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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Lenin on the Train

Catherine Merridale

Metropolitan Books



The masses must always be told the whole truth, the unvarnished truth, without fearing that the truth will frighten them away.
N. K. Krupskaya

It was Thomas Cook who said it. There are three places in the world that anyone who claims to be a global traveller really must see. The desert citadel of Timbuktu is one of them, another is the old city of Samarkand. The third is a small town in Sweden. A hundred and fifty years ago, it may have been the Northern Lights that drew Cook up to Haparanda. The locals boasted of pirates, too, but every harbour round that coast claimed to have those. Perhaps what really did the trick was the report of a man in a swirling coat, a magic healer, skilled with herbs, who flew above the Arctic night like a great bird.

It was not simply that the small town was remote. The place was thrilling, dangerous, right at the end of the known world. Haparanda is situated at the apex of the Gulf of Bothnia, the sea that separates Sweden’s northern territories from Finland. The area is dominated by a river delta, and at one time the town encompassed a string of low-lying islands as well as some more solid ground towards the west. Other settlements sprang up along the waterside, including a much larger town called Tornio, but life for everyone meant sharing: hunting the region’s winter game, taking cattle to pasture on the nearby hills and wading out in the brief thaws to catch the eels that flashed between the floating mats of reed.

The population had nothing much in common with Stockholm (most people spoke a local patois), but the whole zone was part of Sweden until the early nineteenth century. In 1809, however, a treaty concluded at the end of one of Russia’s many wars with the Swedes decreed that the eastern bank of the river, including the busiest central island, should be transferred to the Grand Duchy of Finland, a territory that the Russians had just snatched for their empire. Marooned on the Swedish bank, Haparanda faced its bigger sister, Tornio, across the river. The two of them were now estranged.

From the moment of its creation, the border never felt entirely safe. The Swedish government could not forget that Russia had ambitions to expand. When vast reserves of iron ore were discovered at Kiruna, less than 300 miles to the north-west, investors in Stockholm were forced to curb their plans for a new railway out of fear that Haparanda might become a gateway for some fresh wave of invading Russian hordes. Sweden’s age of steam was at its height, but as the lines reached on, like nerve pathways, towards the north, no track was laid to Haparanda. In summer, when the hunters’ sledges could no longer cross the ice, the only solid link to Finland was a wooden bridge.

What changed things was the First World War. The great powers of Europe’s Atlantic coast, Britain and France, were allied with the Russian empire now. They needed to send people back and forth, and they had also agreed to provide the Russians with vital war materials, with fuses and precision sights, but direct contact between west and east was blocked. The routes through Germany were shut, of course, and where they were not packed with mines the sea-lanes in the North Sea and the Baltic were patrolled by submarines. Only the land-based route through northern Sweden was viable, albeit gruelling and remote. Thomas Cook died in 1892. If he had thought that Haparanda was exotic once, he should have seen it in 1917.

The rail link was completed in 1915. It was only a branch line, single track, and engines had to steam down from Karungi, some way to the north. Although the route was now an artery for vital wartime trade, the line still stopped short of Finland itself, whose railways (like all those that Russia controlled) used a different gauge in any case. Because the two sides had remained so nervous of each other, everything (including passengers) had to be unloaded at Haparanda station, ferried across the river, hauled up the high bank opposite and reloaded on Russian trains. In winter, sledges dragged by reindeer or stout little horses plied the route; in summer, every boat that could be found was busy on the water.

The bottleneck was clumsy, a time-consuming irritation, but Haparanda was set for a boom. Together with its sister on the Finnish side, it soon became the busiest commercial crossing-point in Europe. Where local herdsmen had once been the only drinkers, the small town’s bars now swelled with hustlers, spivs and the secret policemen whose lives slipped by as they observed them. The rooms in the only hotel were booked up for the diplomats and politicians, mainly British, French and Russian, who suddenly began to pass through town. They did not like the climate or the tedious slow trains, but there were no easier options left.

