One of The Economist's Best Books of the Year
A gripping, meticulously researched account of Lenin’s fateful 1917 rail journey from Zurich to Petrograd, where he ignited the Russian Revolution and forever changed the world
In April 1917, as the Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication sent shockwaves across war-torn Europe, the future leader of the Bolshevik revolution Vladimir Lenin was far away, exiled in Zurich. When the news reached him, Lenin immediately resolved to return to Petrograd and lead the revolt. But to get there, he would have to cross Germany, which meant accepting help from the deadliest of Russia’s adversaries. Millions of Russians at home were suffering as a result of German aggression, and to accept German aidor even safe passagewould be to betray his homeland. Germany, for its part, saw an opportunity to further destabilize Russia by allowing Lenin and his small group of revolutionaries to return.
Now, in Lenin on the Train, drawing on a dazzling array of sources and never-before-seen archival material, renowned historian Catherine Merridale provides a riveting, nuanced account of this enormously consequential journeythe train ride that changed the worldas well as the underground conspiracy and subterfuge that went into making it happen. Writing with the same insight and formidable intelligence that distinguished her earlier works, she brings to life a world of counter-espionage and intrigue, wartime desperation, illicit finance, and misguided utopianism.
When Lenin arrived in Petrograd’s now-famous Finland Station, he delivered an explosive address to the impassioned crowds. Simple and extreme, the text of this speech has been compared to such momentous documents as Constantine’s edict of Milan and Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses. It was the moment when the Russian revolution became Soviet, the genesis of a system of tyranny and faith that changed the course of Russia’s history forever and transformed the international political climate.
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Lenin on the Train
By Catherine Merridale
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Catherine Merridale
All rights reserved.
A minister today, a banker tomorrow; a banker today, a minister tomorrow. A handful of bankers, who have the whole world in their grip, are making a fortune out of the war.
V. I. Lenin
In March 1916, a British officer called Samuel Hoare set out for Russia. The last thing he was thinking about was revolutionary socialism. If anyone had asked, he would probably have muttered that he wanted to be soldiering – when war with Germany had broken out he had been among the first to sign up with the Norfolk Yeomanry – but his physical frailty had ruled out active service in combat. Instead, at thirty-six, he had been recruited by Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the legendary 'C', to work for the British Secret Intelligence Service in the Russian capital, Petrograd. While other members of his class were in the trenches, he mastered espionage, censorship and ciphering. He probably experimented with disguises, too. His new boss was addicted to them, and had his own designed at William Berry Clarkson's theatrical shop in Soho's Wardour Street.
The task that Hoare had been assigned was intricate. He had to find out if his country's Russian allies were maintaining their side of a wartime anti-German trade embargo. The British were particularly keen on this; they hoped to move into the Russian market when the war was won. In the meantime there were also fears that the remaining commercial links between Russia and Germany might serve as cover for spying and possibly for sabotage. As he worked with Russia's haphazard Restriction of Enemy Supplies Committee, Hoare would have to monitor the patterns of Russia's import trade, the merchants, markets and any complaints of shortages. His other mission in the Russian capital was to take a close and critical look at the operation of the British intelligence mission. Though this might feel like military stuff, he was supposed to keep in mind the business angle even here. As Frank Stagg, the man who ran the Russia desk in London, explained to Hoare before he left, 'a firm footing in Russia' might produce 'sufficient information to serve up some tempting dishes not merely to the British Government but to the big financial and commercial interests in the City'.
It was a job that called for tact. For one thing, the French were the people with the real Russian expertise. For decades now, Frenchmen had been established at the tsarist court as trading and investment partners as well as arbiters of fashion and suppliers of champagne. French officers had all the best contacts inside the Russian secret services. To some extent, this was a help, for Britain and France were allies, yoked to each other and to Russia through a treaty system called the Triple Entente, but by 1916 their understanding was no longer quite enough. When the day came for British exporters to move into a post-war tsarist empire, after all, those same Frenchmen would represent the competition.
