How a demagogue shaped world history for the worst
LENIN ON THE TRAIN By Catherine Merridale Metropolitan, $30, 363 pages THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION: A NEW HISTORY By Sean McMeekin Basic Books, $30, 445 pages
In the spring of 1917, the German spy service sensed a sure-fire means of persuading Russia to make a separate peace and exit the Great War. Czar Nicholas II had abdicated in the face of mass protests that swept the streets of Petrograd, the then-capital, and signs of war-weariness were increasingly evident.
German eyes fell upon Vladimir Lenin, an aspiring Communist leader in exile for decades. He was considered to be a man of extraordinary ruthlessness — a “one-man demolition crew” who would wreck Russia’s war effort, in contrast with the moderates then in the vanguard of revolution.
But Lenin was in exile in Switzerland, and the only feasible route back to Russia was through Germany and territories which it controlled. Lenin was so desperate to return that he considered posing as a deaf-mute Swede (until his wife reminded him of his habit of talking in his sleep — in Russian).
But the spy chiefs found a solution: Lenin and selected followers would transit Germany in a sealed train that would be declared “an extraterritorial entity.” Once in Finland, smugglers would take them across to Petrograd.
The remarkable story of Lenin’s odyssey — and the bloody chaos he would inflict on the world — are told in striking works by Catherine Merridale, a noted historian on the human consequences of the Soviet era, and the academic Sean McMeekin. They offer a richly documented look at the Russian Revolution, now marking its centennial year.
Oddly, the two historians present differing accounts of Lenin’s, 2,000-mile train ride into history. They agree that his 32-member party was crammed into two cheap-seat cars (with a single toilet) for the two-week journey, and that there was much wrangling over smoking. Ms. Merridale portrays a non-stop journey. Mr. McMeekin, conversely, has the group changing trains while in Germany, and making several stops, one to permit Lenin to address Russians soldiers held in a prison camp. No matter; the train ride was an audacious stunt.
A minor glitch arose at the border. Although a British intelligence estimate had written off Lenin and friends as “fanatical and narrow minded,” and of no particular danger, a British agent at the border argued against letting them continue. Finnish authorities insisted that a country had the right to admit its own citizens, so Lenin passed into Russia.
Within an hour of his arrival, Lenin gave a fiery two-hour speech denouncing the “piratical imperialist war” and the moderates who were forming an interim government. His program was so extreme that Pravda, the party organ, refused to print it. No matter; his oratory provided the expected spark.
Further, Lenin’s pockets sagged with German gold. He spent millions of dollars on propaganda aimed at convincing Russian troops to stop fighting. (The energetic Mr. McMeekin unearthed long-hidden files on secret German financing that escaped destruction). London’s spies spent their own fortune on propaganda; intelligence buffs should enjoy accounts of this covert warfare.
Lies have long shelf lives: A million Russian rubles went to leftist writer John Reed for his acclaimed 1919 book “Ten Days That Shook the World,” which in 1981 was the basis for Warren Beatty’s historically laughable movie “Reds.”
In short order, Lenin added a new ingredient to what had begun, more or less, as a grassroots revolution. His contribution was terror — directed first at the relatively moderate leadership he replaced but rapidly expanded to include anyone who objected to his harshness. Lenin opted for terror to cleave away opponents — and he continued that course long after the government he established was on a secure footing. (The secret police organization that morphed into the KGB was his creation.) Further, his determination to overthrow western democracies put the Soviet Union at odds with much of the world through the end of the Cold War.
Was Germany’s decision to return Lenin to Russia a valid strategy? Winston Churchill gave backhanded approval in acknowledging “the desperate stakes” facing Germany. But he added, “Nevertheless it was the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”
In the end, the totalitarian state that Lenin created carries responsibility for uncountable millions of deaths — many of them his own people who he perceived as enemies. And indeed Lenin made an early — and costly — peace with Germany in early 1918, surrendering Ukraine, portions of Poland, Finland and various other territories — in all, one-fourth the territory of the old czarist empire. Fortunately, an exhausted Germany collapsed after a 1918 final campaign.
Two superb reads, and in the end, tragic ones: of how a demagogue shaped world history for the worst for almost a century.