Lenin’s arrival in Russia

One hundred years ago a small group of revolutionaries returned to Russia in the famous ‘sealed train’. Ben Lewis introduces his translation of Grigory Zinoviev’s account of this truly historic event

Eye-witness: Zinoviev by Yuri Annenkov

On April 16 (April 3 according to the old Russian calendar), a group of exiled Russian revolutionaries headed by VI Lenin returned to their homeland. The journey - which saw them travel in a ‘sealed train’ (ie, with something tantamount to diplomatic immunity) through war-weary Germany and then up through Scandinavia, finally arriving at the Finland station in St Petersburg - was not without its risks. Given that Europe remained a theatre of war, it necessitated a deal between Russian social democrats and the German high command, which agreed to guarantee the revolutionaries safe passage through Germany in the hope of further destabilising its enemy to the east.

One of the mediators between these two forces was the Swiss communist, Fritz Platten (1883-1942), who also made some of the journey with the exiles in order to ensure that the deal was upheld. Following Lenin’s death in 1924, ‘red Fritz’ edited a book of German-language essays and memoirs devoted to these events (Die Reise Lenins durch Deutschland im plombierten Wagen). It featured a number of leading communists, including Radek1 and Zinoviev, both of whom also made the journey with Lenin.

Mine is the first translation - as far as we know, - of Grigory Zinoviev’s contribution, ‘Lenin’s arrival in Russia’.2 Zinoviev was one of Lenin’s closest allies in exile and the two collaborated on a wide range of articles, pamphlets and theses, written, among other things, in response to the political collapse of the Second International at the outbreak of World War I. The rapturous reception of the returning exiles in St Petersburg testified to the revolution that had just recently happened and a portent of what was to come. Indeed, the crucial role played by Lenin after his return means that the train journey from Switzerland counts as one of those seminal moments in history.

Yet the journey became an instant cause of controversy. Various Mensheviks, such as Plekhanov, joined with the scandal mongering bourgeois press in branding Lenin and his comrades as ‘German spies’. There was also accusations of German gold. In fact, the Bolsheviks had gone to the greatest lengths to have as little do with the representatives of the German high command as possible. And, of course, it was not only Bolsheviks who were on the train.

The arrangement with Germany implied no political sacrifice or silence. The exiles were meant to agitate in Russia for the release of a corresponding number of Austro-German prisoners. Nothing more. If anything, Lenin and the Bolsheviks stepped up their criticisms of German imperialism. And, for its part, the German high command certainly had grave misgivings about its decision to allow safe passage for the Russian exiles. As for German gold the Bolsheviks took none. Nevertheless, sadly, there are still those hopeless ‘left’ outfits, and not only in the so-called ‘third world’, who abuse the ‘sealed train’ to justify taking money from all kinds of imperialist agencies and charitable fronts. This political prostitution has nothing to do with the history or spirit of Bolshevism.


Lenin’s arrival in Russia

One hundred years ago a small group of revolutionaries returned to Russia in the famous ‘sealed train’. Ben Lewis introduces his translation of Grigory Zinoviev’s account of this truly historic event

The writer of these lines heard the news of the outbreak of the February revolution in Berne. At that point, Vladimir Ilyich lived in Zurich. I remember how I left for home from the library without suspecting anything. Suddenly I noticed great unrest on the street. A special edition of a newspaper was being hastily sold with the title: ‘Revolution in Russia’.

My head was spinning in the spring sunshine. I rushed home with the newspaper, printed in ink which was not yet dry. As soon as I got home I found a telegram from Vladimir Ilyich, which asked me to get to Zurich “immediately”.

Had Vladimir Ilyich expected such a rapid solution? Those who flick through our writings from that period (printed in Against the current3) will see how passionately Vladimir Ilyich called for the Russian Revolution and how he expected it. But nobody had counted on such a speedy solution. The news was unexpected.

So tsarism had fallen! The ice had been broken. The imperialist slaughter had been dealt a first blow. One of the most important obstacles had been cleared from the path of the socialist revolution. The dreams of entire generations of Russian revolutionaries had finally become reality.