More immediately, C had a string of problems in Russia. There had been tensions from the first between his agents and Colonel Alfred Knox, the British military attaché, while the officer whom C had initially entrusted with the Russian show, Major Archibald Campbell, had recently been recalled after a storm of complaints. To cap it all, the ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, was old school and stiff upper lip, the kind who disliked covert operations on principle. 'Difficulties had arisen,' as Hoare put it, because of 'interdepartmental disputes as to the exact place the Secret Service should hold in the official hierarchy'. The phrase was English understatement at its best. As a member of Parliament and a baronet, Hoare was the man to sort things out.
The new spy had to make his own way to the posting. Hoare had a berth reserved from Newcastle on a Norwegian steamer called the Jupiter. Among the other passengers, huddled in the fog like so many exotic birds, was a party of French dressmakers bound for Russia with their suite of fashion models. Theirs was a risky business, for the seaway was a magnet for German submarines. As the Jupiter steamed out of the Tyne, everyone took to scanning the waves. The crossing was uneventful on this occasion, however, and Hoare disembarked safely at the port of Bergen among the grey officials and the businessmen, the smugglers and the mannequins. From here, the journey continued to Christiania (Oslo), the capital of Norway, and on by sleeper to Stockholm.
Hoare had to cross the Scandinavian countries 'in mufti ... concealing my sword in an umbrella case'. As an officer in the service of a belligerent power, he would have been liable to internment if he had been caught by the police in neutral Sweden. That was the theory, anyway. In fact, he found that Sweden swarmed with spies, although it seemed to welcome only German ones. When he paid a visit to Sir Esmé Howard, the British ambassador in Stockholm, Hoare learned how volatile the mood in Sweden had become. The ban on war-related trade with Germany had hit it hard; food and jobs had come under pressure as British naval ships began to claim the right to control the cargo of neutrals as well as that of belligerents. Children were going without medicines, businessmen without their cheques and traders without markets for their timber, grain and iron. A large section of Sweden's ruling elite was sympathetic to the idea of a pact, even an alliance, with Germany. The Baltic, after all, united the two countries far more than it divided them. When he dropped into Stockholm's Grand Hotel, Hoare hung his fur coat on a peg, and was amused to watch a German agent scuttle out to rifle through the pockets straight away.
He came to need that fur coat more and more as he went north. From Stockholm, he headed into Sweden's remote Norrland, a wilderness that Sami hunters shared with elk and Arctic fox and bear. As the writer Arthur Ransome had put it when he traversed the same route, 'the whole thing promises to be interesting but cold.' Hoare was the MP for Chelsea, however, and he travelled first class for the whole route. 'The ride', he wrote, 'was peaceful and monotonous. At one point the train could not have gone more than five miles an hour, and ample time was allowed for the excellent hot dishes at the appointed stations.' One of those stops, nearly 600 miles north of Stockholm, was the Bothnian port of Luleå, whose docks were used to load the iron ore from mines at Kiruna and Gallivare. The previous autumn, as Hoare knew, the British submarine commander Captain Cromie had sunk a large number of Swedish ships just off this port, all carrying blockade-breaking cargoes of iron for Germany, thousands of tons of it in every hold.
The region was an awkward place for any British officer, and Hoare was heading for its wildest town. No pre-war timetable would mark his route, for no line had existed here before the summer of 1915. Arthur Ransome, who made his way to Russia when the railway still ended at Karungi, recalled that the last miles in Sweden had involved 'a sledge-journey in the short light of winter, lying flat on a sledge, kept warm by a Lapp driver who kindly sat on my stomach as we hissed over the snow-track and down a frozen river to the Finnish frontier at Tornio'. Fifteen months later, Samuel Hoare could breathe in relative comfort as his train crept forward between walls of blackened snow, the skeletons of trees just visible beyond the steam. The final miles were signalled by the appearance of countless wooden crates, huge piles of them at every stop. Then came the reindeer-sledges and the grizzled men in city coats. Hoare had arrived at Haparanda, the frontier town that controlled the crucial land-route from Europe to Russia and onwards to Shanghai.
