Idealists on the Run

In the fall of 1922, a specially chartered German boat departed from the port of St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), followed six weeks later by another; on board they carried the cream of the Russian intelligentsia of the pre-revolutionary period. Many of the involuntary passengers had participated in the agitation that preceded the Russian Revolution, and were not at all opposed to abolishing the regime of Nicholas II. Some had even participated in the Kerensky government that was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.

It was not their politics as such, however, that led to their presence on what came to be called “the Philosophy Steamer.” It was because, in one way or another, they had attracted the attention of Lenin by their publications or by lectures that had received some publicity, and he saw them as interfering with his attempt to shift Russian cultural and intellectual life exclusively toward the materialism he had championed in his book Materialism and Empiriocriticism. Just as the tsars had exiled dissidents to Siberia, so Lenin decided to exile to Europe those who might hinder his aim of imposing a unified ideology on the chaotic diversity of Russian opinion in this immediately postrevolutionary period of turmoil.

As the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on Russian life, the comparatively minor episode of the Philosophy Steamer was more or less forgotten except for a mention here and there in non-Russian studies of some of the notables, especially the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. His numerous illuminating books, concerning both Russian cultural history and the fate of the modern world that emerged after the slaughter of World War I, had very soon brought him worldwide fame. In 1978, however, an émigré Russian scholar, Mikhail Heller, published an article on the expulsions in both Russian and French; and with the end of the Soviet Union, a book on this event appeared in Russian.

In the article, entitled “Pitilessly Sent Abroad” and published in a Russian academic journal in 1993, Heller wrote that there had never before in history been “a pre-planned collective deportation of minds” like this one. It was “a huge quantitative blow, coinciding with the lumpenization and conformization of society and the spread of dogmatism and primitivism in social awareness.” The GPU (secret police) records of this intellectual purge have also recently become available, and it is these sources, among others, that Lesley Chamberlain uses for her book Lenin’s Private War. Many of the exiles also left accounts of their travails in works written later, and some were questioned by researchers interested in unearthing what still could be ascertained of the truth about this singular event.

As a novelist herself, Chamberlain makes use of all this material to construct not so much an intellectual or political history as a recital of the thoughts, feelings, and observations of those involved (sometimes extrapolating them imaginatively, but without, so far as can be judged, departing too far from the available evidence). She then follows the wanderings of this compulsory ideological diaspora from city to city…

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