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 in Europe, where, along with thousands of other Russian exiles who left by other means, the Philosophy Steamer passengers attempted to find a place for themselves. The world they encountered, compared to what they had recently suffered in the revolutionary years, contained many amenities of which they had been deprived; but most of them could never overcome a deep-rooted nostalgia for the land they had left behind.

The book begins with a depiction of the Berdyaev family, just before their expulsion, traveling from Moscow to Petrograd, where they were to spend the night with the family of Nikolai Lossky, a friend who taught philosophy at St. Petersburg University and was scheduled for departure on the second boat. Nikolai Berdyaev came from an aristocratic military family and his grandmother was the French Comtesse de Choiseul; Lossky’s family was of a much more modest origin, but he had managed to study in Switzerland and rise in the university hierarchy.

The two men were intimate enough for such an invitation to have been proferred, but their philosophies were quite different. Chamberlain notes Berdyaev’s relation to “the mystical tradition” beginning with Plato and Plotinus, continuing with the Greek Church Fathers, and ending with “Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century and the anti-rationalist Jacob Boehme two hundred years later.” Lossky “laid stress on rationality and method,” though not of the Anglo-American kind represented by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell; he had focused on the seventeenth-century rationalist and deist Gottfried Leibniz.

Lossky’s mother-in-law ran a famous girls’ school, recently turned coeducational, whose pupils included her grandson Boris Lossky, later a distinguished art historian in France, and his closest friend, Dmitri Shostakovich. There were also the two Nabokov sisters, Olga and Yelena, whose father, V.D. Nabokov, had been a minister in the Kerensky government that the Bolsheviks had overthrown, and whose son Vladimir would become the famous novelist. The conversation that evening, as Chamberlain conveys it, dealt with a perennial Russian topic—perhaps the Russian topic—long ago immortalized in Pushkin’s poem “The Bronze Horseman.” This title, of course, alluded to the famous statue by Falconet of Peter the Great that dominates the Petersburg landscape.


The poem superbly dramatizes the helplessness of the individual against the mighty power of the ruler Peter the Great, who had founded St. Petersburg at a vast and bloody human cost. His aim, never fully accomplished, was to impose the values of the Western Enlightenment on a country to which they were totally alien. As Chamberlain remarks,

Pushkin wrote about this fundamental clash of homespun Russia and modernizing Western values …and Lenin enacted it again with his Soviet experiment in the twentieth [century].

Even though Berdyaev and other thinkers like Semyon Frank (no relation) could accept the social radicalism of the Bolsheviks, they could not accept the philosophical materialism that Lenin wished to impose, and which, as Dostoevsky had long ago portrayed in Notes from Underground, eliminated any possibility of moral responsibility.

The expulsion order had been preceded by what Chamberlain calls “the paper civil war,” which had begun before the actual civil war (1917–1920), and continued for five years, until the expulsion order in 1922. The beginning of the twentieth century in Russia had seen a revival of philosophical and religious idealism after the reign of the peculiar mixture of Benthamite materialism, utilitarianism, and social radicalism propagated by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. The passengers on the Philosophy Steamer all represented one or another aspect of this revival, which Lenin abhorred. They differed among themselves almost as much as they did with Lenin, “but as idealists, all these thinkers were deeply attached to the moral values underpinning traditional faith.”

During the civil war and the famine that ensued, Berdyaev and Lossky continued to lecture, Berdyaev in the Religious-Philosophical Academy he had founded in Moscow in 1918 and Lossky at the University of St. Petersburg. Berdyaev recalls in his autobiography that he also lectured on larger public occasions, one of which began with a worker who

read a paper on the Gospel, in which he affirmed as a scientifically proved fact that the Mother of God was a prostitute and Jesus Christ the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier—a statement that was greeted with wild applause from the audience.

As we see, this anticipation of The Da Vinci Code was already extremely popular. Many of the intelligentsia also kept alive by establishing cooperative secondhand bookshops sponsored by a Writers’ Union that had been formed. A memoir left by a novelist, Mikhail Osorgin, recalls one such bookstore in which Berdyaev took part, although “he never once managed to tie a package properly. But in the department of books on philosophy he had no peers.” Einstein’s theory of relativity was pasted on the wall of this bookstore “to cater for the huge interest it had aroused.”

