|Russia Crosses the Atlantic in Two British Books
Lesley Chamberlain's books Motherland and The Philosophy Steamer, first
published in the U.K., will be released in the U.S. later this year
Interview by Colin Foote Burch
Critics in the United Kingdom praised two of Lesley Chamberlain’s recent books on Russian history:
Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia (2005), and The Philosophy Steamer: Lenin and the
Exile of the Intelligentsia (2006). Later this year, both books will be published in the United States:
Motherland by The Rookery Press in June, and The Philosophy Steamer by St. Martin’s Press in
August, although with a new title: Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the
Exile of the Intelligentsia.
Motherland was called “fascinating and intellectually rigorous” by The Sunday Telegraph of London.
“The Russian Revolution and Russian philosophy share a common origin,” Chamberlain wrote. “They
begin not with an idea but a political class and its discontents.” Throughout the book, Chamberlain
documents Russia's peculiar intellectual development, including the impacts of the Russian Orthodox
Church, the French Revolution, and Karl Marx. She frequently places Russian thought at odds with
Descartes and the Cartesian reasoning he minted; she calls it Russia’s “startling consistent rejection of
Descartes.” “It is startling because to reject Descartes is tantamount to rejecting modern philosophy and
the modern (but not the postmodern) West,” Chamberlain wrote.
The Philosophy Steamer – which will be Lenin’s Private War in the U.S. – also garnered acclaim in the
U.K. In September 1922, Lenin put several leading Russian intellectuals on a steamer and shipped them
into exile. The event was mentioned in a 2002 article in the St. Petersburg Times of Russia, which said,
“The expulsions were also a milestone on Russia’s way to totalitarianism, because politically loyal but
intellectually free people who constituted the basis of what came to be known as civil society were no
longer to be tolerated.” In The Philosophy Steamer, Chamberlain wrote, “What Leninism stripped out of
the Russian fabric was what those ships carried away, in terms of cultural decency and intellectual
Last year, I interviewed Chamberlain via phone and email about two philosophers mentioned in
Motherland: Lev Shestov and Nikolai Berdyaev, the latter of which was among those shipped away on
Lenin’s “philosophy steamer.”
I recently interviewed Chamberlain via email about the U.S. releases of Motherland and The Philosophy
Colin Burch: I would like to know the origin of the idea for The Philosophy Steamer.
Lesley Chamberlain: Briefly, it's a chapter in history that should have been written a long time ago.
There was a crucial article published by the emigre historian Mikhail Geller in 1979, but no book. The
Cold War and, I would say, the reluctance of Western historians of Russia to examine a difficult and
controversial episode, got in the way of further attention being paid to the subject. Clearly it shows Lenin
in a bad light. But it also makes 'heroes' of the religious philosophers whom a Western age of reason was
reluctant - for reasons I also understand - to champion. It's not a story of black and white values. In the
telling I haven't nailed my colours hard and fast to any mast. But perhaps during the Cold War historians
would have felt this ambivalence was not permissible.
Because the 1922 expulsions showed the Soviet Union in a bad light it was a taboo subject for mention
in the USSR, of course, almost until the end of Communism, so there were no books in Russian either.
I say the book could have been written before, in the West, but let me qualify that. After the archives
were opened there was a great deal of research on the subject and a wave of interesting publications. I
was able to benefit from material that wasn't available before.
There was a personal connection insofar as I got to know one of Lenin's expellees when he was in his
60s and I was a student in Munich in 1971. Though he died shortly afterwards, the story of Victor
Frank, son of the philosopher Semyon Frank, stayed with me. He was a boy of 13 when he was expelled
from Russia with his family and he devoted his adult life to writing and broadcasting to try to keep alive
the cultural bond between emigre and Soviet Russia, i.e., to nullifying the effect of that fateful journey to
which Lenin sentenced the Franks and others.
C.B: Is The Philosophy Steamer a more specific, narrowly focused, human story that you uncovered
while writing Motherland?
L.C.: Obviously, yes.
C.B.: I mean that a “human story” would be generally different from a “history of ideas,” although the
two can certainly co-exist together in a single book.
L.C.: The Philosophy Steamer is divided into several sections, explaining the historical and political
context of the episode, focusing on the actual boat journey from St. Petersburg and the physical detail of
the expulsions, and then tracing the private fates of some of the leading expellees in the countries where
they settled and through their subsequent work. I show how the expellees, whatever else they were
doing, were caught historically between Lenin and Hitler, and barely had time to reestablish themselves
in the West when they became, especially in the case of the Jews among them, subject to new
The last section of the book, however, is an essay in the history of ideas. Most reviewers in Britain
passed over it, but it is worth paying attention to – this section in particular could be read in conjunction
C.B.: It seems that Motherland is a history of ideas, while The Philosophy Steamer is a history of a
political and cultural event with a direct impact on human lives.
