The Sealed Train

They transported Lenin in a Sealed Train
like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.

—WINSTON CHURCHILL, World Crisis


Chapter 1

THE LIBRARY in the “Old Town” of Zurich was in a strange site.  It was housed in the steepled Predigerkirche, a sixteenth century “Preacher’s Church,” no longer used for worship, in the complex of the Dominican friary that formed one side of the treelined square called the Zahringerplatz.1

It was there on March 15, 1917, that Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—better known among revolutionaries by his cover name of Lenin—spent the morning working, as indeed he spent every day, except Thursday afternoons when the library was closed.

As usual, soon after midday, he straightened the books on the table in front of him, so that they were neat and aligned, for he had a passion for order, and struggled into an old worn gray overcoat to return home for lunch.

He walked out the library door, which was at the side of the friary buildings, and cut through the Prediger, a narrow passage of oak-beamed shops.  Striding fast and noisily in the studded mountain boots he always wore, he was a short, wiry figure, hunched within his coat beneath a black brimmed hat that seemed too large for his head.

He turned into the Neumarkt, passed the Eintracht, a workers’ social club where he sometimes spent the evenings, and began to climb the Spiegelgasse, a steep cobbled alley of tall, gloomy ancient houses.  As he strode up the lane, Lenin could smell the stench from the sausage factory at the top of the hill.

The single room at No. 14 that he shared with his wife, Nadya, was dark and drably furnished.  During the daytime, when the sausage factory was in operation, they could not open the windows, though in truth in recent months this had been no great problem, for the weather had been bitterly cold.  It had been a bad winter.  Nadya had been ill for weeks, and she had still not fully recovered.  Communications with Russia had been even sparser than usual since 1914, and contact with the members of the small extremist revolutionary party that Lenin directed had, been minimal.  Locked in Switzerland, surrounded by warring nations, Lenin and Nadya had been overwhelmed by a sense of endless isolation.  Worse, they were desperately short of money—poorer by far than they had ever been in the seventeen years since they had been released from exile in Siberia.

Lenin was now forty-seven.  He had a round head that was bald except for a ring of red hair, small dark Mongol eyes and a short, pointed beard.  Always, his clothes were crumpled, his trousers baggy and a little too long.  “To look at,” his friend Gleb Krzhizhanovsky once remarked, “he is like a well-heeled peasant . . . a cunning little muzhik.”

Most people found him unimpressive on first meeting, and later it was always his eyes, which narrowed sometimes when he smiled into slits, that gripped them.  They gave to his face a mobility of expression that could display an exceptional scale of emotion, ranging according to Valentinov, an early comrade, through “thoughtfulness, mockery, biting contempt, impenetrable coldness, extreme fury.”

Nadya* was a year older than her husband—plain, her body thickening in middle age, her broad face marked by bulging eyes, owing to a thyroid condition that caused Lenin’s sister Anna to comment cruelly that she looked like a herring.

After lunch that day, Lenin prepared to return to the library.  While Nadya swilled the plates in the handbasin on the washstand, he eased himself awkwardly into his overcoat.  Suddenly, there was a hammering on the door, and Mieczyslav Bronski, a young Polish revolutionary, burst into the room, his eyes bright with excitement.  The scene that confronted him was identical with what he would have witnessed at this time on almost any afternoon—the Ulyanovs in their daily routine—and its sheer subdued normality, by contrast with the facts he had to tell them, must have amazed him.

“Haven’t you heard the news?” he exclaimed, according to Nadya.  “There’s a revolution in Russia!”

Bronski’s jubilant announcement was so completely incredible to Lenin that he was shocked into confused silence—“bewildered,” as Nadya was to describe it in Pravda.  It was thirty years, almost to the day, since Lenin, as a seventeen-year-old boy in his hometown of Simbirsk on the Volga River, had had to break the news to his mother that Sasha, her eldest son, had been arrested in St. Petersburg as a terrorist;  only two months less since he had been sent for by his schoolteacher to be told that Sasha had been hanged.  His elder sister, Anna, arrested at the same time, had been banished to their grandfather’s estate at Kokushkino.  In December he himself had been expelled as a first-term undergraduate from Kazan University—technically because of his marginal role in student unrest but truly because he was Sasha’s brother.

