The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia 
by Lesley Chamberlain.
Atlantic, 414 pp., £25, March 2006, 1 84354 040 1
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‘What is to be done in a country whose genius has gone?’ Lev Loseff asks in his poem ‘June 1972’; Loseff’s close friend Joseph Brodsky had left Leningrad that month. The question brings to mind the title of Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, which soon came to codify a central preoccupation of the Russian intelligentsia. But in this instance it also raises the notion that the poet’s departure symbolised a graver loss, to do with the country’s identity.

Many of Loseff’s readers, though, beginning with that vast majority of Russian intellectuals who remained in the country and would never have dreamed of leaving, would indignantly repudiate this idea, preferring even now to think of Brodsky as not much better than a traitor. They may have disagreed with the crude way in which it was articulated, but they would have sided with the official view of his departure: good riddance to bad rubbish. From a more cynical perspective, the removal of a talent such as Brodsky’s made things easier for the lesser lights he left behind. Soviet Russia, among other dubious achievements, led the world in the output of dead men’s shoes: until the mid-1960s, a man might become ‘either a corpse or a colonel’ at a young age. And surely the nation must amount to something more than the sum of the individuals who compose it; a single act of repudiation, no matter by whom it is perpetrated, is a minor matter. Eventually, however, those who share Loseff’s estimation of Brodsky must wonder whether his loss was a symptom of something having gone profoundly wrong in a society that had been quite buoyant in the wake of Stalin’s demise. Or perhaps losses of this kind were not a symptom but a cause of Russia’s sorry state.

Loseff’s question implies that the genius has abandoned the country of its own accord. Deportation abroad was extremely rare; however many thousands of miles away internal exiles were dispatched, they remained very much under Russian control. After the Revolution, people left the country voluntarily in great numbers. In 1917-22 (the ‘first wave’) they left largely for political reasons – most faced death if they stayed; in 1941-45 (the ‘second wave’) they also left mainly for political reasons, and with a similar alternative; from about 1972 to about 1985 (the ‘third wave’) they left for a mixture of ideological and economic reasons; and since 1991 (the ‘fourth wave’) they have left overwhelmingly for economic reasons. The loss of human capital in the first wave is usually considered to have been much greater than it was in the second. The third and fourth waves (Brodsky was a pioneer of the third) represent a brain drain of serious proportions, especially in such fields as medicine, physics and mathematics. The higher education the Soviet Union offered its citizens was probably its greatest achievement; by leaving, the emigrants were biting the hand that fed them.

The ones who left in the first and second waves became stateless and eventually assimilated into their host countries; a few eventually applied to return, usually with unpleasant consequences. Third and fourth-wave emigrants have by and large had a country ready to take them; indeed, in the case of the predominantly Jewish émigrés of the third wave, pressure and the promise of wheat imports from foreign governments were instrumental in securing their departure. (A well-known joke of the 1970s parodied a well-known saying of Lenin’s: ‘What is Communism? Communism is Soviet power plus Canadian wheat.’) The degree to which post-1970 émigrés have continued to identify themselves as Russian varies enormously, but as with their predecessors, assimilation has been the most frequent outcome.

It is often difficult to distinguish between exile and emigration. Brodsky, for instance, always maintained that he had been forced to leave by persistent harassment, including arrest, imprisonment and internal exile; but in the end he applied to leave, with an invitation to settle in Israel (and a job offer from the University of Michigan, which he kept quiet about). As a young man Brodsky had once hatched a plan to hijack an aeroplane and escape across the Soviet border into Turkey, so it was not as if he was taking an unpremeditated step.

As for border-crossing in the other direction, Russia has not historically had a problem with illegal immigration and asylum seeking, though things may be changing now. Legal and illegal internal migration has been more problematic, as many ostracised Azeris, Armenians and Chechens could attest. Legal immigration by anyone other than the small number of Russian returnees has been almost non-existent. The first person one thinks of in connection with it is Lee Harvey Oswald rather than Nazim Hikmet.

