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Revolutionary Train Ride

Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train 

            On April 9, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin, secretively boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, that was headed for Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg), then the capital of Russia.  The train left Zurich on its journey just days after the United States had entered World War I on the side of Russia and its allies, Great Britain and France.  Over the course of 8 days, Lenin and a group of 32 fellow Bolsheviks and their families traveled 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers). They passed through Germany, then Russia’s battlefield enemy, crossed the Baltic Sea by ferry to neutral Sweden and on to Finland (at the time part of the Russian empire), before arriving at Petrograd’s famous Finland Station on April 16, 1917.  Barely six months later, in November 1917, 100 years ago last month, Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts had seized control of the reins of power in Russia and declared a new revolutionary government in the world’s largest nation-state, with Lenin at its head.

           Lenin’s trip from Zurich to Petrograd via train is the centerpiece of Catherine Merridale’s incisive, often-riveting Lenin on the Train, in which she recounts in detail what she aptly terms a “journey that changed the world” (p.5).  Merridale, author of several other books on Russia and the Soviet Union, also provides a close look at the world Lenin inhabited in the immediate weeks and months before and after his train trip, while stopping short of the events of the 1917 November Revolution (often termed the “October Revolution,” due to the 13-day difference between the Julian calendar employed in Russia at that time and that utilized in most of the rest of the world).  She has done extensive digging into the archives and historical records of Russia, Germany, France and Britain to produce a nuanced picture of these crucial months in 1917. Her account benefits from detailed portraits of the numerous people who surrounded and interacted with Lenin in Switzerland, Germany, and Russia, and of course during the notorious train ride.

            Lenin’s ride back to his home country in April 1917 was precipitated by Russian Tsar Nicolas II’s stunning abdication a few weeks previously, abruptly ending the nearly 300-year Romanov dynasty.  Russia at the time of the Tsar’s abdication was a country seething with anger and falling into chaos. Workers were striking over food shortages and civil unrest was spreading from Petrograd across the country, all at a time when Russia’s war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was going poorly, with alarming desertion levels among its demoralized troops.  The State Duma, a parliamentary body dating from Russia’s 1905 Revolution that had shared power with the Tsar, conferred authority upon what came to be known as the Provisional Government, a caretaker institution charged with maintaining order and continuity until more permanent institutions could be established. Many Russian reformers and revolutionaries saw the Provisional Government as a step toward liberal, Western-style democracy.

            Not Lenin.  A fiery but uncommonly focused revolutionary from a decidedly bourgeois family, Lenin led the Bolsheviks, the most militant of the many revolutionary and reform groups that had pressed for changes in the Tsarist regime in Russia’s 1905 Revolution (“Bolshevik” was Lenin’s term, “majority men,” coined prior to the 1905 Revolution and intended to contrast with the other anti-Tsarist forces, the “Mensheviks,” literally “minority men” but by 1917 far more numerous than the Bolsheviks).  Lenin had spent much of his life since 1905 in exile, out of reach of the Tsars and their heavy-handed methods.  At the time of the Nicholas II’s abdication, he was in Zurich, where he was spending his daytime hours in the city’s library, reading and writing, theorizing and fantasizing about the coming world revolution that would bring down capitalism and imperialism. Lenin at this stage in his life was, as a contemporary put it, the “only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation twenty-four hours a day, who has no thoughts but of revolution, and even in his sleep dreams of nothing but revolution” (p.78).

            Once he learned that the Tsar had abdicated, Lenin was naturally more than eager to get back to Petrograd and put his revolutionary stamp on the emerging post-Tsarist regime.  In crossing Germany to return home, Lenin’s party benefitted from the unexpected cooperation of the German High Command.  But the extent of that cooperation remains unresolved to this day.  Was Lenin a German spy or agent? Did Germany acquiesce in the trip across its territory with the expectation that Lenin’s return to Russia would lead to its withdrawal from the war, thereby freeing Germany to fight on a single front against it British and French enemies?  Merridale does not shy away from addressing these still open questions.