I recall a walk, lasting for several hours, with Vladimir Ilyich through the streets of Zurich, which were flooded with spring sunshine. Vladimir Ilyich and I walked around without any particular destination in mind; we stood in the shadow of the rapidly unfolding events. We drew up all kinds of plans, as we waited at the entrance of the editorial offices of the Neue Züricher Zeitung for new telegrams and our speculation mounted on the basis of fragmentary pieces of news and information. But, of course, hardly had a few hours passed and we were unable to contain ourselves.

We had to get to Russia. What could we do to get out of here as soon as possible? That was the driving idea which dominated any other thoughts we had. Vladimir Ilyich, who had felt the storm approaching, had been particularly agonised by the past few months. It was almost as if he lacked the air to breathe. He was drawn to work, to struggle, but in the Swiss ‘hole’ he had no other option but to sit around in the libraries. I recall the ‘envy’ (envy indeed, I cannot find any other expression for this feeling) with which we viewed the Swiss social democrats who, one way or another, actually lived among their workers and merged into the workers’ movement of their country. But we were cut off from Russia as never before. We yearned for the Russian language and Russian air. Back then Vladimir Ilyich almost reminded me of a lion trapped in a cage.

We had to go. Each and every minute was crucial. But how were we to get to Russia? The imperialist slaughter had reached its zenith. Chauvinist passions raged with all their might. In Switzerland we were cut off from all the states involved in the war. All roads were prohibited, all paths blocked off. At the beginning this was not all that apparent to us. But already after a few hours it became clear that we were blocked by large obstacles and it would not be easy to break through them. We went this way and that, we sent a number of dispatches: it was obvious that we were trapped and that it was impossible to get to Russia. Vladimir Ilyich made plans, each of which proved to be more unfeasible than the last: flying to Russia by plane (we were lacking just a few things: a plane, the necessary means, the permission of the authorities, etc); travelling through Sweden using the passports of deaf-mutes (since we did not speak a word of Swedish!); arranging for our passage to Russia in exchange for the release of German prisoners of war; travelling through London, etc. A series of émigré conferences (alongside Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and so on) took place, which discussed how amnesty could be achieved and how all those wishing to go to Russia could do so. Vladimir Ilyich did not attend these conferences but sent me, without entertaining any great hopes as to the outcome.

When it became clear that we would not manage to leave Switzerland - at least not for the next few days - Vladimir Ilyich turned to his ‘Letters from afar’.4 In our small group, intensive work began to determine our line on the revolution which had now begun. A series of Vladimir Ilyich’s writings from that period are sufficiently well known. I recall a heated debate in Zurich, in a small workers’ pub and once also in Vladimir Ilyich’s flat, over whether we should immediately issue the demand for the overthrow of the Lvov government.5 Several ‘lefts’6 from back then insisted that the Bolsheviks were obliged to issue this call immediately. Vladimir Ilyich was decidedly against doing so. Our task, he said, was to educate patiently and stubbornly, to tell the people the whole truth, but at the same time to understand that we needed to conquer the majority of the revolutionary proletariat, etc.


It had been decided. We had no other choice. We would travel through Germany. Come what may, it was clear that Vladimir Ilyich must be in Petrograd as soon as possible. When this idea was first mentioned, it provoked - as was to be expected - a storm of indignation amongst the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and indeed among all non-Bolshevik elements of the émigrés in Switzerland. There was even some hesitation among the Bolsheviks. This reaction was, indeed, understandable: the risks involved were not insignificant.

I recall how, when we went to board the train at Zurich station which left for the Swiss border, a small group of Mensheviks organised a kind of hostile demonstration against Vladimir Lenin. At the 11th hour - literally a few minutes before the train departed - a highly agitated Riazanov7 called the writer of these lines to one side and said: “Vladimir Ilyich has let himself be carried away and is overlooking the dangers. You are too sanguine: can’t you see that this is madness? Convince Vladimir Ilych that he should drop his plan to travel through Germany.” But after a few weeks, Martov8 and other Mensheviks were themselves compelled to embark upon the “madness” of taking this journey.

… We have departed. I recall the macabre impressions of a dead country when travelling through Germany. Berlin, which we see through the train’s windows, is reminiscent of a cemetery.

