The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents

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9780099551928: The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents

The last third of the nineteenth century saw the world in flux. Science vied with religion to represent the soul of man, and technological advances opened the possibility of new ways of living. Yet as the world sank into a long depression, untrammelled capitalism continued to stretch the gulf between rich and poor. From Russia to America, across Western Europe and beyond, governments already unsettled by major shifts in geopolitical power were threatened by growing social unrest and the rise of socialism. And looming over them was the spectre of the Anarchist and the shadow of international terrorism.

A Tsar and an Empress, Presidents and plutocrats were all vulnerable to the assassin's bombs and bullets, but so too was bourgeois society in its cafes and opera houses. It was a new kind of Terror that could strike anywhere and that permeated deep into the imagination of the times. Its true weapon, though, was not dynamite but fear itself: a fact quickly grasped by those whose job it was to protect the powerful. Yet in a credulous age, when hoaxers and forgers thrived, the fictions spun by police chiefs and their agent provocateurs were often no less beguiling. And out of the short-term actions of these forgotten individuals grew the noxious delusions of worldwide conspiracy that would poison the century to come.

A masterly exploration of the strange twists and turns of history, The World That Never Was follows the interweaving lives of several key anarchists, and of the secret police who tracked them. Framed by the Paris Commune of 1871 and the 1905 revolution in St Petersburg, and spread across five continents, theirs is the story of a generation that saw the dream of Utopia crumble, to be replaced by a dangerous desperation. Here is a revelatory portrait of an era with uncanny echoes of our own.


From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author:

Born in 1969, ALEX BUTTERWORTH is an historian, writer and dramatist whose first book Pompeii: The Living City won the Longmans-History Today New Generation Book of the Year.
From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 
Prologue

This Thing of Darkness


Paris, 1908

In the eyes of the world, the group that assembled daily in Boris Savinkov’s spartan Paris apartment in October 1908 would have represented the most formidable concentration of terrorists history had yet seen. The sixty-six-year-old Peter Kropotkin, a descendant of the Rurik dynasty of early tsars, may have appeared unthreatening, with his twinkling eyes, bushy white beard, paunch and distinguished, bald dome of a head, but some suspected him of having incited the 1901 assassination of McKinley, the American president. With him sat his Russian contemporaries, the revolutionaries Vera Figner and German Lopatin, who had only recently emerged from the terrible Schlüsselburg fortress, against whose vast walls they had listened to the freezing waters of the River Neva and Lake Ladoga lap ceaselessly for twenty years. Locked in solitary confinement, in cells designed to prevent any communication, they were there as leaders of the organisation that had assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881. And among the younger generation, scattered around the room, there were others who could count grand dukes, government ministers and police chiefs among their many victims. But whatever the suspicions at the French Sûreté, Scotland Yard or the Fontanka headquarters of the Russian Okhrana, whose agents loitered in the street outside, their purpose on this occasion was not to conspire, but to uncover the conspiracies of others.
 
Kropotkin, Lopatin and Figner – an exalted trio in the revolutionary pantheon – had been summoned to form a Jury of Honour, for a trial convened by the central committee of the Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia. Their task was to determine the truth or otherwise of an extraordinary accusation made by one of their number: that the move­ment’s most idolised hero, Evno Azef, was in fact in the pay of the Okhrana, and responsible for a shocking series of deceptions and betrayals.
 
Commissioned for the weight of authority and experience that they could bring to bear in a case of unprecedented sensitivity, it was hoped that their status would ensure that, whatever the verdict, it would be beyond challenge.
 
 
It was a necessary precaution, for in this looking-glass trial, staffed exclusively by notorious lawbreakers, one thing above all was topsy­turvy. Vladimir Burtsev, the revolutionary movement’s self-appointed counter-intelligence expert, who had levelled the original accusation of treachery, had become the accused. Okhrana ruses to seed dissent in the revolutionary movement were all too common, and after his defama­tory allegations concerning the legendary Azef, the Jury of Honour needed to settle the matter once and for all.

So it was that, for three weeks, the distinguished jurors sat behind a table and listened as the neat, intense figure of Vladimir Burtsev, with his light goatee beard and steel-rimmed spectacles, earnestly explained how the revolutionary they all knew as the ‘Frenchman’ or ‘Fat One’ at the same time figured on the Okhrana payroll as ‘Vinogradov’, ‘Kapustin’, ‘Philipovsky’ and ‘Raskin’. Their Azef had bound his comrades in a cult of self-sacrifice by his sheer charisma, relished the destruction of the tsar’s allies and fantasised about remote-control electrochemical bombs and flying machines that could deliver terror ever more effectively. The Okhrana’s Azef had set his comrades up for mass arrest by the political police in raids that stretched from the forests of Finland to the centre of Moscow, then celebrated at orgies laid on by his secret-police handler in a private room of the luxurious Malyi Iaroslavets restaurant. A St Petersburg apartment was, Burtsev alleged, reserved exclusively for the fortnightly meetings at which Raskin-Azef and the head of the Okhrana coordinated their priorities. This Azef thought nothing of murdering comrades, or betraying them for execution, to cover his tracks. And his heinous treachery was tinged with the macabre: once, on being shown the head of an unknown suicide bomber preserved in a jar of vodka by his police handler, he had appeared to relish identifying it as that of ‘Admiral’ Kudryavtsev, a rival from the Maximalist faction of terrorists.
 
