How Lenin’s ‘sealed train’ smuggled clarity into revolutionary Russia

March 17, 2017

Lenin on the Train
Catherine Merridale
Allen Lane, 2016, 354 pages

The German “sealed train” that gave Vladimir I Lenin safe passage from exile in Switzerland through wartime Germany to Russia in April 1917, in the aftermath of the overthrow of Russia’s monarchy that had exiled the Russian revolutionary leader, was historically pivotal.

British historian Catherine Merridale reminds us in Lenin on the Train that Lenin was seen as a “plague bacillus” (in Winston Churchill’s phrase) by Berlin. He was sent back into Russia by a German state desperately seeking a military edge in the World War I by sowing revolutionary disruption in one of its key enemy states.

If Berlin was using Lenin for its military aims, however, Lenin was more than happy to use the German state for his goal of socialist revolution in Russia and across Europe.

Banished from Russia by Tsarist courts, Lenin had spent 20 years isolated from his home country and its simmering discontents when stirring news came of the February 1917 revolution that overthrew the autocratic monarchy. Lenin saw that the revolution was only half done, however.

Although a driving force of the revolution was the soviets (councils) formed by workers, soldiers and peasants after the fall of the Tsar, power shifted to a Provisional Government dominated by capitalist oligarchs.

Stopping the workers, peasants and soldiers from taking full power were the leaders of the elected soviet delegates. They had developed a liking for the comfortable pace of glacial reform and eyed off the material pickings from comfortable seats in a mooted Western-style parliament. A frantic Lenin was desperate to return.

All legitimate travel avenues, however, were blocked by Britain, which wanted to keep its ally, Russia, in the war. Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, had vetoed a plan for Lenin to travel in disguise in a sleeper train because he would arouse suspicions due to his tendency, even in his sleep, to let fly against the political perfidy of fake socialists. 

When the possibility of German assistance was first floated, Lenin was cautious. By accepting help from a government whose military was slaughtering Russians on the eastern front, Lenin could be seen as either a national or class traitor in Russia.

Deciding the benefits outweighed the risks, however, Lenin accepted the offer of a German train after negotiating stringent conditions. He insisted the carriage be granted “extra-territorial status” to “seal” it from contact with Germans. This included a chalk line dividing the Russian exiles’ territory from the German territory of the military guards on board.

Lenin was also adamant that Germany not bankroll the 32 returning Bolshevik revolutionaries (local Swiss socialists raised the cash) for the week-long journey.

Lenin returned to Russia with a simple three-word slogan, “Peace, Bread, Land”, and the audacious demand for “All Power to the Soviets”. He helped bring political clarity and direction to Russia’s mass revolutionary movement and party unity to the fractious Bolsheviks. Socialism shifted from a vague, distant ideal to an urgent, realisable task.

Lenin, says Merridale, “had struck upon a kind of truth that people wanted to hear” — that after the February anti-Tsarist revolution, “the problems that had driven them to risk their lives for freedom in the first place had resurfaced, often with redoubled force”. Only Lenin, at the head of the reinvigorated Bolsheviks, had the solution to the problems of war and hunger, and lack of democracy.

This positive conclusion by Merridale about Lenin’s political impact is remarkably rare among orthodox intellectuals, whose default ideological setting is to malign Lenin as a progenitor of Stalin.

Merridale’s favourable assessment is swiftly undermined, however, when she concludes by venting on what she professes to be Lenin’s inner dictator, whose murderous Marxist hands on the tiller in 1917 meant that “in the end, democracy could only skulk around the fringes of the revolution like a dog with mange”.

This linguistically Stalinesque simile is evidence of a lazy politics that also flavours the book’s structure. The sealed train should be a fascinating microcosm of international politics, and the political and personal dynamics of the Bolsheviks.

But, in Merridale’s hands, the train event is but a brief narrative hinge between two huge, passionless, white-bread slabs of indigestible pre- and post-Revolution history, offering no fresh insights.

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