          Throughout, Merridale provides a close up look at Lenin during his most pivotal period, emphasizing the forcefulness of his convictions while treading lightly over the ruthlessness of his character.  The Lenin who arrived in Petrograd on April 16, 1917, really believed that the world was on the edge of a worldwide proletarian revolution; that the revolution had already started in Russia but would not be restricted to her  boundaries (more conventional Marxist wisdom held that the revolution would start in Germany; Russia was considered too backward and insufficiently industrialized); and that with this revolution, the capitalist and imperialist world of 19th and early 20the century Europe would vanish. Lenin foresaw, as Merridale puts it, a “series of coordinated, pitiless and violent campaigns that would annihilate the twin oppressions of capitalism and empire forever. The bourgeoisie would have to die, the big country estates would burn, and everywhere slave-owners would face enslavement themselves” (p.77).

           When Lenin arrived at the Finland Station armed with this apocalyptic vision, the many anti-Tsarist forces in Russia were in almost complete disarray.  In the weeks that followed, Lenin provided clarity and focus to his Bolshevik followers on two key points which helped propel them to seizure of power a half year later: there would be no compromise between the Bolsheviks and  other anti-Tsarist forces; and there would be no further support for the war among the capitalist and imperialist powers that was ravaging Russia.

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          Lenin and his party traveled in a single wooden train car, painted green, with three second-class and five third class compartments, plus two toilets and a baggage area.  The puritanical Lenin instituted strict rules aboard the train.  Disturbed by the bent of some of his group to sing well into the night, he instituted official times for sleeping. Smoking was allowed only in the toilets, with a system of tickets for their use. Those who wished to use the toilet to smoke were given “second-class” tickets, and had to accord priority to those with “first class” tickets who needed to use the toilet for more basic purposes.

       Before the train left, Lenin had wrenched numerous concessions from the German High Command, the most critical of which was that the car transporting his group was to be treated as an extra-territorial entity, “sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population” (p.7).  A chalk line drawn on the floor of the car served to demarcate a “border” between “Russia” and “Germany,” with the Russian travelers confined to one side of the line, the German soldiers assigned to guard them on the other. A designated neutral, befittingly a Swiss national, acted as the contact between the passengers and the German soldiers.  Lenin needed to stay in the Russian portion of the car so that he could later say he never set foot in “Germany.”  The High Command also agreed that no passenger could be ordered to leave the train, and that there would be no passport controls and no discrimination against potential passengers on account of their political views.

          The trip took place at a time when Germany yearned to be relieved of its two-front war so that it might concentrate its resources on the Western Front against its British and French enemies, before reinforcements from America could have a significant effect upon the stalemate in the trenches.  If Russia could be persuaded to withdraw from the war, Germany could then “focus all its troops along a single front, crushing the French and British like so many gnats” (p.39-40).   Britain and France, of course, were committed to keeping Russia in the war at almost any cost for precisely this reason.

          By 1917, the inconclusive nature of trench warfare had led all belligerents to search for ways of gaining advantages off the battlefield.  In Germany, foreign ministry officials had come to support using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored French military mutineers and Irish nationalists, and even looked at possibilities for sparking rebellion in distant India.  They were thus “quick to grasp [Lenin’s] potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort” and indisputably provided some financial backing to Lenin, what has come to be known as “German gold” (p.7).

          Lenin’s critics and rivals for power seized on the notion of “German gold” to label him a traitor, an agent operating on behalf of the enemy that was slaughtering Russian soldiers.  These charges never receded, and they continue to intrigue contemporary historians.  Merridale evaluates some of the more elaborately documented theories that Lenin was in fact a German agent, and finds them unproven.  In one instance she recounts, in the 1950s renowned diplomat and Russia expert George Kennan examined extensive documentation purporting to show an agency relationship between Lenin and the German government and concluded that the documents were forgeries.

          Lenin himself added to the speculation and conspiracy theories by denying that he had accepted any German assistance. Merridale suggests that, rather than lying about his acceptance of German gold, Lenin could have utilized his acceptance to forge a powerful argument on his own behalf.  A braver Lenin, she contends, might have “boasted of that German cash,” as a means to “help the German proletariat defeat the Kaiser. . . If taking German money was one kind of crime,” Lenin could have argued that “trampling on the people’s dreams, making them fight against their will and even starving them were surely worse. . . [Lenin] might have pointed to the poetry of taking money from the robbers of the poor, whatever country they were from” (p.262).

