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May 31 2017

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

I totally judged this book by its cover.

First of all, the book is by Catherine Merridale. About a decade ago, I picked up a copy of Ivan’s War and was rewarded with one of the most amazing works of history that I have ever read. It’s a chronicle of the Great Patriotic War as seen by the ordinary soldiers who served in it. There’s a certain amount of documentary work behind the book, but mostly it is based on interviews conducted by Merridale and a small team of historians who worked with her. Ivan’s War would have been flat-out impossible before the fall of the Soviet Union, of course, and maybe impossible again now for both demographic and political reasons. Yet Merridale and her colleagues got these men to open up about their service, their lives before and after, what they experienced, what they expected of their society afterward, and how that went. It is a brutal, brutal book because of its subject matter (the Red Army inflicted three-quarters of the casualties suffered by the Nazi war machine), best summed up by one veteran’s three-sentence description of the war. “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.” At the same time, though, it’s full of life — survivor bias at play — as these men recalled a time that was central in their individual lives and to the collective life of their now-former nation. I remember that the Ivans loved their Lend-Lease Studebakers, and many of them held on to a positive view of America despite the Cold War. Ivan’s War was so good that I will buy a new book by Merridale as soon as I see it.

Second of all, the cover of Lenin on the Train — and here I am talking about the UK hardback — is awesome. Oh, for a world where book ads are hung in multi-story size on downtown buildings! Because this design deserves to be gigantic. It leaps straight out of the early 20th century Russian avant garde and sets both book and reader in motion. The title and author’s name form a rectangle within the borders of the form of the book, but their justification and positioning mean that they don’t sit still there on the front of the book. Like their subject matter, they are moving steadily and constantly. Behind the words, abstract strokes of red on black that, at first glance, could be the lightning of the revolution that Lenin intends to bring to Russia. Electric power was an important element of early Communist propaganda, and making that manifest on the dust jacket would tie form and content together, along with echoing the styles of art that surrounded revolutionary ferment in Russia. On closer inspection, though, the lightning strokes are parts of the wheel set of a steam locomotive. Here is one of Lenin’s trains, in red (for socialism, for the blood of war, for the power that moves both) across a background of black, steaming through Germany and around the Baltic Sea, delivering Russia’s most uncompromising revolutionary. The cover perfectly unites subject and style.

The book, happily, lives up to the cover’s promise.

Lenin on the Train does what it says on the tin — retells Lenin’s journey from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station, with context about the war and the revolution — but moreover, it talks about why Lenin succeeded where other revolutionaries failed, and what that might say about current unsettled times. The book is filled with unexpected details that make total sense once one thinks about them for a bit. The first is the opening setting, the pair of small towns at the very northern end of the Baltic Sea that faced each other across the border between Sweden and the Russian Empire. The line from the crossing to the rest of Sweden was a single track, only completed in 1915. And although it was effectively the only wartime link for trade with Russia and beyond,

…the line still stopped short of Finland itself, whose railways (like all those that Russia controlled) used a different gauge in any case. Because the two sides had remained so nervous of each other, everything (including passengers) had to be unloaded at Haparanda station, ferried across the river, hauled up the high bank opposite and reloaded on Russian trains. In winter, sledges dragged by reindeer or stout little horses plied the route; in summer, every boat that could be found was busy on the water. …
Where local herdsmen had once been the only drinkers, the small town’s bars now swelled with hustlers, spivs and the secret policemen whose lives slipped by as they observed them. (p. 3)

Merridale sets out to reconstruct Lenin’s journey with the care one would expect, matched by personally retracing the route. Why?

