How Britain sobered up

36 min listen

This week:  The Spectator’s cover story looks at how Britain is sobering up, forgoing alcohol in favour of alcohol free alternatives. In his piece, Henry Jeffreys – author of Empire of Booze – attacks the vice of sobriety and argues that the abstinence of young Britons will have a detrimental impact on the drinks industry and British culture. He joins the podcast alongside Camilla Tominey, associate editor of the Telegraph and a teetotaler. (01:27) Also this week: could Mongolia be the next geopolitical flashpoint?  The Spectator’s Wild Life columnist Aidan Hartley writes in the magazine about Mongolia’s fate, as the country tries to juggle a historic relationship with China and Russia, with desires for a stronger

In seven years, Lenin changed the course of history

The upheavals convulsing the Russian empire in 1917, Victor Sebestyen argues convincingly, were the seminal happenings of the past century. From them directly stemmed the second world war, the Cold War, the collapse of European imperialism and the dangerous world we inhabit today. There are many weighty modern accounts of these epochal events by historians such as Richard Pipes, Robert Service and Orlando Figes, and it is these that Sebestyen chiefly relies on in this brisk, well-informed and chilling account. He makes no pretence of original research. How did Trotsky’s childlike vision become a nightmare system, dependent on evil, oppression and violence?  ‘The Russian Revolution’ is something of a misnomer

Nothing is certain in Russia, where the past is constantly rewritten

Enforced brevity focuses the mind wonderfully. And when the minds in question are two of the West’s most interesting historians of Russia, the result is a distillation of insight that’s vitally timely. Sir Rodric Braithwaite was Britain’s ambassador to Moscow from 1988-92 during the collapse of the USSR (where he was the boss of Christopher Steele, of Trump dossier fame), then chaired the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee. He went on to write the brilliant Afgantsy, a history of the USSR’s disastrous Afghan war and its impact on the Soviet Union’s collapse, and Moscow 1941, a people’s history of the heroic Soviet fight against Nazism. Sheila Fitzpatrick is an Australian historian

Inverted Tsarism

From ‘News of the week’, 1 June 1918: Bolshevism is the negation of democratic government. There is no pretence on the part of M. Lenin and M. Trotsky that they wish the will of the people to prevail. What they say is that the proletariat must rule, and must crush both capitalism and the bourgeoisie. They are opposed to the existence of everybody who does not agree with them… Even the Russian peasants in the mass are not Bolshevik by conviction. Bolshevism, now that its principles are thoroughly understood, turns out to be nothing but an autocracy ‘by the proletariat’ — and not even by the proletariat, but by that

The art of persuasion

It’s hard to admire communist art with an entirely clear conscience. The centenary of the October revolution, which falls this month, marks a national calamity whose casualties are still being counted. When my father-in-law comes to visit, I have to hide my modest collection of Russian propaganda: he grew up under the Soviets and has few fond memories of the experience. He can’t work out why old agitprop is so popular today. But the simple fact is, for all the disaster they wrought, the Bolsheviks did leave a legacy of images so striking that, even now, they can draw thousands into a museum. As Tate Modern is about to demonstrate.

High life | 24 August 2017

When the Germans smuggled arguably the world’s most evil man into Russia 100 years ago, they did not imagine the harm they were unleashing on the human race. Once Lenin had prevailed, he decided to forge a new consciousness, New Soviet Man, as the Bolshies called it, someone who would overcome ‘the antinomies of subjective and objective, body and spirit, family and party’. Leave it to a horror like Lenin to design a new human being (although a certain Austrian tried to emulate him less than 20 years later) and you get Yakov Sverdlov, who ordered the murder of the Tsar and his family, and the hanging of their dogs.

