Lenin on the Train

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There can be few more important journeys than the one Vladimir Lenin took when he embarked from his exile in Zurich on the “sealed” train that took him and an assortment of fellow comrades to revolutionary Russia in March 1917.

Catherine Merridale provides an exhilarating account not just of the journey itself, across war-torn Germany, through Sweden and Finland and on to Petrograd, but of the machinations that led to it, and the fantastic events of the February revolution that instigated it.

She also delves into the manoeuvrings between the Provisional Government and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies that were both born from the February events, and the role of leading Bolsheviks in attempting to provide political leadership in the ensuing weeks. She vividly describes Lenin’s increasing anger and frustration at the direction that “leadership” was taking the revolution.

The February revolution shocked everyone. Germany’s military leaders, already preparing for America’s entry into the war, realised they had little time to take advantage of the situation. With advice from incredible characters, such as Marxist arms dealer Alexander Parvus, they hatched a plan to help Lenin re-enter Russia and, hopefully, help ferment events that would take Russia out of the war.

After much consideration, particularly about the way Russia’s media would treat his “treachery” at colluding with the enemy, and faced with no alternative, Lenin, along with his wife Krupskaya, Grigory Zinoviev, Karl Radek and 28 other adults and two children left Zurich on Easter Monday. Eight days and several trains later, they arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd to a tumultuous welcome which saw Lenin carried in triumph atop an armoured vehicle through the streets to the Bolshevik’s headquarters.

Merridale has thoroughly researched this epic journey. The book is filled with vivid accounts from witnesses to the weeks in Zurich between the first news of the revolution and Lenin’s and his comrades’ eventual departure, the epic journey itself and the shock and drama that the Bolshevik leader’s first speeches caused on his arrival.

She also gives a clear account of the critical political arguments that Lenin took with him to Petrograd — rehearsed at the Zimmerwald conference in 1915, and summed up in his April Thesis, written in the weeks after his return. Lenin deployed them to eventually win over the Bolshevik Party and take it forward to its leadership in the October revolution.

Here, however, we must part company with Merridale, because for her what happened in October was a coup that almost inevitably led to tyranny. Thankfully, however, such views are not made clear until the final pages of what is, overall, a really good account of a fantastic journey made during a remarkable year.