A journey is not only places, distances, and times, but there are things that must be seen. The first task was to make sure the itinerary was right. Historians have offered plenty of of accounts, but I have yet to see a map that shows the route that Lenin really took. Most experts send him north along a line that was not even built in 1917, and at least one book — a classic that has been reprinted many times — gets the journey wrong by well over 1,000 miles. (p. 9)

Merridale kept to Lenin’s schedule as well as his route in “a headlong rush, even on Europe’s fastest-moving trains, but Lenin was impatient and I took my cue from him.” (p. 10) The speed, safety and wealth along the route mark contrasts to Lenin’s day, but not everything is modern and sleek. “I had forgotten it, but the seaway between Sassnitz [Germany] and the Swedish port of Trelleborg has been a smugglers’ route for centuries.” As she settles in, groups of men are wrestling palettes of German beer, and “I understood that I was travelling along an artery for tax-free booze. The contraband — heaped under groundsheets, bound with cords — created looming walls around the groups of traders as they dealt their playing cards and checked their phones.” (p. 12) On the ferry, Merridale speaks with a woman from Sofia whose views on communism are summed up by a “[click of] her tongue against bare gums.” (p. 12)

What [Lenin| has come to symbolize in countries such as hers — corruption, hardship, lies and the abuse of power — is a system so rotten that it does not even qualify to be described as a fossil. But I knew that it had once been alive. Like fossil-hunters everywhere, I dreamed of stepping back into the world where it had breathed. (p. 13)

Merridale is seeking not only the how of Lenin’s journey, but why his revolution succeeded where the others failed, why people flocked to meet him at the Finland Station, why he was the one to pick up the power that was lying in the street. That story, reaching back past the polarities of the Cold War, opens up Russian and world history to a time less certain, to one more like the world today.

The universe of Marx and Lenin used to be my own. I made my first visit to Russia when its government was Soviet and its cities grey, devoid of coffee, barely lit at night. I made my pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb, I marvelled at the reverence some people genuinely felt. Later, as Moscow turned in to the Dubai of th north, I spent my time amid the dust and relics of the past. Thanks to the Russian people’s kindness, I explored the costs and hardship of the Soviet years as if I were researching my own family. Listening to people’s memories of arrest and exile to the labor camps, or visiting the mass graves that survive from Stalin’s time, I was a witness to some of the tragedies that communism inflicted on its citizens. I was not one of those who thought all aspects of the Soviet Union evil, false or misguided, but its effects were catastrophic just the same. I understood why its end was celebrated across Europe, North America and wealthy countries everywhere. …
The truth, which took a while to dawn, is that not everyone turned out to be as enchanted by the values of the so-called ‘West’ as some leaders of the free world thought they should be. … The British diplmats in Russia made the same mistake in Lenin’s time when they assumed that every individual across the globe would want to be a decent chap just like they were. They never really understood that Lenin was not some imported species of demon, deflecting Russians from their destiny to be like meek versions of Englishmen. As I would find, the British sponsored Russian exiles of their own, escorting them to Petrograd to preach to waiting crowds. They failed, while Lenin’s mission ended in success because he promised things that mattered more than British decency and yet more guns.
The dogma of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was an empty shell by the time I studied at Moscow State University in the 1980s (and a tactful leadership had dropped the Stalinism part), but I knew that there had once been a time when it felt alive. The brightest moments were in 1917. The spring and summer of that year saw Lenin at his most creative. Whatever happened when he was in power, the man who came back on the sealed train was popular because he offered clarity and hope. His message spoke to a large section of the Russian people, the ones who wanted more than their old leaders thought they had a right to ask from life. Although the route I have been following is a fact of geography, I have also been travelling in time, rattling north in search of a landscape of forgotten possibilities. (pp. 15–17)

She starts the main narrative with a chapter on the conspiracies that swirled through Petrograd as the war dragged on into 1917. The war was breaking the Russian state, and the imperial family was both losing its grip on leadership and trying ever more exotic remedies. The British, too, were trying to use Russia for their own ends; namely to stay in the war long enough for something to happen to produce victory against Germany. With the stage set in Russia, Merridale turns to the larger context of intrigue and espionage in their efforts to shape the course of events. “Four main centres were recognized by the footsoldiers of this global shadow war. Constantinople was the most exotic … The steady collapse of Ottoman rule had fascinated Europe for a century; as the last sinews of the empire snapped, almost every European power began to have designs on fragments of its territory. … For Russia, Constantinople itself was the objective, for the pre-war economic boom in Ukraine and the Russian south had been possible only because of the shopping lane along the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. … Constantinople was awash with military advisers, and the magnificent Pera Palace Hotel became a kind of German club.” (p. 53)

