Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

After my recent prolonged bout of fiction, I really felt I needed a complete change in the form of something very, very factual – and fortunately I had just the thing standing by, in the form of a book I picked up on a recent jaunt to London. While there I popped into Bookmarks, the left-wing bookshop almost opposite the Bloomsbury Oxfam, and it felt appropriate to be picking up a volume I’d been contemplating for some time: “Lenin on the Train” by Catherine Merridale.

I’ve written about Merridale’s work on the Ramblings before; she was in the same year as me at our Grammar School, ending up as head girl, and I’ve followed her books with interest, as well as wondering if it was the education we received that sparked the interest for both of us in all things Russian. Her last book, which I reviewed here, was absolutely fascinating; focusing on The Kremlin, it was an epic volume covering centuries of history. By contrast, her latest book takes one specific event which took place 100 years ago (that anniversary again!) but which had wide-ranging effects, rather like ripples in a pond from one small stone.

Lest your Russian history is hazy, the events covered in the book are roughly this: at the outbreak of the first Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg/Petrograd in February 1917 (or March, depending on your part of the world), Lenin was in exile in ZΓΌrich, and trapped there by the fact of World War 1 raging in countries surrounding. Like all Russian exiles, he was desperate to get home and participate (or in his case, take control) but because of the impossibility of travel he was stuck. Things were complicated by the fact that Russia was allied with France and Britain against the Germans, and as Lenin and his cohorts were vocally in favour of an end to the War whatever the cost, those allies were violently against helping Lenin get back to Russia. However, a rather shady deal was struck whereby Lenin and a group of Bolsheviks were transported through war-torn Germany in a sealed train carriage to enable them to make their way to Petrograd via the Scandinavian countries. That journey has been the subject of speculation and controversy ever since.

The Petrograd to which Lenin was returning was in a parlous state. After the abdication of the Tsar, Russia was in effect being run by two agencies in uneasy alliance: the Provisional Government, the stars of which were Kerensky and Miliukov; and the Workers’ Soviet. Neither side agreed ideologically and things were likely either to collapse into complete anarchy or revert to some kind of watered down version of what had gone before. It needed a visionary to come sweeping in and take control, forging a single state and new kind of governing body out of that chaos, and that’s what eventually happened.

Socialist realism at its worst (hint: Stalin wasn’t actually there…)

However, this book is concerned with events leading up to that point, and it makes fascinating reading. As a contemporary, Merridale has read (and cites) many works on Lenin and Russia with which I’m familiar, and which are regarded as standards. However, as her scrupulous research shows, these sources are not always factual or accurate. She sheds light into all the murky corners, looking past the accepted history and getting to as close an accurate rendition of events as I think is possible. Merridale is an exemplary historian; the breadth of her knowledge is stunning and contributes to the success of the book. Her sources (which are wide) are always cited, and she takes her knowledge of Russia and its history and peels away the layers of myth and accepted wisdom about what happened in the lead up to Lenin’s arrival, getting down to the nub of things.

What’s particularly fascinating is the diplomatic manoeuvring and espionage going on behind the scenes, which is revealed in all its tortuous glory here. Fortunately, many of the overseas visitors involved left accounts of their time, and alongside the well-known diplomats and agents like Sir George Buchanan and Robert Bruce Lockhart, there are also plenty of writers on hand (Hugh Walpole, Somerset Maugham and Arthur Ransome). It’s actually some time before the book gets to the actual train journey, but that’s because these early chapters on what was going on off camera in the lead up to the main event are so essential.

The controversy over the years has focused particularly on whether Lenin was actually in the pay of the German government and Merridale firmly quashes this idea (backed up by plenty of sources, and dismissing in particular the post-Soviet historian Dimitri Volkogonov, whose books I shall look at in a new light). Yes, the Germans bankrolled the journey and provided funds for the Bolsheviks, mainly through Parvus, a shadowy and highly dubious figure who brokered the whole deal with the Germans to get the Bolshevik train through their territory; but they were using Lenin and his cohorts to try and bring an end to the War for their own purposes, and Lenin used them back. It wasn’t long before he was calling for German workers to follow their Russian colleagues in revolt, after all…

Although Merridale’s narrative ends with Lenin’s arrival in the then Russian capital and his battle for control, she does provide a little more information about what followed. The final chapter is ironically titled “Fellow Travellers” and tells of the final fate of those who made the journey with Lenin, and in most cases it was not a happy one. Stalin, after all, was not on that train or in at the beginning of it all (despite what socialist realist painters would have you believe!) and it was in his interest to ensure there was nobody around to challenge his supremacy and his flunkies’ version of history… She also touches briefly on the long-term legacy of Lenin and the fact that to this day his embalmed body is enshrined in Red Square, with the Russian people fighting any attempt to remove it.

In all of Merridale’s books that I’ve read, I’ve seen that she has a great empathy with the ordinary Russian people, who seem to have suffered more than many peoples from a terrible succession of rulers. She’s not blind to the flaws of her subjects but is even-handed in her treatment of them, recognising the terrible plight of the people of Russia and their need for an escape from centuries of slavery and serfdom. As for the main player in this drama, I was pleased for once to read a balanced portrayal of someone who is a controversial figure; many of the books I’ve read or attempted to read in previous years have been written by authors who obviously hate the man and intend to paint a negative portrait. I’m the first to accept he was ruthless, single-minded and brutal at times. However, he also believed strongly in the revolution and the equality of all and that shouldn’t be overlooked. Merridale’s portrait of Lenin is nuanced and non-judgemental, and I found this very refreshing. Despite the fact that she recognises his flaws, and the dreadful consequences of his actions, I can’t help feeling she has a sneaking admiration for him…

“Lenin on the Train” is definitely shaping up to be one of my reads of the year. One of the most fascinating parts was actually the introduction, where Merridale retraces Lenin’s route, taking the same journey he did and reporting it exactly (it’s another thing misrepresented over the years) with a nice accompanying map. The book has a couple of lovely plate sections, mixing images contemporary to her narrative with some from her journey following Lenin’s trail, and they add an extra frisson to the reading of the work.* If you don’t know much about Russian history and its major players, Merridale’s eminently readable account would be a great way to find out about one of the pivotal events of the Revolution of 100 years ago – highly recommended.

* Merridale’s website has a wonderful interactive map of her journey with photos and information about the various stops en route – highly worthwhile exploring if you’re interested in more information about her pilgrimage.