Train to Petrograd

The journey that took Lenin and other revolutionaries from Zurich to the Finland Station in Petrograd and changed the history of Russia and the world forever.

Published : Dec 06, 2017 12:30 IST

The locomotive of the sealed train in which Lenin travelled from Zurich.

The locomotive of the sealed train in which Lenin travelled from Zurich.

On March 15, 1917, it was not an unusual afternoon at 14 Spiegelgasse, the single-room, $20-a-month flat in which Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, had been living after they moved to Zurich. Post-lunch, he was getting ready to go to the city’s central library, a major source of literature for his political classic Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism . She was clearing away the dishes. Mieczyslaw Bronski, a young Polish revolutionary, burst into the room, shouting: “Haven’t you heard the news? There is revolution in Russia.” The reference was to the February Revolution. Then the afternoon turned out to be unusual, and historic.

For the restless revolutionary in exile in a peaceful middle-class Swiss locale, life was becoming a bit dreary. He had arrived in Switzerland in 1914 after convincing the Swiss authorities that he was “neither an army deserter nor a coward” but just a harmless political exile. The social democrats in the country, as elsewhere in Europe, spoke the language of peace when the First World War was raging, unconvinced about and unwilling to accept his radical idea of exploiting the pervading unrest of the “imperialist war” into a worldwide uprising of workers against capitalism. He could win over very few converts in the Zurich Social Democratic Party. Writes the historian Michael Pearson: “Locked in Switzerland, surrounded by warring nations, Lenin and Nadya had been overwhelmed by a sense of endless isolation. Worse, they were desperately short of money—poorer by far than they had ever been in the seventeen years since they had been released from exile in Siberia” ( The Sealed Train , New York: Putnam, 1975).

There was a sense of isolation. After all, the couple had been exiles for about 20 years by then. In fact, it was during his three-year exile in Siberia, after being arrested in 1897 for his revolutionary activities in tsarist Russia, that he married Nadezhda Krupskaya, who was older than he by a year. Soon after his release from Siberia, the couple moved to Europe, for they were under the constant surveillance of the tsarist regime. They had lived in Munich, London, Geneva and Paris before moving to Zurich.

No wonder the news of revolution that Bronski brought electrified Lenin. Typically, he wanted to seize the moment from a location that was 1,981 kilometres away from the scene of action, Petrograd (Saint Petersburg), the capital of Russia. He, along with Nadezhda Krupskaya, rushed out to read the newspapers pasted up on the nearby lake’s banks and repeatedly read the reports of the revolution. The moment he was waiting for came when he least expected it. He had been away from action for most of his life after his radicalisation as the tsarist regime kept a constant watch over them.

“Under Lenin’s incredulous questioning, the young Pole [Bronski] insisted that special editions of the Zurich newspapers, only just on the streets, carried brief telegrams from St. Petersburg: Revolution had flared through the streets of Russia’s capital city and climaxed in victory for the people. All the Tsar’s ministers had been arrested. Twelve members of the Duma—the nearest institution in autocratic Russia to an elected assembly—had assumed power,” writes Pearson.

“Ilyich’s mind went to work at once. I hardly remember how the rest of the day and night passed. Next day the second batch of official reports about the February revolution found Ilyich writing to [Alexandra] Kollontai in Stockholm: ‘Never again on the lines of the Second International! Never again with Kautsky! By all means a more revolutionary programme and tactics.... As before, revolutionary propaganda, agitation and struggle with the aim of an international proletarian revolution and for the conquest of power by the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies,’” writes Nadezhda Krupskaya in her Reminiscences of Lenin: Last Months in Emigration .

What was wrong with Karl Kautsky, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party?

Lenin was angry with Kautsky and other European social democrats because they went against a manifesto they adopted at the International Socialist Congress at Basle (Basel), the Swiss city, in 1912, two years before the start of the First World War. The parties unanimously adopted a manifesto at the Congress which declared that it would be a war among the governments and capitalist classes of the great powers of the time, that it would be the greatest of crimes, that the workers of these countries “would consider it a crime to shoot at each other, that the horrors of war and the indignation these would rouse among the workers would inevitably lead to a proletarian revolution”.