That inconvenient fact also led to the most unlikely of visitations. The Dowager Empress of Russia, Maria Fedorovna, had been in western Europe when the war broke out. She managed to get home herself, but her imperial train was stuck in Denmark and officials in the German government refused to let it steam to Russia along any track of theirs. The situation was awkward, but it was saved by the record freeze of January 1917. When the ice was at its thickest, an army of workmen arrived to lay temporary rails across the Tornionjoki river between Haparanda and the station at Tornio. The imperial train (including boudoir, throne room, kitchens and a mobile electricity generator) was then pulled over, two carriages at a time, and coupled on to a Finnish locomotive on the opposite side. Special castors had been fitted to accommodate the wider gauge. The carriages had barely vanished into Finland when the men were back out on the ice with crowbars to rip up the track.1

Wartime photographs from the local museum show creatures who might well be from another world. Stiff, corseted and alien, they look outlandish in their uniforms, their gold braid and a range of feathered hats. Today, the landscape bears no trace whatever of their ghosts. The twin towns on the Tornionjoki have combined – the tourist guidebooks talk about ‘HaTo’ – and you can stroll from Sweden into Finland and back by crossing the square outside the shopping mall.2 The Finnish part is permanently one hour ahead of the Swedes, which complicates the bus timetable, but the usual border annoyances – passports, customs, traffic queues – have all been smoothed out like crisp euro notes. The only monument of any size is a massive dark-blue box, the world’s largest Ikea store. In April, it is surrounded by a wasteland of oily puddles and filthy heaps of gritty snow, but when that melts the car park will be full. The Russians are still coming, then, as well as Finns and reindeer-herders from Lapland. The man whose story I am here to tell would certainly have understood. He wrote a lot about world trade. He also crossed this river on the ice. It was a journey that changed the world.

In April 1917, at the height of the First World War, the exiled leader of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, travelled back to Russia by train. Before the year was out he had become the master of a revolutionary new state. Lenin’s ultimate achievement was to turn ideas that Karl Marx had outlined on paper forty years before into an ideology of government. He created a Soviet system that ruled in the name of working people, ordering the redistribution of wealth and sponsoring equally radical transformations in culture and social relations. Lenin’s programme offered hope and dignity to many of his country’s poor, not least by granting an unprecedented measure of equality to women. Among the costs were countless human lives, beginning with tens of thousands of murders in Lenin’s lifetime. Some died for no crime more heinous than their possession of a pair of spectacles. Over the seven decades of the Soviet Union’s existence the number of its guiltless victims would rise to the low millions. At the same time, its practical, unsentimental advocacy of the dispossessed established Leninism as a blueprint for revolutionary parties from China and Vietnam to the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. The starting-point for all these things, from infant Soviet state to world Cold War, was that momentous wartime ride.

Lenin was in Switzerland when the story began. Condemned to exile by the tsarist courts, the Bolshevik leader was safe enough in his new home, but he was endlessly impatient to see the revolution that he had been forecasting for more than twenty years. Like many socialists, he expected it to begin somewhere in western Europe, but the early months of 1917 brought news of large-scale protests in the Russian capital, Petrograd. That shock had barely been absorbed when the world learned that the tsar had abdicated. On the eve of the campaigning season, with plans afoot for a major offensive in the west, the future of the Russian empire was suddenly uncertain. In Petrograd, the people cheered. Their country had become a republic, at least until a constitution was approved.

Like almost every Russian exile, Lenin was delighted when he heard this news. As the leader of Russia’s most militant revolutionary party, his first priority was to get home. The trouble was that he was trapped. Neither Britain nor France was inclined to assist with his travel plans. They knew him as a fierce opponent of the war, and their entire diplomatic effort was focused on persuading Russia, free or not, to keep on fighting so that they could win. This unhelpful position left only one route for Lenin to take. It involved catching a train through Germany, crossing to Sweden by ferry, and continuing north to the border at Haparanda. The problem there was Germany itself, for its army had been butchering Russian soldiers in their hundreds of thousands on the eastern front since 1914. Lenin’s dilemma looked unresolvable. To go through Germany was treachery, to stay in Switzerland was to ignore the call for which he had been waiting all his life.

Lenin, naturally, chose the first. What made it possible was the unexpected co-operation of the German High Command. The stalemate in the trenches had forced all Europe’s major powers to search for ways of gaining an advantage somewhere other than the battlefield. By 1917, a small group of officials inside the German foreign ministry had come to favour the idea of using insurgents to destabilize their enemies. They sponsored military mutineers in France, they armed the Irish nationalists and dreamed of sparking a rebellion on the borders of India. When Lenin’s name was recommended, they were quick to grasp his potential for disrupting Russia’s war effort. If all went well, and the German army took the opportunity to land a truly crushing blow against Britain and France, they would not need his help for long.

