Thursday, June 15, 2017

Book Review: Lenin on the Train

by David Ryan, Librarian, Business Science and Technology Department

Lenin on the Train
Catherine Merridale

This is the centenary anniversary of the Russian Revolution. As you can imagine, publishers have responded with dozens of titles about this world-changing event. Lenin on the Train focuses on one seemingly mundane incident: a Russian exile returning to his homeland on a train. However, the completion of his eight-day trip across Russia is the catalyst for the rise of Communism.

In 1917 the First World War raged with mechanized savagery previously unseen by mankind. Both the Allies and the Central Powers swayed between defeat and victory. Millions had already perished. With the impending arrival of the United States into the fray, an allied victory seemed assured. The "desperate" Germans (James Joyce’s word, not mine) sent a revolutionary named V.I. Lenin from his exile in Switzerland back home to Russia via train.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin, was simply one political theorist among many Russian rabble rousers surviving exile by printing newspapers promising utopia, and soliciting aid from wealthy fellow exiles. The Germans, however, were hoping that Lenin would prove to be less a man of theory, and more a man of practice. They were hoping his fiery speeches would actually foment strikes, protests, and possibly worse. Ultimately, the German’s wish was fulfilled; the already faltering Russian Army ground to a halt. Russia withdrew from the war and signed a separate peace treaty. The Germans were able to transfer their forces from the Eastern Front to the West. The war dragged on.

Catherine Merridale's choice of details and her storytelling acumen is what brings an essentially political story to life. She brings the eight-day train ride of Lenin’s revolutionary group from Zurich to Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to life with descriptions of political machinations and beautiful images of the countryside through a speeding train window.

Critics love Merridale’s book and it’s easy to see way. The Russian Revolution is an inherently complex topic. Yet, she gives us a very readable, albeit, abbreviated version of events. When you put the book down, you understand not only the motives of many of the players who took part in the Russian Revolution, but also how Lenin survived and ultimately succeeded. In high school I found the political maneuverings of Anarchists, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, White Russians, English spies, and German spies utterly confusing, but she does a wonderful job of making it all understandable.

She’s also a talented writer with a real knack for finding just the right scene, or contemporary quote which perfectly describes the geography or the politics of Europe then and now. At one point Lenin’s train passed close to the Arctic Circle. She writes that “the forest was so close the observant members of the group might have glimpsed deer and Arctic hares, perhaps a red fox slipping home. There were more elk than people here.”

But at its heart this is not a travel book. This is a book about politics, revolution, war, and freedom lost to terror. Merridale quotes Winston Churchill who said, “they transported Lenin in a sealed truck [sic] like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.” And the philosophy of Lenin did go on to infect not only Russia, but dozens of other countries. “…no statue, song or festival could capture the ambition of [Lenin’s] dream, and none could blot the bloodstains from its execution…the system he created was a stifling, cruel, sterile one, a workshop for decades of tyranny.”

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