He did not pause to see the sights. He could have explored the frozen marshes, where boxed-up freight from the United States and Britain, Denmark, France and Sweden itself had been piled in makeshift streets and courtyards like a second town. He could have dropped into a local bar. There, watching the off-duty fishermen and reindeer-drivers, he could have picked up news from three continents at once. A few months later, a Russian politician called Paul Miliukov, who passed through Haparanda in the opposite direction on an official trip to London, took pictures of the midnight sun there with his Kodak camera. A revolutionary activist called Alexander Shlyapnikov, who crossed the border so often that he knew every safe house for a radius of miles, would marvel at the Northern Lights in winter skies. But Hoare, a true-born Englishman, was most struck by the weather. 'Everything was dazzling white under the blazing sun,' he recalled. 'The snow had not a stain upon it, and the white sheepskin caps of the Swedish garrison looked yellow in the glare.'
The Russian border post at Tornio felt bleak after Haparanda. Most new arrivals spent a long time sitting in the huts that served as checkpoints for the tsarist border guards. Hoare was travelling to Russia on official business, and an undercover agent of British intelligence was almost certainly on hand, but C's new spy could not afford to draw attention to himself by pulling rank. After several trying encounters of his own, Arthur Ransome had learned to flourish a letter on heavily embossed paper, and though it was in fact a demand for the return of overdue books to the London Library, the signature of the librarian, Dr Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright, was so flamboyant that it reduced even the sternest bureaucrat to unctuous servility. Lacking Ransome's resourcefulness, most other travellers recalled the inside of the border buildings with a shudder. Hoare's wait was so long that a group of Russian soldiers broke into a dance, hoping to screw some small change from their audience. It felt like a whole season of his life had passed before the papers were finally stamped, the baggage clumsily repacked, and Hoare could climb aboard the southbound Finnish train.
The line was once again a single track. Progress was slow and dirty, for since the war began the engines on this route had run on wood rather than coal. Clouds of ash blew through any window that was left open. Grey smoke and steam concealed the view of Finland's famous lakes. The days were growing longer fast, but it was dark when his train finally arrived at the border station of Beloostrov. Here, crossing into Russia proper from its province of Finland, he faced another round of paper-checking and incomprehensible commands. As crumpled and bewildered as a peasant, he reached Petrograd's main northern terminus, the Finland Station, at midnight. The platforms and arrival hall were barely lit and almost deserted. There was a moment of exhausted panic before he made out a familiar British uniform; it was the official driver at last. In minutes, and with all his luggage safely stowed, Samuel Hoare was settled in a car, secure again after his short brush with barbarity.
It did not take long to speed through the working-class district behind the station. Crossing the river (wide and still half frozen), Hoare headed for the palace quarter and a hotel bed. A diplomat was wisest to avoid the streets where ordinary people lived and worked. It was a lesson he would learn in the coming days along with the rules of court etiquette and the problems of finding a reliable maid. The MP had arrived in Petrograd, and he was about to begin his work for the 'new, secret, and very indefinite' British intelligence service.
* * *
In 1916, Petrograd had a population of more than two million, swelled since the war began by huddled lines of migrant workers and refugees. Built on the Neva river delta, the city lent itself to social subdivisions. The poor tended to live in the factory quarters that had sprung up round the vast new metal-working and armaments works. The streets behind the Finland Station led to narrow yards and blind windows, for this was the Vyborg district, home to the Erikson metal-and machine-works, the Nobel and New Lessner factories (both specializing in weapons and explosives), the Old Sampson spinning and weaving factory and several large steel mills. South of the river, to the east, the Okhta district boasted a state-run explosives plant and a gunpowder factory, while to the south-west loomed the massive Putilov works, employing a workforce of tens of thousands and turning out rail track and rolling stock as well as artillery. Manufacturing had been a goldmine for speculators in the years before the war, but housing for the men and women it employed had seemed a less attractive investment. Whatever the hardships, however, recruits continued to flock from the villages in search of work.
