Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Review of Merridale's Lenin on the Train

One hundred years ago Vladimir Lenin took a train from Switzerland to Petrograd (St. Petersburg). It was nearly impossible to get through Germany because of the war, but the Germans let him through. They figured he could both upset Russian politics and get Russia out of the war. Catherine Merridale's new book Lenin on the Train details the trip and the intrigue it involved. Her message goes well beyond that particular moment in time.

"The history of Lenin's train is not exclusively the property of the Soviets. In part, it is a parable about great-power intrigue, and one rule is that great powers almost always get things wrong" (p. 9). The irony for Germany is that helping Lenin ultimately made life for Germans far worse in the long run. People (including inside Russia) constantly underestimated Lenin and were not too concerned about the political ramifications of his return. His opponents figured they could just accuse him of collusion with Germany. The book ends before the October Revolution and so we just see him poised to take power. Germany's decision to let him through facilitate that.

Along the same lines, "the quick-thinking servants of the world's great powers still proffer plans to intervene, to jostle, scheme, and sponsor factions that they barely understand" (p. 270). And for Merridale, this means destroying hope for democracy in the Russian case, but elsewhere too.


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