All of the non-Bolshevik intelligentsia knew they were under observation by the Cheka, the secret police, and several, like Berdyaev, had been called in for questioning, but they were still treated with restraint and even courtesy. Chamberlain stresses the importance of Maxim Gorky, who “achieved a small miracle when he urged his friend Lenin to have pity,” and who “personally put a roof over the heads of many potential refugees from Bolshevism.” He created the World Literature publishing house, which gave work to many who were employed in translating the world’s classics, and the effect of this endeavor was to stress the relation of Russia with world culture.

Another protector, though much less effective, was Anatoly Lunacharsky, a playwright who had also written a book on aesthetics and religion, and who had been close to Lenin in foreign exile. He became the first Soviet commissar for education and the arts, even though he had gone through a temporary period of Menshevism in opposition to Lenin. Lunacharsky is credited with having removed the names of some well-known scholars from the list of deportees. It was Lunacharsky as well, though Chamberlain does not mention the incident, whose favorable review of the first version of Mikhail Bakhtin’s book on Dostoevsky helped to save the now world-famous scholar from being sent to what was in effect a death camp in the far north, his exile being changed to a bookkeeping job in Kazakhstan.

Lenin was determined to stamp out all opposition to the Bolsheviks, and had already arranged for imprisoned Mensheviks to leave Russia for Berlin with the cooperation of the Weimar government. A strike at the Moscow Technical University led him to tell Stalin and Kamenev, also members of the Politburo, that “he would like to get rid of between twenty and forty professors, ‘who were making fools of us.'” But the problem was that “no law existed by which Russian subjects could be exiled abroad without trial.” Lenin thus arranged to have the penal code altered so


that administrative exile abroad could be offered as a legal alternative—and effectively an act of mercy—to those whose potential or actual crimes otherwise condemned them to death.

The “crimes” in question were those of advocating non-Bolshevik ideas; but the deportation of the intellectuals could thus also be presented to the world as a gesture of clemency.

A letter of Lenin’s to Stalin in June 1922, “on the matter of deporting Mensheviks, Popular Socialists, Kadets and so on from Russia,” asks why a list of names, many of which are given by Lenin, has not yet been provided. Trotsky too wrote an anonymous essay in Pravda sharply attacking a literary critic named Yuly Aikhenvald, who had translated Schopenhauer and whose appreciative but wholly unpolitical book on Russian poets was declared “a political offense.” Files, only recently available, were compiled on all the intellectuals considered suspect, and some of the information included in them is simply ludicrous in its irrelevance. For example, any contact with the American Relief Administration, established by Herbert Hoover to relieve the famine during the war years, could be considered treacherous. Arrests were made in mid-August, though the exact number of people taken in has not even now been established. All were questioned, but Stalinist times had not yet arrived and the memoirs left of these encounters contain some rather piquant details.*

The philosopher Lev Karsavin, little known except to Slavic specialists though he promoted a doctrine called Eurasianism that enjoyed some influence, was asked during a prison interrogation whether he had contacts abroad and mentioned his sister. The interrogator wanted her name, and he gave it: Tamara Karsavina, a famous ballerina who had left Russia. The commissar questioning him then wheeled about in his revolving chair and said he considered Giselle to be her best role, but her brother disagreed and said he preferred her in The Firebird. The commissar then urged Karsavin to write his sister and advise her to return to Russia: “Tell her she will be received with honors.”

The young Pitirim Sorokin, who later established the sociology department of Harvard University, went to surrender to the Cheka in Moscow after reading inflammatory articles about himself in Petersburg journals. He feared they would worsen his treatment there; but in Moscow he was told “to go back to Petrograd and let the Cheka there decide your fate.” When he insisted on being arrested, the official reconsidered after remarking: “Well, all university people are to be banished abroad,” then gave him two papers to sign and ten days to leave the country.