The other three spy centers play a greater role in Lenin’s story: Switzerland, of course, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. Merridale concentrates on Switzerland, deftly chronicling not only who showed up when and what connections they made, but also uncovering details about the money that kept all of the secret societies ticking along. In the chapter “Red Lake,” she tells of what the Geneva socialists were doing in neutral Switzerland as the war raged in the surrounding countries. Lenin had his eye on socialism and the revolution, but that was definitely not all. “The dangers Lenin faced during the war were not from guns. Far more deadly (at least from his distinctive point of view) was the risk that the rest of the European left might unite on a peace platform. The movement would be popular, but that was not the worst of it. More seriously still, he might not ever control it, for Kautsky was a more distinguished candidate and there were others, such as Émile Vandervelde in Belgium.” (p. 85)

Merridale is exceptionally good on the February Revolution. She captures the feeling on the streets, the calculations of Russian political leaders, and the maneuverings among the foreign missions as they tried to take advantage of the new situation in Petrograd. With her descriptions of February, it is clear to see why “peace and bread” became such an effective slogan in the second round of revolution. The weather even played a role in bringing about change. “The bridges were supposed to help protect the more expensive parts of [Petrograd], but this time, thanks to the sub-zero cold, there turned out to be little point in raising them. An enterprising militant could simply walk across the ice. The first groups made their way from Vyborg to the centre as the sun set on that first day.” (p. 101)

Lenin was beside himself. First, because he was stuck outside of Russia as the revolution was unfolding. “The British saw no particular virtue in helping subversives to travel via the North Sea, while the Provisional Government was horrified…” (p. 133) Second, by the half-measures taken by the Petrograd Soviet in its peculiar dance with the Provisional Government. “Meanwhile, despite the people’s weariness of war, the Soviet could promise only to ‘resist the policy of conquest of its ruling classes’. It did not have the power to make peace, and it could not betray the army or its own soldier-deputies.” (p. 132) Lenin minced no words on this approach, “It’s simply shit!” (p. 132) But he was, for the time, stuck. He tried to exercise some control via comrades returning to Russia from Scandinavia; he tried to organize a fake passport; he rejected the first soundings about a journey via Germany to the Baltic.

In due course, though, Lenin assented. The socialists were afraid of being tainted by association with German help, but they were even more afraid of missing the revolution. Lenin, prickly to the end, presented the Germans with a list of demands: “The most striking of these was that any carriage in which the Russians crossed Germany should have the status of an extra-territorial entity. Fritz Platten, as a neutral, would act as the contact between the passengers and their German guards, and no one would enter the exiles’ carriage without permission.” (p. 141) The travelers even brought their own provisions, so they could say they had accepted nothing from the Germans.

Meanwhile, the revolution continued in Petrograd. Merridale sketches the massive public funeral for the dead of the early days of the revolution, how people put together a major civic event with practically no leadership.

Petrograd’s citizens were their own master of ceremonies. The Soviet did some of the work of co-ordination, using its newspaper, Izvestiya, to publicize the order and timing of the procession. But it was the people who painted the banners, comforted the bereaved and set off with determined step towards the field of graves. … Nine hundred thousand people marched, their steps beating a rhythm muffled by their heavy coats. … It was the people’s raw emotion that had made some onlookers nervous. They felt its power — the sound of tramping feet beat out a requiem for the old world — but no one could be sure where it might lead. (pp. 171–72)

Lenin knew where he wanted it to lead, and soon enough he and his entourage made the trek up through Sweden, across the border — where they might yet have been turned back, as Merridale shows — and down the eastern side of the Baltic to Petrograd’s Finland Station. Others traded compromise; Lenin pushed bluntly forward. “Above all, he had struck upon a kind of truth that people would soon want to hear. The finer details of constitutional change were irrelevant to hungry workers or impatient garrison troops. … [T]he people on the streets had made the revolution to secure peace, jobs and bread.” (p. 231) Imperial Germany’s spymasters in Stockholm had a view on the matter, forwarded to Berlin: “Lenin’s entry into Russia successful. He is working exactly as we would wish.” (p. 241)