With that delightful thought in mind, German officials saw no difficulty in arranging for the Bolshevik leader’s safe transport across their country, even acceding to his request that the carriage transporting his group be treated as an extra-territorial entity, sealed off from the surrounding world and therefore innocent of any contact with the enemy population. More controversially, they also organized financial backing – the infamous ‘German gold’ – for some of his revolutionary operations. The French and British knew about the journey, and though they found it hard to separate the rumours from the facts, Lenin’s reputation gave them ample cause for alarm. Some even urged that he be stopped, perhaps in Sweden’s Arctic woods. When the time came, however, no one was willing to accept responsibility and shoot.

It was a story that might easily have come from the pen of John Buchan. Only a few months previously, indeed, Buchan had published a spy-thriller, Greenmantle, whose eponymous villain also preached against the wartime British and their friends. Greenmantle’s home was not Russia (Buchan opted to use the Middle East), but the plot depended on a special agent’s willingness to cross the whole of Germany to get to him. ‘I had expected a big barricade and barbed wire with entrenchments,’ the hero, Richard Hannay, explains in the book. ‘But there was nothing to see on the German side but half a dozen sentries in . . . field grey. We were all shepherded into a big bare waiting-room where a large stove burned. They took us two at a time into an inner room for examination . . . They made us strip to the skin . . . The men who did the job were fairly civil, but they were mighty thorough.’3 Lenin was to suffer this ordeal in real life, and the location was the customs house in Tornio. While a group of sceptical Russian border guards looked on, moreover, the person who was being mighty thorough was a British officer.

The journey ended at the Finland Station in Petrograd. A triumphant Lenin, barely showing strain after his eight-day ride, stepped through the ranks of his adoring followers and on to change the course of Russia’s history for ever. The Bolsheviks created an admiring myth based on the tale, but the most memorable verdict was passed by Winston Churchill. ‘Full allowance must be made for the desperate stakes to which the German war leaders were already committed,’ he commented in retrospect. ‘Nevertheless it was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.’ 4

The ‘truck’, in fact, was not exactly sealed; the trackside doors were seldom locked and people did get on and off. The journey was also much tougher than Churchill’s words suggest. It took the Russians three whole days to cross Germany, and for that time they could not buy a meal, let alone step out to stretch their legs. If they slept at all, it was in their packed hard-class compartments, heads lolling on their neighbours’ chests, dreams perfumed with stale bread and socks. The idea of a bacillus, however, is something that I recognize at once. Just as the First World War gave rise to great intrigues, there have been many global games – diplomatic, economic and military – in my lifetime.

There is almost as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in Central Asia since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Arab world. The history of Lenin’s train is not exclusively the property of the Soviets. In part, it is a parable about great-power intrigue, and one rule there is that great powers almost always get things wrong.

I knew that I would have to do the train-ride for myself. A journey is not only places, distances and times, but there are things that must be seen. The first task was to make sure the itinerary was right. Historians have offered plenty of accounts, but I have yet to see a map that shows the route that Lenin really took. Most experts send him north along a line that was not even built in 1917, and at least one book – a classic that has been reprinted many times – gets the journey wrong by well over 1,000 miles.5 The route is not a mere detail. There is a difference between a boat across the Baltic and a long haul through the Lapland snow. A track through lonely forest with no light or road in sight is still a proposition far more menacing than steaming past a jaunty string of seaside towns.

Thick though it is, and splendid in its colourful jacket, Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Railway Guide is not a great deal of help. The wartime train schedules varied from week to week, and new tracks were still being laid as late as 1916. Leaving Bradshaw on the bookshelf, I armed myself with archive timetables from 1917, my notes from the fifty-five volumes of Lenin’s Collected Works and a very large map. Apart from a notebook and pen, my bag was also packed with a small digital sound recorder. As I play it back at my desk now, what I hear is the song of Europe on the move: a chorus of languages, the roar of traffic from the streets near by, then engines, tannoys, brakes and hissing doors. If the device had gone on running after that, it would have picked up hours of conversation: muted, bored, confiding, brash, but seldom rising much above the soothing background clatter of the rails.

