21 November 2017

Lenin's epic train trip from Zurich to St Petersburg, 1917

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924} was born into a well educated, middle class family in Simbirsk, east of Moscow. The children grew up in comfort but with a strongly developed sense of justice. But when in 1887 the oldest sibling was hanged in St Petersburg for conspiring to assassinate Czar Alexander III, the family was horrified.

At university, Ulyanov absorbed the writings of Marx and Engels. On graduating law from St Peters­burg University in 1891, Lenin became a leader of a Marxist group, distributing revolut­ionary pamphlets to work­ers. He was carefully watch­ed by the police, arrested in 1895, convicted of dist­rib­uting propaganda and sentenced to 3 years in Siberia. Nadezhda Krupskaya, a young fellow traveller, join­ed him there and they married. Now called Lenin, the couple returned from Siberia and in 1906 chose exile in Western Europe.

Moving between Prague, London and Bern, publishing a radical news­paper and trying to organise an international Marxist move­ment, Lenin wrote how to transform Russia from a feud­al society into a modern workers’ paradise. He argued that revolution would come from a coalition of peasants and factory workers, the proletariat.

The longest, coldest route imaginable for travelling from Zurich to St. Petersburg 1917
Press map for details

Zurich By early WW1 in Aug 1914, Lenin & Krupskaya were in Zurich, living off family money. They had no children. 

The Altstadt is a cluster of medieval alleys that rise from the Limmat River. The Spiegelgasse, a narrow cobblestone lane, winds past the WW1 Cabaret Vol­taire and enters a leafy square with a stone fountain. #14, a tall building with a gabled rooftop, has a commemorative German plaque saying that from Feb 1916 until Ap 1917, this was the home of “Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution.”

When Lenin lived in the Altstadt, it was grotty. In Rem­in­is­cences of Lenin, Krupskaya described the dingy old house and smelly courtyard, over­looking a sausage factory. Luckily for Lenin, the owners were working-class people with a revolutionary value system, who con­demned the imp­er­ialist war. Today their rundown rooming house is renovated. 

Lenin spent his days writing tracts in Zurich’s Central Library and playing host to a stream of fellow exiles. Lenin and Krupskaya strolled along the Limmat whenever the library was close. Hammer followed Lenin’s route on the riv­er’s east bank, gazing across the narrow waterway at Zurich’s landmark church and clocktower of St Peter. Famed for its unchanging Art Nouveau décor, the popular Café Odeon was one of Lenin’s favourite spots for reading newspapers.

The Lenins rented a one-room flat in this Zurich block in 1916-17
as the block appears today

In March 15th 1917, a young revol­ut­ionary raced up the stairs to the Lenins’ room, yelling “There’s a revolution in Russia!” Appar­ent­ly enraged over food shortages, corruption and the disastrous war against the Central Powers, thousands of demonst­rat­ors had filled the streets of Petrograd, clashing with police; soldiers loyal to the czar switched their support to the prot­es­ters, forcing Nich­ol­as II to abdicate. The family was placed under house arrest. The Russian Provisional Gov­ern­ment had taken over, sharing power with the local Petrograd Soviet. Sov­iets/committees, made up of industrial workers and soldiers had begun to form across Russia.

Lenin made plans to return home. He pro­mised to pull Russia out of the war and to eliminate private property. “The people need peace, the people need bread, the people need land. And the Prov­isional Government gives you war, hunger, no bread” he declared.

Lenin, joined by 29 other revolutionary exiles, waited for the train from Zurich to Russia in April 1917 where he planned to take power on behalf of the prol­etariat. Other Russians was enraged that the revolutionaries had arr­an­ged passage by negotiating with the German enemy.” Did German financiers secretly fund Lenin and his circle, at the very time the German gov­ern­ment was in a brutal war against Russia? It didn't matter. Lenin travelled in a sealed train, one that moved internationally without its passengers being recognised as entering or leaving the nations they crossed. 100 years ago later, Joshua Hammer decided to retrace Lenin’s trip, curious to see how the great Bolshevik imprinted himself on Russia and the nations he passed through, on this epic train trip.