The other citizens of Petrograd, the types who kept a carriage and took boxes at the theatre, settled on the south edge of Vasilievsky Island, along the waterfront of the Petrograd Side and in the better districts near the Winter Palace. Tall houses by the city's network of canals afforded spacious first-floor flats for wealthy clients, although the basements and attics were available, at lower rents, for anyone from trades people to failing writers. In general, however, the main contact that moneyed people had with the city's grittier side was through their servants, drivers and doormen. The magnificent Nevsky Prospect, Petrograd's main street, was a place where the poor and unenfranchised seldom stepped. At times of stress (and there had been a revolution in 1905), the city governor could order that the bridges should be raised, turning the Neva into a huge moat and blocking access from almost all the most notorious suburbs. It was a pity that there had to be a mainline railway station near Nevsky Prospect and it was unfortunate that factories were visible behind the palaces. But troublemakers could always be packed into the cells of prisons like the Peter-Paul Fortress and Kresty, both of them landmarks on a dazzling waterfront.
The British embassy occupied a large part of the Saltykov Palace, a building otherwise known as No. 4 Palace Embankment. The location was magnificent, just a short walk along the river from the Winter Palace and commanding views across the water to the Peter-Paul Fortress and its golden spire. The embassy 'was an enormous building, spacious and solidly comfortable, though not in the least beautiful', the ambassador's daughter, Meriel Buchanan, would later write. Its most remarkable features were the grand staircase and the ballroom, both of which had windows facing the river. But the offices were inconvenient, and the building was shared with an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious geriatric parrot.
Hoare would soon need to meet his own men, but the diplomatic part of his mission, the interdepartmental peacemaking, demanded that he pay an early call on the ambassador. Sir George Buchanan had been London's man in Russia since 1910 and had built a reputation as Petrograd's most reliable and experienced diplomat. Hoare would soon fall under his spell. 'If I had to draw a picture of a British Ambassador,' recalled the spy, 'I should have drawn Sir George Buchanan. Distinguished, detached, rather shy in manner, and good-looking in the style that was most admired twenty years before.' Robert Bruce Lockhart, who supported Sir George from an office in Moscow, agreed, observing that 'his monocle, his finely-chiselled features, and his beautiful silver-grey hair gave him something of the appearance of a stage diplomat.' In Ashenden, the collection of stories that he based on his own wartime spy-missions, Somerset Maugham turned Sir George into Sir Herbert Witherspoon and had him presiding over dinner like the baronet in one of England's grandest country houses. A less kindly visitor, however, remembered a 'frigidity that would have sent a shiver down the spine of a polar bear'.
Buchanan's view of spies might have been dim, but he was determined that Russia should go on fighting for an allied victory in the Great War. To ensure that it did, he was prepared to sup with almost any devil London sent, and Hoare became a regular guest at the embassy. He was entertained by Lady Georgina, the ambassador's wife, by his daughter Meriel and by at least one bad-tempered Siamese cat. Hoare also dined with some of Europe's diplomatic stars, including Maurice Paléologue, the French ambassador, and the Marquis André Carlotti di Riparbella from Italy. The man from the United States, David Francis, preferred his poker to Buchanan's linen and claret, but that still left an assortment of interesting British staff for Hoare to meet. The place to find them was the chancery department on the first landing of the embassy stairs. There young men in their worsted suits devoted the best hours of every day to typing, encoding or deciphering reports. No Russian secretary was on hand, for secrecy was paramount, even between allies. 'My impression', Lockhart recollected, 'was of a typing and telegraph bureau conducted by Old Etonians.'
Excerpted from Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale. Copyright © 2017 Catherine Merridale. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
A Note on the Text
1 Dark Forces
2 Black Markets
3 Red Lake
4 Scarlet Ribbons
5 Maps and Plans
6 The Sealed Train
8 Lenin in Lapland
9 From the Finland Station
11 Fellow Travellers
Suggestions for Further Reading