Traveling to the Epicenter of the Revolution

merridale lenin zug

Catherine Merridale: Lenins Zug. Eine Reise in die Revolution. (English title: Lenin on the Train. Translation by Bernd Rullkötter) ISBN 978-3-10-002274-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Russian history is a fascinating subject and especially modern Russian history, starting with the revolution of 1905, is a subject that keeps fascinating a political scientist like me. Catherine Merridale retraces Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov’s trip from his Swiss exile to St. Petersburg in 1917 in order to reorganize first the Bolshevik party and then Russia itself – with an iron hand and little concern for democratic aspirations. Ulyanov? Well, the man became better known under his nom de guerre, the name he took while being banished by the Russian czar to Siberia: Lenin.

Europe was at war in 1917, and the German government had decided to let Lenin and some of his party friends travel from Switzerland through Germany to Sweden and Russia even though Russia was at war with Germany. The High Command, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and German spy networks supported all kind of opposition forces in Russia to weaken the czar’s government, hoping to negotiate a separate peace with Russia and to liberate army units much-needed on the Western front.

Merridale not only gives a vivid description of the travel conditions but also an extensive overview of the political, diplomatic, economical and military entanglements. She excels once again as a narrator; and should you find this book interesting, I warmly recommend her previous book “Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin”. Sound historic research, an excellent command of language and a good feeling for building tension are Merridale’s hallmarks, and the fact that all kind of intelligence services play a part in this book make it a true page-turner. History lessons can be so enjoyable! Too bad nobody told me at school.

In the final chapters the historian sketches the type of political system Lenin had in mind. By manipulating and intimidating his political opponents – conservatives, liberals, moderate leftists – he established the foundation of a tyranny and did not back away from blackmail, inciting riots or worse imprisonment and murder of his perceived enemies. Lenin had ruled out a democratic, open state. His ideal was the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which in fact was just an euphemism for the dictatorship of the elite of the Bolshevik and later the Communist party. Whether the population of Russia and the occupied territories like the Ukraine wanted such a rule, was of no concern to him. Loyal to Marx he believed in the deterministic model of the historical and dialectical materialism, and aimed to fulfill the historical necessity to bring down the old order and establish a new one.

The trip in the train gave Lenin ample time to write down the principles of this Marxist-Leninist political order. Once he and his fellow travelers had made it to St. Petersburg, the city that would later be named Leningrad in his honour, he engaged in a violent political combat against the established parties and politicians to implement his vision. The price did not matter, even if it meant turning the international conflict into a gruesome, European wide civil war pitting workers and farmers against the middle-class and the aristocracy. Merridale quotes one of Lenin’s allies in 1917, Leo Trotzky: “It is not by chance that ‘unforgiving’ and ‘merciless’ are frequent [words] in Lenin’s vocabulary.”

Just like Stalin, subject of a biography that I have presented in an earlier post, Lenin was more a professional revolutionary than a statesman or a politician. Still, despite his radical political ideas he was a friend of arts and admired Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “Appassionata”, perhaps because he saw the revolution in music that Beethoven had kicked off. I wonder what he would have thought of the Five Piano Pieces (Op. 23), written by Arnold Schönberg, another musical revolutionary:

Intelligible music – To memorize means to understand