“All countries suffered in the war, but Russia seemed to suffer most.”
Sometimes, very small actions change the course of world history. It does make me a bit squeamish, this thought – that the world we live in today isn’t necessarily the way it is because of some big plan. No, sometimes actions have unintended consequences that, had they been known, would have made everyone think twice about the action in the first place.
There is no better example for this than the story I am about to tell you – a story that is masterfully told in Merridale’s book. It is about a seemingly trivial train ride in 1917. It lasted eight days, and changed the world forever.
Without this train ride, there would be no Soviet Union, no Cold War, no Vietnam War. No space race, no man on the moon. Arguably no Putin.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this was probably the most important train ride in all of humanity’s history. It definitively was the most consequential.
To understand how we got there, we should start in the beginning – or, in this case, in 1917, the middle of the First World War.
The great powers had been bogged down in this war for three long years. The days of quick military movements and territorial gain were long over – these were the months and years of Trench warfare, of epic struggles over a few hundred meters of territory that would be lost in the next counter-attack.
All around Europe, the great powers were looking for ways out of this deadlock, and by 1917, they had become increasingly desperate, and thus imaginative. They were willing to think outside the box, even if the box in question was Pandora’s.
And nobody was more desperate than the Germans. Their great plan to hit France first and then throw all their power against Russia backfired from the beginning. For three years, they were locked in a war on two fronts. The good news was that neither France nor Russia seemed capable of dealing a decisive blow. The bad news was, neither was Germany.
That’s when they started thinking about other options to bring at least Russia down, and if it couldn’t be done from the outside by pure force, it might be done from the inside.
Because conditions in Russia were on the whole not great. I don’t think they ever were, but in the winter of 1917, they were particularly bad. People suffered from growing food prices, a long war, and, perhaps most insulting of all, incompetent leadership under their Czar Nicolas II. Just to top things off, the Czarina got endeared by a weird, smelly, funky-looking guy called Rasputin. So you see, all kinds of reasons to revolt. Which they did in February 1917.
This created a weird dynamic on the world stage – England and France desperately tried to keep Russia in the war, and Germany wanted nothing more than reach a separate peace with Russia to get rid of at least one front. Every major power had their own incentives in this situation, and the wishes of the Russian people were not considered important to any of them.
So the situation in Russia was getting dicey, but Germany knew it would need a match to set off this powder keg of a brewing revolution. And then they remembered. They had a match. Because sitting in Zurich, biding his time, was none less than Lenin.
Before I continue, I must say that Zurich in 1916/ 1917 was a haven for all sorts of wartime refugees. And if I had access to a time travelling machine, a coffee house in Zurich would be one of my first destinations – because I could feasibly run into not only Lenin, but also James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Erich Maria Remarque, or even Mata Hari.
But back to the story. So Lenin in Zurich wants nothing more than getting to Russia, because he wants to be there when the rubber hits the road. He knows this might be his only chance to bring his idea of a Soviet Republic to life. But… he’s stuck in neutral Switzerland, with no easy way out.
That is, until the Germans approach him and offer him a train ride through Germany, up Sweden to Finland – which was then part of Russia. They basically offered to Amazon Prime him to the doorstep of the Revolution, at zero cost, overnight.
There was only a teeny-tiny problem – Germany was officially still very much at war with Russia, and collaborating with the war time enemy would amount to treason. Lenin knew that, but decided that in this case, the ends justify the means, and took the Germans up on it. He also decided to not mention that teeny tiny detail ever again.
And so, the most important train ride in history came to bear.
It wasn’t just Lenin, though – in total, there were 32 adults and 2 kids travelling with him. Of course, whenever you put 32 people in a confined space, especially if one of those 32 adults is a headstrong tyrant like Lenin, things get hilarious really quickly.
This was my favourite part of the book – the little anecdotes about the ride and the travellers.
For example, because the travellers were not allowed to get off the train, and because anti-smoking rules weren’t really a thing for anther 100 years, the (only) toilet on board of the train was used as a smoking refuge. This, of course, caused long lines and surely a few ‘accidents’.
So, in a move that showed things that were to come, Lenin issued ‘second class’ toilet tickets for smokers. Everyone else got ‘first class’ tickets for the intended use. First class tickets trumped second class tickets, as they always do. It was a hilariously soviet answer to a basic problem, and I am sure it caused more than a few philosophical debates.
(Lenin also set up designated sleeping hours during which no talk was allowed, after one especially rambunctious night. Joykill.)
And so the train made its way through enemy territory (Germany), up Sweden, and finally, a good week later, delivered its precious cargo to the Finnish border.
Of course, the rest is history: Lenin sweeps in and takes control of the fledging Russian Revolution, transforms the country, negotiates a separate peace with Germany, and makes world history.
The author tries to explain the Russian Revolution, and gets a bit lost in the details – I think she made a poor choice there. If I can stay away from this topic, I would do so at all costs, especially if I do not have the necessary time and space to do it justice. The Russian Revolution is convoluted, and complicated, and trying to explain it in less than 100 pages is to set oneself up for failure in my opinion.
But otherwise, this is a great work on an often overlooked story of the First World War.
And it got me thinking – because trains played such a great role in this war, more than in any other conflict. They made the huge troop movements possible. Without trains the war wouldn’t have been possible.
(Which is also why Europe sports such a great train system, even today. It was designed and planned as a military tool. That’s why there are extensive train tracks crossing the continent. And this is also one of the reasons why the US doesn’t have the same system – it simply was never a matter of military importance to them.)
But the role of trains isn’t just confined to simple logistics. The war ended in a train car, too – the armistice was signed in a carriage in the Forest of Compiegne. And this story of how Lenin got back to Russia is now part of this legend too.
As always – if you want to learn more about the First World War, you should listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History Podcast. It’s free, and it’s a marvel.
I am currently reading two books, so I am not sure which one we’ll discuss next week – we’ll either talk about the Paranoia during the Cold War OR Crime and Punishment in Black America. So either way, lots of fun!!