Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train (2016), which I finished reading last night, is a very fine book. It is a gem, and perhaps ought to be recommended as among the very best introductions to the history of the Russian Revolution.
This gem of history writing condenses the tragedy of the Russian Revolution and the Anglo-American geopolitical war against Russia brilliantly into a narrative account of Lenin’s passage by train from Switzerland to Petrograd in 1917. It provides exquisite character portraits of key figures in the Revolution, including some who are barely remembered today – Nikolai Sukhanov, Irakli Tsereteli, Parvus (the fat charlatan who funnelled money and intrigue to Lenin), and the comic posturing figure of Alexander Kerensky, so similar to that other propagandist leader of today, Volodomir Zelensky.
Of course, the portrait of Lenin is chilling, yet realistic. She defuses the wilder ideas that he was a pawn of the German secret service, while making clear he took German money. His energy and command are respected. His zealous intellectuality, so coldly removed from ordinary life is presented perfectly, and the violence that instilled terror and seized power is rendered without excuses.
It is a humane, ironic comedy – not only about the tragedy of the Russian Revolution and the harrowing decades of civil war, dictatorship, and death afterwards. It is also a fine portrait of the comedy of failed efforts by the major contending empires of the world – Britain, Germany and America – to engineer a preferred outcome in Russia.
“The history of Lenin’s train is not exclusively the property o the Soviets. In part, it is a parable about great power intrigue, and one rule there is that great powers almost always get things wrong.” p. 9Merridale, Lenin on the Train
Merridale provides a deeply ironic commentary on the efforts of Brithish, German and American intelligence operations in Russia. Britain and America were exceptionally active during the events of 1917 in this regard. The schemes of these great powers to keep or remove Russia from the Great War, but in all cases to raid its empire afterwards, are presented with telling details and a comic touch. Somerset Maughan and George Kennan have walk-on parts, as do a parade of mad old public schoolboys whom the British never stop relying on.
Merridale makes clear that the objectives of the geopolitical intrigues of America, Britain and Germany in 1917 were to gain strategic advantage through the war, and then exploit Russia’s resources and its market. The book includes evidence in support of my argument that there has been a 100 years war between the Anglo-American nations and USSR/Russia – to break-up the Russian heartland and control its resources and geopolitical assets. Lenin on the Train quotes a British Cabinet report on the Russian political situation in 1917:
“With great respect, we urge that Russia is an empire of great area, with a population of 180 millions, and with enormous possibilities of not only being a great market, but of developing into the greatest economic power in the world. Its mineral, oil, and food processing resources are practically untapped. When war is over, the struggle in exploiting those resources will, if no effort is now put forward by Great Britain, remain a matter of conquest between America and Germany, with advantages in favour of the latter.”O’Grady and Thorne, UK labour delegation, TNA CAB 24/3/56 (June 1917) quoted, Merridale, Lenin on the Train, pp. 263-246
These events really began what I have called, in my podcast on the Ukraine crisis, the 100 years Cold War between Russia and the Anglo-Americans. Beginning in 1917 as an attempt to raid a fallen Empire, it has since oscillated between periods of naked geopolitical aims and ideological crusades.
Merridale, Lenin on the Train shows with an ironic, comedic historian’s perspective, how the same pattern is repeating itself today with the colour revolutions in the Russian or Slavic world:
“As modern tyrannies are swept away (and every honest heart delights), 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….. The order of priorities may well have changed since then, but not the character of government advisers or their basic aims.”Merridale, Lenin on the Train, p. 270
And, of course, the plans backfired, especially tragically for the Russian people. The current strategems of the Grandmasters of the Geopolitical Chessboard in America and Britain and Europe will by contrast backfire on the peoples of those nations and empires.
This long 100 Years War is entering its last phase in the conflict beginning in Ukraine that soon spread out into a multi-dimensional economic, cultural, diplomatic and military war between the Altantic World and the World Island. My prediction, which may well be wrong, is that Russia and China and India will emerge victors from this struggle for the multipolar world, and the 300 year era of the dominance of the Anglo-American world will come to an end.