The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia by Lesley Chamberlain - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Scholars All At Sea

The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the Exile of the Intelligentsia


Atlantic Books 384pp £25

This warm-hearted and engaging work focuses on the hundred or so (even the author cannot be sure exactly how many) Russian intellectuals who were packed off (some with families) at Lenin's behest on two German steamers in September 1922 from Petrograd to Stettin. The loss to Russia of this small community – philosophers, historians, doctors, agronomists –was enormous, though a bigger disaster was to come, when, fifteen years later, tens of thousands of scholars and thinkers who remained were disposed of by Lenin's successors with far greater brutality. Conversely, the gain to Europe and America cannot be overstated. Had it not been for these boatloads, and the thousands of other Russian émigrés who had voluntarily preceded them, it is hard to see how we could have had modern linguistics, structuralist criticism, French existentialism, let alone the great surge in our knowledge of Russian literature, philosophy and art. One day a monument will be built – in Prague, Paris or Berlin, but alas not in London – in gratitude to this first Russian diaspora. Without Nikolai Berdiaev's Philosophy of the Free Spirit Camus might not have written The Rebel nor Aldous Huxley Brave New World. Without Trubetskoy's Prague linguistic circle, there might have been no Chomsky. Admittedly, many a modern critic would like to have seen Camus, Huxley and Chomsky stifled, if not at birth, then in their formative period. But the fact remains that these two steamers together constituted a Noah's Ark which also preserved a cult of free inquiry and civilised values for Russia that Lenin and Stalin had hoped to eradicate.

In the 1980s the Foreign Office ran a little bookshop in Pimlico that took from its few visitors not money but a promise that the books they removed would be covertly distributed in the USSR. Intrepid Soviet visitors willing to risk arrest at Customs came away with the works of

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