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Lenin on the Train

By Catherine Merridale (2016).

When creating a Scheme of Work or a revision guide I like, my family allowing, to read a book or two on the subject too. If a teacher can avoid bounding down the rabbit hole of anecdotes for the entire lesson then well placed anecdotes are the key, in my mind, to a great History lesson. No amount of clever planning, flip learning of fancy Kagan strategies can match the impact of a good story.

This book was reviewed very highly and it did not disappoint. Merridale has that masterful ability to use cracking narrative as a vehicle for exploring the wider factors at play. It is well worth a read if you are studying or teaching Russian Revolution history.

I made a list of notes on the first half of the book but regrettably have misplaced them. With time tight during the lockdown (I'm teaching 4 live 90 minute lessons a day!!!) I will not be able to repeat them all, however, below is a selection of my notes and observations taken for the latter half of the book (this is the real 'action' end anyhow, with Lenin entering Petrograd etc!).

Hope they are of some help and shine some light on the areas you have been studying thus far in your course.


  • The level of detail in the narrative is astonishing, the author retraced Lenin's journey and can describe the way events likely in vivid detail. The one bit that got me were the conversations had over dinner at the stop off at the Savoy hotel in Malmo, Sweden. This was especially striking for me as I have actually had dinner there myself! It is indeed directly opposite the railway station - we spoke to the waiter about the history of the place and he never even hinted that I could be sat in the same place that Vladimir Lenin once sat!

  • Lenin's arrival into Petrograd is gripping; stopping at every street corner to deliver another speech to throngs of people that were following the convoy, headed by a large armoured car on which Lenin perched, the waving red flags, the 'present arms' by the ranks of sailors from the Baltic fleet and the military band playing the Marseilles. Lenin being handed a large bunch of flowers (much to his annoyance).

  • The Bolshevik headquarters being the mansion of the Tsar's favourite ballerina (and mistress). Draped in red flags, with its tropical gardens and balconies that.looked out across the river and directly into the British embassy and next door to the Petrograd mosque.

  • His thunderous speech at 2 in the morning to the assembled Bolsheviks who had grown accustomed to calling the shots and were close to making compromises and alliances with the Mensheviks. Lenin tore them to shreds. The room fell silent. He started to lose them. Even his closest friends admitted that evening that it looked as if he'd gone mad while away in exile. What he was calling for was impossible. A full scale revolution of the proletariat and worldwide revolution!

  • Lenin made them (The Bolsheviks) look more like a loyal opposition within a bourgeois democracy, not a revolutionary force.

  • In the next two months he won over a good deal of the party and many outside. His strength lay in an uncompromising message in times that were confused and muddled by compromise and uncertainty. It also was due, in part, to his work ethic. The author describes it such: "One reason for his triumph was 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 tired of concocting new rebuttals."

  • (A slight, and stretched, parallel here in the Brexit message cutting through the din of experts and fiddly details).

  • Being against the dual power system of Provincial Government and Petrograd Soviet played to the Bolshevik's advantage the longer time went and the worse conditions got. Oil, coal and food were running short and the situation got more desperate by the day. The buzz of the February revolution had grown stale and people were getting impatient with the endless talking and indecision between the two bodies. The Bolsheviks, with Lenin's message of revolution, looked like the men of action - they could get things moving.

  • What seems obvious now, but that had been missing from my teaching, was how big a deal the issue of "German help" was to the Russian people. The right wing press tore him to pieces for being a Russian puppet. Of course the "sealed carriage" was all part of a desperate ruse to deflect and downplay this element of the journey. Chapter 9 ends with the puzzle of where the Bolsheviks got their funding from, which seemed to increase dramatically enough to support distribution of a new newspaper to the soldiers at the front. A mystery, but the author notes at the same time the German chief of spies in Russia wrote back to Berlin that Lenin was "working exactly as we would wish".

  • Lenin's enemies were desperate to find a smoking gun linking him to German financing, many witnesses and documents came forward, with a good number manufactured from within the British embassy. This coincided with Kerensky's success in rounding up the Bolsheviks. Lenin fleeing the city confirmed what many were beginning to believe, he was a German spy. An official government investigation supported this claim - but still failed to present concrete evidence.

  • Other interesting points come up. Such as upon the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the thing that triggered the start of the Civil War a German diplomat wrote "We are not co-operating with the Bolsheviks, we are exploiting them". This seems to confirm just how terrible the deal that Trotsky oversaw was for the Russians (but, I think in the circumstances anyone would have been hard pressed to do better!).

  • A fascinating inclusion in the painting by Sokolov is Stalin. Appearing a head and shoulders above and behind Lenin as he steps off the train, a clear indication of the natural succession. Despite Stalin never having been anywhere near that train. In his defence, Sokolov was painting during Stalin's rule and to have done anything else may have invited time at the gulag.

  • What is perhaps even more sinister is that anyone who was really on the train, if they hadn't been swept away in the civil war, ultimately ended up chased out, imprisoned or executed by Stalin. They knew too much. They knew that Lenin would never have chosen him as successor. Some were too big for even Stalin to order their execution in public. Instead they were imprisoned in gulag and regrettably died in 'brawls' soon after. Convenient.

  • The final chapter is on the lasting legacy of Lenin in Putin's Russia. Putin has made several attempts to remove the shrine to Lenin that still sits in Red Square, with the body inside still maintained and kept 'fresh' each year by applying new layers of balm and wax. But the people still seem to love him. Therefore "the history of Lenin’s train must be preserved and yet it must not be allowed to move. Everything is sacred, but nothing must ever signify."

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