From Helsinki to St Petersburg is a rail route through history. Hugh O'Shaughnessy follows Lenin's path

If there is a stretch of railway track that has changed the world, this is surely it. At 6.54am, the ultra-modern Sibelius express, operated by Finnish Railways, glides out of Helsinki for the five-and-a-half-hour journey to St Petersburg along the rails on which, in 1917, a certain Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov made as historic a journey as any on the planet. The line that carried Lenin from the Finnish capital to Peter the Great's city, the former capital of Russia, facilitated the overthrow of one autocracy by another and helped transform Europe.

Today, this eminently worthwhile journey can be undertaken in quiet 21st-century comfort. And, even though the snows were melting by the time the founder of the Soviet Union embarked on his journey, winter is by far the most atmospheric time to make the trip.

On 3 April 1917, the Germans' plan to vanquish the Russian empire, with which they had been at war for nearly three years, was ripening. A strategy of political subversion was being pursued. With the Kaiser's blessing, the communist agitator had been conveyed in a sealed train from his exile in Zürich to Finland, which at the time was nominally a part of Russia.

Lenin and his band of followers had come across Germany in a special carriage. Lenin had banned smoking anywhere but in the loo. And to restrict the smokers further, he had issued his party with two types of ticket: one for the evacuation of bladder and bowel, and one, more limited in number, which permitted wretched smokers a few quick, private puffs.

Dressed in the new suit he had bought in Stockholm, Lenin nervously started the last stage of the journey. The train pulled out of Helsinki station, getting up to nearly 40 mph through the deserted forests of Riihimaki and Lahti, Kouvola, Vainikkala and Viipuri to the border of Russia proper at Beloostrov, about 20 miles from St Petersburg. As night fell Lenin fretted about his future, worrying that he would be arrested after a decade of plotting abroad.

His worries were groundless. The Bolsheviks had prepared an enthusiastic reception for him at the Finlyandski Voksal, the St Petersburg terminal of the line. A little after 11pm, after pausing in what had until very recently been the Tsar's waiting room, he mounted an Austin armoured car and delivered his first harangue to the masses. The Bolshevik Revolution had taken off.

In July, Lenin needed the railway again. As his revolutionary plans momentarily faltered, he was forced to flee Petrograd, as it then was, crossing back into Finland disguised in overalls as the fireman of train 293, driven by Hugo Jalava. He and his companions pressed on towards Helsinki, but by the time they got to Lahti station, the glue holding the mask Lenin was wearing as a disguise was beginning to melt. In what must have been a very painful operation, he had to tear it off and they quit the train, worrying that the man with the very red face would attract attention on the platform. By 10 August they were back in Helsinki, where Lenin evaded capture despite a price on his head of 200,000 roubles.

Lenin returned to Petrograd in September. Disguised this time as a Finnish Lutheran pastor, the militant atheist arrived in a train driven by the faithful Jalava. The next month Russia was his.

In 2001 no disguises are needed for the trip from a now independent Finland to the city that has resumed the name its founder gave it in the 18th century. The Finnish carriages are clean and airy, and there is a buffet car that takes Visa cards and sells hamburgers, coffee and fizzy drinks. A girl comes up with a trolley and sells you roubles at a good rate of exchange. The passing towns look prosperous with their small factories and their neat houses, many of them with flagpoles flying the blue and white Finnish flag.

The Russian border is miles to the west of where it was in Lenin's day. Viipuri, once Finnish but conquered by Stalin in 1939, is now a shabby part of Russia. But there is still a frisson as the Russian customs and immigration officials board after Vainikkala. With a "Zdrastvuyte", they greet us unsmilingly and take our passports and visas away for examination. The American couple in our compartment fill in a currency declaration without due attention. It is returned to them twice for corrections before the inspector is satisfied.

The Sibelius halts on the dot of 1.29pm in the Finlyandski Voksal (Finland Station), much damaged in the Second World War. Only a small section of the terminal Lenin knew survives, though his statue still stands in the square outside. Lenin would surely have enjoyed the trip. Jalava, riding an electric locomotive instead of the footplate of a steam engine, would have enjoyed it even more.

After three exceptionally grand but grim days in depressed St Petersburg we fall back with delight into the Sibelius and the Europe we know. The Finnish restaurant car steward startles us. He smiles. We had not had many smiles in the city of Tsar Peter and Lenin.

The return fare is £120 in first class and £74 in second. Tickets are available from Finnish Railways International Department, tel 00 358 307 22039, fax 00 358 307 22240, and from European Rail in London, 020-7387 0444

Comments