Lenin on the Train

Title:                      Lenin on the Train

Author:                 Catherine Merridale

Merridale, Catherine (2017). Lenin on the Train. New York, New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company

LCCN:    2016043803

DK254.L443 M37 2017

Scope and content

  • “A gripping, meticulously researched account of Lenin’s fateful 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. Germany saw an opportunity to further destabilize Russia by allowing Lenin and his small group of revolutionaries to return. Now, 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 journey–the train ride that changed the world–as 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. This 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”– Provided by publisher.


  • Dark Forces — Black Markets — Red Lake — Scarlet Ribbons — Maps and Plans — The Sealed Train — Leaderless — Lenin in Lapland — From the Finland Station — Gold — Fellow Travellers.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • HISTORY / Europe / Russia & the Former Soviet Union.


  • “Published simultaneously in the UK by Allen Lane, London”–Title page verso.

Date Posted:      August 31, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

Lenin on the Train is reviewed along with The Russian Revolution[2] in this article.

In the spring of1917, the German spy service sensed a sure-fire means of persuading Russia to make a separate peace and exit The Great War. Czar Nicholas II had abdicated in the face of mass protests that swept the streets of Petrograd, the then-capital, and signs of war-weariness were increasingly evident.

German eyes fell upon Vladimir Lenin, an aspiring Communist leader in exile for decades. He was considered to be a man of extraordinary ruthlessness—a “one-man demolition crew” who would wreck Russia’s war effort, in contrast with the moderates then in the vanguard of revolution.

But Lenin was in exile in Switzerland, and the only feasible route back to Russia was through Germany and territories which it controlled. Lenin was so desperate to return that he considered posing as a deaf-mute Swede (until his wife reminded him of his habit of talking in his sleep—in Russian).

But the spy chiefs found a solution: Lenin and selected followers would transit Germany in a sealed train that would be declared “an extraterritorial entity.” Once in Finland, smugglers would take them across to Petrograd.

The remarkable story of Lenin’s odyssey—and the bloody chaos he would inflict on the world—are told in striking works by Catherine Merridale, a noted historian on the human consequences of the Soviet era; and the academic Sean McMeekin [see Ref 2, below]. They offer a richly documented look at the Russian Revolution, now marking its centennial year.

Oddly, the two historians present differing accounts of Lenin’s 2,000 mile train ride into history. They agree that his 32 member party was crammed into two cheap-seat cars (with a single toilet) for the two-week journey, and that there was much wrangling over smoking. Merridale portrays a non-stop journey. McMeekin, conversely, has the group changing trains while in Germany, and making several stops, one to permit Lenin to address Russians soldiers held in a prison camp. No matter; the train ride was an audacious stunt.

A minor glitch arose at the border. Although a British intelligence estimate had written off Lenin and friends as “fanatical and narrow minded,” and of no particular danger, a British agent at the border argued against letting them continue. Finnish authorities insisted that a country had the right to admit its own citizens, so Lenin passed in Russia.

Within an hour of his arrival, Lenin gave a fiery two-hour speech denouncing the “piratical imperialist war” and the moderates who were forming an interim government. His program was so extreme that Pravda, the party organ, refused to print it. No matter; his oratory provided the expected spark.

Further, Lenin’s pockets sagged with German gold. He spent millions of dollars on propaganda aimed at convincing Russian troops to stop fighting. (The energetic McMeekin unearthed long-hidden files on secret German financing that escaped destruction.) London’s spies spent their own fortune on propaganda; intelligence buffs should enjoy accounts of this covert warfare.

Lies have long shelf lives: a million Russian rubles went to leftist writer John Reed for his acclaimed 1919 book Ten Days That Shook the World[3], which in 1981 was the basis for Warren Beatty’s historically-laughable movie Reds.

In short order, Lenin added a new ingredient to what had begun, more or less, as a grass-roots revolution. His contribution was terror—directed first at the relatively moderate leadership he replaced but rapidly expanded to include anyone who objected to his harshness. Lenin opted for terror to cleave away opponents—and he continued that course long after the government he established was on a secure footing. (The secret police organization that morphed into the KGB was his creation.) Further, his determination to overthrow western democracies put the Soviet Union at odds with much of the world through the end of the Cold War.

Was Germany’s decision to return Lenin to Russia a valid strategy? Winston Churchill gave back-handed approval in acknowledging “the desperate stakes” facing Germany. But he added, “Nevertheless it was the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

In the end, the totalitarian state which Lenin created carries responsibility for uncountable millions of deaths—many of them his own people who he perceived as enemies. And indeed, Lenin made an early—and costly—peace with Germany in early 1918, surrendering Ukraine, portions of Poland, Finland and various other territories—in all, one-fourth the territory of the old tsarist empire. Fortunately, an exhausted Germany collapsed after a 1918 final campaign.

Two superb reads, and in the end, tragic ones: of how a demagogue shaped world history for the worst for almost a century.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 105-106). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[2] McMeekin, Sean (2017). The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York, NY: Basic Books

[3] Reed, John (1919). Ten Days That Shook The World. New York, Boni and Liveright

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One Response to Lenin on the Train

  1. Pingback: The Russian Revolution | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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