The Philosophy Steamers

Below is an excerpt of a nice book review of British cultural critic Lesley Chamberlain, whose book Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia is being released in the United States this summer.

In 1922, a year of living dictatorishly, Lenin devoted astonishing time to handpicking intellectuals to be exiled from Russia. In missives to underlings, including a go-getter named Joseph Stalin, he railed against these “bourgeoisie and their accomplices, the intellectuals, the lackeys of capital, who think they’re the brains of the nation. In fact, they’re not the brains, they’re the shit.” He told Stalin in a note, “We are going to cleanse Russia once and for all.” An earlier Bolshevik poster already showed Lenin sweeping enemies from the globe over the caption, “Comrade Lenin cleanses the filth from the land.” Lenin altered the law to permit external exile of the regime’s purported reactionary foes. That outdid the czars, since the state previously had transported enemies only to Siberia and the like. Lenin also mandated that police shoot exiles on sight if they returned to Russia. But he didn’t want to shoot them right away — Western opinion still mattered then. Like so much else horrific in Russian history, the foul strategy came to pass, abetted by Trotsky and others. Eighty-five years ago this month, on August 16 and 17, the regime arrested scores of intellectuals. On two other dates, September 28 and November 16, the GPU (secret police) ushered more than 60 Russian intellectuals and their families onto German cruise ships in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd). The September ship was the Oberbürgermeister Haken, the November ship, the Preussen. Involuntary passengers included the great Christian existentialist Nikolai Berdyaev, the philosophers Semyon Frank and Nikolai Lossky, and the literary critic Yuly Aikhenvald, who had translated Schopenhauer into Russian. Each deportee could take two suitcases of clothes. No books, jewelry, or icons. Several thinkers used the weeks before shipping out to mourn their libraries. One picked mushrooms in the forest, a traditional Russian form of meditation, before turning himself in. The ships sailed off into the Gulf of Finland and took their intelligenty into exile, mainly to Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they joined other refugees in the Russian diaspora that came to be known as “Russia Abroad.” Some deportees on the “philosophy steamers” believed — or hoped desperately — that they’d soon be back in Russia. But Semyon Frank’s wife spotted her husband on deck, crying, “I’ll never see my homeland again.” A few, like Berdyaev, became internationally famous. Most died without returning, and many barely survived financially. One Berlin émigré compared himself to a moth: “First I eat my trousers, then I eat my jacket.” Consider them all lucky. Within a few years, Stalin replaced Lenin, and bullets and labor camps replaced ship tickets.

Read the complete review here.