Lenin on the Train review: All aboard the Red ball express

Catherine Merridale’s retelling of Lenin’s momentous journey is history come alive

Aka Lenin: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov addresses soldiers of the new Soviet army in Moscow’s Red Square on May 25th, 1919. Photograph: AP Photo/TASS

Aka Lenin: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov addresses soldiers of the new Soviet army in Moscow’s Red Square on May 25th, 1919. Photograph: AP Photo/TASS

Sat, Nov 5, 2016, 05:00


Book Title:
Lenin on the Train


Catherine Merridale

Allen Lane

Guideline Price:

On Easter Sunday 1917, one of the most important train journeys in 20th-century European history began. In the late afternoon of April 9th, leading Russian Bolshevik Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, his wife and fellow activist Nadezha “Nadya” Krupskaya, and some of his closest associates departed from Zurich’s main railway station bound for Germany.

The journey of Ulyanov, better known under his communist pseudonym “Lenin”, continued to the German Baltic Sea island of Rügen. There he and his entourage were put on a ship to Copenhagen, then journeyed on to Sweden, then Finland. From there they boarded still another train bound for the Russian capital of St Petersburg.

Earlier that spring the tsar had been overthrown by a liberal revolution and replaced by a so-called Provisional Government. On April 16th, after 12 years in exile, Lenin arrived back in the capital. He was welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd of Bolshevik supporters who waved red flags and offered flowers as the train entered the station.

Within half a year, Lenin had radicalised the revolution and putsched against the Provisional Government, replacing it with the first communist regime in a major European country.

In Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale recreates Lenin’s extraordinary journey with great skill and novel insights, mainly derived from an impressive range of contemporary eyewitness accounts. Like her previous, critically acclaimed books, including Ivan’s War (a history of the second World War through the eyes of ordinary Red Army soldiers), Lenin on the Train combines scholarly excellence and readability.

Born on the Volga

When Lenin embarked on his historic train journey, he was 47 and could look back on several decades of revolutionary activism. Originally from Simbirsk (Ulyanovsk) on the river Volga, Vladimir and his family moved to his mother’s family estate near Kazan when his father, a hereditary nobleman and school director, died of a brain haemorrhage in 1886.

Disaster struck again the following year, when Vladimir’s older brother Alexander was arrested and executed for participating in an assassination plot against Tsar Alexander III. Following his death, Vladimir, too, became increasingly involved in Marxist circles.

Expelled from Kazan State University for participating in anti-tsarist demonstrations, he kept up his political interest during his days as a law student in the Russian capital. Following his exams, he involved himself intensively in the revolutionary movement as a lawyer and cultivated contacts with leading Russian social democrats. In 1897, after returning from a trip to Europe, he was banished to Siberia for three years as a political agitator.

From 1900 onwards, Lenin lived in western Europe, first in Switzerland and then in Munich, where he edited the newspaper Iskra (“The Spark”). It was in Iskra that he published his famous programmatic essay, “What is to be done?” (1902). Although firmly based on Marx’s analysis of capitalism, Lenin’s ideas for the creation of a communist society differed in at least one important way.

For Marx, the final stage of bourgeois society and the capitalist economic order would naturally result in a spontaneous popular uprising caused by class antagonisms. But Lenin did not want to wait for this “natural” revolutionary moment. Instead, he planned to seize power violently through a coup d’etat, executed by a determined avant-garde of professional revolutionaries.

European exile

Lenin returned to Russia after the revolutionary upheavals of 1905 and the tsar’s concessions in his October Manifesto. Forced to flee again in December, he would spend more than a decade back in exile. He lived in various European cities: Geneva, Paris, London, Cracow and, from 1914 onwards, Zurich.

The largest city in Switzerland was a particularly attractive refuge at the time, one of a handful of places in Europe not engaged in the war. According to Merridale, Lenin warmed to the bourgeois city (unlike other leading revolutionaries).

Lenin was apparently surprised when the February Revolution against the Romanov dynasty broke out in St Petersburg, now renamed Petrograd. He had missed his opportunity to influence the course of the revolution in 1905, but this time he was determined to return to Russia as quickly as possible in order to become involved on the ground.

Lenin knew he needed German support in order to cross war-torn Europe. It was unthinkable that the Allies would endorse anything that might take Russia out of the war, but the Germans had long attempted to weaken their opponents from within. Ever since 1914, they had tried to incite imperial unrest with the British, French, and Russian empires and when an opportunity arose to push Russia even further into chaos, they took it.

Equipped with significant funds, Lenin was to take charge of the small Bolshevik movement in his home country, topple the pro-Allied Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky, and take Russia out of the war against Germany.

Peace with Germany

Lenin was conscious that he was compromising himself by seeking help from Russia’s wartime enemy, but he felt that the desired end – a potentially successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia – justified the means.

In negotiation with German representatives, he demanded extraterritorial status for his own train compartment and that of his fellow Russian travellers; with a piece of chalk, “German territory” was separated from “Russian territory”. Lenin insisted that no further contact should occur between the Russian revolutionaries and accompanying German officers.

Merridale recounts Lenin’s journey from obscurity in Switzerland to his historical return to revolutionary Russia with a good eye for anecdotes and historical detail, merging background information on the war and Bolshevism with an unconvoluted narrative. The famous story of Lenin’s trip from Zurich to St Petersburg may have been told before, but never as lively and informatively.

Robert Gerwarth is professor of modern history and director of the Centre for War Studies at University College Dublin.