Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969)

His revulsion became, all at once, a weird nebulous panic. (p.88)

Ubik is set in the same year as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1992, although it is a different 1992 (itself making a point about ramifying realities and fissiparous futures). Instead of androids, this future is plagued by telepaths, telepaths who can read your mind and some which can predict the future.

The telepaths – known collectively as psis – have become such a menace that companies have grown up which offer the services of anti-telepaths, human mutants who also have psionic mind powers, but of a purely negative kind, to counteract them. The businesses are known as anti-psi prudence organisations; the anti-telepaths are known as ‘inertials’.

Types of telepaths include: teeps, kineticists, precogs, resurrectors and animists (p.22).

One of these prudence organisations is Runciter Associates, run by ageing Glen Runciter. His people irritate him by ringing him early one morning to tell him they’ve lost track of ‘the top telepath in the Sol system’, S. Dole Melipone. He is the only known telepath who can generate ‘68.2 blr units of telepathic aura’. Melipone is employed by Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation for psis and is by way of being the book’s baddy.

Runciter immediately flies to Zürich to consult his dead wife, Ella, who is kept in a state of suspended animation – in ‘cold-pac’ – at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium run by Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang. Family members who have passed away can be kept in cryogenic storage and you can ‘wake’ them and communicate with their brain patterns via special headphones, the ‘electronic communing equipment’ (p.223).

In the event, Ella’s thoughts are hijacked by a dead person being kept in a casket next to hers, Jory Miller. Because he’s younger, Jory’s cerebronic patterns are stronger than hers. Runciter is outraged and demands his wife be moved to a secure unit.

These half-deads are, the reader reflects, yet another kind of altered consciousness, Dick’s main theme – as are, of course, the florid range of telepaths and inertials we meet throughout the book. Other kinds of minds.

Runciter Associates had sent one of their own telepaths, G.G. Ashwood to the hotel where Melipone was last seen. Now Ashwood turns up at the flat of the chronically impoverished Runciter Associates employee, Joe Chip.

Ashwood has brought a new find, a girl of about 17 who has a spectacular new power. She seems to be able to rearrange the past in order to suit the needs of the present. I.e. if she sees something she or someone else wants to change she has the power, not to travel in person, but to send her mind back into the past to alter the course of events in order to change the present to suit. She proves this by showing Joe the initial evaluation of her which he carried out and which was very unfavourable. In the narrative we just read she had slowly stripped off to get ready for a shower, which swayed Joe towards giving her a more favourable valuation. This – the stripping version – is version two of events. She went back and changed everything that happened from the moment she came into his apartment.

Joe doesn’t believe it. To prove it Pat gets out of her blouse the valuation he wrote for her in the first course of events. It’s his writing, alright. It appears to be true that she can go back in time and alter the course of events. Wow.

Commentary

All this has happens in the first 40 or so pages of this 230-page-long novel. As usual Dick has plunged us not only into a story, but into a densely imagined world of wonders where weird elements are not just everyday but so taken for granted that they’re given typically American nicknames.

The futureness of it all is created and reinforced by a raft of gadgets and gizmos in the brave new world of 1992.

  • Runciter obviously travels to Switzerland and back super-fast, maybe via rocket. The existence of rockets is confirmed when Runciter takes his team of inertials to Luna (the moon) by the company rocket, Pratfall II.
  • Runciter’s hovertaxi drops him on the roof of his company building, from where he takes a ‘descent chute’ down to the fifth floor.
  • People don’t have newspapers, they have ‘pape machines on whose screen they scan through today’s headlines and, if an article takes their fancy, ask the ‘pape machine to print it off so it can be read. (Reading this in 2019 you wonder why Dick didn’t make the logical connection and just have people read the whole article off the screen? Why bother with cumbersome printing? I guess the culture-wide tradition of reading from paper was too all-encompassing for even Dick to see beyond.)
  • People talk via vidphone (as they also do in Android).
  • Money has stopped being in dollars and is now counted in poscreds.
  • For weaponry people carry laser tubes (as they do in Android).