Of interest to American readers is that Trotsky first made public the intended deportations by an interview in Pravda given to an American journalist. She was none other than Louise Bryant, the wife of John Reed, the newspaperman whose sensational book, Ten Days That Shook the World, did much to provide a favorable picture of the Bolshevik takeover of the provisional government. Deportation was delayed, however, because the Weimar government insisted that the deportees apply for their visas individually. The wait for the visas allowed the prospective exiles to take leave with farewell parties and visits to treasured monuments or churches. At a tea party to bid farewell to Lossky with other university colleagues, “they discussed Plato’s Symposium and the behavior of Aristophanes,” and also looked at a wall map with the new state boundaries that had emerged after the war. Another deportee, Prince Trubetskoy, wrote that

the Bronze Horseman doesn’t have the spiritual strength to spur his horse against that slant-eyed Lenin who has debased and destroyed Peter’s nation.

Once the boats arrive at the German port of Stettin, Chamberlain provides a series of chapters devoted to the various cities in which the reluctant refugees finally settled, many of them moving from place to place as conditions changed. Chamberlain intermingles their wanderings with accounts of other expatriates who had left for one reason or another. The Philosophy Steamer passengers were looked on with some suspicion by those already in Europe, like the important novelist and critic Dmitry Merezhkovsky and his wife Zinaida Gippius, whose “Green Lamp” salon in Paris Berdyaev and Vladimir Nabokov would visit occasionally, even though relations between the two groups were more or less tense. Those who had emigrated earlier could never be sure that some among the deportees were not GPU infiltrators sent to spy on their activities. Many of the new émigrés had supported the overthrow of the monarchy, and it was difficult to ascertain how far their revolutionary sympathies might extend, especially since they kept insisting that they had had no desire to leave.

A number went to Prague, where the government of the newly established Czechoslovakia, led by Tomás Masaryk, “was offering to support the exiles by creating or extending existing Russian institutions in the country,” and by providing them “with a generous wage and living allowance.” Masaryk, himself a former professor of philosophy at Charles University, whose wife was American, had written a three-volume work on the history of Russian thought, The Spirit of Russia, that has still not lost its value. He believed that the Bolshevik takeover of power would be only temporary, and looked forward to a genuinely democratic Czechoslovakia existing side by side with a democratic Russia. Also, he wished to strengthen the Slavic component of his new country, which as part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire had been dominated by German language and culture. Among those already in Prague was Roman Jakobson, who had arrived there as a member of the Soviet consulate in 1920 but then refused to return. Instead, immersing himself in the Czech language, he began to teach at the University of Brno and established the Prague School of Linguistics, whose ideas then became an important source for French structuralism.

For others, however, Prague was too far removed from the centers of European life and many flocked to Berlin, whose depressed currency also made residence there more attractive. So many Russians congregated in Berlin and lived in the suburbs that one such neighborhood, Charlottenburg, was dubbed “Charlottengrad,” and two hundred books in Russian were published there between 1918 and 1924. There was a thriving Russian-language newspaper, whose pages contained contributions by the novelist Ivan Bunin, a Nobel Prize winner in 1933, and Vladimir Nabokov, then writing in Russian under the pen name Sirin and also contributing crossword puzzles. Berdyaev reestablished his Religious-Philosophical Academy there, and a Russian Scientific Institute was founded that had departments in law and economics as well as “spiritual-intellectual culture,” opening its doors to six thousand students.

All the same, the expatriates never felt at home abroad, and their feelings are affectingly conveyed in The Italics Are Mine, the brilliantly evocative memoirs of the then-twentyish novelist and short story writer Nina Berberova, the companion of the important poet Vladislav Khodasevich, who had already shared with him years of exile with Gorky in the Russian enclave on Capri. “Russian Berlin—I knew no other,” she writes. “The German Berlin was only the background for these years, sickly Germany, sickly money, the sickly trees of the Tiergarten.” Describing a walk in the city, “along quiet streets where trees bend over, with branches and the sky is not visible,” she notes

a Russian restaurant [in which] people are singing gypsy songs and cursing modern literature …where General X stands in livery in the doorway, Gentleman of the Chamber Z [a rank given by the tsar] is at your service.