In Simbirsk the family had been shunned.  Even their neighbors avoided them.  Not one of their liberal friends would accompany Maria Alexandrovna, Lenin’s widowed mother, to St. Petersburg to attend the trial of her son—which may have contributed something to the contempt that Lenin had felt for liberals ever since.  There was no background of terrorism in the family.  They were solid gentry.  Lenin’s father had been a civil servant, an area inspector of schools, entitled, as were most men of even minor position in Russia, to the title of “Excellency.”  They talked radical politics of course, but in Russia of the 1880s it was fashionable to speak as a radical.

Almost ever since that traumatic year,2 Lenin had devoted himself to revolution—at first as a young lawyer within Russia, until he was arrested and sentenced to three years in the Siberian village of Shushenskoye.  Then after his release for most of the next seventeen years in foreign exile, moving from city to city in Western Europe with the tiny group of comrades who helped him direct the “Bolsheviks,” a breakaway section of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party.

His years in exile had been hard, marked by poverty, by a need to work always in secret, by a revolutionary name that had come to be more natural than his real identity, by constant surveillance by the shpiks of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police who maintained foreign headquarters in Paris.  It had been a life of writing ciphered letters in invisible ink; of coded knocking in the middle of the night by newly arrived comrades, haggard, unshaven, often hungry;  of sad news of arrested friends;  of endless and often heated polemic in cafes about socialist theory.  For Lenin was always engaged in bitter feuds with other revolutionaries about ideology.

The world in which they lived was small, incestuous in character, marked by fierce conflicts between the opposing factions and rigid loyalties within them.  Outside these narrow limits of cafes and revolutionary journals, Lenin was virtually unknown.

Even before the war, his group of comrades had been an unhappy, frustrated, homesick circle of people, buoyed up only by the hope inherent in Karl Marx’s theory of the inevitability of revolution.  After 1914 their feeling of remoteness had grown.

Bronski’s astonishing statement, therefore, was a revelation to Lenin and Nadya, a sudden tantalizing glimpse of what they had worked for all their lives.  It was too sudden to be absorbed at once or even to be believed.  Under Lenin’s incredulous questioning, the young Pole insisted that special editions of the Zurich newspapers, only just on the streets, carried brief telegrams from St. Petersburg: Revolution had flared through the streets of Russia’s capital city and climaxed in victory for the people.  All the Tsar’s ministers had been arrested.  Twelve members of the Duma—the nearest institution in autocratic Russia to an elected assembly—had assumed power.

They were sparse facts, but they flashed vivid images in the minds of Lenin and Nadya.  They had both lived and worked in Petersburg,** the city built by Peter the Great on a hundred islands in the Neva Delta.  It was easy for them to imagine the scenes of revolt:  the crowds surging through the streets;  the Cossacks lined up to charge;  the drawbridges raised over the Neva—the traditional method by which the Tsars had always cut the city into small sectors for easy control.

For Lenin, even though he had spent years studying the forces of revolt, the news was utterly unexpected, even astonishing.  He had forecast in January that Europe, torn for three years by the most terrible war in history, was “pregnant with revolution,” but he had not thought it would happen so soon.  Nor had he expected it to break out in Russia with its millions of peasants—who were unresponsive militant material—and its unprogressive industry which was years behind that of other major countries.  Germany and Britain, with their thousands of factories and big capitalist—exploited working-class populations, seemed far more vulnerable to social explosion—especially now that workers, serving as soldiers, were being slaughtered in such profusion in the trenches.

