How often does a train ride alter the course of history? It happened 100 years ago, when Vladimir Lenin, exiled in Zurich yet eager to turn Karl Marx’s ideas into “a Soviet system that ruled in the name of working people,” learns of the February revolution in his homeland. Protests in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), then the Russian capital, had led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. This was the perfect opportunity for Lenin to return and put his plan into action.

But there was a problem: The only route from Switzerland to Russia was through Germany, a dangerous prospect during World War I. German foreign ministry officials, however, were aware that Lenin could disrupt Russia’s war efforts, so they arranged for his safe transport and even “organized financial backing — the infamous ‘German gold’ — for some of his revolutionary operations,” Catherine Merridale writes in “Lenin on the Train.”

The result was a famous ride that took Lenin on a supposedly sealed train north from Switzerland, a ferry ride across the Torne River that separates Sweden and Finland — the latter country a Russian province at the time — and a final Russian train before arriving at Petrograd’s Finland Station.

Merridale describes how an unlikely revolutionary (Lenin grew up “relatively wealthy — a member of the early twentieth-century bourgeoisie”) became one of the architects of a political movement that endured for 70 years.

Merridale set herself a big challenge: finding a way to make a train ride interesting. One technique, which she uses to great effect, is to chronicle the political dramas that led to the unrest: the power struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Provisional Government that had replaced the tsar; and the activities of such key figures as Alexander Helphand, known as Parvus, a shady Russian businessman, devoted sybarite — he had “a retinue of rather well-endowed blondes” — and anti-tsarist whose writings provided a “blueprint for revolution” intended “to unite the Russian underground.”

Merridale’s writing is memorable. Lenin’s ride featured “heads lolling on their neighbours’ chests, dreams perfumed with stale bread and socks.” The building in Russia that housed the British government was “painted like beefsteak.”

And Merridale offers witty asides throughout: In 1917, Zurich was the starting point of a rail journey flanked by armed German soldiers. Today, “the only frightening things in sight are the prices on the hand-made shoes and imported designer paint.”

Some readers may wish that Merridale had devoted more time to Lenin’s policies. Although she acknowledges that “Lenin’s answers may have looked seductive for a while, but people are not set free by dictatorships,” she focuses on the journey rather than the repercussions of Lenin’s return. The result, however, is a richly detailed book that turns familiar material into an intense adventure.

 

Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

Lenin on the Train
By: Catherine Merridale.
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 354 pages, $30.