Merridale’s earlier attention to the business of revolution and exile pays off at the end of the book, where she looks at the question of German financial support for Lenin’s efforts. “The rumours were already rife as Lenin stepped down from his train. … The only awkward detail was that no one had a shred of proof.” (p. 242) She does not come to a firm conclusion. “There can be no doubt that Germany was pouring money into Russia.” (p. 257) She also sketches several paths that funds could have taken to get to the Bolsheviks, but none of them are definitive. Lenin’s acceptance of 2000 rubles is documented, much more is possible. “For those who still refuse to credit that the greatest socialist on earth could ever lie about a wad of German notes, the alternative is to concede that he subsidized himself with profits from the war’s black-market trade in lead pencils and condoms.” (p. 261)

The book’s final chapter, “Fellow Travellers,” examines both literal and metaphorical fellows, by way of considering what happened to the determined revolutionary who promised bread and peace. It’s sobering reading. Revolution in Russia helped to spark revolution in Germany, the last thing that the loyal servants of the Kaiser had in mind when they put Lenin and his entourage on a sealed train at the Swiss border. Other people repeated their Petrograd mistakes elsewhere. “In an attempt to neutralize these [Italian] peace protesters, [Sir Samuel] Hoare authorized the covert payment of £100 a month to a promising Italian journalist. At thirty-four, Benito Mussolini was already starting to emerge as a persuasive and red-blooded type.” (p. 273) Within ten years of Lenin’s triumph, Stalin was firmly in charge of the party and state. Merridale notes the fates of people who, unlike Stalin, shared the train ride with Lenin.

Zinoviev was shot with Kamenev in 1936. His son Stefan — who as a little boy in Switzerland had enchanted Lenin so much that the leader once attempted to adopt him — was shot in 1937. Zinoviev’s second wife and travelling companion of 1917, who was exiled to one of the most northern labour colonies, was shot in 1938. His first wife, Olga Ravich, the woman who had irritated Lenin with her piercing laugh, was arrested for her part in the alleged opposition and spent two decades in the Arctic camps. (p. 279)

Merridale remembers the hopes of the people during their revolution, and is unsparing in her assessment of what came after, and what rules today.

The cult of Lenin was a flagrant lie. Simplifying anything that it did not fake, it reduced its hero to an unconvincing plaster saint, a sort of cartoon Uncle Vlad. Lenin was both more and less than this; no statue, song or festival could capture the ambition of his dream, and none could blot the bloodstains from its execution. This uncle had sent tens of thousands to their deaths; the system he created was a stifling, cruel, sterile one, a workshop for decades of tyranny. (p. 284)

The budget for Russia’s centenary events in 2017 was stupendous. In general, the message (though the transcripts use more words than this) was that a lot of people suffered and the Russians of the present day will not forget.
The technique was to keep things bland. Long speeches in assorted overheated rooms were excellent for this, while cartoon strips could tell the public stories that already bored them in a pleasantly nostalgic way. At all costs, the image of Petrograd as it had been in a far-off spring, with angry crowds and troops abandoning their posts, had to stay firmly in the past, for recent re-runs, springs for people close to home, had been disastrous to Russia’s interests in the Baltic, Georgia and Ukraine. … Like concrete smothering precocious shoots, the festival would flatten any awkward curiosity before it could be vocalized. As Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky put it, a series of centenary commemorations in 2017 would encourage people to ‘understand the importance for Russia of strong state power, supported by all layers of the population.’ (pp. 287–88)

After describing the oil-filled rubber suit that covers Lenin’s corpse in its mausoleum on Red Square, Merridale observes, “Dead though he is, this Lenin is an awkward presence in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, which is itself an artefact whose oily coat conceals unfathomable depths of rot.” (p. 288)

“There was another Lenin once, and he was neither bland nor dead. This man belongs to the springtime of hope, and it was revolution that defined his life.” (p. 291). That is Lenin on the train.

About the author

Doug Merrill

Writer, editor, translator, project manager, reformed bookseller. Currently based in Berlin, following stints in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich, Washington, Warsaw, Budapest and Atlanta. Also blogs at A Fistful of Euros, though less frequently than here these days.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/05/31/lenin-on-the-train-by-catherine-merridale/

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