The plot

The main plot concerns a client, Stanton Mick, a billionaire who is developing a new hyperspace drive on the moon. He suspects his operation has been infiltrated by psis from Hollis’s organisation. The fear is that they will carry out industrial espionage, getting into his scientists’ minds, stealing all the secrets, possibly sabotaging the project.

So he sends a secretary, Miss Wirt, to ask Runciter Associates to send up a team of their best inertials to counter the psis.

It all has a broadly comic tone. The inertials Runciter assembles are a strikingly random ill-matched bunch of freaks wearing deliberately kooky outfits – the red triangular glasses, the fashionable elastic bands which push a woman’s breasts together – who even their employer, Runciter, finds it hard to take seriously.

They fly to the moon (in one hour) and are ushered by Stanton Mick’s people into the underground rooms of the lunar base. The bizarre figure of Micks, with waist-length white hair, appears, but they’ve barely begun discussing arrangements before Mick inexplicably floats up to the ceiling and explodes.

Many of the inertials are injured, Runciter fatally. Joe takes charge and carries Runciter’s body with another anti-psi, along with the rest of them they escape in a lift up to the surface, make it to the spaceship, and blast off, leaving Joe wondering: if the entire ‘job’ was a set-up by Hollis, why did he let them get away?

Comedy

The novel is surprisingly funny. Or obviously funny at unexpected moments. One humorous element is Dick’s fondness for improbable-verging-on-grotesque businesses. I noted it in the Van Ness Animal repair shop in Androids and here it surfaces in the Beloved Brethren Moratorium and its unctuous Teutonic owner.

The rundown of the eleven inertials who go to the moon is a parade of grotesques in outlandish costumes, done for broadly comic effect.

There’s another thread of broad comedy running through the text in that, in the future, many basic household functions and implements – such as a door, a shower, a bath – require cash payments up front before functioning. You have to slip a nickel or a dime or twenty cents into the slot before they’ll work. This need dogs Joe Chip wherever he goes because Joe, a shambles of a man, is permanently hard-up, with the result that doors won’t open for him, coffee dispensers won’t serve him, showers don’t operate, and so on, so that he is continually begging everyone around him for spare nickels and dimes, which becomes a kind of catchphrase or repeated failing.

Entropy

The plot so far led me to expect that there would be all kinds of cat and mouse, psi-chasing shenanigans between inertials and psis on the moon base. But this turns out tobe a complete red herring. From this point onwards the novel is about something completely different.

Immediately after the fake Stanton Mick bomb explodes, Runciter’s team all hurry back to the rocket and blast off back for earth.

And begin to notice what turns out to be The Big Theme of the second half of the book. Everything starts ageing and retrogressing. The cigarettes crumble in their hands. Coins seem out of date. The ship’s computer rejects information from the yellow pages when they try and phone the moratorium number.

They fly direct to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium in order to get Runciter’s body into a cold-pac as soon as possible, to preserve whatever is left of his consciousness and there is fuss and comic business with the funereal Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsang, who insists on playing heavy classical music (Beethoven, Verdi) till they yell at him to turn it off.

But things are retrogressing. Joe stays the night at the moratorium hotel and in the morning is horrified to discover one his fellow inertials, Wendy Wright, turned into a dried-out mummy. She had obviously come to see him in the night but maybe be stricken by some sort of physical degeneration and crawled to the closet where she curled up and atrophied.

Joe flies back to New York where he finds a meeting of the inertials being led by Al Hammond. They have all noticed that their cigarettes are always too old to smoke. They get their money out and lay it on the table only to discover that Runciter’s head has replaced Washington on all the coins and notes. One of the inertials has a box of matches they bought weeks ago which carries an advertisement featuring Runciter’s face and telling them he is selling a product from a corporate HQ in Des Moines.

Joe takes Al from the meeting to his office where the remains of Wendy are in a plastic bag. They confer feverishly about the situation then decide to pick a city at random. Baltimore. They fly to Baltimore and visit a store at random. The woman in front of them at the checkout complains that everything she’s bought from the store is either dying or dead. Al and Joe check out the packs of cigarettes; all of them crumble in their fingers. Something is ageing the world. Something that aged Wendy to death.

