Goodbye Lenin? A Centenary Perspective
The Russian Revolution should not be confined to 1917. The legacy of its leader and chief ideologue lives on in all its terrible contradictions.
Throughout its entire history the Russian revolutionary movement included within it the most contradictory qualities.
– Vasilii Grossman, Everything Flows, 1961.
More than 80,000 football fans will descend on Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on 15 July for the World Cup final. As they approach the recently renovated Olympic stadium, a large statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin will come into sight. Almost three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, his image remains ubiquitous in Russia; in neighbouring Ukraine, the former Soviet republic, no statue of him is left standing. In Russia, by contrast, almost every city and town still has a Lenin street, as well as a statue. In Moscow, his embalmed body still lies on display at the heart of the city. Yet, despite his status as one of the major figures of the 20th century, Lenin spent most of his life in obscurity. Few people in Russia or anywhere else had heard of him at the beginning of 1917. When he came to power later that year, he had fewer than seven years left to live.
Lenin’s journey into the history books was an extraordinary one. On 9 April 1917, a group of Russian revolutionaries, with Lenin at its head, boarded a train in the city of Zurich in neutral Switzerland, bound for the north German coast. It was a train journey that, in the words of the historian Catherine Merridale, ‘changed the world’. The trip through wartime Europe was fraught with dangers, but a week later Lenin and his entourage emerged from the sealed train at the Finland Station in St Petersburg (or Petrograd, as it was renamed during the war). Seven months later, this group of revolutionaries had overthrown the provisional government in the Russian capital and had set about trying to establish a new type of political power, not just in Russia but throughout the world.