Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 15, 2015

The People’s Train (2009), by Tom Keneally

The People's TrainKeeping up with Thomas Keneally’s output is a bit of a challenge for any reader, and if I were a “completist” I would have a long way to go before I could tick this author off my list.  At last count he had 33 novels listed at Wikipedia and 18 works of non-fiction and a good many of those are chunksters too.

Although Balzac was master of the short story, there are good reasons why Keneally is sometimes referred to as the ‘Balzac’ of Australian life.  He’s a great storyteller, and (of the nine of his novels I’ve read), I’ve seen him range across all sorts of characters and different periods of our history, most recently with Shame and the Captives (2014), The Daughters of Mars (2012) and The Widow and Her Hero (2007).  In style these are a long way from his early Miles Franklin Award winners, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) and his debut novel The Place at Whitton (1964, but recently reissued). He seems to have abandoned modernism for a narrative style focussed more on story, as seen so successfully in The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972) and the Booker Prize winning Schindler’s Ark (1982).

The People’s Train (2009) is another splendid story, depicting a character perspective rarely offered.  Artem Samsurov is a Russian dissident living in exile in Brisbane during the prelude to the two Russian Revolutions in 1917.  He’s a communist, and more specifically a Bolshevik, and so he gets into strife with the Queensland authorities who are in a moral panic about dissent in general and communism in particular.  The book is in two parts, Artem’s narrative in Brisbane, which includes his memories of imprisonment and escape from the Russian gulag; and then that of his journalist friend Paddy’s narrative which recounts the chaotic situation when Artem returns to Russia after the February Revolution.

If you’re like me and your knowledge of this period of Russian history is a little scanty, it helps to know what is neatly summarised at Wikipedia, not so much for the first part of the book, but to make sense of latter events.  The book is actually based on a true story with lots of fictional characters interacting with real people, who include the ones you’ve heard of i.e. Lenin and Stalin a.k.a. Koba, and those you probably haven’t i.e. Kerensky, Kollantai, Antonov-Ovseenko and Martov.  To save you looking it up (though you can read more if you follow this Wikipedia link)  here it is:

The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Russian SFSR. The Emperor was forced to abdicate and the old regime was replaced by a provisional government during the first revolution of February 1917 (March in the Gregorian calendar; the older Julian calendar was in use in Russia at the time). In the second revolution, during October, the Provisional Government was removed and replaced with a Bolshevik (Communist) government.

The February Revolution (March 1917) was a revolution focused around Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). In the chaos, members of the Imperial parliament or Duma assumed control of the country, forming the Russian Provisional Government. The army leadership felt they did not have the means to suppress the revolution and Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia, abdicated. The Soviets (workers’ councils), which were led by more radical socialist factions, initially permitted the Provisional Government to rule, but insisted on a prerogative to influence the government and control various militias. The February Revolution took place in the context of heavy military setbacks during the First World War (1914–18), which left much of the Russian army in a state of mutiny.

A period of dual power ensued, during which the Provisional Government held state power while the national network of Soviets, led by socialists, had the allegiance of the lower classes and the political left. During this chaotic period there were frequent mutinies, protests and many strikes. When the Provisional Government chose to continue fighting the war with Germany, the Bolsheviks and other socialist factions campaigned for stopping the conflict. The Bolsheviks turned workers militias under their control into the Red Guards (later the Red Army) over which they exerted substantial control.[1]

In the October Revolution (November in the Gregorian calendar), the Bolshevik party, led by Vladimir Lenin, and the workers’ Soviets, overthrew the Provisional Government in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks appointed themselves as leaders of various government ministries and seized control of the countryside, establishing the Cheka to quash dissent. To end Russia’s participation in the First World War, the Bolshevik leaders signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany in March 1918.

Ok, got that?  Two Russian Revolutions, one in February and the Biggie in October, and chaos in between.  (Well, actually in March and November according to our calendar, but that’s not what the Russians were using then.  I bet making travel reservations in Europe was fun in those days with two different calendars operating.)  There was also a civil war between the Reds and the Whites that lasted from 1918 until the USSR was formed in 1922 but that’s not in the book so you don’t need to worry about that.