They pick a carton totally at random from a huge pile of cigarette cartons and, when they open it, there’s a message from Runciter inside, telling them the situation is critical, he must get in touch with them, apologising about Wendy. What the hell is going on? There seem to be two forces, one in which everything is ageing, another in which Runciter is taking over the world, or revealing aspects of it (money, vidphone, products).

Joe takes a punt and buys a brand new tape recorder from the store. They fly back to New York. By the time they hand the tape recorder over to Runciter Associates’ chief technician the recorder has morphed into an old tape-driven version, at least 40 years old. Al looks at the instruction booklet and it claims the machine was ‘Made by Runciter of Zürich’ which has a North American office in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s as if lots of bits of Runciterness are leaking into this world. How? Why?

They take a lift back to the meeting room where they left the others, but on the way Al has visions of the lift itself reverting to a 1910s metal frame elevator complete with elevator guy. He is phasing back and forth between the present and a degenerated past. As they walk the corridor towards the meeting room Al fades. He asks to go into the men’s room where they find a graffito:

JUMP IN THE URINAL AND STAND ON YOUR HEAD
I’M THE ONE THAT’S ALIVE. YOU’RE ALL DEAD

The lights go out. Joe hears Al’s voice fading. He’s going the way of Wendy and begs Joe to leave. There is a terrifying page which takes us inside Al’s head to experience the sense of the entire present world turning to a barren desert of rocks and ice.

The conference room is empty. The other inertials have split. The big TV screen broadcasts a news announcement of the death of Runciter and a big funeral to be held at the Simple Shepherd Mortuary in his home town of des Moines. This cuts to a message for a product named Ubik, followed by a message from Runciter himself, saying that he knew he was going to be assassinated on the moon, thanks to some company preconfigs. He knew this deterioration would set in (though he doesn’t explain why) and says he posted an aerosol of Ubik which Joe can use to spray around him and stave off the decay.

Joe, the reader notices, is taking all this very calmly. Dick’s characters generally do. When they have nervous breakdowns it’s not because of the weird stuff that happens in the stories. Anyway, Joe ponders: the graffiti in the men’s room implied that Runciter is alive and that somehow all the other inertials are dead. Maybe the bomb on the moon killed all of them save Runciter and he somehow managed to get them all into cold-pacs. Maybe this is what being half-dead feels like, like the world carries on but rots and regresses until eventually it’s just the bleak desert which Al saw.

But that theory is contradicted by this TV newscast which, along with the text of the matchbox ads, appears to show that Runciter genuinely is dead. Only answer is to get to des Moines for this supposed funeral.

Joe takes a hovertaxi back to his apartment building. Here there is an extended passage where Joe discovers that every single element in his apartment has regressed – the fridge, phone, TV, everything have ceased to be their shiny plastic 1992 editions and gone back to the 50s, 40s and 30s.

When he exits the apartment (held up, as usual by the front door demanding its nickel) he is scared of taking the lift in case the same thing happens to him as happened to Al, so he walks down the stairs. By the time he gets to the front door it has an old fashioned electric buzzer. There’s a package in his post cubby hole but it doesn’t contain the Ubik spray Runciter promised, but Ubik Liver and Kidney Balm, some old-fashioned snake oil.

The substance designed to reverse the regressive change process has itself regressed. (p.145)

His car has reverted back into a petrol and combustion engine car. He’s never driven one before. A key ring is in his pocket with the ignition key in it so he starts it up and hesitantly drives towards the nearest airport.

By the time Joe gets to the airfield it is lined with old hangars and all the planes have propellers. In the time it takes to be directed towards some flyers who might be prepared to take him to Des Moines these have degenerated further to biplanes. the quaintly dressed pilots a) look at his outlandish (futuristic) clothes b) reject his unknown (to them) money and c) agree to fly him in exchange for his 1939 LaSalle motor. But when Joe takes them to see it it has regressed further to a black 1920 Model-A Ford (p.149).

