Top positive review
Lenin on the Train
7 October 2017
When revolution erupted in Russia, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was in Switzerland, condemned to exile by tsarist courts. Like other Bolshevik leaders, Lenin was immediately desperate to make it back home, but, in his case, it was easier said than done. This was 1917, when Russia was at war with Germany, and he was stranded, with no obvious way to make the journey. However, to his surprise, there was unexpected co-operation from German High Command, who were actually eager to return the troublemaking firebrand back to Russia, where they hoped (rightly, as it turned out) that he would disrupt Russia’s war effort. This then, is the story of how Lenin, and a group of other displaced Russians, were taken across Germany in a sealed train, first to Sweden, and then on to Russia.
In a way, I do wish there was more about the actual train journey in this book, as it is wonderfully bizarre. Although later writers, and artists, were keen to portray Lenin’s trip as one of romance and idealism (one artist cleverly inserted Stalin into his painting; which, as the author says was historically incorrect, but probably wise in terms of self preservation) but, of course, the reality was somewhat different. The group consisted of thirty two adults and two children and contained several lawyers and one dentist. So incensed was Lenin by the late night carousing of some of his group that he later created proper Soviet rules for how people should behave on trains – including sleeping at appropriate times. As a commuter, I feel his rules and regulations would be warmly welcomed by many who are bothered by the behaviour of other people and sympathise with his thoughts.
Certainly though, Lenin was not a man who suffered fools gladly. A three day trip across Germany, with many delays and discomforts, might have worn some people down – but not him. On arrival, he gave speech, after speech, after speech. Sprinting to the top of cars, leaping up stairs to find a balcony; finding a platform and sweeping aside the less daring plans of his rivals, he was a man on a mission. His enemies might have scurried around looking for evidence that Lenin was being funded by Germany – a spy even – but the Germans reported he was, ‘working, exactly as we would wish.’
As well as the story of Lenin’s journey back to Russia, this is also a look at the revolution, especially from the point of view of the British. There is much about the British Embassy, whose building was opposite the house taken from a famous ballerina (and former mistress of the former tsar) for use by the Bolshevik Party. There is also some interesting information on W. Somerset Maugham, who later wrote “Ashenden,” about his experiences as a war spy and who quarrelled with Hugh Walpole, head of the British propaganda effort (who he later lampooned in the novel, “Cakes and Ale”), but it was clear that the Russian people were not affected by the British arguments, as Germany poured money into the country. Overall, an interesting read, which attempts to put the events in this book into political, and historical, context.