One of the things about my reading is that I read fiction and non-fiction. I know that’s a little different from a lot of literary-oriented people, who read predominantly fiction. From my perspective, I am not a fiction junkie or a non-fiction junkie….but rather a story junkie. Fiction can be bad with a bad story. I’m looking at you, Infinite Jest. Non-fiction can as well.
However, when you have a non-fiction writer who can tell a great story, you have all the qualities of fiction. Here you might think about Robert Caro, Richard Ben Cramer, David Maraniss, David McCullough. You get the idea.
So I cruised through my wish list last week and landed (after making Barb pick heads or tails) on Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale. This was a well-reviewed book, ended up on some best-of lists and is well worthy of all that recognition.
When the February revolution happened, Lenin was in exile in Switzerland. He needed to get back to Russia which meant either going by sea (needing English permission) or through Germany, a country that was at war with Russia. England was a no-go because they didn’t want all these exiles destabilizing Russia and getting them out of the war. For the same reason, Germany was interested and it was arranged, but Lenin and his party had to ride in a sealed car to protect him from charges of treason when he got home.
This is a great story told well. It is one of the most historic moments in the 20th Century. The October Revolution altered millions of lives for decades and you are reminded when you read Merridale’s work how improbable the whole thing was. The entire dynamic was sailing towards a democratic socialism as part of Marx’s vision of the process of moving away from a Capitalistic society.
In a few months, the Bolsheviks changed that dynamic in favor of an idea that was
radical in the extreme. This just never happens. Lenin’s vision was radical and almost completely out of any mainstream. It wasn’t enough to end the war. You had to destroy the class that made the war.
Merridale accomplishes the most important feat in the book, which is to get you to understand who Lenin was–as a human–and then place him in the context of the times in which he lived. It is no small feat. Lenin is one of the most written about characters in history, but so much of Russian history is muddied by Soviet myth-making (and myth-breaking). To excavate the legends and find the humanity is an accomplishment, to be sure.
There’ s no other way to put it, other than to say that most people thought Lenin was a nut and there’s a good chance you and I would have thought so, too. After he got off that train and started making speeches, people in Petrograd literally thought he had lost his mind in exile.
Yet, he set forces in motion that impacted the lives of millions of people, many of whom ended up brutally killed. In fact, when you see what Lenin unleashed, you can come full circle…maybe what he wanted to do was crazy. Maybe all those people in Petrograd were right.