The pilot isn’t interested in the car but notices the bottle of Ubik on the passenger seat. It has regressed since Joe left it to an apparently rare ointment – Elixir of Ubik – in a vintage bottle. Looking at it closely Joe sees the label has changed and there’s another message from Runciter:

Don’t do it Joe. There’s another way.
Keep trying. You’ll find it. Lots of luck.

The pilot says he’ll fly Joe to Des Moines in exchange. Weird though all this regressing has been, it has in a sense been easy enough to grasp – the world is moving backwards in time relative to one privileged character who remains the same and observes it rationally.

Next day he arrives at Des Moines airfield more or less in one piece, struggles (as always; it is his signature schtick) to find a nickel to use in the payphone, rings the Simple Shepherd Mortuary to be told that the service for Runciter has started, to be followed by a lying in state.

Joe finds all the other inertials who had been to the moon and were involved in the blast attending the funeral. They all crowd round him and it’s immediately obvious that they too have experienced the regression. They all see the same ‘reality’ as him, namely – from a newspaper he saw – that it is 13 September 1939 i.e. the Second World War has just broken out.

They confer and agree that they need to keep together. But one of them, Edie, had returned to her hotel in town feeling ‘tired’. they jump into the two available cars to get to the hotel and help her. On the way Joe is pulled over by a motorbike cop who writes out a citation. When he reads it, Joe sees it is in Runciter’s handwriting, warning him that Pat is… and then stops. At the bottom is an ad for a druggist, Archer’s Drug Store.

Joe enters the nearest shop and asks where the druggist is. The owner points across the road. Joe realises the building is pulsing in and out of time. For moments he can see it as an automated shop from 1992. Then it reverts to an era even before 1939. In one of its old moments he enters and asks the shop assistant for a jar of Ubik. On the label is yet another message from Runciter, warning that Pat is lying, Pat the time changer may be behind all of this.

Joe goes onto the hotel foyer and confronts Pat with the part of the message on the traffic violation at which moment his world explodes. It is dark, darkness which slowly resolves to grey streaks, and he can hear voices concerned for him. Basically he is dying and disintegrating just like Wendy and Al did. Pat accompanies him as he slowly, agonisingly makes his way up the stairs to the room he’s been allotted, taunting him all the way. Joe realises she is really evil. She was sent by Hollis to infiltrate Runciter Associates and kill them all, but this is a horrible way to do it.

The chapter describing this is really horrible, with an acute description of what feels like a heart attack only much worse – the sheer agony of trying to lift his feet and move one step further is nightmarish to read – and made ten times worse by Pat’s cold, heartless, taunting of him at, literally, every effortful gasping step of the way.

But when he finally, just about makes it into the room, and collapses to the floor, prepared to shrivel into a bag of dusty bones… Runciter is there and sprays him with wonder-working Ubik, at which he is almost immediately restored to normal life and function!

Runciter explains his view of the situation. Ashwood, Melipone, Mick and Hollis have been conspiring for months, maybe longer to lure them to Luna and blow them up. Now they are using Pat to transport them back in time. Why stop at 1939? Because that’s as far back as Pat’s powers extend.

Joe doesn’t believe him. In a complex dialogue Joe forces Runciter to admit that all the inertials were killed in the bomb explosion. They were quickly stored in cold-pacs. Pat herself was mortally wounded and is in a cold-pac. Runciter admits that he is sitting in the lobby of the Beloved Brethren Moratorium while Joe is in a cold-pac. Reluctantly, Runciter admits that the sense of atrophy and decline, things ageing and falling to pieces – they’re all common features of what all ‘half-lives’ experience, a mournful sense of decay.

And the regression in time? Initially Runciter tells him that is the work of Pat’s half-life mind taking them as far back as she can go. But, Joe asks, who is sometimes killing them, sometimes making it worse? Joe doesn’t believe it’s Hollis and his gang. It’s too arbitrary, too malicious for that. An almost childish delight in breaking and fixing, like a kids pulling wings off a fly. He nags Runciter into admitting that he, Runciter, doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s left all these useful messages and yet… he can’t actually save or improve the situation.

