended to be scienti?c, whereas Lossky, in his quest for goodness and truth, laid stress on rationality and method and could expect to have his work reviewed in an international professional publication like Mind. Yet in practice the distance between the contributions to philosophy of Berdyaev and Lossky was not so great, because both were thoroughly Russian, working in a different time-frame from Anglo-American argument and differing also from Continental European philosophy. They reached back to structures of thought long discarded by mainstream rational thought in the West. At a time when Wittgenstein and Russell were insisting on the primacy of precise language coupled with mathematical logic, Lossky was trying to revive the work of the seventeenth-century rationalist and deist, Gottfried Leibniz. Berdyaev drew his inspiration, even more radically, from the mystical tradition born in Ancient Greece. His sources were Plato, neo-Platonists like Plotinus, the Greek Church Fathers, Nicholas of Cusa in the ?fteenth century and the anti-rationalist Jacob Boehme two hundred years later. In his History of Russian Philosophy, written in the early 1950s, Lossky would write of Berdyaev: Berdyaev is particularly concerned with the problem of personality. It is a spiritual not a natural category. It is not a substance, it is a creative act...Some of his thinking is not in strict conformity with the traditional doctrines of the Orthodox and Catholic churches...4 Berdyaev, paradoxically much more modern in spirit than Lossky, was interested in what today would be called performative acts of cognition. He was a maverick ?gure, who took chances and refused to belong to any particular time or tendency. His vocabulary was often vague and mystical but one of his achievements was to grasp the importance that twentieth-century thinkers would accord to subjectivity. That September evening in 1922 the two philosophers sat for hours ruminating. There was much to report, Berdyaev was garrulous, and both were well informed. The city of St Petersburg, where Lossky had studied, married and was bringing up his children, was part of the family identity and a part of it which perhaps had taken the greatest battering of all in the last decade. 'Piter', as it was colloquially called, had been renamed Petrograd at the beginning of the war with Germany, because the tsar found the traditional name too Germanic. The linguistic move, though intelligib...

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