Riding the Locomotive of History
One hundred years ago this month V.I. Lenin boarded a train in Zurich that would take him through Germany, Sweden and Finland to ultimately arrive at Finland Station, Saint Petersburg, Russia. As history professor Catherine Merridale describes, Lenin arrives in a city racked by three years of war and rapt in the chaos of a new revolutionary government struggling to govern and a Bolshevik Party torn between participating in governing and advocating another revolution.
Merridale vividly describes the collapse of the Czarist regime at home and on the war front and Lenin’s life in exile in Switzerland. It is the German government who seizes upon the idea of transporting Lenin into Russia with the goal of fomenting a revolution that would take that country out of the war. The plot succeeds brilliantly. The go between was a Bolshevik/ speculator Alexander Helphand also known as Parvus, who is quite a character. With the deal orchestrated Lenin and his entourage occupy three rail cars as they travel through Germany and beyond. Although it was known as a “sealed train” it was far from sealed and passengers actually disembarked on occasion. It was quite a menagerie and the passengers included such luminaries as Karl Radek, Grigory Sokolnikov and Grigory Zinoviev. All three would later die in the Stalin purges of the 1930s.
The interesting thing is that it was no secret. The Russian government knew, the British knew and the Bolsheviks knew that Lenin was coming. With his boisterous arrival he grabs the Bolshevik Party by the throat and with the force of his will he sets them on a revolutionary course. Lenin truly was the “plague bacillus” that Churchill described him as, because in his wake you can count the deaths in the tens of millions.
Although the book is slow going at times, Merridale tells the story with great verve and you get a sense of the drama building as the locomotive of history goes on its journey through northern Europe.
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