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Lenin's Sealed Train

Lenin's Sealed Train



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On 10th March, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II had decreed the dissolution of the Duma. The High Command of the Russian Army now feared a violent revolution and on 12th March suggested that the Tsar should abdicate in favour of a more popular member of the royal family. Attempts were now made to persuade Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich to accept the throne. He refused and the Tsar recorded in his diary that the situation in "Petrograd is such that now the Ministers of the Duma would be helpless to do anything against the struggles the Social Democratic Party and members of the Workers Committee. My abdication is necessary... The judgement is that in the name of saving Russia and supporting the Army at the front in calmness it is necessary to decide on this step. I agreed." (1)

Prince George Lvov, was appointed the new head of the Provisional Government. One of his first decisions was to allow all political prisoners to return to their homes. Lenin was living in Zurich and he did not hear this news until the 15th March. A group of about twenty Russian exiles arrived at Lenin's home to discuss this important event. Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, explained: "From the moment the news of the February revolution came, Ilyich burned with eagerness to go to Russia. England and France would not for the world have allowed the Bolsheviks to pass through to Russia... As there was no legal way it was necessary to travel illegally. But how?" (2)

Aware that the British and French would never allow him a transit visa to Russia through Allied territory in Europe. It was suggested that he should try to return via England under a false passport, but it was decided that this was far too risky and if he was arrested he would be probably interned for the duration of the war. On 19th March 1917 a meeting of socialists was held to discuss the issue. The German socialist Willi Münzenberg was there and later reported that Lenin paced up and down the room declaring, "we must go at all costs". Julius Martov suggested that the best chance would be to send word to the Petrograd Soviet, asking them to offer the Germans repatriation of German prisoners in exchange for the group's safe conduct home via Germany. (3)

The Swiss socialist, Robert Grimm, who Lenin had described as a "detestable centrist", offered to negotiate with the German government in order to obtain a safe passage to Russia. He pointed out that Germany had been spending a great deal of money in producing revolutionary anti-war propaganda in Russia since 1915, in the hope of engineering a withdrawal from the war. This would enable German troops on the Eastern Front to be diverted to the western campaign against Britain and France. Grimm began talks with Count Gisbert von Romberg, the German ambassador in Berne. (4)

Alexander Parvus also arrived in Switzerland. The former German Social Democrat who had originally helped to fund Iskra, the Russian revolutionary newspaper, had now gone over to the German government, operating as an arms contractor and recruiter for the war effort. he had been heavily involved in the German propaganda drive among tsarist troops to destabilize Nicholas II. Parvus made contact with Richard von Kühlmann, a minister at the German Foreign Office. (5)

Von Kühlmann sent a message to Army Headquarters explaining the strategy of the German Foreign Office: "The disruption of the Entente and the subsequent creation of political combinations agreeable to us constitute the most important war aim of our diplomacy. Russia appeared to be the weakest link in the enemy chain, the task therefore was gradually to loosen it, and, when possible, to remove it. This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front - in the first place promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviks had received a steady flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party." (6)

Parvus made contact with General Erich Ludendorff who later admitted his involvement in his autobiography, My War Memories, 1914-1918 (1920) that he told senior officials: "Our government, in sending Lenin to Russia, took upon itself a tremendous responsibility. From a military point of view his journey was justified, for it was imperative that Russia should fall." (7)

General Max Hoffmann, chief of the German General Staff on the Eastern Front commented: "We naturally tried, by means of propaganda, to increase the disintegration that the Russian Revolution had introduced into the Army. Some man at home who had connections with the Russian revolutionaries exiled in Switzerland came upon the idea of employing some of them in order to hasten the undermining and poisoning of the morale of the Russian Army."

Hoffmann claims that Reichstag deputy Mathias Erzberger became involved in the negotiations. "And thus it came about that Lenin was conveyed through Germany to Petrograd in the manner that afterwards transpired. In the same way as I send shells into the enemy trenches, as I discharge poison gas at him, I, as an enemy, have the right to employ the expedient of propaganda against his garrisons." (8)

Paul Levi, a close associate of Rosa Luxemburg, and a member of the German anti-war Spartacus League, handled the Berne-Zurich end of negotiations, with Karl Radek. Levi was contacted by the German Ambassador in Switzerland and asked: "How can I get in touch with Lenin? I expect final instructions any moment regarding his transportation". Lenin now negotiated the deal with the ambassador that would allow him to travel through Germany. (9)

In his farewell message to the Swiss workers Lenin explained his analysis of the situation in Russia. "It has fallen to the lot of the Russian proletariat to begin the series of revolutions whose objective necessity was created by the imperialist world war. We know well that the Russian proletariat is less organized and intellectually less prepared for the task than the working class of other countries... Russia is an agricultural country, one of the most backward of Europe. Socialism cannot be established in Russia immediately. But the peasant character of the development of a democratic-capitalist revolution in Russia and make that a prologue to the world-wide Socialist revolution." (10)

Lenin felt he needed the support of other socialists living in Switzerland for his journey through Germany. He sent a telegram to two French anti-war figures living in Switzerland, Romain Rolland and Henri Guilbeaux, asking them to appear in the railroad station on the day of his departure. Rolland refused and sent a message to Guilbeaux: "If you have any influence on Lenin and his friends, dissuade them from going through Germany. They will cause great damage to the pacifist movement and to themselves, for it will then be said that Zimmerwald is a German child." He then went on to quote Anatoli Lunacharsky who had described Lenin as "a dangerous and cynical adventurer". (11)

Lenin insisted that his party of thirty-two should include some twenty non-Bolsheviks, in order to offset the unfavourable impression produced by his trip under German auspices. The people who travelled with him included Gregory Zinoviev, Karl Radek, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Georgi Safarov, Zinaida Lilina and Moisey Kharitonov. Lenin's supporters milled around the waiting train carrying revolutionary banners and singing the "Internationale". There was a group of anti-German socialists, shouted, "Spies! German spies! Look how happy they are - going home at the Kaiser's expense!" Anatoli Lunacharsky said that Lenin looked "composed and happy". (12)

Willi Münzenberg was there to see Lenin off. He later recalled that as the doors closed Lenin leaned from the carriage window, shook his hand and said, "Either we'll be swinging from the gallows in three months or we shall be in power." (13) At the German frontier at Gottmadingen station, they were escorted by German soldiers to their own specially commandeered military "sealed train". A locomotive pulled "a green-painted coach comprised of three second-class compartments (mainly for the couples and children) and five third-class compartments, where the single men and women would have to endure the hard wooden seats. The two German officers escorting them took a compartment at the rear." (14)

Once the three of the carriage's four doors at the Russian end were closed shut, Fritz Platten, a Swiss socialist marked them with chalk in German as "sealed". The train was given a high traffic priority by the Germans. Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was delayed for two hours to let Lenin's train to pass. There was a several hours' layover in Berlin during which some members of the German Social Democratic Party boarded the train but were not allowed to communicate with Lenin. (15)

After Germany they travelled through Sweden and Finland. On 2nd April Lenin's family received a telegram: "We arrive Monday at eleven at night. Tell Pravda." Lenin feared being arrested at the Russian border. However, Prince George Lvov, pledge to allow all political prisoners the freedom to return to their homes was kept. At 11.10 at night on 3rd April the train arrived at Finland Station. He was greeted by sailors from the Kronstadt naval base, the Petrograd workers' militia and the Red Guards. (16)

As he left the railway station Lenin was lifted on to one of the armoured cars specially provided for the occasions. The atmosphere was electric and enthusiastic. Feodosiya Drabkina, who had been an active revolutionary for many years, was in the crowd and later remarked: "Just think, in the course of only a few days Russia had made the transition from the most brutal and cruel arbitrary rule to the freest country in the world." (17)

In his speech he announced what became known as the April Theses. Lenin attacked Bolsheviks for supporting the Provisional Government. Instead, he argued, revolutionaries should be telling the people of Russia that they should take over the control of the country. In his speech, Lenin urged the peasants to take the land from the rich landlords and the industrial workers to seize the factories. Lenin accused those Bolsheviks who were still supporting the government of Prince Lvov of betraying socialism and suggested that they should leave the party. Lenin ended his speech by telling the assembled crowd that they must "fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, till the complete victory of the proletariat". (18)

Some of the revolutionaries in the crowd rejected Lenin's ideas. Alexander Bogdanov called out that his speech was the "delusion of a lunatic." Joseph Goldenberg, a former of the Bolshevik Central Committee, denounced the views expressed by Lenin: "Everything we have just heard is a complete repudiation of the entire Social Democratic doctrine, of the whole theory of scientific Marxism. We have just heard a clear and unequivocal declaration for anarchism. Its herald, the heir of Bakunin, is Lenin. Lenin the Marxist, Lenin the leader of our fighting Social Democratic Party, is no more. A new Lenin is born, Lenin the anarchist." (19)