On board Lenin wrote by telegram to the Bolsh­eviks in the Petrograd Soviet, urging no comp­rom­ise: “Our tactics: no support to the new government;...arming of the proletariat the sole guarant­ee; no rapprochement with other parties.”

A Deutsche Bahn regional train second-class compartment took Hammer across Germany to the Baltic port of Rostock. Stepping onto the deck on a cold, drizzly night, he passed the last jetty and headed into the open sea, bound north for Trelleborg Sweden. The sea was rougher when Lenin made the crossing aboard a Swedish ferry, but Lenin had stayed outside anyhow, joining others in revolut­ion­ary anthems.

Sweden Ploughing through the blackness of the Baltic night, Hammer could imagine the excitement that Lenin felt as his ship moved homewards. After standing in the drizzle, Hammer headed to his spartan cabin to sleep, before the vessel docked in Sweden at 4:30 AM. From Trelleborg, he caught a train north to Stock­holm, as Lenin did, riding past lush meadows and forests. Once in the Swedish capital, he followed in Lenin’s footsteps down the crowded main commercial street, to the elegant Hotel PUB. Swedish social­ist friends brought Lenin here to be properly outfitted, before his arrival in Russia.

Across the canal to the Gamla Stan-Old Town is a cluster of medieval alleys on a small island, the site of another monum­ent to Lenin’s Swedish stay. Situated in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, it consists of a backdrop of black granite and a strip of cobble­­stones embedded with iron tram tracks. The work honours an iconic photo of Lenin in the Vasagatan, wearing a fedora and umbrella.

To the north, Haparanda is a lonely outpost in the Swedish Lapland tundra. It was once a thriving outpost for trade in minerals, fur and timber, and the main northern crossing point into Fin­land over the Torne River. Vestiges remain of the town’s rustic past: wood-shingle trad­ing houses; Stadshotell Inn; and Handelsbank, a Vict­orian building with cupolas and a curving grey-slate roof.

Finland The horse-drawn sleds along the frozen Torne in Hap­ar­anda in April took the comrades across to Fin­land, which had been annexed by Czar Alexander I in 1809. They expected to be turned back at the border or perhaps det­ained, but they were warmly welcomed instead.

In Finland the white dome of the C18th Alatornio Church rose over a forest of birches. Inside the monumental neo-Classical brick railroad station, the waiting room has a bronze plaque mounted on a blue tile wall: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15th 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia.”

Hammer spent the night in bleak Kemi, walking in the freezing rain through the deserted streets to a concrete-block hotel near the water­front. Then he took the train south to Tampere, a riverside city where Lenin briefly stopped on his way to Petrograd. Later the Finns turned the Work­ers’ Hall meeting room into a Lenin Museum, filling it with Lenin souvenirs.

Enthusiastic crowds welcomed Lenin to Finland Station in Petrograd, April 1917.
Painted by Mikhail Sokolov in 1930
Photo credit: The Economist

As the train had crossed Scandinavia, watching the frozen ground endlessly flash by, Hammer “felt” Lenin, reading, dispatching messages to his comrades, looking out at the same vast skies and infinite horizon. In the morning Hammer boarded the Allegro high-speed train at Hel­sin­ki Central Station for the 3.5-hour final trip. He settled into the first-class car, sped past birch and pine forests and soon approached the Russian border. And finally into Finland Station, Petersburg.

Russia Hammer followed Lenin’s route to Petrograd: Kshes­inskaya Mansion, an Art Nouveau villa. See the elegant block-long villa, interconnected structures built of stone and brick, featuring decorative metalwork and coloured tiles. This villa, including the office where Lenin worked daily until July 1917, was later declared a state museum.

At first Lenin and his wife lived with his sister and brother-in-law, director of a Petro­grad marine insurance company, in Lenina St. The building’s curator showed the salon where Lenin once strategised with other rev­ol­utionaries. Hammer noted Len­in’s samovar, piano and a chess table with a secret com­partment to hide materials from the police. [The Provisional Government had turn­ed against the Bol­sheviks in July and Lenin was moving between safe hous­es].