I planned to keep to Lenin’s schedule as well as his exact route. I would leave Zurich on 9 April and arrive in St Petersburg eight days and well over 2,000 miles later. It promised to be a headlong rush, even on Europe’s fastest-moving trains, but Lenin was impatient and I took my cue from him. Though every connection had to be met at breakneck speed, I was also to enjoy what seemed like endless hours of leisure, as Lenin did, watching the changing scene. A hundred years have passed since the great Russian came this way. The little German towns he saw, huddled neatly like wooden toys, are now ringed by commercial blocks and high-speed roads. The urban landscape sprawls for miles beyond the old suburbs. Most striking of all, however, is the absence of any sense of danger. As my train crossed from Switzerland into Germany it did not even stop, but the border bristled with guns in Lenin’s time and the land beyond had a murderous reputation. My journey was smooth, fast and safe; as Europe’s war raged all around him, Lenin’s was arduous and frightening.

Lenin might also have struggled to recognize the towns and cities where I stopped. In Zurich, waiting to set off, I wandered up the narrow street where he once lived. Strolling towards the lake, I visited the cafés where the Russian exiles used to meet. The district was a poor one then, but now even the short walk to the library where Lenin liked to work is lined with shops, and the only frightening things in sight are the prices on the hand-made shoes and imported designer paint. The working class has disappeared, the factories are gone. The sumptuous Baur au Lac, the city’s most luxurious hotel, is one of the few landmarks that remains more or less as it was when Parvus, the enigmatic go-between who handled some of Lenin’s German funds, set up in one of its suites in 1915. A century on, the rich at least have things exactly as they wish.

It was refreshing, having mused on that, to find one cottage industry that had somehow survived the years. Lulled by the ultra-modern German trains I had forgotten it, but the seaway between Sassnitz and the Swedish port of Trelleborg has been a smugglers’ route for centuries. By the time I wheeled my suitcase through the metal door, the ferry’s airline seats, upright as Presbyterian church pews, had all been occupied by families and men with flickering laptops, but the saloon, a carnival of plastic palms and blue banquettes, felt more like Tirana or Bucharest, especially when everyone began to shout. We were still in port at Sassnitz when the cursing began. It centred round a monstrous stretch-wrapped pallet-load of beer, as awkward as a restaurant-size fridge, which several men were attempting to heave over a step. I was thirsty from the latest train, to say nothing of weary and crumpled, so my instinct was to track this to the nearest passenger bar, but as the tenth crate-trolley wobbled in, and the twentieth, all of them laden with German canned beer, I understood that I was travelling along an artery for tax-free booze. The contraband – heaped under groundsheets, bound with cords – created looming walls around the groups of traders as they dealt their playing cards and checked their phones.

Those smugglers – businessmen, of course – were heirs to an impressive line. Their predecessors worked this route throughout the First World War, sometimes conveying pharmaceutical supplies and sometimes coded letters in primitive secret ink. What made the current lot so special, however, was an irony of history, for all these small-time beer tycoons came from societies where private trade had once been outlawed by a communist regime. That rapid turnabout helps to explain why Lenin’s countrymen have cooled to him in recent times. They have embalmed him like a rubber doll, and they have made exhaustive studies of his brain, but no one really loves him now; the corpse has been preserved without a heart. His reputation is worst of all in the places where Soviet power was forcibly imposed. In one, western Ukraine, his ideas are so execrated that a new word, Leninapad, had to be coined when Maidan protesters brought down dozens of Lenin statues at once in 2014.

One of my fellow passengers turned out to have come from Sofia. As we chatted in a canyon between many crates of beer, she remembered Bulgarian communism and clicked her tongue against bare gums. She was surprised enough that I was not transporting freight. If I had told her of my quest for Lenin she would probably have given me up for a halfwit. What that dead man has come to symbolize in countries such as hers – corruption, hardship, lies and the abuse of power – is a system so rotten that it does not even qualify to be described as a fossil. But I knew that it had once been alive. Like fossil-hunters everywhere, I dreamed of stepping back into the world where it had breathed.

