Lenin was nothing but politics
Catherine Merridale on Lenin the man, the revolutionary and why he banned smoking on a train.
‘Lenin is fascinating’, Catherine Merridale tells me. That Merridale thinks so, shouldn’t be a surprise. She is steeped in Russian and Soviet history. She studied in Moscow in the 1980s, living in the city through the Perestroika. She then went on to record oral histories of the Soviet Union, which took her from Ukraine to the Arctic Circle. And she has used her wealth of research and experience to produce several compelling books, including Night of Stone (2000), Ivan’s War (2006) and The Red Fortress (2013), all of which used memoirs and historical documents to produce what she calls readable histories.
But it was Lenin, whom she describes as the ‘black hole’ of the Russian Revolution, who has always fascinated her the most. In her latest book, Lenin on a Train, Merridale follows Lenin’s journey from Switzerland to St Petersburg. Along the way, she sought to better understand what kind of a man Lenin was, and look beyond the Stalinist caricature that exists today. So, did she come to know the Bolshevik leader any better after travelling thousands of miles in his shoes? The spiked review decided to find out…
Ella Whelan: So what do you make of the significance of the Russian Revolution 100 years on?
Catherine Merridale: Well it depends where. In 2015 I retraced Lenin’s journey on the eve of the revolution in search of his past. I crossed Europe by train in search of relics of Lenin, because I thought the significance of the Russian Revolution was enormous. And I could find almost no trace of it, anywhere. If you go to Berlin, the Berlin wall has gone. And if you look around Berlin, the eagerness with which capitalism has engulfed the city would make you think there never had been an East Germany. You have to dig deeper. It’s almost as if we want the Russian Revolution not to be significant – as if we’re desperate to consign it to the past.
Of course, the Cold War’s impact is still palpable. It shaped the world in all kinds of ways, and distorted politics for several generations. And in Russia, there are many traces of the revolution itself which Russians are trying to handle.
Outside the old Soviet Bloc, the aim is to make the Russian Revolution far less significant than the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the first big people’s revolution, and so it has all sorts of meaning for our language about freedom, equality, patriotism and nationality. But when you get to the Russian Revolution and ask what lasting impact that’s had on our way of thinking about the world, most respond negatively: we don’t want socialism. The collective view is that we don’t want to go back to the 1970s. It’s almost as if the Russian Revolution is an irritation rather than something from which we could draw a positive lesson.
Whelan: Is the Russian Revolution seen as insignificant because revolutionary politics is no longer seen as a threat?
Merridale: I understand your question but it is very difficult to answer it generally, as a Brit, when you know that there is a whole European continent out there that is very different from what the world looks like from, say, London. A few years ago, I told a visitor from Germany that I was about to give a series of lectures on Europe after Communism. And he said to me, ‘how very sweet, what makes you think Communism has gone?’. He was talking about the communist movements that still exist in East Germany in protest against capitalism. But I said, ‘that’s so tiny, look at what is happening across Europe in terms of the huge victory of capitalism in the old Eastern Bloc and the end of Communism. What is Poland now but a very successful capitalist economy?’ And he kept nudging me to point out the relics of Communism. So I’m prepared to believe that if you live in Romania or Bulgaria, there are relics from the revolution that are really important and actually very live. But if you look at the revolution from Britain, it’s hard to say that there is anything remaining to take away from that period of history.
Whelan: Let’s turn to your book, Lenin on a Train. Other than the obvious significance of Lenin’s arrival in St Petersburg in April, what drew your attention to that journey in particular?
Merridale: Well, I’m somebody who writes about things that I don’t understand or like. When I find something that is a complete black box, I want to open it. That’s why I wrote about the Second World War years ago, and Lenin was the black box of the Russian Revolution. I’ve always found him not just enigmatic, but rather repellent. I don’t mean disgusting; I mean that, on a human level, I can’t get close to him. He’s an ideal – a dead ideal. Lenin is dead, he’s in the mausoleum, and you can go to see him anytime. And also Lenin is dead in that there are marble statues, plaster busts and many dead Lenins everywhere you look. But to get at the live Lenin is a very different matter. And I thought, if I studied Lenin after 1917, that’s the period in which he’s already a hero and you can’t really get at the person. If I went back to the moment that he came to power, the moment that he had to contend with real problems that I would understand and could recreate for myself, then, perhaps, I would see what kind of human being he was.