Runciter breaks off contact and the text cuts to him sitting in the lobby taking off the apparatus which lets you talk to the half-lives. And back to Joe in the fake 1939. There’s a knock at the door and one of the gang of inertias, Don Denny is there with an old-time doctor. Joe tells the doc he doesn’t need his help, but the doc inspects him anyway, while Joe tells Denny what he’s learned and what Runciter told him.

Denny tells him they’re all going to die. Even Pat. He just came from Pat expiring on the stairs. She seemed surprised. Yes, says Joe, she thinks she’s doing this, but she isn’t. She’s in the cold-pacs like all of them. Joe persuades Denny to use up what’s left of the Ubik spray, might do him some good. Denny sprays himself and when the nimbus of aerosol disappears, it isn’t Denny at all. there stands some gawky, misshapen teenage kids. He tells them his name is Jory, Jory Miller.

He is the gawky crude teenager who was in the cold-pac next to Runciter’s wife who invaded her thought patterns near the start of the book. Now he’s doing it to all of them.

There now follows an elaborate game as Jory gets rid of the doctor and explains that everything, everything he sees about him, was created by he, Jory. He eats the other half-lives, he consumes them, he has eaten all Joe’s colleagues. Joe attacks Jory but Jory sinks his teeth into his hand and tells him he is invulnerable. Joe turns and tries to escape out the hotel room, down the stairs, hails a cab in the street. Asks the cab to cruise around town and then out of town.

Joe knows that creating this world and keeping it stable costs Jory a lot of effort. He wants to make it hard. Cruising round they come across a pretty young woman. Joe kerb crawls her and says he’d like to take her to dinner. He is beginning to feel tired again, and cold, signs that the Ubik is wearing off. The young lady is kind and courteous and compassionate whenhe begins to fade and look rough. And then she announces that she is Ella Runciter, Ralph’s wife. She has been fighting a long war against Jory ever since he arrived in the moratorium.

She gives him a certificate for a lifetime supply of Ubik which he can get at any of two pharmacies in town. She says she is soon to be reborn (reborn? there’s a whole new angle) and wants him, Joe, to take over as Ralph’s sleeping partner, the person he comes to consult. They stop the cab. She gets out and bids adieu.

Hugely relieved, Joe gets the cab to drive to the first pharmacist. But almost as soon as he’s inside he realises the pharmacist is a version of Jory, who quietly gloats that he has ‘reverted’ all the Ubik in the store back to its 1930s version, pure snake oil, useless for healing. He hands him a jar of the useless stuff. Joe bends all his heart and soul and spirit on trying to force the thing to regenerate back to 1992, to be the proper Ubik, bending every nerve to make it so.

He fails. He gives up. He walks out the store. He is now feeling weak again. Oh no he’s going to have to go through the appalling weakness and cold he experienced back in the hotel when Pat was taunting him. He lies down on the bench at a bus shelter.

And a pretty woman bends over him and offers him a can of up to date, effective Ubik. She sprays it on him and she comes back to life. She is a representative of the manufacturer. She gives him a plausible sounding explanation of how it is a biochemical agent which retards the inevitable fading effects of being in a cold-pac on half life. ‘Hey, you want to go to dinner?’ he asks her. ‘Next time,’ she promises and fades away.

Ubik

Throughout the book every chapter has started with a spoof little advert text selling Ubik as a wonder product, a brand of beer or coffee, a type of brassiere which pushes up and shapes those boobs, Ubik hair conditioner, Ubik sleeping pills.

On one level these read to me like the kind of satirical spoof ads you get in late 1960s comedy movies, Woody Allen films and suchlike, the knockabout spirit of the original M*A*S*H movie (1970), taking the mickey out of grotesque American consumer culture.

But quite obviously, on another level, Ubik is portrayed as some kind of magic force all the way through the novel. The entirely biochemical explanation the young lady gives at the end is not quite enough to explain the imaginative force it has had in the text. So it comes as no surprise when the epigraph to the short final chapter reads.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be. (p.223)

So is Ubik just a chemical compound created by Ella Runciter within the world of the cold-pacs (and it’s pretty hard to see how that would be physically possible seeing as their bodies are completely static)? Or is it meant to be some shape-shifting force which stands – within the half-life world – for God?