It was springtime six days ago when I left Zurich. In the snowdrifts of Tornio, it is as cold as death. The station here, another relic of the First World War, is a brick building that now stands abandoned on a stretch of bank. Back across the river, albeit not precisely opposite (as usual, no one was willing to risk that), Haparanda’s station was a more elaborate affair, but both places are empty now and the lines have been closed to passengers for years. To get to Haparanda station from the town, indeed, I had to pass the regional prison. The Finnish side is prettier, at least today, and certainly less forbidding. The station also has a plaque commemorating Lenin’s famous journey; it is the only one that I have found in Haparanda–Tornio. It must have been the Soviets who got the Finns to put it there. In the 1960s, when they were celebrating fifty years of proletarian dictatorship, Russia’s diplomats in Europe attempted to persuade their hosts to screw a bit of metal like this to any site Lenin passed through.

The trouble with memorials is that people stop seeing them. Two days ago, I had gone looking for a brass plaque in Malmö’s Savoy Hotel. Lenin and his hungry comrades had dined there after their ferry-ride from Germany, and I had read about a gorgeous room and famously efficient staff. The concierge was mystified. ‘Lenin?’ she asked eventually. ‘You mean John Lennon?’ It turned out that there was indeed a plaque across the hall, and when I saw it I could tell why Lenin’s name had not occurred to the young woman (despite the astonishing revelation that she was herself from Russia). The brass is mainly polished to a lovely shine, but the bit that carries Lenin’s name is dim enough to be eclipsed by stars of a quite different magnitude: Judy Garland and Brigitte Bardot, Abba and Henning Mankell.

At least the man in Stockholm knew who Lenin was. I had only one day in town (as Lenin did), and several people asked me why I had to leave so soon. ‘You are following Lenin?’ this shopkeeper exclaimed. ‘Don’t you know? You are about a hundred years too late!’ We both laughed, but in fact that was the point of the whole thing. I was not there merely to tell an old story again. Whatever new details may have emerged from Russia’s archives recently, I wanted to do something more than fill history’s gaps. I took the train to recreate a journey from a century ago, but I am writing this book because we all live in a different world.

The Cold War used to exercise a stranglehold on everyone’s imagination. It arranged everything along a line between two poles – for or against, right or left – and ultimately drained the colour out of history. Most of us turned instead to books about the Romanovs and pretty princesses in white. As I thought about Europe in 1917, however, and tried to picture Lenin there, I kept seeing reflections of the times we live in now. Lenin’s legacy is often treated as an abstract thing, a list of texts and speeches, formal stuff. The weight of all that writing makes it difficult to see the living strands, the ones that matter in the light of recent world events. The list of those is long, but it includes global power realignment, espionage and dirty tricks, fanaticism and complex multiple insurgencies.

The old books told the story in the best way for their times. In 1940, Edmund Wilson used Lenin’s journey to the Finland Station as a way of writing about socialism, labouring for decades to construct a classic tale of disappointed hope.6 In the 1950s, Alan Moorehead produced a more sober account, financed in part by Life magazine, whose aim was to investigate the truth behind the German gold that Lenin was supposed to have received.7 Michael Pearson went over that ground again in the 1970s, this time with drama on his mind.8 His work was good on German trains and English gossip but weak, indeed evasive, on the politics. For that, you had to read the socialist Marcel Liebman, for whom the Lenin story (like Lenin’s writings as a whole) was ‘one of the brightest torches available to aid our observation of present-day political phenomena’.9 Views like Liebman’s seem antiquated now, and almost no one goes to Lenin for enlightenment. But revolutions are still happening, and leaders are still preaching anger and armed struggle to receptive crowds.

The universe of Marx and Lenin used to be my own. I made my first visit to Russia when its government was Soviet and its cities grey, devoid of coffee, barely lit at night. I made my pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb, I marvelled at the reverence some people genuinely felt. Later, as Moscow turned into the Dubai of the north, I spent my time amid the dust and relics of the past. Thanks to the Russian people’s kindness, I explored the costs and hardship of the Soviet years as if I were researching my own family. Listening to people’s memories of arrest and exile to the labour camps, or visiting the mass graves that survive from Stalin’s time, I was a witness to some of the tragedies that communism inflicted on its citizens. I was not one of those who thought all aspects of the Soviet Union evil, false or misguided, but its effects were catastrophic just the same. I understood why its end was celebrated across Europe, North America and wealthy countries everywhere. There was a celebration of a kind in Russia, too. But though we all wept tears of happiness when the Berlin Wall came down, outsiders’ crowing self-congratulation was bound to leave a sour taste.