I hope  haven’t put you off with all that because The People’s Train really is a very good story.  Artem, although an enthusiast for a political system now thoroughly discredited, is a sincere idealist, and his narration of events in Brisbane is fascinating.  While other émigrés simply want to settle down and melt into the Aussie landscape, he wants to change the world so he gets hold of a printing press and puts out a newsletter that escapes the notice of the Brisbane police with the community notices in English and the rabble-rousing in Russian.  He seems too genial and reasonable to be a fifth columnist but that’s what he was, and yes, the authorities do take notice when he stirs up strikes of one sort and another, and they are only too keen to arrest him on spurious charges of murder when one of their spies meets his end.  He is lucky that he has the help of Hope Mockridge, a bourgeois radical lawyer, with whom, despite his reservations about relationships v The Cause, he has an affair.   There is a great cast of characters in this section of the book, and the Brisbane evoked is a long way from the Brisvegas we all know now.

But when the February Revolution takes place, Artem makes his way back to Russia, which is in chaos in the interim period while the provisional government has an uneasy relationship with the soviets and the tsar is yet to meet his doom.  Artem takes his journo mate Paddy Dykes with him so that reports of the revolution can be despatched to sympathetic ears around the world, and even though Paddy is a communist sympathiser, he is a foreigner with a limited grasp of Russian language and culture, and this enables a distancing effect.  In rendering the state of confusion at this time, Keneally uses Paddy to report on its impact and his clear-eyed observations offset political dreams against reality: there are food shortages, strikes, and chaos in the transport system and the argy-bargy between the factions is reminiscent of that famous Monty Python sketch.

But Paddy’s more important role in the novel comes almost at the end, when the Bolsheviks have stormed the Winter Palace and one of them exercises what he thinks is his right of reprisal in a shocking way.  What happens next is a moral test, which symbolises the path the Soviets were to follow.

The idealists were doomed to disillusionment almost from the very start.

See also this review at The Telegraph and this one at The Independent.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Tom Keneally
Title: The People’s Train
Publisher: Vintage (Random House) 2009
ISBN: 9781741667431
Source: Personal library


Fishpond: The People’s Train


  1. My goodness what a prolific author, I had no idea. Yes, I’ve only read a couple of his books – The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Woman of the Inner Sea and enjoyed them both. I saw the movie version of Schindler’s List.

    You’ve got me interested in The People’s Train because I’m familiar with the era of the Russian Revolution and I know the Red Scare we had here.

    It’s not available in Kindle (actually, I think it’s out of print here), but the Audible version will do nicely – so it’s on my wish list! :-)


    • And you know what, Becky, just recently he had his 80th birthday and was given an award by the Australia Council, and he said, (not quoting exactly) he didn’t think there were too many authors who’d written anything good in their 80s but he was going to try.
      I wonder if they will have two narrators for the Audible version? Please let me know when you write a review and I will link to it from this page.


      • One narrator according to the ads/blurbs. But some narrators can do different voices quite well. I’ll let you know when I get to it. :-)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa – Thanks for stopping by my blog. I have been reading some of your posts. Your blog is super!

    This book seems very good.

    Among other things I find the Russian Revolutionary period to be fascinating. It is good to hear that this books deleves into some real moral issues in addition an to the history.

    I had never heard of Keneally but it sounds as I should. In terms of reading an Author’s entire body of work, I find that even the greatest have some duds so I usually do not try to be completest.


    • Hello Brian, thank you *blush*, I like your blog too:)
      Yes, I like books that explore complex moral territory. We live in a black-and-white world of the 3-second sound bite, but the real world is so much more complicated, and so much more interesting than that.
      And this book, tackling the PoV of a communist, is a companion to Saramago’s Raised from the Ground. My post-Stalin’s-denouncement generation tends to be a bit perplexed by the support of intellectuals for communism in the 1930s. We grew up reading Solzhenitsyn and suspected that there might have been a Chinese equivalent that wasn’t seeing the light of day. But these books show how communism was the political philosophy of choice for people dreaming of a fairer world for those in poverty. I don’t know what idealists dream of now. Poverty and exploitation seems worse than ever albeit mostly located offstage for the West and yet there doesn’t seem to be any political philosophy offering a coherent alternative.


  3. […] of Australia, also writes illuminating historical fiction, including – for example – The People’s Train about a communist union leader in Brisbane just before the Russian Revolution.   Paranoia about […]


  4. […] but I’ve also got some later works:  The Great Shame, The People’s Train (update, see my review) and Family Madness on the TBR.  These are IMO more popular works and less literary, written in […]


  5. […] The People’s Train by Thomas Keneally (Knopf) update 31/5/16 See my review […]


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