The Philosophy Steamer

Lesley Chanberlain The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia(Atlantic Books, 2007)を買う。

The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligensia

The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligensia


The lost tribe of Russia

Frances Stonor Saunders is fascinated by Lesley Chamberlain's story of the exiled intellectuals purged by Lenin, The Philosophy Steamer
Frances Stonor Saunders
Saturday April 29, 2006

The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia
by Lesley Chamberlain, 414pp, Atlantic Books, £25

On September 29 1922, the Oberbürgermeister Haken left Petrograd and sailed into the Baltic, destined for Stettin. Six weeks later, a sister ship, the Preussen, set out on the same course. According to the company's advertisement, the vessels boasted "every comfort, large elegant salons, spacious cabins, bathrooms etc. with all modern conveniences". The starched linen table napkins of the Haken and the Preussen were a bizarre accompaniment to the grey Baltic swell and a rotten fate.

Aboard were 50 or so of the most eminently qualified men in Russia, plus family members. Handpicked by Lenin for deportation, they were - as Lesley Chamberlain puts it - the victims of a process of "deliberate negative selection" of an intelligentsia that was "erudite, professional and cosmopolitan as never before". And yet the Philosophy Steamer (as the two transports came to be known) slipped moorings with little more than a brief mention in Pravda and a huff and a puff in the Times. It was a scandalous event, the more so for being ignored. As Chamberlain grimly notes: "What Leninism stripped out of the Russian fabric was what those ships carried away, in terms of cultural decency and intellectual independence."

The unwilling passengers included writers, lawyers, historians, an agronomist, a railway specialist and a number of engineers whose crime was to be members of a welfare organisation campaigning for better conditions for their profession. But at least 11 of the deportees were philosophers, in the Russian style of cultural critics and religious thinkers who believed in transcendental values, collective knowledge, communal faith.

The choice for the philosophers - among them Nikolai Lossky, Yuly Aikhenvald, Nikolai Berdyaev, Semyon Frank - and their companions was a cell in the basement of the Lubyanka (known as "the Ship of Death"), or a one-way journey into exile on the steamers. No matter that, almost to a man, they had spent years campaigning against tsarist social evils and had done so publicly from within Russia - unlike Lenin himself, who had worked abroad and underground. No matter that none of them, post-revolution, thought of themselves as dissidents. Their problem was that they could not accept that Pushkin was gone and that the light coming from Tolstoy's country estate was extinguished.

These metaphysical antiquities had no place in Lenin's world, which was anti-metaphysical, rationalist, atheist. As Chamberlain writes, under Lenin reason "took a perverse, political form . . . which became the foundation of the totalitarian system. It led to a militant and incriminating ban on all expressions of faith and an attempt to destroy individual conscience and human inwardness." Lenin spoke of religion as getting off on the dead; he referred to those he was evicting as "the shit". Trotsky, eager assistant in the deportations, described one of the victims as "a philosophical, aesthetic, literary, religious sponger, that is, he's the dregs, trash."

The men who sailed on the Philosophy Steamer did not, as a group, conceive of philosophy as "a hammer to change the world". They did not believe in the subordination of knowledge and intellectual integrity to a political programme. They were idealists, not ideologues. This is why Lenin let them go, rather than have them executed. Perhaps he calculated that the west would avail them little comfort. Russia, after all, was booting out the last of its metaphysical thinkers at the same time as western philosophy, led by Russell and Wittgenstein, was dismissing metaphysics as nonsense.

Arriving with just a few suitcases in Germany in late 1922, the philosophers found themselves "between worlds", a place of which Frank had written with fateful anticipation in 1917: "The west does not need us, nor does Russia, because she no longer exists. You have to retreat into the loneliness of a stoic cosmopolitanism, ie, start to live and breathe in a vacuum."

In Berlin (and subsequently Paris and Prague), the newly banished joined the Russian diaspora: artists, writers, historians; widows of tsarist officials - Nabokov's "gaunt ladies with lorgnettes" - sighing for His Majesty and Rasputin; former generals standing in livery in doorways. The Weimar government was teetering, Hitler was already president of the National Socialist Party, but there were a few years yet before the Slavs and Jews of the Philosophy Steamer came to be considered as mere Untermenschen. They were befriended and supported by such éminences grises as Thomas Mann, found jobs as lecturers, and set up the Archive of the Russian Emigration, which would one day help tell their story. They were thrifty with money, spendthrift with memory.

The motherland Russia no longer existed, but homesickness for it was deeply and often neurotically felt. The diaspora abounded with stories of suitcases packed in readiness for the return. There were, Chamberlain asserts, "signs of a twisted and troubled psychological reality", captured by Nabokov's story "The Visit to the Museum", in which a man opens door after door in a provincial French museum until finally he finds himself back on a Moscow street where it is snowing.

Those who sailed on the Philosophy Steamer, the countless others whose names have not been remembered - they were like a mythical tribe from a lost world. Chamberlain retrieves their stories in a narrative that is compelling, laudably unsentimental and deeply significant to the history of ideas.

· Frances Stonor Saunders's most recent book is Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman (Faber),,329466943-110738,00.html


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