This thicket of issues forms the background to Lesley Chamberlain’s earnest, fluent and by the end impassioned new book, The Philosophy Steamer. She begins with the first extended account in English of the mass deportation of intellectuals by the Soviet government in 1922. Since 1991, a substantial amount of information about this and other previously shadowy incidents has been available in Russia, and Chamberlain makes thorough use of it, drawing especially on Mikhail Glavatsky’s 2002 book, which has the same title as hers. Lenin is shown to have instigated the operation, which began with a Cheka round-up of the intelligentsia just before he became terminally incapacitated. The list of targets, which Chamberlain does her best to reconstruct in a carefully assembled appendix, may have totalled about two hundred. She argues that Lenin got rid of them because he had no need of them, despised them, and regarded them as a threat, but spared their lives because, as a fellow member of the old intelligentsia, he retained a grudging respect for them. It must be said that clemency is not something one easily associates with Lenin; he certainly had none towards some of the other social circles he came from, especially the clergy. By mid-1922, however, with the Civil War won, he was dealing with a rump of soft ideological opponents; the hard ones had either left, or been imprisoned (roughly speaking, those on the left), or executed (those on the right).

About seventy deportees left Petrograd for Stettin on two ships, in late September and mid-November 1922. Technically, like Brodsky fifty years later, they were émigrés, because the Soviet state had negotiated visas for them from the Weimar government, desperate as both regimes were for international co-operation. Almost all of them signed an agreement to leave, and most of them paid their own fare. Only one of the principals was female. Almost all of them were allowed to take their families with them. The idea of the male intellectual surviving without a wife was unthinkable; for all their fanfare about the liberation of women, the Soviet authorities behaved on the domestic front in exactly the same way as their pre-Revolutionary predecessors. Of the people on the steamers, only one was or is at all well known in the anglophone world: Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948). Of comparable reputation among Russians at the time were the literary critic Yuly Aikhenvald (1872-1928), the historian Aleksandr Kizevetter (1866-1933), the civil rights activist Ekaterina Kuskova (1869-1958), the historian of philosophy Nikolai Lossky (1870-1965) and the Social-Revolutionary activist Prince Sergei Trubetskoy (1890-1949). Less well known were the religious thinkers Semyon Frank (1877-1950) and Lev Karsavin (1882-1952). The remainder were principally economists, agronomists and academic mathematicians, whom we rather lose sight of in the course of the book. There is obviously no way of measuring their relative importance: if one looks at the first wave as a whole, how is one to compare the loss to Russia of, say, Stravinsky with that of the electronics engineer Vladimir Zvorykin or the aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky?

As the book proceeds, figures who left Russia by other routes before and sometimes after the 1922 expulsions are considered: they include Isaiah Berlin, Roman Jakobson and Pitirim Sorokin, three members of the first wave who had a huge impact well beyond Russian-speaking circles (outside Russia, that is; their work remained unmentionable in the old country until much later). What began as an account of a particular group becomes a more general history of the intellectual and cultural life of the Russian emigration between the wars, with separate sections on Prague, Berlin and Paris. Here, Chamberlain is on territory that has been extensively charted in English, French and German, and in recent years, metropolitan Russian. Her narrative never flags, but it gets less sure-footed and authoritative as the book goes on. Its first half sticks close to documentary sources, with the startling exception of a passage of historical fiction in which, after disarmingly warning the reader that ‘no one kept a record of what happened,’ Chamberlain offers an imaginary reconstruction of a discussion on board the first steamer as it nears the German coast. This is a very unwise move, especially in the case of the risibly ill-judged translation of Nikolai Gumilev’s famous Surrealist poem ‘The Strayed Tramcar’ that poor Aikhenvald is made to declaim.

The secondary sources get sparser as the story goes on. Chamberlain is not the only writer on this subject who has failed to cite or give much attention to Gleb Struve’s Russkaia literatura v izgnanii (‘Russian Literature in Exile’), published in New York half a century ago, and still unsurpassed. Struve’s history is one of the best products of the mentality – liberal but exacting, pluralistic but richly personal – that Chamberlain identifies as the most valuable attribute of the thinkers on the steamer. Struve is included in the bibliography. There is no mention at all of D.S. Mirsky’s deeply influential History of Russian Literature, published in English in 1926-27, and in a one-volume abridgment twenty years later that is said to have inspired Isaiah Berlin’s embrace of Herzen’s liberalism. The omission is surprising, since Berlin’s thinking on liberalism is a keystone of Chamberlain’s argument.

