How a dem­a­gogue shaped world his­tory for the worst

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Joseph C. Goulden Joseph Goulden writes fre­quently on in­tel­li­gence and mil­i­tary af­fairs.

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.

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