Books interview with Catherine Merridale: “This was the most important railway journey made in the 20th century”

Catherine Merridale talks to Matt Elton about her new book on Lenin's return to Russia from exile in Switzerland during the First World War – and how it shaped history for decades to come...

Photograph of Vladimir Lenin, 1901. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In context

The Russian communist revolutionary and politician Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was the first leader of the Soviet Union. But his path to power was far from smooth: exiled in 1897, he moved to neutral Switzerland following the outbreak of the First World War. The February Revolution, which led to the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II in 1917, prompted Lenin to return to Russia via Germany to aid the socialist cause. Although the two nations were enemies, the Germans hoped, given Lenin’s anti-war stance, that his return would bring about Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict.

Where was Lenin at the point you start your book and why was he there?

Lenin was in Zurich in Switzerland. He was a revolutionary in exile from the Russian empire and he’d had two choices: leave Russia or be imprisoned. Most revolutionaries were a bit iffy about Switzerland because they thought it was bourgeois, but he liked it because it suited his sense of what was decent and proper: the libraries were great, the trains ran on time and the buses were clean.

Did he feel isolated once the First World War broke out, though?

Yes. All that he could do was to try to organise the European socialist movement, which – being Lenin – he naturally did, because he wasn’t going to sit around doing nothing. He was trying to push the movement further to the left, in the direction of absolute hostility to the war.

Lenin’s view was always that he’d rather lead a party of one than be in a large group that was going to lead the revolution down a blind alley. He was successful because he deeply believed the war was a capitalist war and that no peace was possible while the bourgeoisie was in charge – and he went on fighting for those beliefs.

Who helped put together the scheme to transport Lenin by train?

When the February Revolution happened, Lenin was desperate to get back to Russia and take control. He told his friends that they had to do anything: he even thought about flying back, which would have been fatal over German lines in primitive aircraft.

Lenin knew that to cross Germany, as a Russian in the territory of Russia’s enemy, would make him a traitor. But he gradually came round to the idea. Among the people who persuaded him was a very interesting, attractive man called Karl Radek. He thought that going back through Germany would be possible and reached that idea through the story of Alexander Parvus, an incredibly colourful revolutionary figure from Odessa.

By various means, fair and foul, Parvus had become a multimillionaire as a result of wartime speculation. Part of his work was with the German government, and he had a base in Copenhagen where he used Russian revolutionaries as researchers. He got passes for those researchers to go via Germany, so Radek knew it was possible to get German co-operation without obviously compromising themselves. This led him to work with Lenin to negotiate passage through Germany along with other Russian dissidents.

Who were Lenin’s fellow passengers?

A lot of Lenin’s friends and contacts were hostile to the plan. And, back in Russia, the foreign minister of the new liberal democratic provisional government said that he would arrest anyone who accepted German help to get to Russia. But Lenin had friends who were willing to take the risk. They included his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, his friend and former lover, Inessa Armand, Radek and Grigory Zinoviev, who was a close friend of Lenin’s and would have done anything to stay with him.

What was the journey like?

The deal was that the Russians could take a normal train through Switzerland, but could have no contact with the Germans at all on the crossing through Germany. On the border between Switzerland and Germany they had to get off the train and the first shock was that they had all the food they had brought with them – baskets and baskets of it, because the Russians are very good at train travel – taken away. The second shock was that, when they got over the German border, they were made to line up with men on one side and women on the other. They were eventually counted aboard a carriage that was going to be pulled by a succession of engines through German territory. It was a single carriage with two second-class and three third-class compartments. Near the back a chalkline was drawn and that was the international boundary. On one side were the Russians and on the other the Germans, and neither could cross it.

Unfortunately, there were only two lavatories in the carriage: one at the back for the two German guards and one at the front for 34 Russians. That was the only place that the Russians could smoke, meaning there was always a long queue of people waiting to use the loo while someone was in there having a fag. So Lenin introduced some of his communist discipline and people were given tickets. First class was for using the loo, while second class was for smoking, and you had to leave the toilet if somebody with a first-class ticket came to the door.

