One hundred years ago, the man Winston Churchill dubbed a “plague bacillus” journeyed back from his exile in Europe to eventually seize the reins of power in his native Russia. Vladimir Lenin’s itinerary could not have been more fraught with peril and subterfuge, which makes it an ideal framing story for a recap of the rise of 20th century totalitarianism. The result was millions suffering and millions more murdered, tortured or starved to death by Lenin’s – and, later, Stalin’s – accomplices.
The story of Lenin’s eventual success against seemingly insurmountable odds is the focus of Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 354 pp. $30). Merridale’s meticulous research provides rich detail to a story that could have easily passed as a Graham Greene or John Le Carre novel had not everything within its pages actually happened. Spies, double-spies, secret agents, shady diplomacy, amoral financiers and Machiavellian plots abound – all begging for a cinematic retelling, albeit devoid of such typical hagiographic renderings of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as Warren Beatty’s Reds.
Before and after Lenin’s triumphant speech at the Finland Station in Petrograd, however, finagling of immense proportions occurred. Worried that the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas II and the subsequent provisional government’s fragility would undermine or even end Russia’s efforts against Germany during the First World War, Britain and France endeavored to keep Lenin firmly ensconced in exile. Germany, on the other hand, was willing to grant the future dictator safe passage through the Deutschland (and, indeed, financing the operation) was intended to install a government with Lenin at the helm to make good on his pacifistic promises.
Rumors and innuendo regarding Lenin’s (very real) collusion with the Germans nearly blew his chances of seizing control of the Soviet empire when it became the subject of a whispering campaign as well as the obsession of a hostile press. As well, the nefarious exploits of Lenin’s accomplices also provided ammunition for those who opposed him. Those accomplices include Alexander Helphand, known to history as Parvus, the banker for International Socialism (at least until he had served Lenin’s purposes), Boris Nikitin and Karl Radek among others. Merridale depicts Parvus with particular relish, even writing that his ample countenance and sly demeanor could have easily served as an inspiration for Orson Welles’ portrayal of Harry Lime in Carroll Reed’s 1949 thriller The Third Man, which itself was scripted by the aforementioned Graham Greene.
By the time Merridale puts Lenin on his train into infamy, readers are treated to a primer on a world just beginning to understand modern-day espionage, “deep states” and spy craft. That Lenin persevered through it all is nothing short of a gravely unfortunate miracle that must be counted among the most lamented German victories of the twentieth-century. Not that there weren’t opportunities to exercise extreme prejudice upon Lenin, however. Merridale relates a story attributed to Nikitin, who was at the time the head of Russia’s Provisional Government’s counter-intelligence unit that rivals the fiction of Nikolai Gogol for documenting the fatal absurdity of bureaucracies. As the train transporting Lenin and his crew neared the border between Finland and Russia, a major opportunity was squandered:
[Nikitin’s] British counterpart in Russian, Stephen (now major) Alley, had approached him in early April to ask for help in dealing with ‘a list of thirty traitors, headed by Lenin’ who were due to cross the border ‘in five days.’ Nikitin called into the ministry of foreign affairs, hoping to find [Paul] Miliukov, but the obliging foreign minister was out of town. His deputy, Neratov, would not sign the required warrant. That left only one option to Alley. His man in Tornio, Harold Gruner, known to his comrades as ‘the Spy’, would have to deal with Lenin at the border, whatever the Russians said.
Gruner did everything he could. He strip-searched Lenin and he questioned him, he rifled through the books and papers in a play for time, but in the end, just before six in the evening, he nodded to the Russian official whose job it was to wield the rubber stamp. His reasoning was that he could do nothing else, for he was a junior advisor and a foreigner on Russian soil. But he never forgot that he had been man who had, as he put it, ‘actually let Lenin into Russia.’ … The other person who did not forget was Lenin himself, who lost no time when he had taken power in Soviet Russian before sentencing Gruner to death. The penalty was never carried out, however, and the Spy was later free to join the British expedition against the Bolsheviks in Siberia. Gruner thereby notched up not one but two heroic failures, for which a grateful George V awarded him an OBE.
While critical of German funding and British diplomatic and administrative blunders, Merridale reserves the lion’s share of derision for Lenin himself. In her final chapter, she writes:
The cult of Lenin was a flagrant lie. Simplifying anything that it did not fake, it reduced its hero to an unconvincing plaster saint, a sort of cartoon Uncle Vlad. Lenin was both more or less than this; no statue, song or festival could capture the ambition of his dream, and none could blot the bloodstains from its execution. This uncle had sent tens of thousands to their deaths; the system he created was a stifling, cruel, sterile one, a workshop for decades of tyranny. And yet his cult was all that stood between the people and their fear of chaos and another civil war. The idea of turning his body into a permanent exhibit developed slowly over several years, but by the 1930s his mausoleum and the corpse within it were on Red Square to stay.
Nor is she kind to Joseph Stalin and Nikita Kruschev:
The cult survived for sixty years because it kept a bankrupt policy intact. Lenin stayed dead; yet he was always near at hand, convenient and dependable. For as long as the Soviet empire lasted, the Lenin statues could be mocked but they were never torn down. The anti-Lenin jokes were funny precisely because Lenin was there, as dowdy, reassuring and immovable as a black-lead kitchen range.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Lenin’s appearance at the Finland Station in 1967, Merridale recounts the hollow announcement in the Soviet newspaper Pravda:
The words were meaningless, and the newspaper would end up in pieces on the paper-nail in some earth privy within hours, but Lenin held the universe aloft, and the alternative (as the leaders occasionally ventured to hint) was almost guaranteed catastrophe. By sleight of hand, one of the most epic revolutions in history was made to double as a sermon on the value of a strong, vigilant state.
As a metaphor for a centralized, totalitarian government, however, Lenin’s mummified body exists as little more than a reminder of what constrained human freedom looks like: Gray, stagnant, and lifeless – a parched corpse thirsting for yet another government transfusion of embalming fluid.