Magazine article The Spectator

'Lenin on the Train', by Catherine Merridale - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Lenin on the Train', by Catherine Merridale - Review

Article excerpt

Full allowance must be made for the desperate tasks to which the German war leaders were already committed... Nevertheless it was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.

As so often, Churchill has the best lines. Here he is about one of the most famous episodes in European history: the safe passage given to Lenin by a Germany desperate for victory in the first world war. As long as German high command could dream up ways to eliminate the threat from either the West or East, there was hope it would not suffer defeat.

Lenin, as Churchill wrote, was imperial Russia's 'Vengeance'. Germany thought Lenin's arrival in Russia could mean an early end to the war, as he had so often denigrated the imperialist-capitalist war effort. In fact, they were spectacularly wrong, because the Bolsheviks proved to be as militaristic as their autocratic predecessors.

In 1917, Lenin was living in exile in Switzerland, acutely aware that history was in danger of overtaking him. The February revolution had come as something of a surprise; even after decades of plotting the Tsar's demise, Russia's revolutionaries were presented with Nicholas II's swift abdication after a popular revolt.

Worse, political moderates had seized power; moderate, that is, from the Bolshevik point of view, which held that anyone debating or negotiating was weak at best and criminally deluded at worst. Lenin was furious about his remove from the fray. He simply had to get back to Russia, to eradicate the last vestiges of autocracy and the relatively democratic socialism on the rise, led by Alexander Kerensky.

In Lenin on the Train , Catherine Merridale gives us a detailed look at the famous train journey from Zurich to Petrograd. We read that Lenin's 'sealed truck' was actually no more than a series of carriages with locked doors; the Bolshevik and his wife, along with a handful of other exiled socialists, travelled through Germany eagerly looking out of the windows. The carriages were far from being hermetically sealed, even though the lawyerly Lenin had insisted on the train being granted extraterritorial rights, heightening its estrangement in popular imagination.

Merridale, who travelled the same route as Lenin for the purposes of research (albeit with little noticeable effect in her work), gives us a fascinatingly realist look at the journey. German military guards travelled in the end carriage, but the Russian party drew a chalk line beyond which they could not pass. …

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