Defencists and Internationalists

However, when the war broke out, the socialist and labour leaders split into two camps. One section, mainly leaders, moved over to the side of their respective governments and supported their war moves in the name of defending the fatherland; another section continued to mobilise workers and peasants in their countries against the war and for a revolution. In the initial stages of the war, Kautsky was with the former and he was against a “violent revolution” in Russia. Those supporting the war came to be called social patriots or defencists, and the opponents of the war called themselves internationalists.

Lenin explains the problem in an article titled “Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International”, published in the German magazine Vorbote (Herald) in January 1916:

“Recognition that a war is being fought for national liberation implies one set of tactics; its recognition as an imperialist war, another. The Manifesto clearly points to the latter. The war, it says, ‘will bring on an economic and political crisis’, which must be ‘utilised’, not to lessen the crisis, not to defend the fatherland, but, on the contrary, to ‘rouse’ the masses and ‘hasten the downfall of capitalist rule’. It is impossible to hasten something for which historical conditions are not yet mature. The Manifesto declares that social revolution is possible, that the conditions for it have matured, and that it will break out precisely in connection with war. Referring to the examples of the Paris Commune and the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, i.e., examples of mass strikes and of civil war, the Manifesto declares that ‘the ruling classes’ fear ‘a proletarian revolution’. It is sheer falsehood to claim, as Kautsky does, that the socialist attitude to the present war has not been defined. This question was not merely discussed, but decided in Basle, where the tactics of revolutionary proletarian mass struggle were recognised.”

In line with the Basle Manifesto, Lenin saw in the February Revolution the opportune moment to seize power by arming the workers. He was impatient to leave Switzerland. England and France would not allow him to travel to Russia. “We are afraid we shall not be able to leave this accursed Switzerland very soon,” he wrote to Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian who shifted to the Bolshevik side from the Menshevik camp.

Writes Nadezhda Krupskaya: “From the moment the news of the revolution was received, Ilyich had no sleep. His nights were spent building the most improbable plans. We could fly over by plane. But such an idea could only be thought of in a waking dream. Put into words, its unreality became at once obvious. The thing was to obtain the passport of some foreigner from a neutral country, best of all a Swede, who was less likely to arouse suspicion. A Swedish passport could be obtained through the Swedish comrades, but ignorance of the language was an obstacle to using it. Perhaps just a little Swedish would do? You might easily give yourself away, though. ‘Imagine yourself falling asleep and dreaming of Mensheviks, which will start you off swearing juicily in Russian! Where will your disguise be then?’ I said with a laugh.”

The Russian revolutionaries living in exile in Switzerland met on March 19 to discuss a way out (literally). L. Martov, a leader of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, proposed a plan under which Lenin and his comrades would be allowed by the German government to pass through its territory in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners in Russia. This plan was made at the height of the First World War when Russia and Germany were in opposite camps. None except Lenin accepted the plan. Nadezhda Krupskaya writes: “Lenin was the only one who jumped at it. We would have to go about it carefully, he said.” The attempt to involve the Swiss government in negotiations with Russia and Germany failed. The telegrams sent to the Kerensky-led government, which took office after the February Revolution, did not get a response even after two weeks. “What a torture it is for all of us to sit here at such a time!” Lenin said in a letter to one of his comrades in the Swedish capital of Stockholm. Obviously, the “revolutionary government” of Kerensky was not in favour of their return to Russia. Understandable, in hindsight.

The Russian emigrants and the Swiss socialists decided to take things into their own hands. Fritz Platten, a Swiss socialist, entered the picture and sealed a deal with the German Ambassador in Switzerland. Lenin and his comrades were allowed to travel by a sealed train to Sweden through enemy territory (Germany) to their destination.

The agreement had, among other things, the following clauses: 1. All emigrants, regardless of their opinions on the war, shall be allowed passage. 2. The railway coach in which the emigrants will travel shall have the privilege of extraterritoriality; no one shall have the right to enter the coach without Platten’s permission; there shall be no control either of passport or luggage. 3. The travellers agree to agitate in Russia that the emigrants who have been granted passage be exchanged for a corresponding number of Austro-German internees. 4. The exiles were not to leave the train or cross a boundary line marked with a chalk between them and their German guards. Only Platten could cross the line.

Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya had no illusions about the German government’s altruism. She writes: “The German government gave permission for us to travel through Germany in the belief that revolution was a disaster to a country and that by allowing emigrant internationalists to return to their country they were helping to spread the revolution to Russia. The Bolsheviks, for their part, considered it their duty to develop revolutionary agitation in Russia, and made it their aim to bring about a victorious proletarian revolution. They did not care what the German bourgeois government thought about it. They knew that the defencists would start a mud-slinging campaign against them, but that the masses in the long run would follow their lead.”

More forthright about the German motive was Edward Crankshaw, the British historian who visited Moscow as a member of the British Military Mission during the war. In an article titled “When Lenin Returned”, which he wrote for The Atlantic in 1954, he said: “The long fantastic train journey, arranged by the German government, which in this obscure fanatic [Lenin] one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia, to spread infection, was an opportunity for stocktaking of the most elaborate kind. But to Lenin it was merely a slow and tedious way getting on with the job.”

Winston Churchill used the same metaphor when he said: “They turned upon Russia the most grisly of weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

News came from Berne, the Swiss capital, that Platten had succeeded in his effort and that the exiles could start their journey as soon as the protocol was signed. Lenin sprang to his feet, saying: “Let’s catch the first train.”

The “first train” was to leave in two hours. “In those two hours we had to wind up our ‘household’, settle with the landlady, return the books to the library, pack up, and so on. ‘Go by yourself, I’ll leave tomorrow,’ I said. But Ilyich insisted on us going together. In two hours, everything was done—the books packed, letters destroyed, the necessary clothes and articles selected and all affairs settled. We caught the first train to Berne,” writes Nadezhda Krupskaya.

The day was April 9; Lenin, Nadezhda Krupskaya and 30 other exiles, escorted by Platten, assembled at the Zurich station. The farewell was stormy.

Writes Pearson: “A crowd of ‘about a hundred Russians’, mainly hostile, had gathered to demonstrate against Lenin’s decision to go through Germany without approval from Petersburg.... The catcalls were shrill: ‘Provocateurs! Spies! Pigs! Traitors!’ the protesters yelled. ‘The Kaiser is paying for the journey,’ taunted one. ‘They’re going to hang you... like German spies,’ shouted another.... They beat on the side of the carriage with sticks, shouting and whistling all the time.

“A close friend of Trotsky’s ran onto the platform, and seeing Zinoviev at the window, he pleaded with him: ‘Lenin’s got carried away! He doesn’t realise what a dangerous situation it is. You’re more level-headed. Tell Vladimir Ilyich to stop this mad journey through Germany!’”

Lenin, unperturbed, told a friend looking through the window: “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months or we shall be in power.”

Platten explained to the travellers the conditions of travel they had to follow. Lenin, who detested smoking, laid a ground rule: the smokers in the group would have to go to the toilet when the urge to smoke overcame them.

The historic journey began at 3:10 p.m. Ilyich, writes Nadezhda Krupskaya, withdrew completely into himself, and his thoughts ran forward into Russia. “The talk during the journey was mostly of a trivial nature…. The Germans went out of their way to show that they had plenty of everything, and the cook served up good square meals, to which our emigrant fraternity was hardly accustomed. Looking out of the carriage window, we were struck by the total absence of grown-up men. Only women, teenagers and children could be seen at the wayside stations, on the fields, and in the streets of the towns.”

It could not be otherwise. The entire continent was in the grip of a war that able-bodied men fought.

As the train neared Mannheim, some of the travellers started singing revolutionary songs in French. Writes Pearson: “As the train crossed the Rhine and slowed to a halt in the big station, they began to sing louder. Probably, others took up the songs, maybe in other compartments. For it became oppressive to the two Germans in the end third class compartment—conscious that the songs could be heard on the platform. Once again Captain von Planetz asked Fritz Platten to cross the white chalk line. This time the German was furious, asserting that the singing of such French songs within his country was an insult to the German nation. Platten apologised for his comrades and hurriedly quelled the offensive noise.”

The train was delayed at Frankfurt, which meant that the exiles ran the risk of missing the afternoon ferry that would take them from Saasnitz to Trelleborg across the Baltic Sea. The train, writes Pearson, was given top priority over all traffic. “At Halle… even the private train of the German crown prince was held up for two hours to allow it to pass.”

