Michael Pearson

The Sealed Train
Chapter 17

If the Leninists succeed in bringing about the promised armistice,” Count Czernin, the Austrian Foreign Minister, wrote to Berlin two days after Lenin’s speech to the Congress of Soviets, “then it seems to me we shall have won almost a complete victory on the Russian sector for ... the Russian Army in its present state will surely pour back into the hinterland in order to be on the spot when the estates are distributed.  In the present circumstances, an armistice would make this army vanish. ...”

The new situation was the result of brilliant military diplomacy.  The plan to transport Lenin back to Russia in the Sealed Train and to finance him after his arrival there had given the Germans more than the separate peace they so badly needed.  The negotiating team that met with the Soviet delegates to discuss peace terms at Brest-Litovsk demanded that the new government should relinquish the Russian claim to Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and the Ukraine.  Turkey, Germany’s ally, was to be given a large area in the Caucasus.

The Soviet commissars were appalled, for the demands were far greater than they seemed.  The territory contained one-third of the nation’s population, one-third of its cultivated land and half its industry.  When at last the Germans tired of the discussion and ordered what was left of their army to advance, the Russians were forced to sign the humiliating treaty.

The final irony was that the Germans’ investment in Lenin was returned to them—with enormous interest.  Under a supplementary agreement to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty in August 1918, the new Soviet government paid the Germans 120,000,000 gold rubles—at contemporary rates of exchange more than 240,000,000 marks and far more than the Foreign Office supplied to the Bolsheviks.

As for Lenin himself, once the Germans had launched their spring offensive with the support of the divisions he had enabled them to transfer from the Eastern Front, he had, as they saw it, served his purpose to them.  Like the right-wing Russians, they did not believe he would be able to retain power.  “He will have the whole Cossack army against him,” asserted the Kaiser, although already Kerensky’s attempt to advance on Petersburg had failed and he had fled the country.  But the German ruler reckoned without the fanatic determination and dedication of the Bolsheviks and the Red Army in the two-year civil war against the enormous forces arrayed them.

It was not Lenin but the Kaiser who would lose power.  The offensive in the West, for which Wilhelm had used Lenin to provide so many troops, was almost successful—but not quite.  It proved to be the Germans’ last desperate effort in the long and debilitating struggle between the imperial powers.  And once it failed, the German nation was left too exhausted to defend itself against the counteroffensive with which the Allies responded, now with the help of the newly arrived American troops.

Lenin’s new society did not, however, emerge in the form he intended.  Certainly, he destroyed the capitalist system.  But Lenin’s vision of a society constructed on the lines of the Paris Commune, as he outlined in his letters from Switzerland and in his April Theses speech in the Tauride Palace, did not materialize.  He managed to create a socialist state with a keynote of equality, but his concept of rule from below by the people as opposed to rule from above by the establishment never even began to appear.

Indeed, the system of rule from above which he set up was far more rigid than that of the Tsar he replaced.  And the secret police he established proved far more repressive than the Okhrana.  Ultimately Lenin controlled his Russia by means of terror.

Nor did he ever truly give power to the Soviets.  He gave it to the party.  When elections to the Constituent Assembly were held at last and the Bolsheviks won only twenty-five percent of the seats, Lenin decided that the Assembly had no place in his new Russia.  Although he insisted again and again during those early months in 1917 that he would give autonomy to the regions, he never did.

Lenin was proved wrong in two of his basic beliefs.  First, he assumed that he was starting a world revolution, that the new system he established in Russia in 1917 would very quickly spread by means of proletarian revolts in other countries.

Secondly, he believed that the imperialist governments would be unable to end the war, that only by transforming the conflict into a civil class struggle could it be terminated.

In 1924 Lenin died of a stroke.  Nadya lived on until 1939, when she died of a heart attack.  Inessa had gone even before Lenin—struck down by typhus in the Caucasus in 1921.  Her body was brought to the Kremlin for a state funeral.  At her graveside Lenin displayed a degree of emotion that, for him, was astonishing.  “He was plunged in despair, his cap down over his eyes,” wrote Alexandra Kollontai.  “At every moment we thought he would collapse.”

Lenin’s closest comrades did not fare well.  Trotsky was forced into exile and then murdered.  Kamenev and Zinoviev like so many others, were executed in the purges.

As for Parvus, the socialist tycoon, he found himself deserted after November, 1917.  He had been of great value to the Germans, but his socialist ideas soon made him dangerous to them.  To Lenin, he was political anathema.  From Stockholm, he asked permission to come to Russia.  When at last Lenin replied, the rejection was curt.  “The cause of revolution,” he wrote, “should not be touched by dirty hands.”