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Lenin's Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia Hardcover – August 7, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In the autumn of 1922, 160 intellectuals and their families were forcibly evicted from Russia, packed in ships leaving from St. Petersburg. Although many of them could be classified as "conservatives," they were in fact a diverse group that included religious philosophers, historians, journalists, and university administrators. The list was personally drawn up by Lenin; what united these people, in Lenin's eyes, was their unwillingness to wholeheartedly support the new order he sought to impose on Russia. Many were obscure, and their numbers seem tiny, given the millions who were soon to be liquidated under Stalin. But in this sad, unsettling account of the lives of some of these exiles and the process that drove them out, Chamberlain illustrates that this action had immense significance. It was a clear indication that, in the new Russia, independent thought was a "bourgeois luxury" that would not be tolerated. An important book, both for its recounting of individual injustices and its description of how the foundation of totalitarianism is laid. Freeman, Jay


"Recounted in fascinating detail...Chamberlain brings these forgotten figures back to life with great skill and sympathy."--William Grimes, The New York Times
"Lenin's Private War is infused with a deep understanding of the rich history of Russian thought."--The Seattle Times
"Movingly describes the experience of exile in ways that echo that great exile novelist Nabokov himself...Chamberlain has a rare gift."
--Sunday Telegraph
 "Compelling, laudably unsentimental and deeply significant to the history of ideas."
--The Guardian
"Both learned and absorbing…Chamberlain has written a fine monument to a generation of thinkers who addressed questions of contemporary relevance and deserve to be better known."
--The Economist

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (August 7, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312367309
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312367305
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,801,576 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Janet K. Schwartzkopf on August 24, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was thrilled to see that someone had written about this little-known incident from the days when Lenin labored to consolidate his power in what would become the Soviet Union. In the end, what I got was a good, scholarly presentation that left me wanting more. The author does a good job, in the early going, of introducing us to some of the major players, but that's all we're left with -- introductions. I came away feeling I didn't know any of these people as well as I would have liked. Perhaps the source material isn't yet available to make that possible; possibily the fact that the book touches on so many individuals precluded it, but I felt disappointed in the end. I also felt the final chapter, where the author attempts to explain where the philosophies of these exiled parted ways from Lenin was a waste of time. I'm hopeful another author will take up the subject, but this is definite a good start.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Tomas Hribek on November 11, 2008
Format: Paperback
We should certainly be grateful to Ms. Chamberlain for making the story of the exile of some leading Russian philosophers on personal orders from Lenin in 1922 available to the English-speaking readership. (As Chamberlain makes clear, speaking of "philosophers" is a bit of stretch, since in addition to some actual philosophers -- people like Nicholas Berdyaev or Semyon Frank -- the group included mathematicians, historians, agronomists and representatives of a few other professions.) However, anyone who expected a more in-depth analysis of the ideas of the exiled non-Marxist thinkers will be dissapointed. The first third or so of the book, treating the bureauractic preparations for, and the execution of, the exile by the early Bolshevik secret-police apparatus, is the best. The middle chapters about the fates of the exiles in Berlin, Prague and Paris are not particularly innovative, and the author loses the main storyline by covering additional characters that were not part of the 1922 group exiled by Lenin, nor did they have any political or generational connections with it (e.g., Nabokov, Jakobson, Tsvetaeva). I thought the final chapter of the book, in which Chamberlain speculates about the legacy of the sort of the quasi-religious Russian "philosophy" for the contemporary world, was the weakest, though. Chamberlain tries to portray Berdyaev and his fellows as providing a valuable critical perspective on today's Western consumer societies. In fact, Berdyaev and other Russian idealists with their ramblings about the decadence of the West and the greatness of Russia fit rather well into the world-view promoted by the contemporary Russian government.
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18 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on September 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A book that helps one better understand the havoc created among the Russian intelligentsia by the Bolsheviks after the overthrow of the czar.

Ms. Chamberlain traces the expulsion by Lenin of some of the best thinkers in Russia and uses their often sorry fates (many go to Berlin or Prague, in short time to become victims of Hitler) to help explain the various strands of philosophical thinking that were such a threat to the world view of the new autocrat, the Communist Party.

It is clear to the author that Stalin was a product of Lenin's thinking, not an aberration.

Readers, who make the effort, will learn much that will help them understand the deep divisions within present day Russia. Conflicting views on the essence (spiritual and political) of Russia, that were present in the early 1920s and long before, have reemerged since the thankful crash in the 1980s of Lenin's deadly party.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By A Certain Bibliophile on October 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover
After the fall of the Romanovs, and not too long before he became the first Premier of the Soviet Union, Lenin planned a forced emigration for some of the more ideologically problematic Russian intellectuals. While the Lenin's efforts were nothing like the later mass purges of Stalin, he did much to ensure that the transition from the monarchy to the USSR and its state capitalism, including making sure that the influence of intellectuals who weren't wholly sympathetic to Lenin's new economic ideas would never have the ability to peddle that influence.

In September of 1922, well over one hundred intellectuals and their families were forcibly deported from their homes on board two ships, one of which was known as the "Philosophy Steamer." Chamberlain tells the stories of these people, their lives, their ideas, and what it was like when they ended up in their new homes in Europe. Chamberlain weaves together that is actually quite a bit more than simply the "voyage of the Philosophy Steamer" that the subtitle describes. It's really a story of exile, displacement of every kind, and ultimately re-shaping one's life in a foreign land.

Most of the intellectuals aren't terribly well-known, at least in the United States, but a few might be somewhat familiar, depending on your reading or academic interests. The lives that I was especially interested in, because I previously knew of them, were: the Russian mystic and theologian Nikolai Berdyaev, writer Maxim Gorky, and sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, and structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson. A few very recognizable figures pop up from time to time, including Shostakovich and Nabokov. The fascinating thing about many of the people on the ship (and its sister ship) is that they didn't want to leave the land of their birth.
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