British historian Merridale (Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, 2013, etc.) fills a lacuna in the canonical record of Soviet communism.
Like Sherman’s March to the Sea and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, V.I. Lenin’s rail journey from Zurich to Petrograd is one of the most storied journeys in history. It has long been known that Germany brokered the wartime trip, the aim being to enable Lenin to foment revolution and take Russia off the front. However, as the author amply shows, to say “Germany” is to speak too broadly, for while it was just a faction in the civilian government of that country willing to gamble on Lenin’s powers of persuasion, “other departments and agencies had budgets of their own” and were “pouring money” into propaganda and sedition so that Russia would sue for peace, leaving Germany to fight a single-front war against the Allies in the West. Of course, as Merridale also shows, the Allies had propaganda budgets as well, though in the end, all that money added up to an “egregious failure rate,” just as British efforts to turn Lenin back at the frontier failed. The author explores the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to Lenin’s return from decades of exile. Moreover, in vivid prose, she recounts the whole engine of revolution, giving immediacy to the details of Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station and the electrifying result his presence had in an already revolutionary and decidedly mutinous Russia. She also emphasizes little-known aspects and players in the struggle, from the central role Pravda played in transmitting news and its ability “to speak directly to the dispossessed” to the work of the almost unknown revolutionary leader Irakli Tsereteli.
A superbly written narrative history that draws together and makes sense of scattered data, anecdotes, and minor episodes, affording us a bigger picture of events that we now understand to be transformative.