The journalist, Harold Williams rejected the idea that Lenin could play an important role in affairs: "Lenin, leader of the extreme faction of the Social Democrats, arrived here on Monday night by way of Germany. His action in accepting from the German government a passage from Switzerland through Germany arouses intense indignation here. He has come back breathing fire, and demanding the immediate and unconditional conclusions of peace, civil war against the army and government, and vengeance on Kerensky and Chkheidze, whom he describes as traitors to the cause of International Socialism. At the meeting of Social Democrats yesterday his wild rant was received in dead silence, and he was vigorously attacked, not only by the more moderate Social Democrats, but by members of his own faction. Lenin was left absolutely without supporters. The sharp repulse given to this firebrand was a healthy sign of the growth of practical sense of the Socialist wing, and the generally moderate and sensible tone of the conference of provincial workers' and soldiers' deputies was another hopeful indication of the passing of the revolutionary fever." (20)

Albert Rhys Williams, an American visitor to Russia, disagreed with this viewpoint. Williams was convinced that the Bolsheviks would become the new rulers: "The Bolsheviks understood the people. They were strong among the more literate strata, like the sailors, and comprised largely the artisans and labourers of the cities. Sprung directly from the people's lions they spoke the people's language, shared their sorrows and thought their thoughts. They were the people. So they were trusted." (21)

From the moment the news of the February revolution came, Ilyich burned with eagerness to go to Russia. But how? On March 19th there was a meeting of the Russian political emigre groups in Switzerland ... to discuss ways and means of getting back to Russia. Martov presented a plan to obtain permits for emigrants to pass through Germany in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners of war interned in Russia. But no one wanted to go that way, except Lenin, who snatched at this plan. When news came that the German Government would give Lenin and his friends safe passage through Germany in a "sealed train" Lenin wanted to leave at once.

The disruption of the Entente and the subsequent creation of political combinations agreeable to us constitute the most important war aim of our diplomacy. This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front - in the first place promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviks had received a steady flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party.

We naturally tried, by means of propaganda, to increase the disintegration that the Russian Revolution had introduced into the Army. Some man at home who had connections with the Russian revolutionaries exiled in Switzerland came upon the idea of employing some of them in order to hasten the undermining and poisoning of the morale of the Russian Army.

He applied to Reichstag deputy Mathias Erzberger and the deputy of the German Foreign Office. And thus it came about that Lenin was conveyed through Germany to Petrograd in the manner that afterwards transpired.

In the same way as I send shells into the enemy trenches, as I discharge poison gas at him, I, as an enemy, have the right to employ the expedient of propaganda against his garrisons.

Bloody Sunday (Answer Commentary)

1905 Russian Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Russia and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

The Life and Death of Rasputin (Answer Commentary)

The Abdication of Tsar Nicholas II (Answer Commentary)

The Provisional Government (Answer Commentary)

The Kornilov Revolt (Answer Commentary)

The Bolsheviks (Answer Commentary)

The Bolshevik Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Classroom Activities by Subject

(1) Nicholas II, diary entry (15th March, 1917)

(2) Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (1926) page 286

(3) Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009) page 265

(4) Michael Pearson, The Sealed Train Journey to Revolution (1975) page 104

(5) J. Ley, The New Statesman (19th April, 1958)

(6) Richard von Kühlmann, telegram to Army Headquarters (December, 1917)

(7) General Erich Ludendorff, My War Memories, 1914-1918 (1920) page 407

(8) General Max Hoffmann, The War of Lost Opportunities (1924) page 174

(9) David Shub, Lenin (1948) pages 211-212

(10) Lenin, statement (6th April, 1917)

(11) Romain Rolland, letter to Henri Guilbeaux (7th April, 1917)

(12) Harrison E. Salisbury, Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1977) page 406

(13) Sean McMeekin, The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg (2003) page 45

(14) Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009) page 271

(15) Harrison E. Salisbury, Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1977) page 407

(16) Adam B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (1965) page 429

(17) Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009) page 279

(18) Lenin, speech (3rd April, 1917)

(19) David Shub, Lenin (1948) page 203

(20) Harold Williams, Daily Chronicle (8th April, 1917)

(21) Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution (1923) page 166


Who sent Lenin back to Russia in a sealed train?

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, joined by 29 other Russian exiles, a Pole and a Swiss, was on his way to Russia to try to seize power from the government and declare a &ldquodictatorship of the proletariat,&rdquo a phrase coined in the mid-19th century and adopted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Marxism.

One may also ask, why did Germany want to get Lenin back into Russia? Hopeful that their return would undermine the Russian war effort, the Germans allowed Lenin and other Bolsheviks to return to Russia from exile in Switzerland. Soon after his arrival in Russia, Lenin called for the overthrow of the provisional government by the soviets.

Similarly one may ask, what did Lenin do upon his return to Russia in April of 1917?

The ideas for Russia's future that Vladimir Lenin expressed upon his return to Russia in April 1917. In short, Lenin called for the overthrow of the provisional government and its replacement with a communist form of government led by the working class. He believed that other countries would follow Russia's example.

How did Lenin take over Russia?

Under the leadership of Russian communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik Party seized power in the Russian Republic during a coup known as the October Revolution.


Lenin & The Sealed Train

The day Lenin wrote his fourth “Letter from Afar” a telegram was received at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin from the German High Command. The telegram read: “No objections to the transit of Russian revolutionaries if effected in special train with reliable escort. Organization can be worked out between representatives of IIIb [Military Passport Office] and Foreign Ministry.” From the tenor of the telegram, it would seem that the German High Command was only disturbed by the possibility that the revolutionaries would escape from the train and preach revolution in Germany.

In later years Robert Grimm and Fritz Platten were to claim credit for opening the negotiations which led to the transport of the revolutionaries across Germany, but when the German Imperial archives were opened, it was seen that many other people were involved on many levels of negotiation, and even today the intricate threads are tangled. The people involved in the negotiations ranged from the Kaiser to the obscure Georg Sklarz, one of the minions of Dr. Alexander Helphand, who made a special journey to Switzerland to discuss the project with Lenin. An element of farce surrounds the negotiations, for in fact the Germans were only too eager to arrange the transport of the revolutionaries, and if they sometimes went to some pains to conceal their eagerness, there were also moments when they were horribly frightened by the possibility that the revolutionaries would not rise to the bait.

The Germans understood very well what the revolutionaries were about. They were fully informed about the lives, the love affairs, and the political ideas of the exiles in Switzerland and they were equally well informed about conditions in Petrograd. It was their aim to bring the war on the eastern front to an end in the shortest possible time, and for their purposes none of the revolutionaries possessed better credentials than Lenin, who had sworn to bring the fighting to an end, if he obtained power, and to plunge Russia into a class struggle which would inevitably weaken the military posture of Russia still further. Grimm and Platten went through the motions of conducting negotiations, while Diego Bergen in his office in the Wilhelmstrasse cynically waited for the appropriate moment when it would serve the German interests best to hurl the revolutionaries like a bomb upon Petrograd.

Of all men Diego Bergen was probably the man most responsible for arranging the journey. He was a devout Roman Catholic, trained in Jesuit schools, and he seems to have possessed an instinctive understanding of the revolutionary mind. One of his special functions in the Foreign Office was to study the possibilities of sabotage and subversion, and vast sums of money were made available to him for this purpose. He knew everything that was to be known about Lenin, and was only waiting to spring the trap.

Lenin, however, was wary. He made no overt move to contact the Germans, and he forbade members of his party to contact them. He was still pondering the possibilities of returning to Russia through France and England, and though he was conscious of a desperate need to reach Petrograd, most of his mind seemed to be occupied with the developing pattern of the revolution and the theoretical basis for the second revolution that he hoped to lead, and the practical affair of somehow crossing the frontiers took second place after the first blaze of excitement.

At this juncture Diego Bergen made the first of a series of moves by sending Georg Sklarz as his emissary to Zurich. He arrived in Zurich on March 27 and immediately sought out Lenin. He came with full authority: Bergen had notified the German legation in Berne and the consulate at Zurich to give him every assistance. The plan seems to have been to smuggle Lenin and Zinoviev through Germany in disguise without informing the Swiss authorities. From the German point of view the plan had great advantages. There would be no publicity. Quietly, stealthily, provided with false papers of remarkable authenticity by IIIb, Lenin and Zinoviev would vanish from Switzerland and they would not come to the surface again until they reached Petrograd.

No record of Sklarz’s meeting with Lenin has survived, and perhaps no record was ever made. Sklarz may simply have reported on the failure of his mission to Bergen, who thereupon set about devising better and more intricate traps. There was no question that Lenin wanted to leave Switzerland at once, but to be hurried across Germany in disguise, at the mercy of the German Foreign Office, was a prospect which left a good deal to be desired. There were, after all, advantages in publicity, especially in publicity which could be controlled and directed toward specific aims. He rejected Sklarz’s offer for many reasons — chiefly, it seems, because of the secrecy involved. If he followed this plan, there was nothing to prevent the Germans from murdering him casually en route, nor was there anything to prevent the Provisional Government from learning of these private negotiations and then arresting him and sentencing him to death as a traitor for he was still a Russian, and Russia was still at war with Germany.

On the same day as the conference with Sklarz, Lenin sent a telegram to his old follower Ganetsky in Stockholm. The telegram was written on the back of a letter to Karpinsky in Berne, who had instructions to send it off from the Berne telegraph office. It read: “Berlin permit inadmissible for me. Either Swiss Government accepts railway carriage to Copenhagen, or will reach agreement on exchange of all Russian émigrés for interned Germans.” The words “to Copenhagen” were added in Krupskayas handwriting. The reference to “the Berlin permit” probably reflects the negotiations with Sklarz. What is clear is that the official negotiations were still far from arriving at any useful conclusions.

March 27 was a busy day for Lenin. There were letters to write, important conferences to attend, and a speech to be given to a group of Swiss workmen on “The Russian Revolution, Its Significance and Aims.” The speech had been arranged some days previously, and handbills with a brief summary of the ground to be covered had been prepared by Lenin in the careful handwriting he employed whenever his words were to be printed. At the bottom of the handbill was the statement that fifty per cent of the proceeds would be set aside for the support of émigrés suffering from tuberculosis.

The speech was delivered at 5:15 P.M. in a small dark hall at the People’s House in Zurich. Only a brief summary of the speech appeared in newspapers, but Lenin’s notes have survived. Where the Letters from Afar are often turgid, the essential ideas vanishing under the weight of theory, these notes have a quite extraordinary freshness and fervor. Here we find him thinking out the problems afresh, setting them briefly and pungently in their proper order. These notes should be quoted in full, because they provide the background for the far more famous “April Theses,” which were to follow. The speech was delivered in German, and the four opening sentences of the notes were written in German, the rest in Russian:

1. The first stage of the first revolution.

2. Not the last revolution, but the last stage.

3. In three days overthrow of the monarchist government, which had lasted for hundreds of years and in the battles of 1905-1907 … [words illegible]

1. “The world has changed in three days.”

3. How could it be overthrown in 8 days?

Four principal conditions:

4. (I) The revolution in 1905-1907. It broke up the ground revealed all the classes and parties unmasked and isolated Nicholas II and Co (Rasputin).

5. (II) Three forces contributed to this revolution:

Anglo-French finance capital

6. The entire bourgeoisie and the landowning-capitalist class of Russia

(and the heads of the army)

7. The revolutionary proletariat and the revolution ary part of the army, the soldier.

Tsarist monarchy remnants of dynasty

(counterrevolution in the south)

9. The new government and the bourgeoisie

10. The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

11. Bread, peace, freedom = Three basic demands.

12. The new government cannot grant them…

14. Three courses in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies:

15. Resolution on Kerensky etc.

16. Vacillations of Chkheidze.

17. Course of the C.C. PSDRP. Manifesto of C.C.

18. What to do? Where and how to proceed?

To the Commune? Explain this.

19. Analysis of the situation. Rapid change of situation day before yesterday — the greatest illegality. Appeal to revolutionary war. War against social-chauvinism.

yesterday — maximum revolutionary heroism in the struggle.

today — transition, organization

20. Organization — watchword of the day.

What organization? Party? Syndicates? etc.

21. Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Quid est Thesis No. 4.

23. The Paris Commune…Its essence.

24. The teaching of Marx and Engels concerning government of a transitional type.

25. The proletarian militia. What kind…

26. they need “Not to let them

27. and we, too. reestablish the police”

28. The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry …

30. Our conditions for peace.

31. The step (passage) to socialism.

32. Long live the Russian Revolution, long live the beginning of the world proletarian revolution.[51]

As we read these notes, we seem to see Lenin pulling the revolution into shape, giving it order and purpose, building it step by step, throwing over it the quick mantle of theory. It will be an amalgam of the Petersburg Soviets and the Paris Commune: the essential bricks are 1871 and 1905. He envisages a revolutionary war, and has no fear of it. When he says “the greatest illegality”, he means “the maximum freedom” to operate within the Provisional Government regime and indeed the words “the maximum freedom” appear in his draft of the “April Theses.” “Bread, peace, freedom” are to become the slogans of the hour, and he states categorically that the Provisional Government cannot offer them, but he does not promise that his own government will offer them. Angelica Balabanoff, who heard the speech, was particularly struck with one sentence: “Unless the Russian Revolution develops into a second and successful Paris Commune, reaction and war will suffocate it.”

This blueprint for a revolution was written at a time when he was still not completely sure whether he would be able to return to Russia.

The slow negotiations continued in an atmosphere of mounting tension. The Germans were willing, and the émigrés were willing but both sides took pains to avoid appearing to be too willing. The German Minister in Berne grew alarmed. He wrote to the Wilhelmstrasse saying that although he had demonstrated his willingness to co-operate, not a single representative of the émigrés had come to call on him. It was not until April 3 that Fritz Platten, the secretary of the Swiss Social Democratic Party, contacted him, and suggested the formula that was finally adopted. Platten himself would take charge of the émigrés the train must be assured extraterritorial rights in return they would promise to make efforts in Russia to secure the release of a number of German prisoners. The quid pro quo had no binding effect and was never taken seriously. The essential elements of the formula were the sealed train and Platten acting as a neutral observer and guide. Platten raised with the Minister the question of how deeply the Russians would be compromised by traveling on a German train. It was a question which haunted Lenin, who in his curiously legalistic fashion arranged that a statement approving the journey should be drawn up and signed by leading French, German and Swiss socialists. Platten was instructed to see that all the émigrés signed a statement testifying that they understood the conditions under which they made the journey:

1) that the conditions agreed upon in the negotiations between Platten and the German Legation have been made known to me

2) that I shall obey the orders of travel leader Platten

3) that I have been informed of a dispatch in the “Petit Parisien”, stating that the Russian Provisional Government threatens to bring travelers through Germany to trial on charges of high treason

4) that I exclusively assume the entire political responsibility for the journey

5) that Platten has guaranteed my journey only as far as Stockholm.

4 Valentina Safaroff-Mostitchkine

7 Ines Armand, Nikolai Boitzow, F. Grebelsky

8 A. Konstantinowitsch, E. Mirinhoff, M. Mirinhoff

11 Z. Radomyslski (und Sohn), D. Slussareff

12 B. Eltchaninoff, G Brillant

13. M. Kharitonov, D. Rosenblum

14 A. Abramovitch, S. Scheinessohn, Tskhakaya, M. Gobermann

15 A. Linde, M. Aisenbud, Pripevsky, Soulechvili

Such was the list of the Bolsheviks in the sealed train, which Fritz Platten published in facsimile in his short account of the journey. It is an intriguing list and deserves some study, for much has been said about this mysterious journey and a good deal of it is erroneous. There is no doubt about the authenticity of the list, but with few exceptions the names are not signatures. Most of the left-hand column is in Zinoviev’s handwriting with his characteristic curlicues and spandrels he always wrote ff in this way, and they are his florid capital letters. He has made only a cursory effort to make the names look like signatures.

Most of the names are readily identifiable. Georgy Safarov, Abraham Skovno, David Souliachvili, Helene Kon, and many others, present no difficulty. Brillant was the real name of Sokolnikov. Z. Radomyslsky is Zena Radomyslskaya, the wife of Zinoviev, who took the name of Radomyslsky. Ravitsch is Olga Ravich, while the Charitonoff who appears isolated at the bottom is simply the transliteration of the Russian name near the top of the column. Some Bundists may be included in the list. It is thought, for example, that D. Rosenblum and M. Aisenbud are Bundists, but there is little doubt that the rest are Bolsheviks. Of these Zinoviev, Sokolnikov, Safarov, and Slussarev went on to high positions, while others like Nikolay Boitsov, who served in the Central Political Education Department, played minor roles. Some like Grigory Ussievich, who played an outstanding role in the Moscow uprising in November, were killed later in the civil war, and others vanished into obscurity.

One name — the odd-looking Pripevsky, which appears in an uncertain handwriting toward the end of the list — at first sight presents an insoluble problem. No one has ever heard of a revolutionary named Pripevsky one looks in vain through all the published catalogues of Bolshevik pseudonyms for anyone with a name which is so obviously invented. The clue however is to be found in Krupskaya’s memoirs, where she gives a list of twenty-three of her fellow travelers and adds the useful information that Radek traveled under an assumed Russian name. Now pripev means “refrain of a song”, and since Radek sang well and in addition was remarkably loquacious, Pripevsky is just the kind of name which Lenin in a caustic moment would give to him. He had no high opinion of Radek’s talents only a few months before in a letter to Inessa Armand he had described Radek as “an insufferable fool”. But a good servant may be a fool and still be valuable to his master. So he was given a name which satisfied Lenin’s sense of humor. In his own articles Radek gave himself a sterner pseudonym: he called himself “Parabellum”.

Though the majority of the names are in the hand of Zinoviev, the numbers and the curious little scratchings are in Lenin’s characteristic style. It is not clear what they signify. Some, like Mikha Tskhakaya, the Georgian revolutionary, were particularly close to Lenin, but the numbers before their names have been scratched out. These numbers may relate to a seating plan which was later abandoned.

When Lenin reached Russia he felt called upon to explain the circumstances which led him to cross Germany in the sealed train. In this brief account, which appeared in Pravda, he mentioned that, altogether, thirty-two political exiles were on the train, and of these, nineteen were Bolsheviks, six were Bundists, and three others belonged to the Menshevik paper Nashe Slovo, published in Paris. Presumably the remaining four were children, for the veteran revolutionary Mikha Tskhakaya remembered that there were a number of children on the train. Lenin’s figures are evidently wrong, for at least twenty-five active Bolsheviks can be identified on the list which he helped to draw up. It would appear that he scaled down the number of Bolsheviks and added to the number of non-Bolsheviks to conceal the fact that the passengers were predominantly people he had chosen. At most only two or three non-Bolsheviks traveled with him.

The list gives every appearance of having been hurriedly put together while the exiles met for lunch at the Hotel Zahringer Hof at midday on April 9. The train was to leave at 3:10 P.M., and there was time only for last-minute arrangements and the reading of the rather lengthy letter which Lenin had composed the previous day. The letter was addressed to the Swiss workers. It paid tribute to the Swiss Social Democrats and announced the aims of his party, repeating words he had said many times before, but now he spoke them with a greater urgency. Once again he proclaimed that his revolutionary aim was “to turn the imperialist war into a civil war of the oppressed against the oppressors for the attainment of socialism”, and once again he cursed the socialists who had thrown in their lot with the governments conducting the war. He prophesied that the Russian revolution was merely the beginning of a wave of revolutions which would reach far beyond the borders of Russia, and he paid a curious compliment to the German proletariat, describing them as “the most trustworthy and the most reliable ally of the Russian and the world proletarian revolution.” But the meat of the letter lay in two paragraphs in the middle, in which he announced that the proletarian revolution in Russia was the herald of the world-wide revolution to come:

To the Russian proletariat there has fallen the great honor of beginning the series of revolutions which have been caused, with objective inevitability, by the imperialist war. But the idea that the Russian proletariat is the chosen revolutionary proletariat in all other countries is absolutely alien to us. We know only too well that the Russian proletariat is less organized, prepared, and class conscious than the proletariat of other countries. No special qualities, but rather the special coincidence of historical circumstances have made the Russian proletariat for a definite and perhaps very short period the vanguard of the revolutionary proletariat of the whole world.

Russia is a peasant country, and one of the most backward of European countries. Socialism cannot triumph there immediately. But the peasant character of the country with its tremendous acreage of lands still in the keeping of the aristocratic landowners may very well, if we judge from the experience of 1905, give tremendous scope to the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia and make our revolution the prologue to the world socialist revolution, bringing it a step nearer.[53]

Such was his farewell letter to the Swiss workers, which was addressed to them only in the most perfunctory way, for in fact it was addressed to the whole world. In a German translation the letter appeared in the Swiss socialist paper Jugend Internationale, and later in the year, in September, Plekhanov published it for the first time in Russian, in Yedinstvo (Unity), as a warning of the mischief of which Lenin was capable. Lenin was perfectly aware that he was up to mischief, for throughout the letter he gives the impression of a man already basking in the fires of revolution and wanning his hands over the flames. “The revolution will not be limited to Russia,” he said ominously, and he looked forward to the time when the European and the American socialist proletariat would drown the bourgeoisie in blood.

The letter was read at the lunch table chiefly for the benefit of the few Swiss Social Democrats who were present. Then Platten gave Lenin three thousand Swiss francs, explaining that the money, to be used for expenses on the journey, had come from the co-operatives. Lenin had raised another thousand francs, and with this four thousand it was thought that he would be able to meet any eventualities which might arise on the long journey to Petrograd. One oddly unpleasant event occurred at the lunch table. A certain Dr. Oscar Blum, a member of the Social Democratic Party, wanted to come on the train. Lenin was against it, suspecting rightly or wrongly that he was a police spy. It was one of the rare occasions when Lenin offered to settle a matter by democratic vote. Accordingly, a vote was taken eleven voted for Dr. Blum, and fourteen against. He was told that on no account would he be allowed to accompany them on the sealed train. At 2:30 P.M. they set out for the station, a small motley crowd, looking as if they were going to a picnic, with their baskets, string bags and hastily improvised parcels. Platten had arranged a ten-day supply of food, but this had already been sent to the station.[54]

For some reason Platten had thought it would be a perfectly simple matter for the exiles to board the train, but their leave-taking was turbulent. Already the rumor was being spread that Lenin was being paid by the Germans. A group of about fifty Russian exiles was waving banners protesting against the journey. Lenin saw the banners and smiled grimly. He wore a derby hat, the heavy coat which served for winter and summer, and the famous thick-soled hobnailed boots which the shoemaker Kammerer had made for him and he carried an umbrella, which proved to be a useful weapon when a near-riot broke out on the platform. The Bolsheviks sang the “Internationale” but there were so many cries of “German spies!” and “The Kaiser is paying for the journey!” that they had to break off. Platten, small and slender, was fighting a man twice his size, but he was able to slip on the train without serious damage. There were a few well-wishers. Siegfried Bloch, the Swiss socialist, ran up to Lenin, grasped his hand, and said, “I hope to see yon soon back again among us, comrade.” Lenin answered, “H’m, if we come back soon it won’t be a good sign for the revolution.” He settled down in a second-class compartment with Krupskaya, and he was about to take out his note pad when someone told him that Dr. Oscar Blum had calmly taken a seat in the same carriage. Lenin was incensed. He jumped up, hurled himself out of the compartment, found the doctor, and pushed him off the train. At the last moment Ryazanov, a close friend of Trotsky, came running onto the platform, and seeing Zinoviev at the window he shouted, “Lenin is out of his mind! He doesn’t realize what a dangerous situation it is! You’re more sensible! Tell him to stop this mad journey through Germany!” Zinoviev smiled. He had carefully considered the dangers, and he had absolute faith in Lenin’s star. There were no speeches, and no photographs were taken. The train pulled out of the station at exactly 3:10 P.M. The disconsolate group of exiles on the platform folded up the banners and drifted away.

Although the Swiss and German governments were both involved in organizing the journey in the sealed train, and the necessary decisions had been made on the highest levels, they were both obscurely aware that the consequences were unforseeable, and perhaps dangerous. All that day government telegrams were flying across Europe concerning the fate of those strange wayfarers. Early in the morning the German Minister at Berne dispatched a telegram to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, saying that all preparations had been made, but it was absolutely necessary that the Russian exiles have no communication with Germans during the journey, otherwise they would be in grave danger of arrest by the Provisional Government when they reached Russia. He urged that the German press say nothing of the affair “unless it becomes known abroad,” and it was especially necessary to keep silent about Swiss participation, no doubt because the Entente would not look favorably on a maneuver which owed much to a close working agreement between the Swiss and German governments.

While the train was steaming toward the frontier, another telegram was sent to the Wilhelmstrasse by the Minister in Berne, emphasizing that the exiles had taken no steps to procure permission to travel in Sweden. “They therefore rely absolutely on the action we have requested.” This can only mean that the Germans were to use their good offices with the Swedish government to allow passage through Sweden, and had not yet done so. It was a perplexing matter, of sufficient importance to warrant the attention of the Kaiser, who had been kept informed about the various démarches made on behalf of Lenin. Characteristically he had a very simple solution for the problem. He suggested that if the Swedes refused to co-operate it would be a comparatively simple matter to send the Russian exiles, and the others who had remained in Switzerland, through the German lines. Even more characteristically, he suggested that the Russians traveling through Germany should be presented with his own Easter Message to the German People, the German Chancellors latest speech, and assorted White Papers, “so that they may be able to enlighten others in their own country”. Nothing came of the Kaisers suggestions, which were made over breakfast on the morning of April 12, for by that time the Swedish government had officially granted its permission. We shall never know Lenin’s reaction to the Kaiser’s Easter Message, for it was never shown to him. Diego Bergen, or one of the other officials who were in charge of the journey, may have hinted tactfully that Lenin was in no mood to digest the official pronouncements of the German Reich.

It was a strange journey, and though Krupskaya described it as uneventful, strange things were continually happening. At the frontier the Swiss customs officers commandeered most of the food supplies, mainly sugar and chocolate, which had been given to them by Platten. No explanations were offered. The Germans behaved even more capriciously. They herded all the exiles into the customs shed, separated the men from the women, and kept them waiting for about half an hour. They all thought they would be arrested, and Radek, who was an Austrian subject and a deserter, expected to be stood up against a wall and shot. They thought Lenin would be the first to be arrested, and for this reason he was kept as much as possible out of sight. He stood near a wall with his friends forming a hedge round him, hiding him. No one ever discovered the cause of this curious action. No doubt telegrams were being exchanged between Schaffhausen and Berlin messages had failed to arrive on time and Lenin was confronted with one more example of the inefficiency of the Germans, whom he had always regarded as models of efficiency. Suddenly they were ordered into the train, and the journey through Germany began.

It was agreed that Lenin and Krupskaya should have a compartment to themselves in this way Lenin would be able to work quietly. At first he objected, but later he accepted with good grace. In the compartment next to him sat Safarov and his wife, Inessa Armand, Olga Ravich and Radek, who sang and told jokes and exchanged banter with Olga Ravich. He was an amusing companion, with a prodigious gift for small talk. With his side whiskers and curly hair and horn-rimmed spectacles he resembled a monkey and his delicate nervous hands were continually weaving gestures. Olga Ravich laughed so loud at his jokes that Lenin, who could never work amid noise, decided that he could put up with it no longer. He marched into the compartment, took her hand, and led her without a word into another compartment. Characteristically, Lenin was punishing the wrong person. For the rest of the journey Radek spoke in whispers.

The Bolsheviks generally smoked incessantly Lenin felt suffocated amid the fumes of tobacco. When the carriage became thick with cigarette smoke, Lenin decided that he had had enough of it, and he ordered that there should be no smoking except in the lavatory. Then it became obvious that there would be a rush for the lavatory, and to prevent this he wrote out tickets permitting the bearer one visit to the lavatory. The legality of his action was discussed, and someone suggested that it was a pity that Bukharin was absent, for he possessed a masterly sense of the limits of the permissible and impermissible. The discussion was brief, and Lenin’s law prevailed. No one suspected at the time that the tickets to the lavatory were a strange forewarning of the system he would impose upon Russia.

While Lenin wrote, Krupskaya gazed out of the window, and when they came to villages and towns she was shocked to see how few grown-up men there were there were only old men and old women in the fields. All the youth of Germany had vanished. They seemed to be crossing a desert, a land drained of its wealth by the war. To impress them, they were fed excellent meals, but they had only to look out of the window to know that Germany was starving. The train was a kind of Potemkin village on wheels, deliberately designed to give an impression of a victorious nation but the exiles knew poverty when they saw it. Meanwhile Lenin shrank deeper and deeper into himself, living only for the moment when he reached Russia. Sometimes he would discuss with his companions how many days they expected to live, for while part of his brain told him he would lead the proletariat of the world in a successful revolution, another part told him he would be hanged when he stepped off the train in Petrograd.

The Germans kept their bargain the Russians were effectively sealed off from the Germans, and they were able to boast afterward that there had been not one word of conversation between them. Plat-ten alone talked with them he alone was permitted to leave the train to buy the newspapers, which the travelers consumed in large quantities, and the beer, which Lenin and Zinoviev delighted in. It was a slow journey, with inexplicable pauses and shuntings they were delayed at Karlsruhe, and again at Frankfurt, where they were told they had missed a connection. Here Platten made his purchases and incautiously went off to visit a woman in the town, telling two German soldiers to carry the beer and the newspapers into the train. The soldiers boarded the train, met Radek, and were at once greeted with a vehement call to revolution, which was interrupted only by the appearance of some German officers. The incident might have had severe consequences, but Radek fled to the compartment next to Lenin’s, and nothing more was heard of it.

At Berlin they were again shunted into a siding, and these mysterious delays, which seemed to be growing longer, found their explanation only when the archives of the German Foreign Ministry were opened. Then it became clear that German efficiency had once more broken down, for the German Minister in Stockholm had received from the Swedish government the permission for the exiles to cross Sweden on the afternoon of the tenth, while on the morning of the twelfth high officials were still discussing when permission would be granted. The telegram was evidently mislaid and not discovered until late in the morning. By midday the exiles were on their way to the coastal port of Sassnitz, which they reached late in the-evening. The Germans expected them to spend the night at Sassnitz. According to an ominous Foreign Ministry telegram, “Good accommodation has been assured for them there, in a locked room.”

The German attitude toward the exiles was one of total expediency. The High Command favored the journey only because they looked forward to the collapse of the Russian front as a result of the propaganda of the revolutionaries. They did not care how the collapse was brought about, and they made no calculation of the consequences if Lenin came to power. They were cynically detached from the whole affair they were prepared to make agreements and break them. They had promised the revolutionaries that there would be no contact with Germans during the journey, and they broke the promise twice: first in Karlsruhe, and then in Berlin, when they permitted German Social Democrats to board the train. In this way they hoped to find out more about Lenin’s intentions. In this they failed. Lenin resolutely refused to see them, saying, “They can go to the devil!” The boy, Robert, the “son of a Bundist woman,” was the only one who spoke to them. He went up to the Germans in Berlin and said in French, “Who is the conductor of the train?” They are the only words known to have been exchanged between the Russians and the Germans during the journey in the sealed train.

After Berlin, the Germans made no more effort to influence the exiles. On the whole they had behaved with propriety they had sent special supplies of milk to the train for the children they had cared for their comfort and had religiously kept to their own compartments in the carriage, never stepping over the chalk line drawn across the corridor which effectively separated Russia from Germany. With the journey nearly over, they were already congratulating themselves on their success and preparing to send more revolutionaries across Germany.

In the locked room at Sassnitz the exiles spent their last night on German soil, and in the morning they took the ferryboat to Sweden.

The long journey in the sealed train was over.

Lenin’s Body

Lenin’s Body Screenplay by: Alan Nafzger Magic vodka allows two men to steal Lenin’s body the night before it is [read screenplay]


April 16, 1917 The Sealed Train

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

The “War to End all Wars” entered its third year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Neither side seemed able to gain strategic advantage on the front. The great battles of 1916 seemed only yesterday, in which any single day’s fighting produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

By 1916 it was generally understood in Germany, that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring to Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the Triple Entente side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to breaking. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was on the edge of the precipice.

The United States had declared its intention to enter the war barely ten days earlier. While no American forces had arrived as of yet, both sides understood that the balance was about to shift. For Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, it was time to throw a knockout punch.

Imperial Russia had seen the first of what would be two revolutions back in February, when food riots led to the overthrow and exile of the Imperial family. Full scale civil war broke out in 1918, resulting in the Bolshevik murder of the Czar and Czarina, together with their children, servants and dogs.

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the more radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, the Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union work, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In a small town in the northeast of Sweden, there is a train station. A bronze plaque on a blue tile wall, proclaims: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia”.

Lenin was in exile, and Imperial Germany was at war with Russia at this time. British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to inflict such a bacillus on his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser. Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!”, Lenin turned to a friend. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, the group traveled the length of Sweden, crossing at the border village of Haparanda into Russian-Occupied Finland. The group arrived at Finlandsky Vokzal (Finland Station) in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, that small faction inserted into the picture that April, would help to radicalize the population, and consolidate power on the Bolshevik’s side.

Lenin’s Journey from Zurich to St. Petersburg, April 1917

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution in a year. The Kaiser’s Germany could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller”, was out of the war. Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could move their divisions westward, in time to face the American’s arrival.

Since the end of the Soviet era, Russian historians have come to believe that Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin personally ordered the murder of the czar and his family, and that the Lenin era was every bit as bloody, as that of his successor Josef Stalin.

Lenin called for “Mass Terror” during the civil war of 1918, resulting in executions in the tens of thousands. Historian Alexander Margolis had the last word on the subject if not the understatement of the century, when he said: “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble”.

Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’


Vladimir Lenin’s Return Journey to Russia Changed the World Forever

The town of Haparanda, 700 miles north of Stockholm, is a lonely smudge of civilization in the vast tundra of Swedish Lapland. It was once a thriving outpost for trade in minerals, fur and timber, and the main northern crossing point into Finland, across the Torne River. On a cold and cloudless October afternoon, I stepped off the bus after a two-hour ride from Lulea, the last stop on the passenger train from Stockholm, and approached a tourist booth inside the Haparanda bus station. The manager sketched out a walk that took me past the northernmost IKEA store in the world, and then under a four-lane highway and down the Storgatan, or main street. Scattered among the concrete apartment blocks were vestiges of the town’s rustic past: a wood-shingle trading house the Stadshotell, a century-old inn and the Handelsbank, a Victorian structure with cupolas and a curving gray-slate roof.

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I followed a side street to a grassy esplanade on the banks of the Torne. Across the river in Finland the white dome of the 18th-century Alatornio Church rose over a forest of birches. In the crisp light near dusk I walked on to the railroad station, a monumental neo-Classical brick structure. Inside the waiting room I found what I’d been looking for, a bronze plaque mounted on a blue tile wall: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia.”

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, joined by 29 other Russian exiles, a Pole and a Swiss, was on his way to Russia to try to seize power from the government and declare a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a phrase coined in the mid-19th century and adopted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of Marxism. Lenin and his fellow exiles, revolutionaries all, including his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, had boarded a train in Zurich, crossed Germany, traveled the Baltic Sea by ferry and ridden 17 hours by rail from Stockholm to this remote corner of Sweden.

They hired horse-drawn sleds to head across the frozen river to Finland. “I remember that it was night,” Grigory Zinoviev, one of the exiles traveling with Lenin, would write in a memoir. “There was a long thin ribbon of sledges. On each sledge were two people. Tension as [we] approached the Finnish border reached its maximum. Vladimir Ilyich was outwardly calm.” Eight days later, he would reach St. Petersburg, then Russia’s capital but known as Petrograd.

Lenin’s journey, undertaken 100 years ago this April, set in motion events that would forever change history—and are still being reckoned with today—so I decided to retrace his steps, curious to see how the great Bolshevik imprinted himself on Russia and the nations he passed through along the way. I also wanted to sense some of what Lenin experienced as he sped toward his destiny. He traveled with an entourage of revolutionaries and upstarts, but my companion was a book I’ve long admired, To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson’s magisterial 1940 history of revolutionary thought, in which he described Lenin as the dynamic culmination of 150 years of radical theory. Wilson’s title refers to the Petrograd depot, “a little shabby stucco station, rubber gray and tarnished pink,” where Lenin stepped off the train that had carried him from Finland to remake the world.

As it happens, the centennial of Lenin’s fateful trip comes just when the Russia question, as it might be called, has grown increasingly urgent. President Vladimir Putin has emerged in recent years as a militaristic authoritarian intent on rebuilding Russia as a world power. U.S.-Russian relations are more fraught than in decades.

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This article is a selection from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine

While Putin embraces the aggressive posture of his Soviet predecessors—the murder of oppositionists, the expansion of the state’s territorial boundaries by coercion and violence—and in that sense is heir to Lenin’s brutal legacy, he is no fan. Lenin, who represents a tumultuous force that turned a society upside down, is hardly the kind of figure that Putin, a deeply conservative autocrat, wants to celebrate. “We did not need a global revolution,” Putin told an interviewer last year on the 92nd anniversary of Lenin’s death. A few days later Putin denounced Lenin and the Bolsheviks for executing Czar Nicholas II, his family and their servants, and for killing thousands of clergy in the Red Terror, and placing a “time bomb” under the Russian state.

The sun was setting as I made my way toward the bus station to catch my ride across the bridge to Finland. I shivered in the Arctic chill as I walked beside the river Lenin had crossed, with the old church steeple reflecting off the placid water in the fading pink light. At the terminal café, I ordered a plate of herring—misidentified by the waitress as “whale”—and sat in the gathering darkness until the bus pulled up, in a mundane echo of Lenin’s perilous journey.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born in 1870 into a middle-class family in Simbirsk (now called Ulyanovsk), on the Volga River, 600 miles east of Moscow. His mother was well-educated, his father the director of primary schools for Simbirsk Province and a “man of high character and ability,” Wilson writes. Though Vladimir and his siblings grew up in comfort, the poverty and injustice of imperial Russia weighed heavily upon them. In 1887 his older brother, Alexander, was hanged in St. Petersburg for his involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate Czar Alexander III. The execution “hardened” young Vladimir, said his sister, Anna, who would be sent into exile for subversion. Vladimir’s high-school principal complained that the teenager had “a distant manner, even with people he knows and even with the most superior of his schoolmates.”

After an interlude at Kazan University, Ulyanov began reading the works of Marx and Engels, the 19th-century theoreticians of Communism. “From the moment of his discovery of Marx. his way was clear,” the British historian Edward Crankshaw wrote. “Russia had to have revolution.” Upon earning a law degree from St. Petersburg University in 1891, Lenin became a leader of a Marxist group in St. Petersburg, secretly distributing revolutionary pamphlets to factory workers and recruiting new members. As the brother of an executed anti-czarist, he was under surveillance by the police, and in 1895 he was arrested, convicted of distributing propaganda and sentenced to three years in Siberian exile. Nadezhda Krupskaya, the daughter of an impoverished Russian army officer suspected of revolutionary sympathies, joined him there. The two had met at a gathering of leftists in St. Petersburg she married him in Siberia. Ulyanov later would adopt the nom de guerre Lenin (likely derived from the name of a Siberian river, the Lena).

Soon after his return from Siberia, Lenin fled into exile in Western Europe. Except for a brief period back in Russia, he remained out of the country until 1917. Moving from Prague to London to Bern, publishing a radical newspaper called Iskra (“Spark”) and trying to organize an international Marxist movement, Lenin laid out his plan to transform Russia from a feudal society into a modern workers’ paradise. He argued that revolution would come from a coalition of peasants and factory workers, the so-called proletariat—led always by professional revolutionaries. “Attention must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries,” Lenin wrote in his manifesto What Is to Be Done? “It is not at all our task to descend to the level of the ‘working masses.’”

Throne of Nicholas II, in St. Petersburg (Davide Monteleone)

Soon after the outbreak of the world war in August 1914, Lenin and Krupskaya were in Zurich, living off a small family inheritance.

I made my way to the Altstadt, a cluster of medieval alleys that rise from the steep banks of the Limmat River. The Spiegelgasse, a narrow cobblestone lane, jogs uphill from the Limmat, winds past the Cabaret Voltaire, a café founded in 1916 and, in many accounts, described as the birthplace of Dadaism, and spills into a leafy square dominated by a stone fountain. Here I found Number 14, a five-story building with a gabled rooftop, and a commemorative plaque mounted on the beige facade. The legend, in German, declares that from February 21, 1916, until April 2, 1917, this was the home of “Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution.”

Today the Altstadt is Zurich’s most touristy neighborhood, filled with cafés and gift shops, but when Lenin lived here, it was a down-and-out quarter prowled by thieves and prostitutes. In her Reminiscences of Lenin, Krupskaya described their home as “a dingy old house” with “a smelly courtyard” overlooking a sausage factory. The house had one thing going for it, Krupskaya remembered: The owners were “a working-class family with a revolutionary outlook, who condemned the imperialist war.” At one point, their landlady exclaimed, “The soldiers ought to turn their weapons against their governments!” After that, wrote Krupskaya, “Ilyich would not hear of moving to another place.” Today that rundown rooming house has been renovated and features a trinket shop on the ground floor selling everything from multicolored Lenin busts to lava lamps.

Lenin spent his days churning out tracts in the reading room of Zurich’s Central Library and, at home, played host to a stream of fellow exiles. Lenin and Krupskaya took morning strolls along the Limmat and, when the library was closed on Thursday afternoons, hiked up the Zurichberg north of the city, taking along some books and “two bars of nut chocolate in blue wrappers at 15 centimes.”

I followed Lenin’s usual route along the Limmatquai, the river’s east bank, gazing across the narrow waterway at Zurich’s landmarks, including the church of St. Peter, distinguished by the largest clock face in Europe. The Limmatquai skirted a spacious square and at the far corner I reached the popular Café Odeon. Famed for Art Nouveau décor that has changed little in a century—chandeliers, brass fittings and marble-sheathed walls—the Odeon was one of Lenin’s favorite spots for reading newspapers. At the counter, I fell into conversation with a Swiss journalist who freelances for the venerable Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “The paper had already been around for 140 years when Lenin lived here,” he boasted.

On the afternoon of March 15, 1917, Mieczyslaw Bronski, a young Polish revolutionary, raced up the stairs to the Lenins’ one-room apartment, just as the couple had finished lunch. “Haven’t you heard the news?” he exclaimed. “There’s a revolution in Russia!”

Enraged over food shortages, corruption and the disastrous war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, thousands of demonstrators had filled the streets of Petrograd, clashing with police soldiers loyal to the czar switched their support to the protesters, forcing Nicholas II to abdicate. He and his family were placed under house arrest. The Russian Provisional Government, dominated by members of the bourgeoisie—the caste that Lenin despised—had taken over, sharing power with the Petrograd Soviet, a local governing body. Committees, or “soviets,” made up of industrial workers and soldiers, many with radical sympathies, had begun to form across Russia. Lenin raced out to buy every newspaper he could find—and began making plans to return home.

The German government was at war with Russia, but it nonetheless agreed to help Lenin return home. Germany saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection,” Crankshaw writes.

On April 9, Lenin and his 31 comrades gathered at Zurich station. A group of about 100 Russians, enraged that the revolutionaries had arranged passage by negotiating with the German enemy, jeered at the departing company. “Provocateurs! Spies! Pigs! Traitors!” the demonstrators shouted, in a scene documented by historian Michael Pearson. “The Kaiser is paying for the journey. They’re going to hang you. like German spies.” (Evidence suggests that German financiers did, in fact, secretly fund Lenin and his circle.) As the train left the station, Lenin reached out the window to bid farewell to a friend. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months or we shall be in power,” he predicted.

Lenin's journey (Frank Payne and Catherine Merridale)

Seated with Krupskaya in an end compartment, Lenin scribbled in an exercise book, expressing views similar to those he had advanced shortly before departure, by telegram to his Bolshevik cohorts in the Petrograd Soviet, urging no compromise: “Our tactics: no support to the new government. arming of the proletariat the sole guarantee. no rapprochement with other parties.”

As they rolled toward Berlin, Krupskaya and Lenin took note of the absence of young men in the villages where they stopped—virtually all were at the front or dead.

A Deutsche Bahn regional train second-class compartment bore me across Germany to Rostock, a port city on the Baltic Sea. I boarded the Tom Sawyer, a seven-deck vessel the length of two football fields operated by the German TT Lines. A handful of tourists and dozens of Scandinavian and Russian truck drivers sipped goulash soup and ate bratwurst in the cafeteria as the ferry lurched into motion. Stepping onto the outdoor observation deck on a cold, drizzly night, I felt the sting of sea spray and stared up at a huge orange lifeboat, clamped in its frame high above me. Leaning over the starboard rail, I could make out the red and green lights of a buoy flashing through the mist. Then we passed the last jetty and headed into the open sea, bound for Trelleborg, Sweden, six hours north.

The sea was rougher when Lenin made the crossing aboard a Swedish ferry, Queen Victoria. While most of his comrades suffered the heaving of the ship below decks, Lenin remained outside, joining a few other stalwarts in singing revolutionary anthems. At one point a wave broke across the bow and smacked Lenin in the face. As he dried himself with a handkerchief, someone declared, to laughter, “The first revolutionary wave from the shores of Russia.”

Plowing through the blackness of the Baltic night, I found it easy to imagine the excitement that Lenin must have felt as his ship moved inexorably toward his homeland. After standing in the drizzle for a half-hour, I headed to my spartan cabin to catch a few hours sleep before the vessel docked in Sweden at 4:30 in the morning.

In Trelleborg, I caught a train north to Stockholm, as Lenin did, riding past lush meadows and forests.

Once in the Swedish capital I followed in Lenin’s footsteps down the crowded Vasagatan, the main commercial street, to PUB, once the city’s most elegant department store, now a hotel. Lenin’s Swedish socialist friends brought him here to be outfitted “like a gentleman” before his arrival in Petrograd. He consented to a new pair of shoes to replace his studded mountain boots, but he drew the line at an overcoat he was not, he said, opening a tailor shop.

From the former PUB store, I crossed a canal on foot to the Gamla Stan, the Old Town, a hive of medieval alleys on a small island, and walked to a smaller island, Skeppsholmen, the site of another monument to Lenin’s sojourn in Sweden. Created by Swedish artist Bjorn Lovin and situated in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, it consists of a backdrop of black granite and a long strip of cobblestones embedded with a piece of iron tram track. The work pays tribute to an iconic photo of Lenin strolling the Vasagatan, carrying an umbrella and wearing a fedora, joined by Krupskaya and other revolutionaries. The museum catalog asserts that “This is not a monument that pays tribute to a person” but rather is “a memorial, in the true sense of the word.” Yet the work—like other vestiges of Lenin all over Europe—has become an object of controversy. After a visit in January 2016, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that the exhibit was a “shameful monument to Lenin visiting Stockholm. At least it’s dark & discreet.”

Clambering into the horse-drawn sleds on the bank of the frozen Torne in Haparanda on the night of April 15, Lenin and his wife and comrades crossed to Finland, then under Russian control, and fully expected to be turned back at the border or even detained by Russian authorities. Instead they received a hearty welcome. “Everything was already familiar and dear to us,” Krupskaya wrote in Reminiscences, recalling the train they boarded in Russianized Finland, which had been annexed by Czar Alexander I in 1809. “[T]he wretched third-class cars, the Russian soldiers. It was terribly good.”

I spent the night in Kemi, Finland, a bleak town on Bothnian Bay, walking in the freezing rain through the deserted streets to a concrete-block hotel just up from the waterfront. When I awoke at 7:30 the town was still shrouded in darkness. In winter, a receptionist told me, Kemi experiences only a couple of hours of daylight.

From there, I took the train south to Tampere, a riverside city where Lenin briefly stopped on his way to Petrograd. Twelve years earlier, Lenin had held a clandestine meeting in the Tampere Workers Hall with a 25-year-old revolutionary and bank robber, Joseph Stalin, to discuss money-raising schemes for the Bolsheviks. In 1946, pro-Soviet Finns turned that meeting room into a Lenin Museum, filling it with objects such as Lenin’s high-school honors certificate and iconic portraiture, including a copy of the 1947 painting Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power, by the Russian artist Vladimir Serov.

“The museum’s primary role was to convey to the Finns the good things about the Soviet system,” curator Kalle Kallio, a bearded historian and self-described “pacifist,” told me when I met him at the entrance to the last surviving Lenin museum outside Russia. At its peak, the Lenin Museum drew 20,000 tourists a year—mostly Soviet tour groups visiting nonaligned Finland to get a taste of the West. But after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, interest waned, Finnish members of parliament denounced it and vandals ripped off the sign on the front door and riddled it with bullets. “It was the most hated museum in Finland,” Kallio said.


How did Lenin actually cross the front lines between Germany and Russian in 1917?

I was listening to the latest instalment of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History and he stated that Germany grabbed Lenin from Switzerland and sent him back to Russia. This got me thinking, how does one cross a front in World War 1? Carlin described it as involving multiple trains and a ferry but didn't explain the actual process.

Ah, this is the famous 'sealed train' of 1917. Robert Service goes into a bit of detail on this in his Lenin, which I'll be largely drawing from here. All dates are Old Style.

For context, a sizeable group of Russian socialists, who had been exiled prior to the war, were based in Switzerland at the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1917. On hearing of the Tsar's fall they were understandably keen to return to Russia ASAP the Germans were understandably more happy to facilitate this than the Allies. After a spot of indirect negotiations, it was agreed that Germany would provide transport for the revolutionaries. To avoid accusations of treason, the Russian compartment in the train would be 'sealed' as it passed through Germany.

So Lenin and 31 other Russians (largely Bolsheviks) boarded a train at Zurich on 21 March 1917. This brought them to the Swiss border town of Schaffhausen where they boarded the German train. After crossing the border, the train stopped at Gottmadingen in Germany. There the Russians were moved into a separate carriage which had all but one of its doors 'sealed' to prevent access to the outside world.

(In reality, the Russians were able to chat to fellow passengers throughout the journey and were even allowed off the train at some stops to buy beer and newspapers.)

From Gottmadingen the train sped towards Berlin before reaching the Baltic port of Sassnitz, six days after leaving Switzerland. The Russians boarded the Queen Victoria ferry and reached neutral Sweden (Trelleborg) after a rough day's sailing. A train took them to Stockholm where, after being welcomed as visiting dignitaries, they boarded another train north on 31 March. They crossed the Swedish-Finnish border at Harapanda, finally bringing them back to the Russian Empire. After a quick sled journey to Tornio, they boarded their final train to Petrograd.

Finally, on 03 April, Lenin and co arrived in Petrograd. His arrival at Finland Station was greeted by cheering crowds and local soviet dignitaries, providing one of the Revolution's more iconic scenes and quickly shaking things up in the capital. See also Eisenstein's dramatisation of Lenin at Finland Station.

So the very short version of the above is that at no point did Lenin actually cross the front. He went via neutral Sweden and had no trouble crossing the border. The remainder of the Russian socialists in Switzerland followed the same route a month later, thus avoiding all the controversy that attached to Lenin's 'sealed train'.

[Edits: Added 'visiting dignitaries' and link to Eisenstein's October.]


How Lenin’s ‘sealed train’ smuggled clarity into revolutionary Russia

The German “sealed train” that gave Vladimir I Lenin safe passage from exile in Switzerland through wartime Germany to Russia in April 1917, in the aftermath of the overthrow of Russia’s monarchy that had exiled the Russian revolutionary leader, was historically pivotal.

British historian Catherine Merridale reminds us in Lenin on the Train that Lenin was seen as a “plague bacillus” (in Winston Churchill’s phrase) by Berlin. He was sent back into Russia by a German state desperately seeking a military edge in the World War I by sowing revolutionary disruption in one of its key enemy states.

If Berlin was using Lenin for its military aims, however, Lenin was more than happy to use the German state for his goal of socialist revolution in Russia and across Europe.

Banished from Russia by Tsarist courts, Lenin had spent 20 years isolated from his home country and its simmering discontents when stirring news came of the February 1917 revolution that overthrew the autocratic monarchy. Lenin saw that the revolution was only half done, however.

Although a driving force of the revolution was the soviets (councils) formed by workers, soldiers and peasants after the fall of the Tsar, power shifted to a Provisional Government dominated by capitalist oligarchs.

Stopping the workers, peasants and soldiers from taking full power were the leaders of the elected soviet delegates. They had developed a liking for the comfortable pace of glacial reform and eyed off the material pickings from comfortable seats in a mooted Western-style parliament. A frantic Lenin was desperate to return.

All legitimate travel avenues, however, were blocked by Britain, which wanted to keep its ally, Russia, in the war. Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, had vetoed a plan for Lenin to travel in disguise in a sleeper train because he would arouse suspicions due to his tendency, even in his sleep, to let fly against the political perfidy of fake socialists.

When the possibility of German assistance was first floated, Lenin was cautious. By accepting help from a government whose military was slaughtering Russians on the eastern front, Lenin could be seen as either a national or class traitor in Russia.

Deciding the benefits outweighed the risks, however, Lenin accepted the offer of a German train after negotiating stringent conditions. He insisted the carriage be granted “extra-territorial status” to “seal” it from contact with Germans. This included a chalk line dividing the Russian exiles’ territory from the German territory of the military guards on board.

Lenin was also adamant that Germany not bankroll the 32 returning Bolshevik revolutionaries (local Swiss socialists raised the cash) for the week-long journey.

Lenin returned to Russia with a simple three-word slogan, “Peace, Bread, Land”, and the audacious demand for “All Power to the Soviets”. He helped bring political clarity and direction to Russia’s mass revolutionary movement and party unity to the fractious Bolsheviks. Socialism shifted from a vague, distant ideal to an urgent, realisable task.

Lenin, says Merridale, “had struck upon a kind of truth that people wanted to hear” — that after the February anti-Tsarist revolution, “the problems that had driven them to risk their lives for freedom in the first place had resurfaced, often with redoubled force”. Only Lenin, at the head of the reinvigorated Bolsheviks, had the solution to the problems of war and hunger, and lack of democracy.

This positive conclusion by Merridale about Lenin’s political impact is remarkably rare among orthodox intellectuals, whose default ideological setting is to malign Lenin as a progenitor of Stalin.

Merridale’s favourable assessment is swiftly undermined, however, when she concludes by venting on what she professes to be Lenin’s inner dictator, whose murderous Marxist hands on the tiller in 1917 meant that “in the end, democracy could only skulk around the fringes of the revolution like a dog with mange”.

This linguistically Stalinesque simile is evidence of a lazy politics that also flavours the book’s structure. The sealed train should be a fascinating microcosm of international politics, and the political and personal dynamics of the Bolsheviks.

But, in Merridale’s hands, the train event is but a brief narrative hinge between two huge, passionless, white-bread slabs of indigestible pre- and post-Revolution history, offering no fresh insights.

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The Sealed Train

In March, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — known to history as Lenin — was living in Zurich, the impoverished leader of an obscure extremist revolutionary party. Eight months later he had risen from lonely exile to triumphant control of all the Russias.

The drama began with an uprising in Russia on March 15, 1917. Supremely confident that he alone could provide the leadershi In March, 1917, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — known to history as Lenin — was living in Zurich, the impoverished leader of an obscure extremist revolutionary party. Eight months later he had risen from lonely exile to triumphant control of all the Russias.

The drama began with an uprising in Russia on March 15, 1917. Supremely confident that he alone could provide the leadership necessary to prevent a savage counterrevolution, Lenin desperately sought a way to travel across war-torn Europe. Compelled by the urgency of events in St. Petersburg, he made the critical decision to accept Germany's offer of a "sealed train" (sealed off from the other cars to emphasize his noninvolvement with the German enemy) to carry him and his followers to Russia.

What actually took place during that train journey? Did it represent only one part of a vast program of secret German support for Lenin? Why did the train make a sudden, unscheduled stop in Berlin? Was it to permit Lenin to meet with the representatives of the German government to obtain last-minute funds for the coming struggle with the Kerensky government?

These questions greeted Lenin in St. Petersburg, where he soon found himself denounced as a "German agent." Forced into hiding, he nevertheless pursued his cause single-mindedly — writing brilliant editorials and issuing a stead stream of letters, telegrams, and phone calls — even as the propaganda campaigns against him intensified.

In this fascinating and controversial book Michael Pearson draws on diaries, letters, and other historical material to reexamine the charges against Lenin. He provides fresh and tantalizing evidence of Lenin's complicity with the German enemy in a course that would take Russia out of the war and bring Bolshevik control to the empire of the Tsars. . more


Things Have Changed

(Lenin arrives at the Finland Station)

‘It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.’

It is one of those moments on which history turns. Tens of millions would die as a result in Russia, eastern Europe, China and elsewhere. Hundreds of millions would be oppressed. It is ironic that although Marxist theory is predicated on iron rules of history in which individuals are of little import, that development in Russia and for the rest of the world during the 20th century, would have taken a very different direction if the German government had not taken the decision to inject Vladimir Lenin into Russia. It was one of two catastrophic decisions made by Germany in April 1917 (the other being declaring unrestricted submarine warfare leading to America's declaration of war), the consequences of which led to its defeat in two world wars (see April 1945: Germany's End), and unlike the submarine decision, it was also a disaster for humanity.

Lenin's return and the Russian provisional government's reaction raises a fundamental question. Under what circumstances should a democratic government resort to non-democratic means? Without the presence of Lenin, it is very unlikely the Bolshevik Party would have seized power later in 1917. As the historian Edward Crankshaw wrote in the October 1954 edition of The Atlantic:

Should the Kerensky government have arranged the killing of Lenin (and perhaps of Leon Trotsky), saving millions of lives? The provisional government knew Lenin was plotting its overthrow, yet shied away from extreme measures. So much depended on one man and his unshakeable will.

Anxiously watched events in Russia from his decade long Swiss exile during the early months of 1917, Lenin feared his moment might pass. In February a revolution had overthrown the Czar and a provisional government was in place under Alexander Kerensky. In today's political taxonomy the new government would be considered of the left, dominated by democratic socialists. Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, was explicitly not democratic, but was small, weak and leaderless, a relative nonentity. Its leader was frustrated, separated from the events he had dreamt of by Russia's enemy Germany, with no way to reach his homeland in the midst of the fourth year of the great European war.

By 1917 each of the countries in the Great War was like a punch drunk boxer. Exhausted but blindly staggering on, refusing to be knocked out. With the war in stalemate, Germany was under great pressure. The military High Command, with the approval of the Kaiser, was willing to role the dice in the case of both America and Russia, in a final attempt to win the war. They needed Russia out of the war, allowing them to move millions of soldiers to the west to defeat Britain and France. They sensed the war weariness of the Russian people, the revolutionary chaos and the weakness of Kerensky's government.

At Zurich on April 8, Lenin and his entourage entered the train provided by Germany. Across Germany, then across the Baltic and through Sweden, entering Russia via Finland, which was then a part of Russia, and arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd (St Petersburg) on April 16. Lenin's objective was already set - overthrow of the provisional government and establishment of a Bolshevik dictatorship. He smashed any thought of compromise within the Bolshevik ranks. One observer summed up a speech Lenin gave two days after his arrival:

He was unswerving. After a failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks regrouped and succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government in October. With armed soldiers they forcibly disbanded the first fully elected parliament in Russian history. They triumphed in the Civil War that followed, with Lenin instituting the Red Terror, mass executions to instill terror in the populace. As his Justice Minister explained, "Execution of the guilty is not enough, execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more". As we now know from Solzhenitsyn and others, it was Lenin who created mass terror and the Gulag as Soviet institutions Stalin merely expanded and perfected his predecessor's work. Lenin's example was followed by every communist regime of the 20th century and was carefully observed as a model by the growing Nazi Party in Germany.


Sealed train

A sealed train is one that travels internationally under customs and/or immigration seal, without its contents legally recognized as entering or leaving the nations traversed between the beginning and end of the journey or subject to any otherwise applicable taxes. The practice was used a number of times throughout the 20th century to allow the migration or transport of controversial individuals or peoples.

The most notable use of a "sealed train" was the return of the Vladimir Lenin and other Communists to Russia from exile in Switzerland in 1917, during the First World War. This was allowed by Germany with the aim of increasing unrest in Russia and to cause Russia to leave the war, which also occurred.

That the train was "sealed" has been stated to be a propaganda ruse in order to give the false impression that Lenin and Germany did not work together. Actually, Lenin got off on several occasions, and stayed overnight in a hotel in Germany. Recently discovered evidence from Russian archives has been argued to add further support to the accusation that Germany supported Lenin financially. Ώ]


Watch the video: 16th April 1917: Lenin arrives back in Russia in the sealed train after a decade in exile (August 2022).