The downfall of the Tsar in the “February Revolution” of 1917 caught Lenin entirely by surprise. He had not set foot in Russia for more than a decade, and his Bolshevik Party had played no part in recent events. Just a few weeks earlier, he had said publicly that he did not expect to see revolution in his lifetime.
As soon as he heard of the revolution, Lenin was desperate to return to Russia. But how? He was living in exile in Zurich, surrounded by warring states: France and Italy, allied with Russia, opposing the German and Austrian empires. The intelligence services of all these countries would have known Lenin as an intransigent revolutionary who was intending to stir up trouble. The new Provisional Government in Russia had pledged to continue the war, but Lenin had opposed participation in the war from the very start. There was no way that the Entente powers; Britain, France and Italy; would want him to return to Russia.
Germany was a different matter, and Lenin had a contact there: a left-wing socialist who was now helping the German government. He was Dr. Alexander Helphand, a Belarussian Jew better known by his revolutionary pseudonym of Parvus. He was now making vast sums as a war profiteer and was helping to spread defeatist propaganda in Russia. He pointed out to the authorities in Berlin that Lenin, especially if helped with substantial German funds, could do serious damage to the Russian war effort. A Swiss socialist, Fritz Platten, negotiated an agreement with the German minister for the transporting of Lenin to Russia.
So on April 9th Lenin, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, his friends Zinoviev and Radek and more than thirty others, including some children, boarded the famous “sealed train” (technically an “extra-territorial entity”) and were taken across Germany, by ship to Sweden, and thence, to Finland (officially part of the Russian Empire, but now starting to assert its independence), to arrive at the Finland Station in Petrograd a week later, after numerous frustrating holdups on the way. Without more contacts of Parvus to make the arrangements, Lenin's party would never have made it.
Lenin’s agreement with the Germans soon became known, and led to accusations that he was a traitor and a German agent, receiving vast amounts of “German gold” However, it should be stressed that Lenin’s ambitions were not limited to revolution in Russia. He believed throughout that a Russian revolution would be no more than a spark that would set off a world-wide conflagration, and he always placed particular hopes on revolution in Germany itself.
Lenin’s Bolshevik Party had no fewer than 50,000 members in Russia when he returned. This small number was due to deliberate policy on his part. He had insisted on limiting party membership to dedicated and disciplined revolutionaries rather than mere sympathisers, and had broken with Julius Martov, the Menshevik Socialist leader, on this very issue. But unlike most socialists in spring 1917, Lenin was clear what he wanted. Whereas they, seeing little appetite or need for further revolution, were satisfied with a rather vague liberalism, freeing political prisoners, ending press censorship, and proclaiming Russia now “the freest country in the world”, Lenin had set out his ideas some years earlier in his most important book, “What is to be done?” Left to themselves, he argued, the proletariat would never see the need for a full communist revolution. The role of the party, therefore, was to be a “vanguard”; leading and directing the workers towards revolution. He always despised and detested “bourgeois liberalism”.
But in Lenin’s absence, the party leaders in Petrograd were uncertain what course to take. The first on the scene was a young man of aristocratic background, named Scriabin, who was to become much better known under his pseudonym, Molotov. Stalin arrived from Siberian exile soon afterwards; and for the rest of his life was forced to play down the embarrassing fact that under his direction the first legal issues of “Pravda” advocated co-operation with the Provisional Government.
Returning political exiles, like the veterans Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich, were given rapturous receptions on their arrival, and the same enthusiasm greeted Lenin when he alighted at the Finland station in Petrograd. It was nearly midnight on April 3rd in the antiquated Russian calendar (thirteen day behind the Gregorian calendar used in western Europe). A short speech of welcome was delivered by Chheidze, a moderate socialist representing the Petrograd Soviet. But Lenin, to general amazement and some discontent, climbed on an armoured car and called for further revolution, denouncing all compromise. Lenin then spent the night addressing Bolshevik party workers.
The next day Lenin delivered two speeches, setting out what came to be called his “April Theses”. These were summarized in a series of powerful slogans: Down with the capitalist ministers! All power to the Soviets! End the war! Give the land to the peasants! Even some in his own party were alarmed at this extremism.
The Bolsheviks were only in a minority in the Soviet, and had very few members outside of a few large cities. In normal times Lenin’s revolutionary call would have made little progress. But in Russia in 1917 times were not normal. The main destabilising factor was the war. Over the next few months, the Germans continued to advance and the Russian army disintegrated. Anarchy spread through the countryside as the peasants murdered their landlords and stopped sending food to the cities. The economy spiralled downwards out of control, and the Provisional Government had no means of enforcing its will. This was the situation which Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to turn to their advantage.
Lenin at the Finland Station: sculpture by Sergei Yevseyev, 1926
Of those who travelled with Lenin on the “sealed train”, Zinoviev and his wife were shot under Stalin, and Radek, Sokolnikov and the Swiss socialist Platten died in the concentration camps. Lenin’s widow Nadezhda survived till 1939, but was bullied and blackmailed into silence. Parvus settled in Germany, where he died in 1924, but not before he had been denounced as a “betrayer of the working class”. Lenin himself was disabled by a stroke in 1922 and died two years later without recovering his health.
A recently-published book, “Lenin on the Train”, by Catherine Merridale, provides many fascinating minor details about Lenin’s journey. Among the exiles living in Zurich was James Joyce, who commented that the Germans “must be pretty desperate” to start negotiating with Lenin. Lenin himself even telephoned the American embassy in Bern to ask for assistance, but since it was Easter Day there was only a single young official on duty there, who told Lenin to ring back later. The young official was Allen Dulles, later to become head of the C.I.A. He never forgot the incident.