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14 November 2018

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Lenin on the Train

By Catherine Merridale ($30, Henry Holt)

When the February Revolution broke out in Russia, Vladimir Lenin was trapped like a caged wolf in Switzerland. Unable to get papers to travel through France and England (and then by sea to Petrograd), the only option open to him was transit through Germany. But that posed its own difficulty, as Germany was the enemy Russia was still fighting on the Eastern Front. And, as Lenin knew, accepting the assistance of an enemy in a time of war was tantamount to treason.

Nonetheless, with Lenin, his ends always trumped the means, and so he agreed to travel through Germany to Denmark and Sweden on a sealed train, financed by Germany, which certainly had an interest in transporting the anti-war revolutionary back onto Russian soil. He and his fellow travelers also took German cash.

Despite the title, this book is about far more than Lenin’s rail ride back to Russia. Merridale expands the story to provide invaluable context on this turning point period in Russian history – between the February and October revolutions. It is an entertaining portrait of this pivotal time: “the memory of that first month [after the February Revolution] would float, like some chaotic seasick dream, on cheap tobacco fumes and unrequited longing for a good night’s rest.”

The central tension in Petrograd and the country throughout the eight month interregnum of 1917 was perhaps best summarized by War Minister Alexander Guchkov, just days after the February Revolution: “The Provisional Government does not possess any real power, and its directives are carried out only to the extent that it is permitted by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which enjoys all the essential elements of real power, since the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are all in its hands.”

Perhaps it was inevitable then that the paper tiger, “bourgeois” Provisional Government would be subsumed by the populist, well-armed Soviet. That, when workers and soldiers were hungry and uncertain, “Peace, Land and Bread” would resonate far better than defending democracy and manning the trenches. It is hard to say; history does not offer controlled experiments.

But what we do know is that the Bolsheviks wrested power from popularly elected bodies by force of a coup. And, as Merridale documents, we also know that the Germans not only injected the Lenin “bacillus” (Churchill’s term) back into Russia, but also provided significant funding, aimed, as German State Secretary Richard von Kuhlmann said, at “the promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviks.” In particular, they financed the high costs of printing and distributing Pravda.

States have long intervened in the affairs of their neighbors, and we cannot know if things would have turned out very differently, had Lenin not had German help. But we do know that he was instrumental in aborting Russia’s democratic revolution and setting the country on the rails toward tyranny, civil war, and terror. Which makes the story in this book all the more important.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2017