To be honest, by this stage of the novel, on the penultimate page, I was too exhausted by the continually shifting realities of the previous 221 pages to care. That kind of point blank interpretation seems to me to be dead and stultifying.

What makes the novel live is the extraordinary and apparently endless succession of surprises it pulls on you. It is the narrative dynamic which appeals and works. Stopping to think about the logic of the plot or the symbolism for very long tends, in my experience, to make the whole house of cards collapse.

Futures and pasts

Both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik are set in 1992, a giddy 24 years from when they were written. Dick predicted that by then we’d have hovercars, colonies on the moon and Mars, lasertubes, androids and telepaths.

In the real world 1992 was notable for the UK General Election which was won by John Major who went on to govern Britain for five years and is most remembered for setting up a traffic cones hotline.

Thus the difference between the dazzling techno-worlds of science fiction – and between Philip K. Dick’s deliriously proliferating alternative worlds – and the big grey underpants of reality.


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
  • Ubik (1969) In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’ but the novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974)

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading the human giants to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a strategy they’d been trying elsewhere. The Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate Lenin’s fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but it felt to me like it fell naturally into three big sections.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are disconcertingly light, chatty and frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggling booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on.

Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy, and the seating is nice and comfy! Golly.

So much for the introduction. In the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg.

It was, she tells us gushingly, a simply magical city!

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

She introduces us at very great length to chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

Now, when Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative, it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about political and diplomatic strategy among the Russian ruling class.

When Merridale introduces key players, it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the complex concatenation of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries, it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand (known as ‘Parvus’), a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of the theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies, she tells us:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, we learn that he used the initial down-payments to set himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he established an entourage of bosomy blondes and ordered champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – The Russian revolution and the train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (plus some more gushing travelogue from Merridale who has, she assures us, visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as still remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick started everything was the February 1917 Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracted other protesters, swelled in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refused to obey orders, with some turning on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events. The conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov.

At the same time, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’.

This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral, his refusal to accept the poisoned chalice of monarchy, which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion.

The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and the government was trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what and who they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by explaining this, by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which, I was surprised to read, included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time Merridale descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish Western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some of the more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely, that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the fraught backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not at all surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches, and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – ‘The Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.’

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone the cowering conservatives and scheming reactionaries. Even the radical Bolshevik faction of the Party, which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903, was surprised by his single-mindedness. Bolsheviks who had only just arrived back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin found themselves having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s extremism.

No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument.

The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, Where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a middle section describing the shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort.

And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and try to identify the specific individuals in the German secret service who carried out the negotiations (whatever archive material still exists).

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and so insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and track the stimulus it gave to the left-wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? A year?

In fact six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of Lenin’s journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months and beyond.

Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage – before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

In the event Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, and required peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. So, from Merridale’s point of view, there is a compelling logic to stopping here and this is where her chronological account of events does, indeed, stop.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution? (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266)

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. But were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how, down the years, opponents of Bolshevism continued to make them, on until well into the 1950s and even 60s.

Russians in exile after the Revolution spread the accusations that the Bolshevisks were hired dupes of the Germans and, from time to time, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup).

Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did indeed receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities. So, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans continued to fund the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

So this whole question is sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK or whether an alien UFO landed at Roswell.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia in the first place.

Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry alone authorised five million marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same – p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money which the Allies poured into Russia to support the White Armies dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only, if only, if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform.

Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans. So what if they funded the Bolsheviks. They still lost.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to an end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths.

The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat in Petersburg (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to attain the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place. For example:

There is 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 America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE-level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his own authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising in her final section.

Still, to emphasise the positive – the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact, she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Oh, you mean John Lennon?’

Quite. The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and are busy with their own day-to-day concerns. And – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about Russia

Other blog posts about the First World War

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