Smolny Institute, an early C19th school for rich girls became the staging ground of the October Revolut­ion. In Oct 1917 Trotsky, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, mobilised Red Guards, rebellious troops and sailors, and prepared them to seize power from the now disliked Provisional Government. On Oct 25 Lenin entered Smolny, and the Bolsheviks swept aside their socialist rivals in a coup d’état. Smolny was chosen by Lenin as Bolshevik Centre (now a Museum) and remained his home for several months, until the national government was moved to the Moscow Kremlin. 
Smolny Institute today
with a Lenin sculpture in the foreground.

6 months after his return to Russia, Lenin was the ruler of his country. Hammer had followed the trajectory of a figure that changed the world, even after Lenin died in 1924.

In perfect time for the 100 year anniversary, Catherine Merridale wrote a fine book called Lenin on the Train, published by Metropolitan Books in 2017.

18 November 2017

"One Nation" in Australia and extreme right wing political parties across Europe

The cultural and linguistic diversity of Australia's resident population has been reshaped over many years by migration. In 2015, 28.2% of the resident population was born over­seas (6.7 million persons). As would be expected from a major member of the British Commonwealth of nations, the greatest proportion of these migrants came from the United Kingdom (5%) and New Zeal­and (3%). And increasingly, migrants are arriving from China (2.0%), India (2%), the Philippines (1%) and Viet­nam (1%). The fastest rate of increase over this period was for people born in Nepal, Pakistan, Brazil, India and Bang­ladesh.

As a result of this diversity, Pauline Hanson's party, One Nation, has arisen as a strongly nationalist, right-wing and populist party in Australia. One Nation was founded in 1997, by then-member of the Conservative Party in Federal parliam­ent, Pauline Hanson. Dis-endorsement came before the 1996 federal election because of comments she made about Indigenous Australians, Muslims, Asians & immigration. Hanson also critic­ised the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Condemning multiculturalism, One Nation has rallied against government immigration and multicultural policies. Along with Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, she once drew a link between African migrants and “crime, HIV, TB and leprosy”. Hanson said "You can't bring people into the country who are incompatible with our way of life and culture. They get around in gangs and there is escalating crime that is happening."

Parliamentarians against racism walk out of the Senate
during Hanson's maiden speech, 2016.

Some of Hanson's maiden speech 
photo credit: SBS

Does it matter what One Nation believes? Yes, it does. At the 2016 Federal election the party polled only 4% of the nationwide primary vote in the Senate, but in Queensland her party gained 9+% of the Senate vote! The primary effect at both state and federal levels could be to split the conservative parties’ vote and in particular to threaten the National Party's support base in Queensland.

When Pauline Hanson made her incendiary first speech to the Senate in 2016, all the Greens senators walked out. She claimed the nation was "in danger of being swamped by Muslims" with its people "living under sharia law and treated as second-class citizens" if urgent changes weren't made to immigration policies. She claimed they "bear a culture and ideology which is incom­pat­ible with our own" and called for an end to all immigration. She called for an end to halal certification and for a ban on the construct­ion of any further mosques - with those existing to be monit­ored, saying she did not believe Australia could remain secure under current immigration policies.

Just in case Australians didn't understand One Nation’s racism, Hanson added "Muslims are imprisoned at almost three times the average rate. The rate of unemployed and public dep­endency is two to three times greater than the national aver­age. Muslims are prominent in organised crime with associated violence and drug dealing. Anti-social behaviour is rampant, fuelled by hyper-masculine and misogynist culture. Multiple social surveys find that neighbours of Muslim settlement are suffering from collapsing social cohesion and fear of crime."

Since being elected to the parliament, One Nation has voted with the Conservative government on welfare cuts and to rest­ore the Australian Building and Construction Commission ag­ainst unions. Pauline Hanson also called for penalty rates to be abolished entirely, but failed in that endeavour. She opposed the plan to extend the taxpayer-funded paid parental leave scheme because it “could encourage women to get pregnant to access government benefits”.