As those in the courtroom listened to Burtsev’s allegations, an instinct for psychic self-protection closed their minds. To the veteran revolution­aries Azef was a potent avenger of past wrongs, while the younger generation had allowed themselves to become emotionally enslaved to their mentor’s mystique. For either group to entertain the possibility that Azef might be a traitor was to peer into an abyss. How, they demanded, could Burtsev possibly prove such an absurdity? That very day, Savinkov told the court, he was awaiting news of Tsar Nicholas’ assassination on board the new naval cruiser Rurik during its maiden voyage, according to a plan formulated by Azef. What comparable proof of his own commit­ment to the cause could Burtsev offer? Was the truth not, in fact, that it was Burtsev himself who had been turned by the Okhrana and assigned to destabilise their organisation? Why, others pressed, did Burtsev refuse to name his witnesses, if they actually existed, unless they were of such questionable reliability as to make protecting their anonymity a safer strategy for him to pursue? Vera Figner, whose long imprisonment had done nothing to soften her pitiless dark eyes, snarled at Burtsev that once his infamy was confirmed he would have no choice but to make good on his promise to blow out his own brains.
 
Under such pressure, Burtsev played his trump card. Shortly before the Jury of Honour had convened, he confided, feeling their rapt atten­tion, he had tracked down the ex-chief of the Russian political police, Alexei Lopukhin, to Cologne. Discreetly, he had followed him on to a train, hesitating until they were under steam before he entered his compartment. Lopukhin might have been expected to flinch at the appear­ance of a possible assassin, and curse the loss of the protection he had enjoyed when in police service: the armed guard of crack agents and the locked carriages and shuttered windows. Instead, encountering one of his enemies on neutral territory, he treated him like an honoured foe. At Burtsev’s suggestion, the pair settled down to a guessing game: he would hazard a description of the police department’s foremost secret agent, and Lopukhin would confirm only whether his surmise was correct...
 
As Burtsev concluded his compelling tale, German Lopatin groaned. ‘What’s the use of talking?’ he said. ‘It’s all clear now.’ Azef had refused to attend the trial, arguing that a sense of affront prevented him from being present in the courtroom to clear his name. His punishment was therefore decided in absentia. A villa would be rented with a tunnel that led to a cave just across the Italian border where the traitor could be hanged without diplomatic repercussions. Realising that the man he had trusted above all others had played him for a fool, Savinkov bayed loudest for blood.

*
Until Burtsev had delivered his bombshell, only the elderly Kropotkin had been resolute in his support of his thesis. There was a personal sympathy, certainly, for Burtsev who, like his own younger self, had managed to escape from the tsarist police in the most dramatic fashion. And Kropotkin may have remembered too how, over thirty years before, he had spent many hours trying to convince a sceptical German Lopatin, now his co-juror, of his own credibility: that his aristocratic background should not stand in the way of his joining the revolutionaries. Most of all, though, he possessed a hard-earned understanding of the bottomless depths that the chiefs of the Russian political police would plumb in their scheming. In the course of his career as one of anarchism’s greatest theorists and leading activists, he had repeatedly seen idealistic men and women across the world fall prey to the wiles of agents provocateurs. Kropotkin had come to believe where persistent charges of spying and provocation were made by a number of individuals over a period of time, that the smoke nearly always signalled fire.
 
Stepping out into the rue La Fontaine, after the agreement of Azef ’s sentence, careless of the watchful eyes that swivelled towards him over upturned collars and twitching newspapers, Kropotkin would have felt a mixture of relief and dismay: that the traitor had been unmasked, but that the struggle to which he had devoted his life had engendered such a creature. The exposure of Azef was surely to be celebrated for the light it shed into the diabolical realm of shadows where he had dwelt: a world in which the boundaries of reality and invention were blurred. Kropotkin had many regrets about anarchism’s long drift into the use of terror tactics, and must have been tempted to blame the intrigues and provocations of the secret police, and imagine the cancer excised. And yet, in many ways, Evno Azef embodied the central paradox of the political philosophy that Kropotkin had done so much to develop and promulgate. Simple in his brute appetites, yet dizzyingly adept as a conspirator, Azef ’s unusual blend of attributes shaped him into a phenomenon of a sort that no one involved in the revolutionary struggle had adequately foreseen. 
 

Anarchism’s ultimate aim was to usher in a society of perfect beings; a heaven on earth in which harmonious coexistence was achieved without coercion or the impositions of distant authority, but rather arose out of each individual’s enlightened recognition of their mutual respect and dependency. Such a world, Kropotkin believed, would flourish naturally once the age-old cages of commerce, hierarchy and oppression t...

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Book Description Vintage. Book Condition: New. Follows the interweaving lives of several key anarchists, and of the secret police who tracked them. Framed by the Paris Commune of 1871 and the 1905 revolution in St Petersburg, and spread across five continents, theirs is the story of a generation that saw the dream of Utopia crumble, to be replaced by a dangerous desperation. Num Pages: 544 pages, Illustrations, ports. BIC Classification: 3JH; HBLL; HBTB; JPFB; JPWL. Category: (G) General (US: Trade). Dimension: 199 x 134 x 36. Weight in Grams: 396. . 2011. Paperback. . . . . Bookseller Inventory # V9780099551928

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