21 November 2017

Lenin's epic train trip from Zurich to St Petersburg, 1917

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924} was born into a well educated, middle class family in Simbirsk, east of Moscow. The children grew up in comfort but with a strongly developed sense of justice. But when in 1887 the oldest sibling was hanged in St Petersburg for conspiring to assassinate Czar Alexander III, the family was horrified.

At university, Ulyanov absorbed the writings of Marx and Engels. On graduating law from St Peters­burg University in 1891, Lenin became a leader of a Marxist group, distributing revolut­ionary pamphlets to work­ers. He was carefully watch­ed by the police, arrested in 1895, convicted of dist­rib­uting propaganda and sentenced to 3 years in Siberia. Nadezhda Krupskaya, a young fellow traveller, join­ed him there and they married. Now called Lenin, the couple returned from Siberia and in 1906 chose exile in Western Europe.

Moving between Prague, London and Bern, publishing a radical news­paper and trying to organise an international Marxist move­ment, Lenin wrote how 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 proletariat.

The longest, coldest route imaginable for travelling from Zurich to St. Petersburg 1917
Press map for details

Zurich By early WW1 in Aug 1914, Lenin & Krupskaya were in Zurich, living off family money. They had no children. 

The Altstadt is a cluster of medieval alleys that rise from the Limmat River. The Spiegelgasse, a narrow cobblestone lane, winds past the WW1 Cabaret Vol­taire and enters a leafy square with a stone fountain. #14, a tall building with a gabled rooftop, has a commemorative German plaque saying that from Feb 1916 until Ap 1917, this was the home of “Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution.”

When Lenin lived in the Altstadt, it was grotty. In Rem­in­is­cences of Lenin, Krupskaya described the dingy old house and smelly courtyard, over­looking a sausage factory. Luckily for Lenin, the owners were working-class people with a revolutionary value system, who con­demned the imp­er­ialist war. Today their rundown rooming house is renovated. 

Lenin spent his days writing tracts in Zurich’s Central Library and playing host to a stream of fellow exiles. Lenin and Krupskaya strolled along the Limmat whenever the library was close. Hammer followed Lenin’s route on the riv­er’s east bank, gazing across the narrow waterway at Zurich’s landmark church and clocktower of St Peter. Famed for its unchanging Art Nouveau décor, the popular Café Odeon was one of Lenin’s favourite spots for reading newspapers.

The Lenins rented a one-room flat in this Zurich block in 1916-17
as the block appears today

In March 15th 1917, a young revol­ut­ionary raced up the stairs to the Lenins’ room, yelling “There’s a revolution in Russia!” Appar­ent­ly enraged over food shortages, corruption and the disastrous war against the Central Powers, 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. The family was placed under house arrest. The Russian Provisional Gov­ern­ment had taken over, sharing power with the local Petrograd Soviet. Sov­iets/committees, made up of industrial workers and soldiers had begun to form across Russia.

Lenin made plans to return home. He pro­mised to pull Russia out of the war and to eliminate private property. “The people need peace, the people need bread, the people need land. And the Prov­isional Government gives you war, hunger, no bread” he declared.

Lenin, joined by 29 other revolutionary exiles, waited for the train from Zurich to Russia in April 1917 where he planned to take power on behalf of the prol­etariat. Other Russians was enraged that the revolutionaries had arr­an­ged passage by negotiating with the German enemy.” Did German financiers secretly fund Lenin and his circle, at the very time the German gov­ern­ment was in a brutal war against Russia? It didn't matter. Lenin travelled in a sealed train, one that moved internationally without its passengers being recognised as entering or leaving the nations they crossed. 100 years ago later, Joshua Hammer decided to retrace Lenin’s trip, curious to see how the great Bolshevik imprinted himself on Russia and the nations he passed through, on this epic train trip.

On board Lenin wrote by telegram to the Bolsh­eviks 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.”