L.C.: Actually it's difficult to pinpoint what Motherland is. You will see that the British publisher's title
suggests 'A Philosophical History of Russia,' which is not accurate, especially as this is not a
comprehensive survey. The first section of Motherland IS a survey of the tradition that used to be
known as 'Russian social and political thought' in the days when the only place for Russian thought on
Western curricula was in terms of the intellectual tradition leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution and the
establishment of Communism. Once again those days were the Cold War. The West wanted to
understand what Communist Russia was about, via its philosophizing.
It's useful to have this section at the front of Motherland, I think, so that people with only a scant idea of
the Russian 19th Century can get a grip. But essentially my task was to examine certain strains in
Russian thought for the possible contribution they might make to philosophy as such. This entailed
looking at (1) the religious thought that was generally neglected in the Cold War period; (2) looking at the
revolutionary thought in an alternative way, for instance, in considering the interesting work of Pyotr
Lavrov, who was influenced by Kant.
The conclusions I drew from my new look at Russian thought qua philosophy were roughly two-fold:
– that Russia lacks a tradition of Cartesian reason, and this to my mind is what helps to make the
country and its culture something other than Western, although also not Eastern.
– that Russia has a very strong tradition of inquiry into what might be called 'The Good Man in Russia'.
This would have been my preferred title for the whole book.
These conclusions are set out in a series of chapters which, yes, are essentially history of ideas.
C.B.: Consider for a moment the readers who admired Motherland. What will they find to be different
about The Philosophy Steamer?
L.C.: To the extent that much of it is a story with a strong narrative and human content, it's an easier
read than Motherland. But, as I say, the last section is pure history of ideas.
C.B.: Did you approach writing The Philosophy Steamer differently than you approached Motherland?
L.C.: Yes, of course.
C.B.: For example, did The Philosophy Steamer require more of a narrative approach than an
L.C.: Yes…. Different sections, different aspects of the story required a different approach. I am a
historian of ideas, a writer of non-fiction generally, but also a novelist (see In a Place Like That, (1998),
fiction about Cold War Russia; Girl in a Garden: A Novel (2003); and a new novel Ticket to Ride,
forthcoming). I used some novelistic techniques in evoking the mood and the philosophical conversations
held on the voyage out of Russia. These were however not invented. In the interests of loyalty to the
thinkers concerned they were constructed from published materials (sources are given in the footnotes)
and worked into dialogues that I hoped the reader would find natural under the circumstances of
expulsion from one's country.
C.B.: Do you have ideas for future books that have originated in your study of Russian philosophy?
Would you share those ideas with us?
L.C.: Ideas for two Russian books have been with me for a long time. One is to evoke the history of
ideas, possibly in the form of a historical novel, that began in Germany in the late 18th Century and
culminated in the Revolution. I'm not sure how far this overlaps with Edmund Wilson's classic To the
Finland Station. I'll find out.
The second book is half-written. It's the biography of an early 19th Century Russian conservative, Sergei
Uvarov, described as the most erudite man of his generation. It's about how a man with a liberal
European education returned to Russia and became one of the most repressive figures of his time,
censoring, amongst others, Pushkin and Gogol. It's a book that does two things – continues my
fascination with how Russia responded to the intellectual consequences of the French Revolution (from
where I begin my interest in Russian philosophy), and continues my interest in the differences between
Russia and the West. For thirty years I've wanted to try to pin this down. It was just as different in
tsarist times and it was in Communist and, as we see, post-Communist days. It's a culture with its own
cast-iron imperatives and norms.
C.B.: What is the next book that you will have published in the U.K., and what's the story behind that
book being written ?
L.C.: I've finished a novel, Ticket to Ride, set in Germany, in Munich, in 1967-8. Nominally it's about
the moment when the student demonstrations of the period, fuelled by an upsurge of anti-capitalist and
anti-American sentiment, shaped by German cultural traditions which gave those protests an aesthetic
form and allowed them to be presented as street drama, poetry, graffiti etc, suddenly tipped over into
terrorist violence. The novel suggests the underlying emotional motive for the actions of my leading
characters is disappointment with the way West Germany had taken shape in the 20-odd years since the
war, forgetting the past too easily. It had not gone through a proper process of mourning for its own fate.
The country's fate is also the personal fate of the main character, a young woman whose German
parents emigrated to Britain in 1948 and brought her up in an artificial pre-war German environment,
though otherwise she grew up English. This is a literary novel, not a documentary of the times. The
characters and events are fictitious. Watch my Web site, www.lesleychamberlain.co.uk, for when, and
with which publishing house, it will (I hope) appear.