The truth, which took a while to dawn, is that not everyone turned out to be as enchanted by the values of the so-called ‘West’ as some leaders of the free world thought they should be. It is too soon to talk of any victory; the term is as misleading as it is unwise. The British diplomats in Russia made the same mistake in Lenin’s time when they assumed that every individual across the globe would want to be a decent chap just like they were. They never really understood that Lenin was not some imported species of demon, deflecting Russians from their destiny to be like meek versions of Englishmen. As I would find, the British sponsored Russian exiles of their own, escorting them to Petrograd to preach to waiting crowds. They failed, while Lenin’s mission ended in success because he promised things that mattered more than British decency and yet more guns.

The dogma of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was an empty shell by the time I studied at Moscow State University in the 1980s (and a tactful leadership had dropped the Stalinism part), but I knew that there had once been a time when it felt alive. The brightest moments were in 1917. The spring and summer of that year saw Lenin at his most creative. Whatever happened when he was in power, the man who came back on the sealed train was popular because he offered clarity and hope. His message spoke to a large section of the Russian people, the ones who wanted more than their old leaders thought they had a right to ask from life. Although the route I have been following is a fact of geography, I have also been travelling in time, rattling north in search of a landscape of forgotten possibilities.

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. Thirty years after the end of communism, the traces of the leader’s fateful journey are disappearing even here. Wrapped in gold leaf and painted in fresh pastel shades, the city has decided to revive its glamorous, imperial phase. There remain a few places, however, where the flame of revolution is still allowed a controlled burn. One of them stands in a quiet street on the Petrograd Side, not too far from Chkalovskaya metro. As is the case with many old apartment blocks, its crumbling entrance lobby hits you with a smell of dogs, stale smoke and beer. The pushchairs parked along the wall are all new and expensive brands, but no one cares to pool their money and provide a lift of sufficient size to carry the things upstairs. Like the graffiti on the wall outside, the present one proclaims the nation’s verdict on collectivism. Above, the doors to the private apartments are of a calibre more usually associated with bank vaults. The building’s walls are fragile, with enormous cracks, but if the whole thing ever does come down those doors will still be there.

When I get to the top floor, the portrait of Vladimir Putin on the office wall tells me which version of Lenin I can expect to encounter today. The staff in here are keener on the one they think of as a great leader and teacher than on the revolutionary whose aim was global civil war. The woman who extends her hand for me to shake is neat, precise and spotless. She is also generous, however, and once it is clear that I really want to listen, and that I also need to see and understand, she blossoms into the ideal guide. It helps that I once lived, as she did, in the Soviet world. We have a language in common, a language that young Russians do not even know.

The place that she curates is the Elizarov museum, the apartment where Lenin’s sisters lived with his brother-in-law and, for a short time in the last years of her life, his mother. In April 1917, in the small hours of the morning, Lenin came here after the reception that greeted his arrival at the Finland Station. As I peer into the bedroom, I can imagine him throwing his jacket on the bed while Nadezhda Krupskaya, his wife of nearly twenty years, unpins her hat and glides about, in borrowed slippers, to arrange the room. The couple lived here for the next six weeks, displacing the two sisters and sharing their tea.

To say that it has been preserved is an understatement. The flat iron is still leaning on the kitchen range, the copper bath awaits. The twin beds where the couple slept are draped with the linen that Lenin’s sister Mariya loved to decorate with fussy hand-embroidery. His mother’s things are in the main bedroom, but with them is a travelling-case, left open to show brushes, shaving kit and bottles for cologne. Its battered leather is a reminder that Lenin spent the best years of his life packing a bag like this and travelling, his homes no more than rented rooms in foreign towns. Though the vanity case is splendid in its way, its purpose here in the museum is to represent the life of a renunciate, a wanderer, the Lenin who was part of Soviet myth.