A Deutsche Bahn regional train second-class compartment took Hammer across Germany to the Baltic port of Rostock. Stepping onto the deck on a cold, drizzly night, he passed the last jetty and headed into the open sea, bound north for Trelleborg Sweden. The sea was rougher when Lenin made the crossing aboard a Swedish ferry, but Lenin had stayed outside anyhow, joining others in revolut­ion­ary anthems.

Sweden Ploughing through the blackness of the Baltic night, Hammer could imagine the excitement that Lenin felt as his ship moved homewards. After standing in the drizzle, Hammer headed to his spartan cabin to sleep, before the vessel docked in Sweden at 4:30 AM. From Trelleborg, he caught a train north to Stock­holm, as Lenin did, riding past lush meadows and forests. Once in the Swedish capital, he followed in Lenin’s footsteps down the crowded main commercial street, to the elegant Hotel PUB. Swedish social­ist friends brought Lenin here to be properly outfitted, before his arrival in Russia.

Across the canal to the Gamla Stan-Old Town is a cluster of medieval alleys on a small island, the site of another monum­ent to Lenin’s Swedish stay. Situated in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, it consists of a backdrop of black granite and a strip of cobble­­stones embedded with iron tram tracks. The work honours an iconic photo of Lenin in the Vasagatan, wearing a fedora and umbrella.

To the north, Haparanda is a lonely outpost in the Swedish Lapland tundra. It was once a thriving outpost for trade in minerals, fur and timber, and the main northern crossing point into Fin­land over the Torne River. Vestiges remain of the town’s rustic past: wood-shingle trad­ing houses; Stadshotell Inn; and Handelsbank, a Vict­orian building with cupolas and a curving grey-slate roof.

Finland The horse-drawn sleds along the frozen Torne in Hap­ar­anda in April took the comrades across to Fin­land, which had been annexed by Czar Alexander I in 1809. They expected to be turned back at the border or perhaps det­ained, but they were warmly welcomed instead.

In Finland the white dome of the C18th Alatornio Church rose over a forest of birches. Inside the monumental neo-Classical brick railroad station, the waiting room has a bronze plaque mounted on a blue tile wall: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15th 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia.”

Hammer spent the night in bleak Kemi, walking in the freezing rain through the deserted streets to a concrete-block hotel near the water­front. Then he took the train south to Tampere, a riverside city where Lenin briefly stopped on his way to Petrograd. Later the Finns turned the Work­ers’ Hall meeting room into a Lenin Museum, filling it with Lenin souvenirs.

Enthusiastic crowds welcomed Lenin to Finland Station in Petrograd, April 1917.
Painted by Mikhail Sokolov in 1930
Photo credit: The Economist

As the train had crossed Scandinavia, watching the frozen ground endlessly flash by, Hammer “felt” Lenin, reading, dispatching messages to his comrades, looking out at the same vast skies and infinite horizon. In the morning Hammer boarded the Allegro high-speed train at Hel­sin­ki Central Station for the 3.5-hour final trip. He settled into the first-class car, sped past birch and pine forests and soon approached the Russian border. And finally into Finland Station, Petersburg.

Russia Hammer followed Lenin’s route to Petrograd: Kshes­inskaya Mansion, an Art Nouveau villa. See the elegant block-long villa, interconnected structures built of stone and brick, featuring decorative metalwork and coloured tiles. This villa, including the office where Lenin worked daily until July 1917, was later declared a state museum.

At first Lenin and his wife lived with his sister and brother-in-law, director of a Petro­grad marine insurance company, in Lenina St. The building’s curator showed the salon where Lenin once strategised with other rev­ol­utionaries. Hammer noted Len­in’s samovar, piano and a chess table with a secret com­partment to hide materials from the police. [The Provisional Government had turn­ed against the Bol­sheviks in July and Lenin was moving between safe hous­es].

