The Philosophy Steamer By Lesley Chamberlain

How Lenin sank the freethinkers
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In 1922, Lenin arranged for the deportation from Moscow and Petrograd of 67 intellectuals and their families. He took a personal interest, selecting many of his victims by name. Most had no desire to leave: a few would eventually return to new posts in the USSR. But, as influential voices of the old liberal intelligentsia, they favoured individualism, independent argument, and a metaphysical, even mystical, approach to philosophy. Under Stalin, similar "dissidents" would be sent to Siberia, tortured, shot. Perhaps Lenin, most complex of despots, had a lingering respect for the class that raised him, besides an awareness of Western reaction. The deportees travelled in relative comfort, and courtesy of the secret police.

Why "The Philosophy Steamer"? As she acknowledges, Lesley Chamberlain owes her title, and much else, to Mikhail Glavatsky's book Filosofsky Parokhod (2002). Moreover, there were two ships: first to sail was the Oberburgermeister Haken, followed six weeks later by the Preussen. Though there were philosophers on both (among them Nikolai Berdyaev, Semyon Frank and Ivan Ilyin), the passenger lists included economists, journalists, Tolstoyans, historians and poets.

Almost any would merit a full biography to himself (or, in a single case, herself). Chamberlain's biographical notes are skimpy, and the general reader must grapple with many unfamiliar names, and inevitably partial narratives. The canvas is broad, covering both ideas and itineraries, and culminating in a survey, city by city, of the new lives of the deportees who settled mostly in major European cultural centres - Berlin, Prague, Paris. Additional sketches describe many more famous exiles who left the Soviet Union in different circumstances: Jakobson, Zamyatin, Tsvetaeva, Nabokov.

The turbulence and complexity of the period are conveyed at the cost of some loss of focus. The writing is not always entirely sure of its aims. Sometimes scholarly and detailed, it also tries out, here and there, a less successful novelistic approach. It's in part three that Chamberlain, whose previous work includes Motherland: A philosophical history of Russia, fully settles into her territory. She conducts in broad strokes a cogent, stimulating discussion of the chief differences between Russian and western European philosophical thought.

Archival material about the deportations has emerged in Russia only relatively recently. A contemporary historian calls them "a huge qualitative blow, coinciding with the lumpenization and conformization of society and the spread of dogmatism and primitivism in social awareness". Chamberlain expresses those Old Russian values less dramatically, and, as a moderate Russophile, registers her disappointment that emerging facts "support all kinds of new irrationalism and national mysticism".

There is no need to belabour the point: the deportations were a disaster that has continued to undermine not only Russia's intellectual life, but economy and agriculture. However, it is always worth emphasising that secularism is not the culprit. Any system can become monstrous if its masters seal it off from challenge and change, and if popular belief in it is blind and fanatical enough.

At least the Soviet Union did not destroy traditional Russian literary culture: schoolchildren continued to recite their Pushkin and Lermontov while Brodsky broke stones in his labour camp. Anti-intellectualism is not the prerogative of despots and, as Western liberal democracies prune their syllabi of classic writers, shut language departments and, in the US, force an ersatz theory called "intelligent design" on to the science programmes, it seems as if we're headed for a painless but also disastrous "lumpenization" of our own.

Carol Rumens's 'Collected Poems' are published by Bloodaxe