Lenin on the Train
By Catherine Merridale
Metropolitan Books, 368 pages, $42
Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge
By Helen Rappaport
St. Martin's Press, 430 pages, $38.99
The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution
By Robert Service
Macmillan, 382 pages, $32.99
Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928
By S.A. Smith
Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $34.95
A century after the fact, it reads like a surreal echo of current events: A humourless demagogue, notorious for haranguing angry crowds with his hyperbolic bombast, astonishes the world by taking control of a large, increasingly dysfunctional empire amid suspicions that his implausible path to power was abetted by a hostile foreign power. Who imagined that Vladimir Lenin and Donald Trump have so much in common? No wonder the Kremlin seems at a loss for how to appropriately mark this year's 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Actually, there are any number of reasons current Russian President Vladimir Putin might not want to draw unwanted attention to the overthrow of a privileged, undemocratic autocracy. The Russian Revolution easily ranks as one of the most consequential events of the 20th century, just behind the epoch's two devastating world wars. Were the Soviet Union still extant, instead of collapsing under its own sclerotic weight in 1991, this year would have seen no end of Red Square extravaganzas commemorating the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. As it is, there is nary a Katyusha rocket launcher or T-34 tank on parade.
Fortunately for the Russophiles among us, the British are more than making up for any Russian ambivalence by ensuring that 1917 is given its proper due. The British Library, where communist theorist Karl Marx toiled on his magnum opus, Das Kapital, is honouring the occasion with a major exhibition. The BBC recently asked prominent artists to talk about influential works from the early Bolshevik era in a Radio 4 series that included filmmaker Peter Greenaway extolling the cinematic brilliance of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin of 1925.
Historians, no surprise, are also weighing in. Already this year, readers can delve into new books by Robert Service, Catherine Merridale, S.A. Smith and Helen Rappaport, all of whom have built significant reputations unravelling what Winston Churchill, in his matryoshka-doll description of Russia, called "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
Russia, then already convulsed by its participation as an ally of Britain and France in the First World War, experienced two revolutions in 1917. The first, in February (by the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), resulted in the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II and the installation of a provisional government that shared power between socialists and so-called "bourgeois" factions. The second, in October, was essentially a coup fomented by the far-left Bolsheviks and Lenin, who was abroad during the February uprising.
Merridale's detailed Lenin on the Train tracks Lenin's journey from his exile in Zurich, where he followed the events of February through cables and newspapers, to Petrograd (St. Petersburg), where he immediately began agitating against the provisional government. The eight-day trip, which eventually took Lenin up through Sweden and back down through modern-day Finland, presented a logistical problem since it required travelling through Germany, then at war with Lenin's Russia.
The Germans, however, had a vested interest in facilitating the journey because Lenin had vowed to end Russia's participation in the war. With German help, the Bolshevik leader and his entourage were provided with a train that remained sealed during the German portion of the trip. This accommodation bred notions that Lenin was an agent of the German Kaiser, suspicions that were further fuelled when the Bolsheviks sued for peace after taking power. Merridale, who devotes a chapter to the lingering controversy, favours the view that although the habitually secretive Lenin was far from forthright about how much aid he received, it stretches the evidence to brand him as a German puppet.
Concerns about Lenin's loyalties were of particular concern to British and other Western diplomats stationed in Petrograd, who understandably worried about the consequences of any Russian retreat from the battlefield. Helen Rappaport's Caught in the Revolution is an entertaining and highly readable account of the 1917 tumult, as seen through the eyes of diplomats, journalists and other foreigners residing in Petrograd at the time.
The narrative, based on diaries and other first-hand accounts, largely focuses on the observations of British ambassador Sir George Buchanan and his American counterpart, David Francis. But the cast of characters also includes Arthur Ransome, a journalist who later would write the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books; Of Human Bondage author Somerset Maugham, then spying for Britain; the famed British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst; and the American radical journalist John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant, memorably played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in the 1981 Hollywood epic Reds. In a Canadian footnote, there is also testimony from Lady Sybil Grey, a nurse and the daughter of the governor-general who donated the football trophy that bears his name.
These witnesses initially greeted Lenin's return to Petrograd with incredulity. One British embassy official dismissed the goateed Bolshevik as "an undersized new agitator in an old double-breasted blue suit," while Ransome complained that Lenin's public tirades were "so exaggerated that they have the air of being comic opera." The American photographer Donald Thompson presciently predicted that if Lenin weren't killed or imprisoned, "this cur" will take "control of things here."
After assuming power, Lenin faced the nagging problem of how to deal with the deposed monarch, a conundrum that provides the backdrop to Service's The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution. This comprehensive account on the end of the Romanov dynasty, which had marked its tercentenary just four years prior to the revolution, mostly details the last year and a half of Nicholas's life, from the days leading up to the February revolution to the czar's execution in July of the next year.
Nicholas is portrayed as a stubborn, clueless and tradition-bound anti-Semite who nevertheless behaved with dignity after abdicating the throne. Living with his family under house arrest in three different locations, Nicholas passed most of his postabdication life with his nose in a book, taking time to read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and War and Peace for the first time. Service categorically debunks fanciful notions that any of the Romanovs, including fabled daughter Anastasia, survived the family's end at the hands of a grisly firing squad in Ekaterinburg.
A broader, contextual understanding of the revolution, from its causes to its legacy, can be gleaned from the pages of Smith's Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928. The Oxford historian, whose intended audience is readers "coming new to the subject," delivers a clear, thorough, approachable primer. The book's illuminating coverage of life in Russia during the early 1920s details the brief but influential flourishing of artistic experimentation that fostered such enduring figures as filmmakers Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, painters Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, poet Anna Akhmatova and many others.
There is more to come this year, including another survey by fantasy fiction writer and Marxist scholar China Miéville, who no doubt will bring his own unique perspective to the subject. Bolshevism, in the end, was a failed enterprise that soon devolved into tyranny and terror. It is easy, as Smith says, to dwell on the ideology's many, demonstrable shortcomings, and lose sight of the anger, frustration and social inequity that preceded it. In this age of supposedly triumphant capitalism, there is a tendency to relegate the Russian Revolution to Trotsky's "dustbin of history," when it would be wiser to remain mindful of all it still has to teach us.