What will happen in the upcoming state elections in Queensland and in the next federal elections, if they have to be declared earlier than expected?

Golden Dawn in Greece
photo credit: New Statesman

If you think that after WW2 an uber-nationalist, anti Semitic, anti-migration, anti-welfare party could never gain the bal­an­ce of power in civilised European countries, I urge you to examine re­cent polling results for:
1. the far-right Freedom Party in Aust­ria;
2. the Anti-European Union, Anti-Islam Party for Freedom in the Netherlands that incites discrimination against Muslims;
3. Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party. The neo-Nazi group, The Radical Camp organised a huge white-supremacist rally in Warsaw and flew racists from Slovakia and Hungary to join in.
4. Hungary’s right-wing, anti-Semitic Fidesz party and its ally even further to the right, Jobbik;
5. France’s anti-immigration and anti-European Union National Front party;
6. Greece’s most prominent neo-Nazi movement, Golden Dawn who found a new surge in support following Donald Trump’s ban on travellers from some Muslim-majority countries into the USA;
7. Alternative für Deutschland in Germany is anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic and Eurosceptic; and
8. The True Finns are strongly nationalist, Eurosceptic and anti-globalist.

I cannot directly compare Trump in the USA with Europeans because he is Head of State and not a politician in the nation’s parliament. However examine his executive order temporarily banning imm­ig­rants, travellers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries - it perfectly defines his “disdain for human rights”. Examine his “rampant sexism”, “obsession with national security”, “obses­sion with crime and punishment”, and “rampant corruption and cronyism”. Of all the Early Warning Signs of Fascism on the list, so far “fraudulent elections” is one of the few than can be excluded from Trump’s list of achievements.

14 November 2017

Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim: the film

After Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was devastated. Fortunately the Queen became very close to her gillie John Brown in Balmoral, a warn friendship that lasted for decades. When Brown died in 1883, Queen Victoria was devastated for a second time. Now we can analyse the third male relationship in the queen's life that started in 1887.

But how close to real history is the film Victoria & Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears? Queen Vict­oria, Empress of India (Judi Dench) took her Indian responsibilities very seriously. She asked for two Ind­ians to travel from India to share in the Queen's Gol­d­en Jubilee in 1887.

Mohammed Abdul Karim 1863–1909 (Ali Fazal), a Muslim born in British India, was selected to give the queen an Indian gift. But when the Queen wanted to employ these two Indian servants for the entire Jubilee year, Karim and Buksh had to be tutored in English and in British etiquette. After a journey by rail from Agra to Bombay then by mail steamer to Britain, the men arrived at Windsor Castle in June 1887. By Aug Karim was teaching the queen Urdu.

After Karim told the Queen that he’d been a clerical worker in India, he was prom­ot­ed to the position of Munshi/teacher in Aug 1888. This was so that he would stay in Britain.

The Queen's let­ters noted that her discussions with the Mun­shi were social, philosophical and political. Undoubtedly the Queen found in Abdul Karim a connection with a distant part of the world, and a confidante who could discuss intellectual issues with her. At Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, Karim was given the room once occupied by the late John Brown.

In Nov 1888, Karim spent months back in India, in honour of his father Waziruddin. So the Queen wrote to the Vice­roy of India, Lord Lansdowne, demanding action on Waziruddin's pen­sion. Unfortunately the film didn’t mention Karim's many trips back to India and the very close bond with the father. [Note that in June 1892, Wazi­ruddin visited Brit­ain and stayed at both Balmoral and Windsor Castles!]

Poster for the "Victoria and Abdul" film, 2017 

On the other hand the film made it crystal clear that Karim's swift rise instantly angered the members of the Roy­al House­hold, who would never have socialised with Indians out­side the nobility. The Queen naively expected them to welcome Kar­im. As did Karim.

The rapidity of Abdul’s advancement would have led to his unpopularity in any case, but racism was ev­ery­­where; it went hand in hand with a strong belief in Britain's global dominion. Because the queen found racism intolerable, her private secretary Sir Henry Pons­onby (played superb­ly by Tim Piggot-Smith) had to neg­otiate between the Queen and her courtiers after each incident.

