The Magazine

The Brain Drain

Lenin's choice for intellectuals: Get shot, or go into exile.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By COLIN FLEMING
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Lenin's Private War

The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia

by Lesley Chamberlain

St. Martin's, 432 pp., $27.95

Spin doesn't get much more draconian than Leon Trotsky's comments to a Western journalist in 1922, regarding the deportation of Russia's top intellectuals on two steamships. "Those elements whom we are sending or will send are politically worthless in themselves," declared Lenin's right-hand man. "But they are potential weapons in the hands of our possible enemies. .  .  . And we will be forced to shoot them according to the regulations of war. This is why we prefer in a peaceful period to send them away."

Who knew Bolsheviks could be so benevolent?

Keen to do away with any political dissension, Lenin hit upon the plan of coming up with a list of Russia's worst subversives--meaning, for the most part, middle-aged journalists and theology professors--and ferrying them off to Germany, where they could go about their meddlesome business with no harm to the Soviet behemoth. If you are going to expel your country's top minds, basically knocking out an entire generation of scholarly and artistic endeavors, you need a good PR man, and as Chamberlain documents again and again, doublespeak was as vital to the Soviet cause as the Cheka and executions, real and threatened.

Trotsky possessed the intellect to know better--and, as Lesley Chamberlain argues, Lenin, even in failing health, did as well--and still, "it was as if he had invented a new school of rhetoric. His eloquence used artistic ridicule as class revenge." The party line was that Russia's deposed intellectuals were a feckless lot, producing little practical good, dreamers and idealists who knew nothing of Russia's place in the modern world and, according to Leninspeak, were more at home in an age populated by dragons and wizards.

Having been driven from their homeland, Tolstoy's intellectual descendants settled in Prague and Berlin, with some finding their way to France and England and others eventually to the United States. Their saga, post-expulsion, is the meat of Lenin's Private War, and in addition to the gutting sadness experienced in learning how many of these lives descended into alienation and depression, there are success stories. Opportunities existed for those who were much more forward-thinking than Lenin could admit, some being cagey enough to make the most of Modernism and the possibilities it afforded their modes of thinking, a freedom unknown back in the USSR.

Chamberlain is clearly exasperated by the antics of Nikolai Berdyaev, as inconsistent and enigmatic a philosopher as you'll find in the East--and a hothead to boot--but he presents Roman Jakobson, with his pioneering efforts in phonology, as a theorist to rival Mikhail Bakhtin. Realizing that sound evinced sense in Russia's Silver Age literature, Jakobson examined the relationships between letters and words at their structural core, providing critical context for a dauntingly avant-garde movement. Vladimir Nabokov also hangs around the peripheries of Chamberlain's narrative, although he wasn't one of the 69 or so intellectuals sentenced to departure from the Petrograd quay. We witness him observing these displaced lives as they take root in the Russian neighborhoods of Berlin, studying men as he would butterflies.

There were few illusions, even before Lenin's decree was announced. "Indeed, what's going on is not the socialism I envisaged at all, but a definite and deliberate thing like some island of St Helena," wrote the poet (and future suicide) Sergei Esenin, alluding to the island where the banished Napoleon lived out his days. As is so often the case, tragedy lurks in the inference: that when men take on the qualities of sediment and rock piled high in an empty sea, the men living amongst them are already adrift in exile well before their official voyages are underway.

Colin Fleming is finishing a novel.