What I had not expected was the primness, an atmosphere as suffocating as that of any Dickensian parlour. Frilled pillows and embroidered cushions have been scattered everywhere (though always in the neatest way), and each framed photograph is dusted to a noble shine. There is even a lace-edged sling above one bed in which the occupant could hang his watch. The study opposite is masculine (it belonged to Mark Elizarov, Lenin’s brother-in-law, who made his money in commercial shipping), but that means only that the walls are brownish, the lace supplanted by chessmen. The clutter is distracting for a while, but then my eye rests on a coconut. ‘Elizarov had contacts overseas,’ the curator explains. ‘He brought this home; it was a treasure.’ I shake it, and the desiccated kernel responds with a dull rattle. The wretched thing has been here for over a hundred years. If levity were not so obviously out of place, I might have been tempted to laugh.

From here, we cross into the drawing room. The building where the Elizarovs lived was designed to mimic the prow of a ship, and this is the room that occupies the sharp end. If the muslin curtains were ever lifted, the triangular space would immediately flood with daylight. Instead, there are electric bulbs. Lenin had a special reverence for those. ‘Communism’, he once said, ‘is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.’ His sisters cannot have been quite so sure, however, for every lamp is veiled by a shade with a heavily beaded fringe. ‘Anna made those’, the curator explains, ‘because she did not want her brother to be harmed by unhealthy electric rays.’

Lenin loved it here. It is easy to forget that he was respectable and relatively wealthy – a member of the early twentieth-century bourgeoisie; waistcoats, antimacassars and all. His wife’s sketchbook is on the dining table. I leaf through it, amazed that she had time to draw at all. The couple were childless, and Krupskaya devoted almost all her energy to the demands of revolution, but she took up this book when she had a few moments to relax. The pages show plump-faced children with ribbons in their curly hair; here little boys with puppies and there a girl with a kitten. We have missed something about the world of the successful revolutionary, it seems. These firebrands came from tranquil, and even stifling, homes. They did not live outside their times; they were almost cocooned by them.

I am still reflecting on this when the curator motions me to sit. She lifts the lid of the inevitable upright piano (candelabra, German case, gothic lettering) and flexes her schoolteacher’s arms. And then, as I sit in the drawing room where Lenin used to take his ease, surrounded by his knick-knacks and his sisters’ dainty needlework, she starts to play. The piano is out of tune, but I am too entranced to object to that. The street sounds of St Petersburg are banished as my host coaxes the instrument into the famous first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. She plays it well, though there is just a hint of saccharine, of smothering pillows.

Lenin loved music, the piano especially. It is a point that all the textbooks used to make, along with tales about his fondness for children and cats. The Lenin I am looking for is not so sweet. I want to find the man with the consuming, merciless cold fire. It was not lace and coconuts that changed the world. I see him now, pacing the room, impatient with the soothing notes. Like chess, which he had also liked to play, music distracted him from revolution. ‘I know nothing that is greater than the Appassionata,’ he once said. ‘I would like to listen to it every day. But I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid, nice things, and stroke the heads of people . . . You mustn’t stroke anyone’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head without any mercy.’10

1 For this story, and pictures of the train, see (accessed January 2016)

2 In principle, anyway. In the autumn of 2015, when Finnish nationalists began a general panic about the numbers of new migrants that might flood through from Haparanda, sporadic border controls resumed.

3 John Buchan, Greenmantle (London, 1916), Chapter 3

4 F. W. Heath (ed.), Great Destiny: Sixty Years of the Memorable Events in the Life of the Man of the Century Recounted in his own Incomparable Words (New York, 1965), pp. ­388–­9

5 The worst culprit is Martin Gilbert, Russian History Atlas (London, 1972), whose map (p. 87) indicates a route around the Baltic from Stockholm via Hangö to Petrograd, thereby cutting more than a thousand miles off Lenin’s real route. The same map was reproduced in subsequent versions of the book (The Routledge Atlas of Russian History, London, 2002 and 2007). Following Michael Pearson (The Sealed Train, Newton Abbot, 1975), most other historians send Lenin up the Swedish coast along a track that was not even laid until the 1920s.

6 Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (New York, 1940)

7 Alan Moorehead, The Russian Revolution (London, 1958)

8 Pearson, Sealed Train

9 Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin (London, 1975), p. 22

10 Cited in Maksim Gorky, Days with Lenin (London, 1932), p. 52

Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Merridale. Excerpted from Lenin on the Train.