The film clearly showed them at Balmoral in Sept 1889 when the two of them stayed overnight, in an isolated house on the estate where Victoria had been with John Brown. The film also showed the “Queen vis­iting Abdul twice daily, in his room taking Hind­ustani lessons, sign­ing her boxes, examining his neck, smoothing his pillows.” It was almost dom­es­t­ic.

Clearly the ageing Queen did not trust her own son and the Royal Household to look after the Munshi after her death. So she asked the Viceroy of India, Lord Lans­downe, to grant Karim land near Agra. The Viceroy reluctantly cooperated.

In May 1892 Karim was in India on leave and re­turned to Britain with his wife and mother-in-law in hijabs. They were put in roy­al houses at Windsor, Balmoral & Osborne. And partic­ipated in Christ­mas presentations.

Note the connections. When Lansdowne's term ended in 1894, Lord Elgin took over. Ponsonby's son Frederick was Elgin's aide-de-camp in In­dia, then an officer in charge of royal horses in Brit­ain. Fred­erick wrote to Lord Elgin in Jan 1895 about the court's discomfort with the Indian.

In the Queen's 1895 Birthday Honours, Karim was appointed a Com­panion of the Order of the Indian Empire, despite the political oppos­it­ion. After Britain’s 1895 general election, Prime Minister Lord Rosebery and Secretary of State for India Henry Fowler were re­placed by Lord Salisbury and Lord George Hamilton. Lord Hamilton suggested the Indian might become a tool in the hands of other, more dangerous men. In fact some of the resent­ment at court and in government occurred because of the Munshi did, or might have, tak­en political advant­age of his position.

The advisors also feared Karim's link to Rafiuddin Ah­med, an Indian political activist/student in London who was con­n­ected to the Mus­lim Patriotic League. They suspected Ahmed extracted confid­ential information from Karim to pass to the Af­ghanistani Amir. As the political anxiety in Britain cont­inued, why didn’t the film discuss these political fears?

And there was another concern. Lord Elgin was warned by Lord Pon­sonby that the Queen gave his letters to the Munshi to read, and that consequently his correspondence to her should not be seen as secure. Most people agreed with the suspicions of her House­hold that the Munshi could have influenced the Queen's op­in­ions on Indian issues, biasing her against Hindus, in favour of Mus­lims. But suspicions that he passed secrets to Rafiuddin Ahmed were later discounted.
Karim never had any children. The Queen's Dr James Reid explained it was because Karim had VD.

Queen Victoria and Abdul preparing correspondence
in c1890s

In Mar 1897 as members of the Household prepared to depart for Cimiez in southern France for the Queen's annual visit, they in­sisted that Karim not accompany the royal party, and threatened to resign en masse if he did so. Dr Reid even warned the Queen that her attachment to Karim led people to question her san­ity.

Even as late as 1899, members of the Household were still main­taining that Karim could not accompany the royal party when they on holiday. Nonetheless Karim asked Victoria for the title of Nawab, and to app­oint him a Knight Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire. Despite a hor­rified Lord Elgin, Victoria gave Karim the order in 1899.

The Munshi returned to India in Nov 1899 for a year. Lord Cur­zon, Elgin's replacement as Viceroy, died in June 1900. By the time Karim returned to Britain in Nov 1900 Victoria was facing death. He'd served her during the final 15 years of her reign, taking her from tired and grumpy, and gaining her maternal love.

Filmed in exquisite detail at Osborne House, this excellent film ended with the Queen’s death.  The newly crowned King Edward VII (Ed­die Izzard) sent the Munshi family back to India, and had almost all of Victoria and Karim’s letters burned. At last the king and all his aristocratic lovers were happy at court.

The Munshi died at Karim Lodge, on his Agra estate in 1909. He was placed in the Agra cemetery bes­ide his father. Having no children, Munshi’s nephews inherited the estates. The family continued to reside in Agra until the partition of India in Aug 1947, after which they emigrated to Pakistan.