I took to reading Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train (2016) this morning while reclining on a scarlet chaise-longue and bathing in autumnal sunshine. The cat was on my lap, but my attention kept slipping.
Not because of the book – which was intriguing, indeed brilliant history – but because in the last couple of days I have returned to a dose of mirtazipine for my mental health, as I go through a difficult life transition, and, I hope, a wonderful personal metamorphosis while the world goes to hell. This medication makes you sleep. I found yesterday and today I have been drowsy and catnapping until late in the morning. In time, after a period of adjustment, the excess sleep will rub away, and only pure better mental health will be left after the pills (an experience I write about in my collected poems which if you’d like to support my work you can buy here).
Still I managed to read two chapters of Merridale’s story of Lenin’s journey by sealed train, funded by the German intelligence services, to the ferment of Petrograd in 1917. I had long known the rudimentary outlines of this story, and had also in the last five years read Sean McMeekin’s history of the Russian Revolution, which portrayed Lenin and the Bolsheviks very much as the paid creatures of the cunning German state. But Merridale’s tale takes the story to a whole new level, and is masterful in its depiction of characters and the interweaving of the past and the present, including Merridale’s own experience as an historian of Russia.
Some of the characters are reminiscent of the grandiose ideologically-charged charlatans who seem to make their way into any and all regime change operations up to this day, whether they be Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq, Igor Kolomoisky in Ukraine, or George Soros across continents. For example, Alexander Kesküla was an Estonian nationalist (if that is quite the right word) and revolutionary. He believed in a Greater Estonia, an empire of the Baltic Sea, purged of alien Russian and German influence. Indeed, this Greater Estonia would claim St Petersburg itself. It had a kinship with the Intermarium project, the vision of an alliance stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic and Black Seas, including Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine and so partially re-creating the medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This project was first conceived by Józef Piłsudski, the Polish leader and strongman from 1918 to the mid-1930s. It is being revived today amidst the Russian-Ukraine war, with apparent support from some in America, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States.
Kesküla passed money from the Germans to Lenin, having attached himself to the revolutionary movement as early as 1905, and also took a fair tax for himself. Though the Bolsheviks were suspicious of him, Kesküla rated his influence. He went on to live a long career in many countries, not dying until the year of my birth in 1963. In his later years he gave a series of interviews which made their way into a perhaps unreliable collection of vignettes, Michael Futrell, Northern Underground: Episodes of Russian Revolutionary Transport and Communications through Scandinavia and Finland, 1863-1917 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963). Merridale sums up:
“But at the end of his life, as an old man, the Estonian made an extravagant claim. It might not have been true, but it reflected something of the wartime underworld, its vanity and wild schemes, the envelopes of money, and the whsipered, unfamiliar names. ‘Lenin was my protégé ,’ he told Michael Furtrell. It was I who launched Lenin.’ This was a hollow boast, of course, but poignant as an epitaph.”Merridale, Lenin on the Train, p. 71
Earlier, Merridale had also described the nest of British spies and undercover agents planted in St Petersburg to keep Russia fighting for Britain until the last Russian. Sounds familiar, do you think? It had eerie similarities with the events of today, with Britain heavily invested in Ukraine fight, and Russia’s resources being the spoils of war. But Russia would have to become more like the West. Merridale quotes from a 1917 paper prepared for the British War Cabinet in which a British MP set out the plan for Britain after the war to overtake Germany in the dominance of Russian internal politics and trade.
“The progress of the world in a large measure depends upon the planting of British ideas on Russian soil.”David Davis MP “Notes on the Political Situation” (10 March 1917) TNA CAB 23/3/42, quoted by Merridale, p. 48
Colour Revolutions are not new. Anglo-American hostility to Russia is not new. The 100 Years War between the Anglo-Americans and the Russians began with these words in 1917 – an argument set out in my Burning Archive podcast episode 40 Special Episode on Crisis in Ukraine.
And grandiose imaginings about geopolitics are also neither new nor conducive to mental health and the enjoyment of simple life. Though I sometimes fantasise myself into situations like Kesküla, dreaming of influence that someone of my disposition can never really have, I have no lasting wish to exercise decisive influence on the big events of geopolitics, not even petty local politics. With more reading of Merridale and some more mornings lazing in the sun on my scarlet chaise-longue, I will cure myself of any unhealthy obsession with politics, set aside tragedy and doom, and tell comic stories of the human carnival that history reveals.