Life in Berlin became less attractive when the deutschmark became stabilized and its value increased, thus making subsistence much more expensive for the Russians living on foreign currency or small subsidies from the state. Nonetheless, Chamberlain notes the richness of the cultural life stimulated by the Russians, who invited philosophers like Max Scheler and others to speak in their academy and who produced numerous works on Dostoevsky, which added to the international prominence he had already acquired. One of the best studies on Dostoevsky, translated and still in print in the United States though now somewhat out of date, was written by Konstantin Mochulsky, a friend of Berdyaev who had taught at the University of Sofia. Chamberlain is right in remarking that

some great discussions on the future of man and culture…took place in Russian Berlin against the background of shabby cosmopolitanism, Expressionist art, edgy cinema [she cites a review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari] and German food and landscape.

Nonetheless, life in Berlin became more and more precarious, especially for the exiles of Jewish origin disturbed by the rise of National Socialism with its ferocious anti-Semitism. Many began to leave, a few to now-independent Latvia and Estonia but most to Paris. Paris was already the world of Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s Ballets russes, and Russian influence in music, the visual arts, the theater, and the ballet was already very prominent. Once on the scene the Russians immediately established a Russian People’s University as well as moving the Religious-Philosophical Academy again and setting up an Orthodox Theological Institute and Seminary. A Turgenev library already existed in Paris, and since the Sorbonne “admitted refugee scholars to lecture on Russian history and literature…Berdyaev was lecturing almost every evening of the week, including Sundays.”

Unlike in Prague and Berlin, however, there were no longer any state subsidies for the exiles, and they existed as best they could on whatever odd jobs were available and the fees they received for articles, stories, and lectures. Three Russian newspapers were published and managed to survive, as well as one Russian “thick journal,” containing serious articles on literature, philosophy, and politics, which provided an outlet for the best of the exile writers. Berdyaev’s journal Put (The Way) was supposedly devoted to “Russian Orthodox thought,” but it also stated that it would “acquaint Russians with new spiritual-intellectual tendencies in Europe.” The magazine was financed, oddly enough, by the YMCA Press in Paris, which had originally been set up to provide religious reading matter to prisoners of war, and then became one of the chief sources of support for the Russian exiles and the publisher of their works. (I recall how surprised I was, on first coming to Paris in 1950 and visiting Russian émigré bookshops, to discover the YMCA imprint.)

The role of Russia in the world continued to be furiously debated among the exiles, and its importance was magnified in the theory of Eurasianism, which saw Russian culture as containing both East and West. This led to a sort of left-Eurasianism that justified the Revolution as the first step for Russia becoming a dominant world-culture, and influenced (though Chamberlain neglects to mention him) the ill-fated return home of the great literary critic and scholar D.S. Mirsky, who died in the Gulag. The need for freedom was acutely felt by the exiles in Paris, who, with a good deal of justification, believed that the Soviet secret police was active in France. Several mysterious kidnappings of politically active exile leaders, who vanished at the same time that Soviet freighters were conveniently unloading in Le Havre, proved them to be right. As one exile put it ironically,

Those who have not lived under the Soviet regime must find it hard to imagine the psychology of persons who left that paradise during the first decade of the new order.

Nonetheless, they continued to be haunted by their homeland not only negatively but positively as well, and none could really eliminate it from their subconscious:

Bunin dreamed he received a postcard with Stalin’s signature. Berberova dreamed of a coffin going home to St. Petersburg. Nabokov’s story, “The Visit to the Museum,” showed a man opening door after door in a provincial French museum until finally he found himself back on a Moscow street where it was snowing.

Life among the exiles became more and more burdensome as time wore on, and Berberova speaks of the “sad impression” left by a celebratory banquet “of people who for the most part …did not want to change, compromise or unite, and did not even know if this was necessary.”