The state of excitement in which we all found ourselves somehow abolished our perception of space and time. A faint memory of Stockholm has stuck in my mind. We mechanically moved through the streets and mechanically bought the necessary things to improve the hygiene of Vladimir Ilyich and the others. We inquired when the next train would depart for Torneo - they were almost every 30 minutes. In Stockholm too our image of events in Russia was still highly unclear. There was no longer any doubt about the equivocal role played by Kerensky.9 But what was the soviet doing? Have Chkeidze10 and co already established themselves in the soviet? Who do the majority of workers support? What position has the Bolshevik organisation adopted? All of that remained unclear.

Torneo - I recall that it was night time. We travelled on sledges over the frozen gulfs. There were two people to each sledge. The tension reached its zenith. The most vivacious of the younger comrades (such as Usievich,11 who is now dead) were unusually nervous. We would soon see the first revolutionary Russian soldiers. Ilyich was extremely calm. He was especially interested in what was happening in Petersburg. Travelling over the frozen gulfs, he looked curiously into the distance. Apparently, his eyes could already see what was happening in the revolutionary country one and a half thousand kilometres in front of us.


We were now on the Russia side of the border (today’s border between Finland and Sweden). The youth amongst us in particular leapt towards the Russian border soldiers (there were probably only 20 to 30 of them) and struck up conversations in order to find out what was happening. Vladimir Ilyich seized on the Russian newspapers in particular. Individual editions of the Petersburg Pravda were there. Vladimir Ilych bit into the columns and then held up his hands reproachfully: he had read the news that Malinovsky12 had actually turned out to be a spy.

Vladimir Ilych was disturbed by several articles in the first editions of Pravda, which were not entirely beyond reproach from the standpoint of internationalism. Was it true? Was the internationalist standpoint not clear enough? Now, we would fight against it and the line would soon be straightened out again.

We then encountered the ‘Kerensky’ lieutenants - the ‘revolutionary democrats’ - for the first time. Then we came across Russian revolutionary soldiers, who Vladimir Ilych deemed “conscientious defenders of the fatherland”, whom in particular we had to “patiently educate”. Following orders from the authorities, a group of soldiers accompanied us to the capital. We got onto the train.

Vladimir Ilych ‘bit’ into these soldiers; they talked about the nation, war and the new Russia. Vladimir Ilych’s particular, well-known manner of approaching everyday workers and peasants ensured that in a short time he established an excellent, comradely relationship with the soldiers. The discussions continued throughout the night without interruption. The soldiers, the “defenders of the fatherland”, insisted that they were right. The first thing that Vladimir Ilych took from this exchange was that the ideology of ‘defending the fatherland’ remained a powerful force. In order to struggle against it we needed a stubborn rigidity, but patience and a shrewd manner of approaching the masses were equally necessary.

We were all convinced that we would be arrested by Miliukov13 and Lvov on our arrival in Leningrad; Vladimir Ilych was the most convinced that this would happen and he prepared the entire group of comrades who travelled with him for this eventuality. For extra security we even had all those travelling with us sign official declarations, stating that they were prepared to go to prison and that they would defend the decision to travel through Germany before any court. The closer we got to Bjeloostrov, the more excited we became. But on arrival there we were received by the authorities with sufficient courtesy. One of the Kerensky officers, who had the post of commander of Beloostrov, even reported to Vladimir Ilych.

In Beloostrov we were received by our closest friends - among them Kamenev, Stalin and many others.14 In a dim, narrow third-class carriage, illuminated solely by a stub of light, the first exchange of opinions occurred.

Vladimir Ilyich pelted the comrades with a series of questions.

“Will we be arrested in Leningrad?”

The comrades who travelled to meet us did not provide us with a specific answer and merely smiled furtively instead. On the way, at one of the stations near to Sestrorezk, hundreds of proletarians greeted Vladimir Ilyich with the warmness which they held only for him. They carried him up on their shoulders and he gave his first short welcoming speech.

A triumph

The platform of the Finland Station in Leningrad. It was already night. Only now did we understand the furtive smiles of our friends. Awaiting Vladimir Ilyich was not imprisonment, but a triumph. The station and the square in front of it were flooded by the light from the headlights. On the platform there was a long column of guards of honour of all branches and arms. The platform, the square and the nearby streets were packed with tens of thousands of workers enthusiastically welcoming their leader. ‘The Internationale’ rang out. Tens of thousands of workers and soldiers were buzzing with excitement.