          Merridale submits that Germany most likely gambled that Lenin’s Bolsheviks were unlikely to achieve power on a long-term basis but could stir up useful “inconclusive civil chaos” (p.56) in the short term to further destabilize and weaken Russia. The Germans seemed to recognize that fomenting revolution was a dangerous idea, given that Germany had its own socialist revolutionaries at home. Lenin in any event arrived in Petrograd amidst the rumors of treachery and treason.

          Most socialists and many revolutionaries at that time, including some members of Lenin’s own Bolshevik party, regarded cooperation with the Provisional Government and bourgeois forces as necessary, at least on an interim basis. Lenin, however, never wavered in his categorical rejection of any compromise, coalition, or cooperation with the Provisional Government or any of the reform elements in Russia. Waiting for the bourgeoisie to turn into a revolutionary force was in Lenin’s view pointless.  The bourgeoisie was inalterably “bent on the defense of property, profit, and caste” (p.227).   Collusion with the Provisional Government would be the “death of socialism” (p.223).

            Scorning the Provisional Government, Lenin saw the key to revolution and subsequent governance of the country in a network of workers’ councils, known as “soviets,” led by the Petrograd Soviet. He rejected the conventional view that the Petrograd Soviet and its counterparts in provincial cities were simply workers’ educational councils designed not to compete with the Provisional Government for power. The soviet system which Lenin envisioned would not be a parliamentary republic, Lenin told his supporters, but rather a “Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Laborers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom” (p.228). To defend against counter-revolutionary insurgencies, the new revolutionary state would need to be governed by what Lenin termed, in perhaps his most enduring phrase, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (p.195).

       Lenin further distinguished himself from other revolutionaries and reformers with his uncompromising stance on Russia’s unpopular war. By the time of his return to Petrograd, Russia had sustained nearly 5 million causalities, killed, missing or wounded, a far higher rate than any other belligerent. By some estimates, an additional 1.5 million soldiers had deserted. Arguments about the war had foiled all attempts at unity among the many anti-Tsarist factions. From the war’s outbreak in 1914, a major Russian objective had been to wrestle Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, away from the dying Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The aspiration for control of Constantinople’s shipping lanes along the Bosporus and Dardanelles survived the Tsar’s abdication.

        Many in the Provisional Government saw the quest for Constantinople as reason enough to remain in the war. Others on the left believed that a more modern, democratic Russia could deliver a quick deathblow to the Kaiser and German imperialism, especially with the United States now fighting alongside Russia and its Western allies.  Russia could then join with revolutionary elements in Germany in establishing a socialism that transcended national boundaries, a position sometimes termed “revolutionary defencism.”

      Lenin would have none of this.  He rejected even the slightest concession to proponents of “revolutionary defencism.” The present conflict, Lenin reminded his followers, “unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war” (p.227).  Bourgeois elements, he argued, “could never give up on war because their future was bound to it” (p.224). Lenin was no pacifist, however. Cessation of the capitalist and imperialist war among the great powers must be followed by transnational class warfare against capitalism itself.  Lenin forced these ideas upon his party, and in November 1917 forced them upon the country after he and his Bolshevik cohorts had ousted the Provisional Government in an armed insurgency.

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        Although not detailing the events of the November 1917 insurgency, Merridale argues that Lenin succeeded in that fateful month because he had worn down his opposition by the “force of his conviction.  While others talked and traded exquisite concessions, picking their way along the path of revolution as if they were avoiding mines, Lenin knew where he wanted to go and he knew exactly why.  His energy was prodigious, and he wrote and argued tirelessly, repeating the same themes until his opponents wearied of concocting new rebuttals” (p.230).  Merridale’s book is neither a biography of Lenin nor a comprehensive account of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution; there are plenty of works available on both subjects, including several that have come out during this centennial year of the 1917 Revolution.  But hers is an ideal choice for readers whose goal is to understand what drove Lenin, literally and figuratively, to reorder the course of history.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 6, 2017

 

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