World War II led to new hardships for the exiles, though a few had initially seen Hitler as a valuable enemy against Stalin; and they could never understand why the two were not equated in the West. The Hitler–Stalin Pact made life even more difficult for all those, still alive and scattered throughout Europe, “who were already exiles from one tyrant and were about to be pursued by another.” Still, “a wave of relieved emotion” swept over the exiles once Russia had been invaded, and all resistance to “Sovietism and Stalin” was dissolved. “By the end of the war,” Berdyaev “was praising socialism and the Red Army which the Revolution had made invincible,” though when offered a Soviet passport after the Russian embassy reopened its doors in Paris he refused to accept the invitation.

Chamberlain’s final chapters deal with the fate of the Philosophy Steamer passengers as well as others, and develops a theory about the meaning of these events. She views the opposition between the philosophical ideas of Lenin—as embodied in Soviet communism—and those of the thinkers he expelled as basically a conflict between the two philosophical traditions already defined in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. In her view, Lenin attempted to reshape Russian life in accord with the empiricism and rationalism displayed by Turgenev’s main figure Bazarov (though this is hardly how Soviet Marxism conceived itself), whereas the philosophers he expelled remained committed to the age-old religious-metaphysical tradition of thought. They were far from neglecting the latest developments of mathematical and scientific speculation, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity; but they insisted on addressing the basic assumptions of scientific thought itself that were difficult to answer in purely rational-empirical terms. In this sense they continued to carry on the Slavophile opposition to abandoning all such questions as irrelevant to modern thought.

Chamberlain also sees the same issue arising in European culture, and tries to work out parallels between the two developments; but the comparisons she makes are more irritating than illuminating. For example: “what Lenin did in politics and society was the crude equivalent of Wittgenstein’s sophisticated achievement in philosophy.” One can see roughly what she meant (Lenin’s iron-handed effort to transform Russian society might be compared to Wittgenstein’s ruthless rejection of all metaphysics), but it is odd that she did not feel a certain insensitivity in comparing the loss of thousands of lives with upsetting Bertrand Russell. The value of Chamberlain’s book, however, lies in the rich details of the human destinies that she recounts, not in the far-fetched analogies that she attempts to draw from their fate.

As a postscript to this review, I cannot resist the temptation to add a few words to what can be learned about Nina Berberova from Chamberlain, who simply notes that she left Khodasevich and was young enough to start a new life. This new life began when she emigrated to the United States at the end of World War II after living through the German occupation of Paris and the Vichy regime. Berberova taught Russian language and literature at Yale and then at Princeton, where she became one of my colleagues. Without knowing too much about her past (one did not ask such questions), I quickly became aware that her intimate knowledge of Russian literature far exceeded my own. She was kind enough to read the manuscripts of two volumes of my books on Dostoevsky, and in a preface to one I thanked her for having saved me from “egregious errors.” She also brought me very close to my subject by the remark that her grandfather had met Dostoevsky on his way back to European Russia from Siberia.

All through her years in Berlin and Paris, Berberova wrote novels and short stories, as well as excellent criticism of both Soviet and émigré writers, buried in obscure émigré periodicals. Her own creations were finally unearthed by an enterprising French publisher located in the south of France, who arranged for their translation and found himself with a list of best sellers on his hands. A French TV documentary was made about her, and the French television crew did not believe me when, asked about her reputation in the United States, I told them that she was simply regarded as just another member of the Princeton faculty.

When she was finally invited to return to Russia and speak in St. Petersburg, another documentary followed her journey. Members of her large audience, as she movingly reported on her return, came up with photographs of relatives or friends who had vanished, hoping she might be able to provide some information. One summer, we renewed contact when she accepted a temporary post in the Hoover Library at Stanford. Ironically, her task was to decipher Russian handwritten documents, collected during the years of the American Relief Administration that had furnished the motivation for so many deportations, whose script very few people could any longer unravel.

Perusing Chamberlain’s book thus brought back many memories, and I hope some enterprising young scholar is engaged in writing Berberova’s life. For the moment, aside from her books, she is perpetuated in the city of Arles, where her French publisher, Actes Sud, has its headquarters. If you wish to find their offices, they are located on the Place Nina Berberova.

This Issue

June 12, 2008