Lives of Lenin's exiles recorded in 'Private War'

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Vladimir Lenin fought his special war quietly - no shots fired - but it wasn't all that private.

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Lenins Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia by Lesley Chamberlain.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Lenins Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia by Lesley Chamberlain.

He enlisted his commissar for war, Leon Trotsky, his own future successor, Joseph Stalin, and a bevy of somewhat ham-handed investigators from the GPU, one in a long line of secret police organizations that became the NKVD and finally the KGB.

Lenin's object: to get rid of important dissidents, nuisances more than threats. They were right-wing intellectuals, many of them devout Christians, lumped as "philosophers," although they included agronomists, economists, teachers, poets, journalists and other writers. Some were Socialists, former allies of Lenin, who might have had a soft spot for them though they were now denounced as counterrevolutionaries.

Instead of having them murdered, as were the czar and his family, Lenin had the "philosophers" rounded up, loaded into two comfortable excursion boats and packed off to Germany. There were about 220, including family members, estimates writer Lesley Chamberlain. They were warned they would be shot on sight if they turned up in Russia again.

"The sailing of the (first) Philosophy Steamer signaled to Russians over the next four generations that in 1922 their country began to slam the door to the outside world," she writes in Lenin's Private War, noting that the door stayed shut for 70 years.

Europe was recovering from World War I. Imperial Russia had been defeated and the monarchy destroyed. Lenin and the Communists overthrew a liberal government that succeeded it and had to fight a costly civil war, a conflict with Poland, intervention by forces of the Allies - including the United States - and a devastating famine. American aid helped some in the famine.

Lenin had suffered a stroke and died less than two years later, but he was still in command; the Communists were consolidating their power.

A British writer on Russian cooking and philosophy, Ms. Chamberlain has put together a detailed account of a little-remembered but important episode of that consolidation. She has found new material that the fall of the Soviet Union made available.

Her book turns into a record of many other refugees and their ideas, including world-renowned figures who fled Russia about the same time.

Novelist Maxim Gorky, long thought to have left in disgust at Communist persecutions, got a letter with a none too subtle threat that has been released since the Soviet collapse. It came from Lenin, his erstwhile friend.

"You're doing nothing to look after your health," Lenin wrote. "Push off abroad. If you don't go then we'll have to send you."

Though no secret, news coverage of the shipment was meager, in part because most of the intellectuals were unfamiliar to the outside world. For the same reason, non-Russian readers might find the detailed description of their lives, conflicts and careers to be hard going.

Their fates will prove to be fascinating, however, to any readers who are interested in the manipulations of the Communist leadership and the workings of its secret police.


TITLE: Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia (St. Martin's Press, 414 pages, $26.95)

AUTHOR: Lesley Chamberlain

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