Smolny Institute, an early C19th school for rich girls became the staging ground of the October Revolut­ion. In Oct 1917 Trotsky, chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, mobilised Red Guards, rebellious troops and sailors, and prepared them to seize power from the now disliked Provisional Government. On Oct 25 Lenin entered Smolny, and the Bolsheviks swept aside their socialist rivals in a coup d’état. Smolny was chosen by Lenin as Bolshevik Centre (now a Museum) and remained his home for several months, until the national government was moved to the Moscow Kremlin. 
Smolny Institute today
with a Lenin sculpture in the foreground.

6 months after his return to Russia, Lenin was the ruler of his country. Hammer had followed the trajectory of a figure that changed the world, even after Lenin died in 1924.

In perfect time for the 100 year anniversary, Catherine Merridale wrote a fine book called Lenin on the Train, published by Metropolitan Books in 2017.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I did not know of Lenin's early history and peregrinations. I have read a number of autobiographies of musicians who toured Russia in the 19th century, and they report conditions identical to those stereotypical of post-revolutionary Russia/Soviet Union. There were spying, intrigue, and machinations. When my mother traveled to Russia about 15 years ago, her stories were similar. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Andrew said...

That was very interesting. I am sure I am quite wrong to romanticise European train travel in the early twentieth century, but I do read about it with great imaginings. I will happily hear more about Lenin in the future.

Hels said...


Every family and community supported their party and were bitterly disappointed if and when another group took over. My family were keen supporters of Alexander Kerensky, so the February Revolution of February 1917 was the highlight of their lives.

I know more people were thrilled when Lenin arrived, but it all went down hill after October for my grandparents and their brothers.

Hels said...


I too love the history of Edwardian train travel and after, but only if a family had truck loads of money. Imagine the excitement of the Orient Express food, wines, furniture, music etc!

But Lenin lived in a grotty flat in Zurich and travelled to St Petersburg in grotty trains. He wouldn't have done otherwise.

bazza said...

I think I am right in saying that the earlier revolution was despised by Lenin because it did not, in his opinion, go far enough. I am sure you will correct me if I got that wrong Hels. Had the Mensheviks disappeared by the time of the Bolshevik Revolution?
I wonder what Lenin would have made of later leaders such as Stalin, Brezhnev, and Putin!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s unimaginable Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Ex-Pat said...

Helen Lenin might have been hugely popular amongst the workers yet he died only a few years after arriving back home in Russia. Was he assassinated, like Trotsky?

Hels said...


Lenin was always an ideologue, not a politician. He had no concept of political compromise or deal, in order to achieve the true goal of revolution, and would have been disappointed with the leaders who came after him. Except for Stalin - Lenin explicitly loathed and feared Stalin, calling him a criminal.

Even in 1903, Lenin and his Bolsheviks split away from the Mensheviks because of his pure ideological values. Of course the two parties might have cooperated after the Tsar was removed in 1917, but Lenin had arrived back in Russia and was in no mood to compromise. As it turned out, Lenin was right. The Mensheviks did not "disappear" in the sense of murder or exile; they simply didn't get enough votes by the people in the Assembly Elections late in 1917.

Hels said...


by the end of 1923, Lenin was suffering from three destructive strokes. By then, he had lost all speech and hand movement. He died in Jan 1924, barely in his 50s.

Trotsky was a leading Bolshevik under Lenin, but after Lenin died he was the most important target of Stalin’s need for total control. In 1940 in safe Mexican protection, Stalin's hitman pulled an ice-pick out of his raincoat, speared it into Trotsky’s head and watched him die.

Joseph said...

Not everyone admired Lenin. In August 1918 Lenin was making a speech to hundreds of workers at the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow. As he was leaving, a woman levelled her Browning revolver at him and fired three times. The third shot punctured his lung. Lenin survived but his health arguably never recovered.

The shooter, Fanny Kaplan, was a young member of the Socialist Revolutionaries, previous allies of the Bolsheviks who had since been suppressed by them. In September 1918 Kaplan was executed and the Red Terror began.

BBC History Magazine
August 2017