The great Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov, probably described VI Lenin best, when he observed that the Bolshevik leader’s ideology was like a pail of milk of human kindness, with a dead rat at the bottom.
The nature of Lenin’s narrow, obsessive and ultimately murderous character lies close to the heart of Catherine Merridale’s outstanding new book, Lenin on the Train, which retraces the revolutionary’s journey from exile in Zurich to St Petersburg in April, 1917. The fabled ‘sealed train’ supplied by the Kaiser’s Germany, provided the means by which the Bolshevik party made the journey. But behind Berlin’s support for the exiles returning to their Czarist homeland lay a greater strategic gamble.
1917 was the decisive year of the Great War. The February introduction by the Germans of unrestricted submarine warfare made a manifest contribution to American entry into the war. But it was the notorious Zimmermann telegram, sent by the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to his Ambassador in Mexico City, that had enraged the Wilson Administration in Washington.
As Barbara Tuchman brilliantly described, the telegram was intercepted by British intelligence in Room 40 of the Admiralty, decoded and given to the Americans. Imperial Germany was encouraging Mexico to enter the war and invade the US, reclaiming lost territories. Zimmerman, who foolishly confirmed the authenticity of the telegram when it became public, was pursuing a strategy designed to provoke hostilities in the home territories of enemies and potential adversaries.
By 1917, the British blockade was crippling Germany and her allies among the Central Powers, especially in foodstuffs. Endless slaughter on the Western Front had produced an effective stalemate. On the Eastern Front, however, the tottering Czarist Empire was showing the signs of terminal decay. Massive military incompetence coupled with corruption and gross inefficiencies in those ministries charged with wartime supply and basic economic policy, produced strikes, riots and mutiny in the army, reflecting widespread political opposition and disillusionment.
In February 1917, a Revolution broke out. The Czar was deposed. While a Provisional Government under Prince Lvov was nominally in office, the Soviets, consisting of workers and soldiers, in which the Bolsheviks were a force but not necessarily the exclusive power, actually held the key to the future of the emerging Russia.
Lenin, however, was in frustrating exile, reading of events but powerless to shape them. Enter the Germans. In a manner similar to efforts to foment unrest in the British Empire, especially in Ireland and India, the Germans agreed to transport Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades across Germany to Scandinavia from where they could make the final leg of the journey into the Russian homeland through Finland to St Petersburg.
Merridale decided to retrace Lenin’s journey from Zurich via Stockholm, to the border crossing at Tornio. She has succeeded in writing a compelling narrative; brilliantly illustrated; removing inaccuracies in other accounts while giving a clear picture of the driven Lenin, who thought only of violent world revolution. His companions, including his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, Karl Radek, and Grigory Zinoviev, among lesser comrades, travelled in confined conditions which required compromise. Hence, there was even a roster for smoking in the toilet.
One historical challenge which Merridale faced when writing Lenin on the Train was to explain that she was interested in VI Lenin and not John Lennon. Despite the grotesque, embalmed figure in the Mausoleum on Red Square, Lenin’s name now means little in popular culture.
Not so in 1917, where the Allies sought to deny Lenin’s dangerous party entry to Russia. There is a suggestion that one man, the Justice Minister, Alexander Kerensky, could have denied the Bolsheviks’ passage at the border. When Kerensky had been asked by telegram from Tornio: ’The Minister of Justice had replied (with the pomposity that was his ultimate undoing) that democratic Russia did not refuse entry to its citizens. With that, there was no option but to let the subversives go home.’
Simon Sebag Montefiore’s excellent The Romanovs (1613-1918) makes its readers wonder how the Russian Empire survived until 1917, given its ignorance and decadence. Reform after the 1905 Revolution should have planted deeper seeds for democratic institutions and civil society. Instead, VI Lenin eventually triumphed. Momentarily the Germans succeeded, knocking Russia out of the war, the consequences of which are still lamented by the current Russian President, Vladimir Putin. Putin is a pointed critic of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which saw Russia depart allied ranks and be dismembered territorially.
But the brutal treaty led inexorably to the punitive Treaty of Versailles and the next generation of Russian troops would end their war in Berlin, not Petrograd. Merridale has told a tale worth hearing, not only from Zurich to the Finland Station but beyond: from revelations about the Bolsheviks’ dependence on German aid, organised by Radek, through to the fate of Lenin’s companions under Stalin.
And while Lenin’s musty presence still shadows museums commemorating his 1917 pilgrimage, Merridale has captured his personality better than any writer since Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote Lenin in Zurich. The verdict: Nabokov was absolutely right.