It must have been the most uncomfortable journey: there was no hot water, very little food and nowhere to sleep. The Russians had been segregated from the war in Switzerland, and travelling through Germany seeing starving, hostile faces and tired people was the first time they’d seen its impact. People heckled them and they saw that they were hated. It must have been very frightening.

What impact did Lenin have when he finally arrived in Petrograd in Russia?

He arrived just before midnight on Easter Monday, which was very inconvenient for the local communists because it made it trickier for them to organise a big event.But they still managed to get a band and to decorate the station with flowers, banners and red flags.

Lenin had no idea what would happen to him when he got off the train: he thought he might be arrested or hanged, and he prepared his fellow passengers for the idea that they might be arrested. So he was stunned by the reception. After eight days and nights I would have been very tired, but Lenin was so energetic. He began haranguing the crowd, right there in the station, before making his way into the crowd in the square outside. He was pushed up on to an armoured vehicle that was used as a platform and driven through the streets to the Bolshevik party headquarters. Without a break, without missing a beat, he always gave the same message. Some people said: “He’s a traitor, we should stick a bayonet in him,” but most just couldn’t believe he was advocating peace. They thought he was mad, or that he didn’t understand because he’d come from abroad.

And then Lenin made a speech from the balcony of the mansion in which the Bolsheviks had their headquarters. He addressed the crowd, at probably half past one in the morning, and then he went in and told his party the same thing. This was the famous April Theses [which, among other things, denounced Russia’s provisional government, called for the Bolsheviks to not co-operate with it, and advocated workers’ councils seizing power]. People said he’d lost his mind – even his wife. But within three weeks, because he was patient, organised and determined, he managed to persuade the organisation to change its policy.

And that became the Bolshevism that eventually won the day.

You’ve been on the same journey that Lenin made. What was that like?

It was interesting in all sorts of ways. I asked about Lenin everywhere I went; many people said they had no idea about him. In Malmö in Sweden, for instance, Lenin and his party had dinner in the Savoy Hotel. They were only there for about 45 minutes but it was a big occasion, and there’s a brass plaque in the hotel commemorating it. The woman on reception was from Moscow and when I asked her to show me the plaque commemorating Lenin, she said “John Lennon?” She didn’t really remember Lenin and couldn’t believe anyone wanted to talk about him.

So on the one hand he’s forgotten and on the other he’s everywhere. East Berlin and West Berlin is all down to Lenin. The shape of Finland bears the scars of wars largely started because of the creation of the Soviet Union and of national socialism to oppose it. So Lenin is everywhere and nowhere.

Has writing this book changed your view of Lenin?

As a student in Moscow in the 1980s, I went to see Vladimir Ilyich in his mausoleum. And he was very dead – and dead in a brown suit, too. But he is still everywhere around us: in every archive that I went to on my journey, there was his bust.

So, to me, Lenin was rather like an old piece of furniture: irritating and dowdy. And, of course, from some of my previous work on the results of the Bolshevik revolution and the oppression and tragedy that followed for people in Russia, he wasn’t a character that I warmed to.

But one of the policies that I always have with my writing is that, if there is something I don’t understand or don’t particularly like, it’s time to go and look harder at it. So I wanted to see what Lenin was like at the time that he was really explosive: when he was the fiery revolutionary and not the marble bust. Before he became dead, in other words.

And I think that I’ve done that for myself: I think I do now understand why he was so powerful and charismatic. Not as a leader of people – I don’t suppose that, if you passed him in the street, you’d have thought ‘wow, that’s a big leader’ – but a man who could work within a party and whose ideas drove him like no other person of his generation.

To what extent was this a journey that changed the world?

It was the most important railway journey made in the 20th century, unquestionably. That’s why it’s so exciting. There would have been no Soviet Union without it.

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Catherine Merridale is the author of Lenin on the Train (Allen Lane, 368 pages, £25). Merridale, who is a graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, taught at institutions including the University of Bristol and the University of London. A pioneer of oral history in Russia, she became a full-time writer in 2014. Her previous books include Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History (Allen Lane, 2013), which won the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize and the Wolfson History Prize.