A brave new world – at gunpoint

Of the many books published this year to mark the centenary of the Russian revolution, this is perhaps the most curious. China Miéville is best known as an imaginative and entertaining writer of ‘weird’ (his word) science fiction and magic realism. October is a narrative history of the two 1917 revolutions in Russia, written from an ultra-left perspective — with a novelist’s eye for a good story and colourful characters. So it’s an examination of why the communist experiment failed miserably — at the cost of much blood — that is also wonderfully well written: smart, witty and full of fresh insight. But it can also read like an A-level

How Lenin manipulated the Russian Revolution to his own ends

The centenary of the Russian Revolution has arrived right on time, just as the liberal democratic world is getting a taste of what it’s like to feel political gravity give way. In 2017, Lenin lives. ‘In many ways he was a thoroughly modern phenomenon,’ writes Victor Sebestyen in Lenin the Dictator, the kind of demagogue familiar to us in western democracies, as well as in dictatorships. In his quest for power, he promised people anything and everything. He offered simple solutions to complex problems. He lied unashamedly. He identified a scapegoat he could later label ‘enemies of the people’. He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…. Lenin

The good, the bad and the ugly

Vladimir Putin notoriously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 to be one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century. However, as Revolution: Russian Art 1917–32 — an ambitious exhibition at the Royal Academy — helps to make clear, the true catastrophe had occurred 82 years earlier, in 1917. Like many of the tragedies of human history, the Russian revolution was accompanied, at least in the early stages, by energy, hope and creativity as well as by murderous cruelty and messianic delusion. The greatest symbol of the last was Vladimir Tatlin’s huge projected ‘Monument to the Third International’ (1920), a sort of communist successor to Bruegel’s ‘Tower

The Baron is back

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had his Polish ancestor not been exiled to Siberia, he might have become a figure in European literature; living in Soviet Russia he was, in his own words, ‘known for being unknown’. His fiction and plays, written in the 1920s–1930s, remained mostly unpublished — unpublishable — till 1989. That he can now be read in English is thanks to the translator Joanne Turnbull, who in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov has brought him out of obscurity. What Krzhizhanovsky lacks in popularity he makes up for in the fame of his hero, Baron Munchausen, an incorrigible fantasist created by the

Red with the people’s blood

Few 20th-century historians doubted that the 1917 Russian revolution was one of the most influential events of their time, indeed of all time. As the centenary commemoration approaches, however, it seems remarkable how far and how fast the ideology that inspired Lenin and millions of his worldwide followers has receded in significance. Many are the imperfections of capitalism, but almost nobody outside Jeremy Corbyn’s office any longer supposes that communism, least of all the old Soviet brand, offers a credible alternative. This would amaze our grandparents’ generation on both sides of the struggle. The novels of C.P. Snow are indifferent fiction but intriguing middle-class social history. During the interwar era,

Box of tricks

Travesties is a multi-layered confection of art, song, literature and pastiche. Tiny snippets of it are true. In Zurich, in 1917, James Joyce directed a production of The Importance of Being Earnest featuring a British diplomat, Henry Carr, in the role of Algy. Joyce and Carr fell out over the costume budget and became embroiled in a brief legal wrangle. That’s the starting-point for Tom Stoppard’s dazzling intellectual pantomime which features cameos from Lenin and Tristan Tzara, both residents of Zurich at the time. Tzara was an experimental vandal whose penchant for slicing sonnets into pieces was taken up by copycats and flowered, or degenerated, into the Dada movement. Lenin,

Enemies of history

At the start of the 21st century, no one felt the need to reach for studies of ‘third-period’ communism to understand British and American politics. By 2016, I would say that they have become essential. Admittedly, connoisseurs of the communist movement’s crimes have always thought that 1928 was a vintage year. The Soviet Union had decided that the first period after the glorious Russian revolution of 1917 had been succeeded by a second period, when the West fought back. But now, comrades, yes, now in the historic year of 1928, Stalin had ruled that we were entering a ‘third period’ when capitalism would die in its final crisis. As the

Fleeing Mother Russia

‘Ah! Scrubbing the deck! My childhood dream! As a child I had once seen a sailor hosing the deck with a large hose while another sailor scrubbed away with a stiff, long-handled brush with bristles cut at an angle. I had thought at the time that nothing in the world could be jollier.’ This is Russian writer Teffi accepting her enforced labour on board a refugee ship fleeing Bolshevik Russia. Moments before, a dispossessed landowner has proclaimed his right to idleness — ‘Hire someone! Do whatever is necessary! If you prefer all this socialist nonsense, then what are you doing on this ship?’ A few notches below his social class