In a few seconds Vladimir Ilych ‘adjusted’ to the new situation. In the so-called Imperial Chamber he was received by Chkeidze and a full delegation of the Soviet. In the name of ‘revolutionary democracy’ the old fox Chkeidze welcomed Lenin and expressed ‘his hope’, etc. Without batting an eyelid, Lenin responded to Chkeidze with a short speech, which from the very first word through to the last was a slap in the face for ‘revolutionary democracy’. His speech ended with the words: “Long live the socialist revolution.”

At this moment an enormous mass of people poured towards us. My first impression was that we were rather like straws on this huge wave. Vladimir Ilyich was raised up into the air and placed on the top of a tank and in that way he took his first trip through the revolutionary capital, past dense rows of workers and soldiers, whose enthusiasm knew no limits. He gave short speeches and threw the slogans of the socialist revolution into the crowds.

An hour later we arrived at the Kschessinska Palace, where almost the entire Bolshevik Party was assembled. The comrades’ speeches there lasted until the morning and Vladimir Ilyich gave the final speech in response to them. Early in the morning, with dawn hardly upon us, we parted from each other and breathed in the homely air of Petersburg. Vladimir Ilyich was fresh and happy. He had a good word for all. He remembered everyone and he would come across them all again tomorrow, when the new work was to commence.

Happy faces all around. The leader has arrived. All of them look at Vladimir Ilyich with boundless joy, enthusiasm and love and took note of this fact.

Vladimir Ilych was in Russia, in revolutionary Russia, following long years of exile. The first in a series of revolutions had begun. Revolutionary Russia acquired a real leader. A new chapter in the history of the international revolution was beginning.

Grigory Zinoviev


1. Radek’s essay, translated by Ian Birchall, can be read on the Marxist Internet Archive: www.marxists.org/archive/radek/1924/xx/train.htm.

2. Translated from Fritz Platten (ed) Die Reise Lenins durch Deutschland im plombierten Wagen Berlin 1924, pp88-95. I am grateful to Lawrence Parker for scanning this rather rare publication for me. I have been informed that the book will be on display in the British Library later this year.

3. A collection of articles, co-authored with Lenin in exile in 1916, which excoriated the European socialist parties’ politics of social patriotism (‘defence of the fatherland’).

4. Five letters sent to Russia by Lenin for publication in the Bolshevik publication Pravda in March 1917, the last of which was written just before his departure.

5. Prince Georgy Lvov (1861-1925) was head of the provisional government in 1917 following the abdication of Nicholas II. Lvov held this post until July 1917, when he gave way to Kerensky.

6. This is presumably a reference to the grouping around the Bolshevik factional publication Kommunist, led by those such as Nikolai Bukharin. The faction only came into existence in 1918, however, so it is rather unclear whether Zinoviev is referring to another grouping in exile or ‘reading back’ subsequent factional developments onto earlier history.

7. David Borisovich Riazanov (1870-1938) was a Russian Menshevik intellectual and archivist who founded the Marx-Engels Institute. He was purged in the Great Terror of the late 1930s.

8. Julius Martov (1873-1923) was a Russian Menshevik leader who also found himself in Swiss exile during the outbreak of the revolution in Russia. He returned to Russia from Switzerland in May 1917.

9. Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) held the posts of minister of justice and then minister of war in the provisional government and was simultaneously vice-chair of the Petrograd soviet.

10. Nikolay Chkeidze (1864-1926) was a Georgian Menshevik who was president of the executive committee of the Petrograd soviet.

11. Grigorii Aleksandrovich Usievich (1890-1918) was a member of the Bolshevik Party from 1907 and in 1917 became a Bolshevik deputy in the municipal duma.

12. Roman Vatslavovich Malinovsky (1876-1918) was a member of the Bolshevik central committee and duma parliamentarian who was simultaneously in the pay of the tsarist secret police.

13. Pavel Milyukov (1859-1943) was a leader of the liberal Constitutional Democrat (Cadet) party, who was foreign minister under the provisional government.

14. Zinoviev’s highlighting of these two particular non-exiled Bolshevik leaders may or may not be reflective of his factional position in the Bolshevik party at the time.