In April 1917, the exiled leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, travelled back to Russia by train. His country was at war and his route would take him through enemy territory; the plan was controversial from the start. The destination was the Finland Station and the first steps on the road to Soviet power. In her new book, Catherine Merridale follows in the leader’s tracks, creating a gripping account of events in Russia and Europe at one of the tensest moments of the First World War.
From Catherine's Introduction to Lenin on the Train:
‘I knew that I would have to do the train-ride for myself. A journey is not only places, distances and times, but there are things that must be seen. The first task was to make sure the itinerary was right. Historians have offered plenty of accounts, but I have yet to see a map that shows the route that Lenin really took. Most experts send him north along a line that was not even built in 1917, and at least one book – a classic that has been reprinted many times – gets the journey wrong by well over a thousand miles….
…I planned to keep to Lenin’s schedule as well as his exact route. I would leave Zurich on 9 April and arrive in St Petersburg eight days and well over two thousand miles later. It promised to be a headlong rush, even on Europe’s fastest-moving trains, but Lenin was impatient and I took my cue from him. Though every connection had to be met at breakneck speed, I was also to enjoy what seemed like endless hours of leisure, as Lenin did, watching the changing scene. A hundred years have passed since the great Russian came this way. The little German towns he saw, huddled neatly like wooden toys, are now ringed by commercial blocks and high-speed roads. The urban landscape sprawls for miles beyond the old suburbs. Most striking of all, however, is the absence of any sense of danger. As my train crossed from Switzerland to Germany it did not even stop, but the border bristled with guns in Lenin’s time and the land beyond had a murderous reputation. My journey was smooth, fast and safe; as Europe’s war raged all around him, Lenin’s was arduous and frightening…
…One of my fellow-passengers turned out to have come from Sofia… If I had told her of my quest for Lenin she would probably have given me up for a half-wit. What that dead man has come to symbolize in countries such as hers – corruption, hardship, lies and the abuse of power – is a system so rotten that it does not even qualify to be described as a fossil. But I knew that it had once been alive. Like fossil-hunters everywhere, I dreamed of stepping back into the world where it had breathed.’
Lenin on the Train is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.
Read more about her journey here.