Book Review: “Lenin on the Train” by Catherine Merridale

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale

This is the centennial of one of the most dramatic and iconic episodes of the twentieth century, Lenin’s return to Russia from exile in Switzerland. Permitted and aided by the Germans, the great radical Lenin was injected into the seething revolution that had already deposed the Tsar and was threatening to knock Russia out of the war.

Lenin was transported through hostile Germany in a “sealed train”, which is a marvelous image, and led irresistibly to thoughts of a virulent virus being delivered as a weapon. At the same time, the Soviet state’s cult of Lenin had no interest in gritty details of what really happened.

Merridale revisits this episode both historically and in person. She traced the actual route north through Germany, across to Sweden, north to the border crossing to Finland, and there south to Petrograd.

Most of the book is about the context for this remarkable trip, the successful Petrograd uprising, and the wild turbulence immediately after the fall of the Romanovs. Russia was at the end of its tether, starving and bled by the war. The revolution raised hopes for peace and bread, but no one knew how to deliver, or to govern in any meaningful sense.

Foreign powers had a huge stake in Russia’s future. The allies wanted Russia to keep fighting Germany, the axis hoped for Russia to make a separate piece. Not surprisingly, all these powers sought to stir the pot and influence the new government with money and propaganda.

Lenin was a hard liner, instant on immediate peace in order to pursue revolution and civil war. This position was what Germany desired, and the allies feared.

As the revolution unfolded, thousands of émigrés and exiles sought to return to Russia. This was nearly impossible because of the war. The various warring powers prevented many from returning, fearing their own interests would be damaged. For Lenin, this mean that he could not return via France or Italy, because the allies

In this environment, the German decided that letting Lenin return would suit their goals. It had to be done delicately, because anyone obviously sponsored by Germany would be suspected of collusion with the enemy.

For this reason, Lenin sought to appear at arms length from German influence, demanding that the train by treated as if it were extra-territorial, “sealed” from contact with Germans. Later versions in the West told this as Germany seeking to isolate Lenin from contact with their own people. Maybe that was part of the idea, but it wasn’t the main point. In any case, the train was only symbolically sealed. At one point, there was a chalk line demarking the “Russian” section from the “German” section of the car.

Merridale gives us a great sense of the many “what ifs” around this trip. In particular, what if he had been intercepted and disappeared? The crossing point into Finland was a wild west of war-time intrigue, awash with spies, smugglers, and ne’er-do-wells of all sorts. As she says, it would have been easy for Lenin to disappear into the cold mists and no one would have known.

But allied intelligence dis not act, nor did Russian rival stop him. So he came through and arrived in his famous scene at the Finland Station. (This book makes clear why that was the place he was arriving—just look at the map.) This began his leadership of the radical Bolshevik party, and ultimate total victory in the civil war he preached.

Much of the book recounts the various factions and leaders of the revolution. With the distance of time, Merridale recounts how the radicals in Russia and oversees were not only surprised by the rebellion, but actively counseled against it. When handed power, most of them did not know what to do, and many did not seem to want to govern for real.

Lenin himself did know what he wanted to do, and was prepared to do whatever was necessary. He was not especially popular, and his program was radical to the point of lunacy. But his ruthless determination won out.

In another huge “what if”, Lenin was dogged with accusations that he was a German agent. He certainly accepted German help to get home, and it is widely suspected that the Bolsheviks received money from German intelligence. At one point, he was investigated and could have been arrested as a traitor. But the evidence was weak, and there were many false claims, and he escaped.

Over the years, there have been many fairy tales, but little solid evidence of direct German aid can be found today. Given that Lenin was following his long-held policies, he scarcely needed Germans to pay him. But his party did need money, so who knows what clandestine flows might have happened?

IN the end, the centennial year of the Lenin’s trip is distinctly ambiguous. Outside of Russia, few now or care about these long past events. Within Russia, the decades of Lenin worship have ended, and the current government is more interested in rehabilitating the Romanov era than celebrating the discredited revolution.

Lenin’s radicalism doesn’t sit well in contemporary Russia, and his advocacy of local self-determination is antithetical to the current government’s programs. His fire-breathing advocacy for direct democracy and appropriation of property probably don’t sit well either.

Still, while much of the twentieth century ahs been erased, Lenin himself cannot be disappeared so easily. When Vladimir Putin (accurately) criticized Lenin’s support for national autonomy, particularly in Ukraine, undermined Russian unity, the push back was intense and forced a climb down. “Lenin has a charisma that still holds many Russians in its grip.” (p. 289)

This is an interesting book, and it is probably important that it was written now, before the past is further effaced by time and contemporary politics. The Russian revolution, world communism, and the cold war have been powerful, polarizing forces in their time, and views of Lenin and his rail trek have been viewed differently through these lenses. Today, after the collapse of communism and rise of Putin in Russia, we have yet another perspective,

This is still one of the great romantic episodes of history, and certainly one of the great “what ifs”. What would Russian and the world be like, if Lenin had not made it through?

As a child of the 70s, I certainly felt familiar with the swirling waters of radical politics. Lot’s of naïve enthusiasm, plenty of words, murky loyalties, too much theory and too loose grasp on real life politics and governing. Enough time has passed now that we can see and sympathize a bit with all the actors, the Russians, exiles, foreign meddlers.

It was a blazing bright moment, when anything was possible. But we also know what was coming, and how things played out. What if.

  1. Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2017.


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