Chamberlain provides little extended analysis – as opposed to synopses of synopses – of her primary sources, the writings compulsively piled up by her stars, and little consideration of whether or not they stand up to rigorous scrutiny after all these years, if indeed they ever did. To her credit, she is no hagiographer; she is aware of the more self-indulgent and pretentious aspects of Berdyaev’s life and work in particular. (She tells us, incidentally, that Brodsky admired Berdyaev, but the object of his and his generation’s greatest admiration among intellectuals of that period was Lev Shestov, who barely gets a mention.) As for the Eurasian movement, her account of it is questionable, to say the least. In a letter she would have done well to include, P.P. Suvchinsky wrote to the movement’s founder, Prince N.S. Trubetskoy, on 25 November 1922 to give vent to an exasperated view of the deportees, and the motives for expelling them, that many younger émigrés probably shared:

All they’ve done now is simply to transplant from Russia to Berlin – like a piece of turf from one cemetery to another, or like a piece of dead skin – a cultural layer that has completely outlived its time, and for what? So that these people should stand at the head of the emigration, of course, so they should speak for it, and by doing so prevent anything being born that is new and alive, and consequently dangerous for the Bolsheviks.

Chamberlain’s lack of attention to primary sources, though, is in the long run beside the point, because she is working up to the idea that the personalities concerned were more important for what they represented than what they produced. In the concluding part of her book, she argues for the ‘universal symbolic significance’ of the Philosophy Steamer, on the grounds that Lenin, by deporting these intellectuals, launched the baleful endgame of the Enlightenment Project – secular modernism – of which totalitarianism was a corollary. His aim was to deal a fatal blow to Russian liberal thought, to abolish, in as much as it was possible, the individual, the metaphysical and the spiritual.

Chamberlain defends her somewhat apocalyptic thesis with exhilarating commitment. But it surely ratchets things up too far. Apart from its Eurocentrism, the thesis is undermined by a persistent notion that Russia’s intellectuals were and are somehow special, if not unique. There is very little that can usefully be pinned down as uniquely Russian about the men who were expelled in 1922. More vulnerable still, though, is Chamberlain’s conviction that Lenin embodied some sort of evil. He was a person who thought of and lived for nothing but politics. The Russian intelligentsia of the time, obsessed though it was with debating social issues, on the whole considered politics to be unworthy of serious attention – not political theory, but the day to day grind of involvement in the political process. This disdain grew during the Soviet period, culminating with Brodsky’s generation, when self-respecting intellectuals thought that to engage with politics in any way at all would contaminate their autonomy. This alienation from what in other countries is understood to be a necessity, even a duty, for rank-and-file thinking people, is in my view the fundamental issue raised by the Philosophy Steamer.

Chamberlain’s book may be read, perhaps perversely, as an unwitting tribute to the resilience of the intellectual bourgeoisie. When I started to encounter the Russian intelligentsia in this country forty years ago, they always seemed to have better houses, jobs, possessions, connections and holidays than people like my family; they had home help, too, and sent their children to private schools. I particularly resented the narratives of loss, which ended with this ‘having to live’ in places I could not realistically aspire to. When I started going to Soviet Russia at about the same time, I came across people who had survived much worse, whose forebears had been persecuted by Stalin, and who had now been diverted by their prudent parents from the humanities to the hard sciences. It was from these ‘internal émigrés’, as they were called, that I first heard the expression, ‘If you live with wolves, howl like a wolf.’ They believed that it wasn’t possible to resist brutal fanaticism without resorting to its own devices and thereby fatally compromising one’s own values.

As the Soviet government found, though, there is no way to beat the intelligentsia in the long run: modern society can’t function without these people, and if one lot is expelled or otherwise eliminated, another lot will rise in their place. In Soviet Russia, by any objective standards, those who got out were the lucky ones. Remarkably, though, Brodsky appears to have been the first significant literary intellectual to declare unambiguously that he had escaped to a better place. His predecessors believed to the end in the superior spirituality of Russia; some even believed that their suffering was a manifest token of this superiority.

As for Lev Loseff, the son of a successful Soviet children’s writer, who himself worked on the children’s journal Campfire (Koster), the answer to the question of what was to be done was clear: he followed Brodsky, to teach Russian literature at Dartmouth College. He never went back, but unlike his predecessors he could have done, having outlived the system that exiled him. Loseff could presumably go back if he wanted to, and he would not be the first of his cohort of literary intellectuals to do so. But at least his poetry can be read there now – and, in contrast to the work of all émigrés before his generation, openly celebrated. Perhaps one day Russian intellectuals will prefer not to leave permanently (‘defect’, as we used to say), but come and go freely, contributing to more than one society. Perhaps some of those who left will follow the reclaimed intellectual heritage back to Russia, so that a future chapter of Chamberlain’s story might encompass a fifth wave, a wave of immigrants returning to Russia for reasons that have nothing to do with money. The intellectuals who return might even participate in practical political life rather than shunning everything to do with it, and so help to bring about a functioning civil society.

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