To be honest, I think we in Britain think of Russia as somewhere very separate from Europe. We tend to think of Russia as over there, and they speak this peculiar language and wear furs. Whereas, in fact, Russia is part of Europe, and the Russian Revolution is part of our history. When I say it feels dead to us now, that to me is a sign of how little we understand our own history. We need to put Russia back into the European mainstream, and take possession of the legacy of the Russian Revolution as part of our past. By physically retracing Lenin’s steps through Europe – I didn’t fly, I went by train – it connects.
Whelan: What was that journey like?
Merridale: For me, it was terrific fun. It’s nearly 3,000 miles. I got loads of trains, from Zurich up to the north of Sweden and down to St Petersburg, and every single train was bang on time except the one between Oxford and London. Everything went extremely smoothly. And the thing was, this was 2015. The migrant crisis was just beginning to break, I travelled through a Europe that was completely without borders and without any sense of menace. Lenin didn’t, of course, he went through the First World War.
You get on the train in Zurich, it’s April, it’s daffodil time. Lenin travelled north, almost without stopping, until a point where you get off the train, four or five days later, and you’re knee-deep in snow. There’s that sense of a real adventure, a real crossing not just of continents, but also the globe and climates. That would have been exhausting for Lenin, and of course it was very dangerous and menacing, too. He was crossing the territory of Russia’s enemy, and so he expected to be stopped and possibly hanged or shot. So, I was just sitting on a Deutsche Bahn train feeling quite all right. For him, this was a journey fraught with danger.
Whelan: You wanted to get a sense of who Lenin really was. Did you achieve that?
Merridale: One of the things that people always want is a human Lenin, and I suppose I did, too. And I ended up thinking that actually the only thing that mattered about this man was politics. Nothing else matters. There’s a line in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, where one of the characters says to another character, ‘you know there’s nothing wrong with Lenin if you disregard the politics’. And, the trouble is, Lenin is nothing else but politics. This is the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, and other biographers have tried to explore his sex life – well, it’s boring! And they try to explore his hobbies – well, he gave them all up because he believed in revolution! And so what I found was incredible stamina, determination, ruthlessness and organisation.
He was also very finicky. On the train there were several other people travelling with him, and he banned smoking – because he had given up smoking himself so it annoyed him. He said the only place people could smoke was in the toilet. Unfortunately, there were only two toilets in the carriage. One was at the front, but the other at the back was in what was designated German territory, so the Russians couldn’t use it. So there was instantly a massive queue of 34 people to use the loo to smoke. And what did the great Lenin do? He issued tickets! If you wanted to go to the loo to use it for its biological purposes, you got a first-class priority ticket. And if you wanted to go to smoke, you got a second-class ticket with a number on it that told you when you could have your cigarette. Only Lenin could do that. Only Lenin would think of it, and be able to impose his will so that people didn’t smoke elsewhere.
Whelan: Outside of ticketing toilet use, it was Lenin’s ambition and ability to make things happen that has encouraged many to think of Lenin as the great man of the Russian Revolution. Could it have happened without him?
Merridale: Of course it’s counterintuitive, and Marxists have to say there is no such thing as a great man – history is made by local forces and economic pressures. We know all that. There was a revolution without Lenin; it happened in February. The Tsar was ousted, the people took to the streets, and dual government was created in February 1917. Lenin was in Switzerland. The question is what was going to happen to it if Lenin had not gone home? It’s not a question of whether there could have been a revolution – there was one. It’s a question of what might have happened to the revolution without Lenin. And the evidence is that all the major parties were shattering themselves against the brick wall that was Russia’s engagement in the First World War. They didn’t know what to do about that. The only party that had a completely clear policy was Lenin’s – that was Lenin’s doing. He came back in 1917 and reshaped the Bolshevik party quite deliberately to oppose the war. This was unpopular even in the party at first, but gradually became policy due to his sheer force of character. He battered people, he lectured, he persuaded – he had an incredible clarity. I think it’s that clarity, ruthlessness and energy that you really need to build a new state. Very few other people had that.
Whelan: There is a tendency to see Lenin as the violent precursor to Stalin. Is there any truth in that argument?