Reds against Whites

On the 24–25 October 1917 (according to the Julian Calendar, or 7–8 November according to the Gregorian) the political disputes which had shaken the Russian empire reached a peak. The provisional government, or All-Russian Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (which had been formed in the wake of the February revolution and abdication of Tsar Nicholas II) was stormed by the Bolsheviks. These men and women — whom Churchill later described as ‘swarms of typhus-bearing vermin, vampires, troops of ferocious baboons’ — quickly consolidated power in Petrograd, now St Petersburg. Their leader, Vladimir Lenin, believed that Europe’s workers would soon rise in violent struggle against their bourgeois oppressors; and ‘Red’ October

Rhodes’s statue should remain, on one condition

Lobengula was the second king of the Matabele people in what is now Zimbabwe. He was also the last. Cecil John Rhodes smashed his authority, and broke his tribe. The Matabele (a breakaway people from the Zulu kingdom to the south) had been making their way north, and by the time Rhodes arrived on the scene were in effective control of a vast area of southern Africa, stretching from the Limpopo river to the Zambezi. Matabeleland was rich in -minerals and the tribe were being pestered by white prospectors. Rhodes saw his opportunity. He made an ally of Lobengula, who had been king since 1869, and in 1888 persuaded him

The threat from Russia’s spies has only increased since the fall of Communism

‘No, we must go our own way,’ said Lenin.  The whole world knows him as Vladimir, while he was in fact Nikolai. ‘Nikolai Lenin’ was the party alias of Vladimir Ilyich Ulianov, a terrorist leader and psychopath whose ideas changed the history of the greater part of the 20th century. This era ended on 26 December 1991 with the collapse of the 74-year-old Soviet Union, founded by Lenin, who seven years after the Bolshevik revolution died of syphilis, only to be succeeded by Stalin. ‘Stalin’ was also an alias. The Soviet dictator’s real name was Ioseb Vissarionovich Jugashvili, born into the family of a Georgian cobbler. His education, which he

Charlie Chaplin, monster

No actual birth certificate for Charles Spencer Chaplin has ever been found. The actor himself drew a blank when he went on a rummage in Somerset House. The latest research suggests that he was born ‘in a gypsy caravan in Smethwick, near Birmingham’. But surely the truth has been staring people in the face ever since the Little Tramp first popped on the screen: Chaplin is the lost twin of Adolf Hitler. Peter Ackroyd almost suggests as much. Both men first drew breath in April 1889. They had drunken fathers and nervous mothers. There were patterns of madness and illegitimacy in the family tree. They were short and sported an

The many attempts to assassinate Trotsky

Leon Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov, is a retired chemist in his early eighties. I met him not long ago in the house in Mexico City where his grandfather was murdered in 1940 with an ice-pick. Volkov had grown up in that house surrounded by 20-foot garden walls and watchtowers with slits in them for machine-guns. The protection was no defence against Trotsky’s eventual assassin, the Spanish-born Stalinist Ramón Mercader, who very ably infiltrated Trotsky’s Mexico circle and, on 20 August, struck the revolutionary on the front of his head with that gruesome weapon. Trotsky bellowed in pain but managed to fend off his assailant before collapsing. His bodyguards hurried in

Secrets of the Kremlin

A building bearing testimony to the power of eternal Russia; a timeless symbol of the Russian state; a monument to Russian sovereignty. To the modern eye, the Kremlin fortress seems as if it had always been there, as if it had never changed and never will. All of which is utter nonsense, as Catherine Merridale’s fascinating history reveals: the story of this famous compound is not one of continuity, but of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Every reincarnation of the Russian state over the centuries — and there have been many — has been accompanied by a corresponding reincarnation of the Kremlin. Its history is thus a metaphorical history of Russia,