The train journey came to an end temporarily as the exiles had to cross the Baltic Sea to reach Trelleborg. They boarded a ferry named Queen Victoria. Also in the ferry was the carriage of the sealed train, separated from its locomotive. The sea was rough. “At first, most of the party stayed on deck but many of them, upset by the rolling and heaving of the ship, went below. Others, to keep their minds occupied, stood together in the bows singing songs…. Once a wave broke onto the bows and splashed Lenin. ‘The first revolutionary wave from the shores of Russia,’ said someone, laughing. Lenin smiled and dried himself with his handkerchief,” writes Pearson.

After the tumultuous ferry ride they boarded a train to reach the Sweden-Finland border, about a thousand kilometres away. The train reached Haparanda, a snowbound town on the border, after five days. The next destination was Tornio, a Finnish border town across the frozen river of Tornionjoki, which marked the frontier between Sweden and Finland, a country under Russian control. The mode of transport was horse-drawn sledges known as veiki. It was night. Pearson quotes one of the prominent exiles, Zinoviev, as saying: “There was a long thin ribbon of sledges. On each sledge there were two people. Tension, as they approached the Finnish border, reached its maximum…. Vladimir Ilyich was outwardly calm. He was most of all interested in what was happening in far-off Petersburg… across the frozen bay with its deep snowdrifts… fifteen hundred versts ahead....”

Although the Russian soldiers on the border warmly welcomed them, British officers under the Allied Command were hostile. They intensely questioned Lenin and his fellow exiles, searched their baggage thoroughly.

“Emerging after his vigorous examination, Lenin ‘observed that the officers were disappointed at having found nothing,” recorded Mikha Tskhaya (one of the exiles)…. “Ilyich broke into happy laughter and, embracing me, he said: ‘Our trials, Comrade Mikha, have ended. We’re on native land and we’ll show them’—and he clenched his fist— ‘that we are worthy masters of the future.’”

They were all allowed entry into the Finland territory under Russian control, except Platten because he was not a Russian.

From Tornio, the exiles started the last leg of the journey by train. Lenin and his comrades arrived at Finlyandsky or the Finland Station, a railway station in Petrograd, on April 16, eight days after they left Zurich.

Rousing reception

The train reached the station at 11:10 a.m. It was late. As the famous revolutionary couple alighted from its fifth coach, the bands waiting in and outside the station blared the Marseillaise, the French national anthem penned by the army engineer Claude Joseph Roget de Lisle during the French Revolution. A huge cheering crowd thronged the station.

Lenin addressed it: “Sailors, comrades, as I greet you, I still don’t know whether you have faith in all the promises of the Provisional Government. What I know for certain though is that when sweet promises are made, you are being deceived in the same way that the entire Russian people are being deceived…. Sailors, comrades, we have to fight for a socialist revolution, to fight until the proletariat wins full victory! Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!”

Tens of thousands of people were waiting at the square outside the station. They would not let him into the car waiting for him. He had to make another brief speech.

After the speech, one of his comrades suggested that he travel by an armoured car parked nearby. The crowd wanted to see and hear him. Writes Pearson: “From the turret, Lenin made yet another short speech addressing the expanse of faces—dark beneath the glare of the searchlight—and again the crowd cried its welcome. The roar as the engine of the armoured car was revved helped to clear a path, and very slowly the heavy vehicle moved across the square. From the turret, Lenin, still clad in peaked cap and overcoat—for the April night was cold—surveyed the incredible scene around him, the thousands of people, the banners with revolutionary slogans, the flaming torches that many were carrying. The adjoining streets were crowded with the overflow from the square, and the noise of the armoured car, as it proceeded, attracted others from the nearby houses. At every street intersection the vehicle halted, and Lenin had to make another speech, ending each time with the defiant shout: ‘Long live the socialist revolution! Down with the compromisers!’”

The armoured car had to be stopped 15 times before it reached the white brick Kshesinskaya Mansion, the Bolshevik headquarters in Petrograd. From one of its balconies, Lenin made another historic speech.

The rest is revolution. Which might have been lost, so to speak, for want of a train.

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