Merridale: Lenin was not the cuddly granddad Lenin of Soviet myth. He had people shot, and he was completely unmoved by that. It wasn’t that he delighted in dead bodies, but that he was completely unmoved. For the cause, it was okay to kill people. And if you needed to kill people as a means of persuading other people to do something, well just go and shoot them. He never took part in those repressions. He wasn’t someone who liked bathing in blood. He never wore a military uniform, and he never attended an execution. Those are things which mark him out from Stalin. But he was absolutely ruthless in the pursuit of the revolution.
The other thing to say is that he organised his Bolshevik seizure of power with a view to provoking a world revolution. So, for the whole of his life, what he was aiming to do was to spark a revolution that would become global (which is what Marx had predicted). He didn’t expect to be building socialism in one country. Stalin embraced socialism in one country quite happily, and a lot of his policies flow from that.
Whelan: Some people do find the ruthless side of Lenin difficult to deal with – it raises the question of whether political violence is sometimes necessary. Do you think that Lenin’s decisions were justified?
Merridale: No, I don’t. I don’t think mass wholesale slaughter is justified in any circumstance. If I had been one of Lenin’s supporters, I would probably have ended up in a camp pretty early on, because I cannot myself condone mass slaughter of innocent people in order to persuade other people to do something. I don’t think the future of a state is worth the deaths of millions. However, it also has to be said that what was happening in Russia in 1918 was so brutal and so pitiless, that anyone who was going to try to build a state was going to end up soaked in blood. It was impossible not to. It’s like the old Irish joke: ‘How do I get to Dublin? Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ How would I rebuild the Soviet State after 1918? Well, I wouldn’t have started with the Russian state as it was inherited. The imperial system, the Tsarist system, was itself violent. And it itself violated very many people’s rights. So to get to a state that is democratic and friendly and passive is very difficult from that position. But I can’t condone what Lenin did.
Whelan: How much imaginative license did you give yourself when writing the book?
Merridale: It’s a work of historical reconstruction. I used a lot of letters, diaries, memoirs, historical documents to create it. Anyone who has ever tried to write a history that is readable has at some point got to ask, what would that have looked like? In the end you do have to make that leap and ask what was it like on that train? And you can either refrain from saying or you can try using the documents you have to say something. That’s what I did. There is nothing made up in it.
Whelan: There have been many different fictional versions of Lenin. Part of Russia’s complicated history with Lenin is that he has become a figure that he never was. Through your research, did you get a sense of what Russians today feel about Lenin?
Merridale: I don’t think people want to have a sense of the real figure of Lenin. They’re tired of it. They lived through 70 years of Soviet power. So there are people who are huge fans of Lenin. They are fans of the Stalinist Lenin, they are fans of the caricature because that is who they grew up with. To them, Lenin represents security and justice, equality, decency, Russia’s greatness, the Soviet Union… all those things. But to the bulk of the population, Lenin is a completely unreadable figure who was thrust on them at school and after that they really don’t want to know him.
The clearest example of how real this lack of interest in Lenin is was when I was in Malmö, in Sweden. I stayed at the hotel where Lenin had dinner during his railway journey up to the north, and after breakfast I went to see the concierge and I said: ‘I know there is a plaque in the hotel somewhere that commemorates Lenin’s visit. May I photograph it?’ And she said: ‘Lenin? You mean John Lennon?’ Now, that’s funny anyway, but she was Russian, from Moscow. So that’s the degree to which he is irrelevant in a hyper-capitalist country that Russia wishes to be, and is currently trying to make itself. He’s actually quite embarrassing. Where do we put him? For the older generations (and there are young Leninists, too) it’s the Stalinist Lenin that they love.
Whelan: What do you make of the eventual trajectory of the Russian Revolution?
Merridale: If you could bring Lenin back to life and sit him in front of you, he’d say the reason that our revolution became so disappointing was because the world revolution didn’t happen and we were betrayed by the German bourgeoisie and that renegade Karl Kautsky. But it is also impossible to look at what happened in Russia and any country that experiences a revolution and find one where there aren’t huge numbers of victims.
Whelan: What about Lenin do you admire most?
Merridale: Lenin was nothing but politics. We don’t know many people like that. In fact, I don’t know anyone who lives and breathes politics and nothing else. But I can’t think of anything much to admire in him. I don’t think I do like the man. But that doesn’t make him anything other than fascinating.
Catherine Merridale is an award-winning writer and historian, and the author most recently of Lenin on the Train, published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).
Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked.