Lenin Returns to Russia

Maxim Gorky et al

What were the circumstances in which Lenin returned to Russia via Germany in a sealed train after the revolutionary process had broken out in 1917? Periodically, those hostile to Marxism charge Lenin with being a ‘German spy ’for this.

Recently an eminent Indian journalist argued on the social media that the US professor Prof. Rabinowitch, a historian of the Russian revolution, had made this allegation on the centenary of the revolution and that no one had contradicted him. It turned out that the professor had made no such assertion so that there was no reason for anyone to contradict him.

We reprint this portion from The History of the Civil War in the U.S.S.R., edited by Gorky, Molotov, Voroshilov, Kirov, Zhdanov and Stalin. It clarifies the developments which led to Lenin returning to Russia in a sealed German train.


Seeking a Way into Revolutionary Russia

When the February Revolution broke out Lenin was living in Switzerland. On the first news of the upheaval the leader of the Bolshevik Party decided to return immediately to Russia, where the spark he had fanned so indefatigably all his life at last flared into flame. Lenin discerned more clearly than anybody what prospects faced the Russian revolution and what dangers lurked in its path. He knew from long experience that the most sinister enemies of the revolution would be its sham friends, the petty-bourgeois praters, the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries, who had betrayed the interests of the working class many times before.

“Refuse to show any shadow of confidence in or support of the new government (any shadow of confidence in Kerensky,  Gvozdyev, Chkhenkeli, Chkheidze and Co.) and observe a state of armed waiting, of armed preparations, to secure a wider basis for a higher stage,”1 is what Lenin wrote from Switzerland several days after the outbreak of the February Revolution in response to an inquiry from the Petrograd Bolsheviks.

These few words outlined an entire programme of action. But instructions “from afar” were not enough. Lenin felt that he must be himself where the flames of the revolution had flared up, and where pseudo-Socialists were flocking from all parts of the world to help the Russian Mensheviks extinguish these flames.

But how to get into revolutionary Russia? England and France, which controlled all the ways of access to Russia, would not allow the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin, to return to Petrograd. They were well aware of Lenin’s attitude to the war of plunder. The capitalists understood full well what “damage” the Bolsheviks might cause them by exposing the predatory, imperialist slaughter.

It was obvious that the Bolshevik Party and the Russian proletariat would adopt the right attitude and find the right slogans. But Lenin’s arrival would expedite the process. The bourgeoisie, both Russian and foreign, acted as its predecessor had acted at the time of the Paris Commune. When the Paris Communards offered in exchange for Blanqui, the famous revolutionary, a number of priests and bishops who had got stranded in Paris, the Versailles butchers of the Commune replied: “To surrender Blanqui to the Communards would be equivalent to presenting them with a whole army.”

Lenin was not allowed to return to Russia.

He pondered over every means of getting back. To appeal for assistance to the Provisional Government would have been quite useless. Milyukov, the Foreign Minister in the Provisional Government, had sent a telegraphic circular to all Russian Embassies and Missions abroad, which said:

“In the event of any doubt arising as to the personality of political exiles desiring to return to Russia under the act of amnesty, you are requested to form, in connection with the foreign branch of the Ministry under your charge, a committee consisting of representatives of the political exiles, to elucidate all doubts that may arise in this respect.”2

Milyukov’s circular was confirmed by a telegram sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Embassies and Missions abroad, stating:

“When issuing passports to exiles, you may be guided by testimony as to their military reliability furnished by other trustworthy exiles or by committees formed in accordance with our telegrams.”3

It was very unlikely that any “trustworthy” exile would testify to Lenin’s “military reliability” as understood by the Provisional Government. Lenin’s attitude to the war was generally known. Some other way of getting back to Russia had to be found. N. K. Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife—Trans.) relates how Lenin worried over the problem:

“Ilyich was in a fever. We asked Bronsky to find out whether it would not be possible to get to Russia through Germany with the aid of a smuggler. We soon found out that a smuggler could take him only as far as Berlin. Moreover, the smuggler was in some way or other connected with Parvus, and Vladimir Ilyich would have nothing to do with Parvus, who had grown rich on the war and had become a social-chauvinist.

“Some other way had to be found.... Ilyich did not sleep nights on end. One night he said to me: ‘You know, I could travel with the passport of a dumb Swede.’ I laughed and said: ‘It won’t work, you might give yourself away in your sleep. You might dream of the Cadets and exclaim in your sleep, “Scoundrels, scoundrels!” And they would find out you are not a Swede!”4

Only one way remained open to Lenin, and that was to travel through Germany by getting the Russian government to exchange Russian exiles for German prisoners of war. Generally speaking, this method had already been tried. During the war an important bourgeois liberal, M. Kovalovsky, returned to Russia through Germany and in Petrograd was met at the station with great ceremony by Milyukov himself, who at that time was only just dreaming of becoming a Minister. In his speech of welcome, Milyukov never even hinted that to travel through Germany was high treason. But this same Milyukov—now Minister in the Provisional Government—accorded Lenin an entirely different reception.

It was not Lenin who conceived the idea of returning through Germany. This plan was proposed by Martov, a well-known Menshevik, after it had become known that the British Government would not allow people opposed to the war to return to Russia. Martov’s plan was approved at a meeting of representatives of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the Bundists and the Mensheviks. Telegrams were sent to Russia demanding that permission should be obtained for the exiles to pass through Germany in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners. For two weeks the exiles waited in vain for a reply. The Provisional Government had apparently pigeon-holed the telegrams. The British and Russian governments were working hand in hand.

Only after this did Lenin decide to put Martov’s plan into execution and to arrange for the passage of the Bolsheviks through Germany. Foreseeing the rabid outcry that the defencists and the bourgeoisie would raise over this, Lenin took great pains to have every step in the preparations for the return supported by documents. He carefully collected all evidence of the obstacles placed by the Provisional Government in the way of the return of the Bolsheviks. Lenin secured the consent of a number of internationalists to his departure from Switzerland, and the following statement was drawn up:

“We, the undersigned, are aware of the difficulties raised by the Entente governments to the return of the Russian internationalists, and of the conditions accepted by the German government for their return through Germany. We fully realise that the German government has consented to the passage of the Russian internationalists only in order to intensify the anti-war movement in Russia in this way. The undersigned declare:

“The Russian internationalists, who throughout the war have tirelessly and energetically fought all the imperialisms, and especially the German imperialism, are returning to Russia to work on behalf of the revolution; by this action they will help the proletariat of all countries, and in particular the proletariat of Germany and Austria, to start their own struggle against their governments. The example shown by the heroic struggle of the Russian proletariat is the best and most powerful stimulus to such a struggle. For all these reasons, the undersigned internationalists of Switzerland, France, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Norway consider that their Russian comrades are not only entitled but are even obliged to take advantage of the opportunity offered of returning to Russia.”5

On Lenin’s suggestion, Fritz Platten, Secretary of the Swiss Socialist Party, concluded an agreement with the representatives of the German government which stipulated that (1) the right to travel through Germany was to be given to all exiles irrespective of their attitude to the war; (2) the car in which the exiles travelled was not to be subject to search, examination or inspection, and (3) the exiles undertook, on their arrival in Russia to demand the exchange of Austrian and German prisoners of war for the Russians allowed to return through Germany.

On March 26, together with a group of exiles accompanied by Fritz Platten, who had arranged for the passage through Germany, Lenin left Switzerland for Stockholm, whence he travelled to Petrograd via Finland.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks who accompanied him travelled through Germany in a special car and, in accordance with the stipulations governing the passage, communication between the German authorities and the travellers could be maintained only through Fritz Platten. Thus arose the legend of the “sealed car” in which the Bolsheviks were supposed to have travelled through Germany.

On the way, German chauvinists attempted to get into conversation with Lenin, but the latter categorically refused to meet them.

Thirty-two exiles in all left Switzerland, among them nineteen Bolsheviks, six Bundists and seven members of other parties and groups. It is interesting to note that the exiles remaining in Switzerland, who had refused to travel with Lenin, decided on April 30 to return to Russia by the same way; for no other way was open. There were no Bolsheviks among them.

(Edited) Gorky, Molotov, Voroshilov, Kirov, Zhdanov and Stalin, The History of the Civil War in the U.S.S.R., Vol. 1, Moscow, 1936. Red Star Publishers edition, pp. 133-137.


1 Lenin, “Two Letters to A. M. Kollontai,” Collected Works, Russ. Ed.), Vol. XX.

2 A. L. Popov, “The Diplomacy of the Provisional Government in Combating the Revolution,” Krassny Arkhiv. 1927, Vol. I, (XX), pp. 4- 5.

3 A. L. Popov, etc., p. 5.

4 N. K. Krupskaya, “From Exile to Petrograd,” in F. Platten’s Return to Russia in March 1917, Moscow, 1925, pp. 113-14.

5 “Protocol of the Journey Through Germany,” Lenin Miscellany, Vol. II, 3rd ed., Moscow, 1924, pp. 392-93.

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