Bronski, having told them what little he knew, rushed off to break the news to the Kharitonovs, who, until Lenin had come to Zurich the previous year, had been the leaders of the small Bolshevik community in the city.  Lenin and Nadya “pulled themselves together” and hurried down through the familiar lanes of the “Old Town” that had been their home for the past few months, to Bellevue Platz on the edge of the Lake of Zurich that was glistening that afternoon in winter sunshine.

There, under the disinterested gaze of a line of enormous vulturelike sea gulls that were always perched on the embankment wall, Swiss newspapers were on display beneath an awning.  Surrounding the stand was a crowd of excited, barely credulous exiles.  Lenin and Nadya elbowed their way through the throng and, still dazed, confirmed for themselves that what Bronski had told them was true.

Those first press reports made no mention of the Tsar, but it was clear that the revolution, if it achieved nothing else, must end the long autocratic rule of the Romanov emperors—must mean, too, that the thousands of political exiles in Europe and elsewhere would be able to return home.  Home was the overriding thought in the minds of every man and woman in that shocked, elated crowd on the embankment of the Lake of Zurich—and, for that matter, of all the crowds in other Swiss cities who were crowded around newsstands.

Even then, Lenin did not trust the news—“If the Germans are not lying,” he wrote in a hastily scribbled note to his friend Inessa Armand that afternoon—nor did he overestimate it.  Few members of the Duma were socialists.  The pattern of the French Revolution of 1789—in which the first people to take power were aristocrats—would almost certainly be repeated during the early stages.  Even Karl Marx had predicted that unlike more developed nations, Russia would need a long period of capitalist parliamentary democracy before progressing to socialism.  Under these circumstances, the danger of counterrevolution, even of an attempt to reinstate the Romanovs probably as constitutional monarchs on the British model, was enormous.

Crucial, too, would be the attitude to the war of the new men in power in Petersburg.  Lenin was fully conscious that, as all the excited exiles were trying to absorb the news, ministers in the war capitals at that very moment were certain to be engaged in crisis meetings to consider one issue:  Would Russia stay in the conflict?

For Britain and France, weakened badly by the appalling Battles of the Somme of 1916 and the attrition of the U-boats, it was vital that the massive German military forces should continue to be divided by the need to maintain armies in the East.  For Germany, by contrast, it was equally vital that Russia should conclude a separate peace.  The 1,000,000 German and Austrian troops on the vast Eastern Front, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, could then be withdrawn and thrown in one total effort against the Allies in France.

The revolution that had now broken out in Russia, though very welcome to the men in the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, was not enough on its own to achieve the result they wanted.  It was unlikely that the new leaders in Petersburg would be socialists, for in revolutions power tended to fall at first into the hands of the people nearest to it under the old order.  But even the socialists in Russia, like those elsewhere, had been split into two violently hostile divisions over the whole issue of the war.

Some Russian revolutionaries believed that imperialist Germany must be defeated before progress could be made toward socialism.  Others, the internationalists, like Lenin, saw the war as a totally capitalist conflict that, since it exploited the working class on both sides, must be ended.

Clearly, from the rival war capitals, massive campaigns would now be launched to sway the political pendulum in Petersburg, the Germans favoring the pacifist internationalists, the Allies acting against them—in particular those in foreign exile, for these were under their control.

Even in those first few minutes after he had seen the news for himself in print, Lenin had realized that this issue would be critical.  For obviously, the Allies would not assist any pacifist socialist to return to Russia where he would work for a peace that would be fatal to their interests—least of all Lenin who, as any inquiry would reveal, had been campaigning bitterly against the war ever since it had begun.

If transit by way of France, Italy or Britain was to be impossible, how was he to get home to Russia?  It was vital that he did—to help preserve and direct the revolution.  For although his party was small—barely 2,000 members in Petersburg and only 45,000 throughout the whole vastness of Russia—its following was strongest among the proletariat, the industrial masses.  It was a base that Lenin knew he could broaden, for he was a brilliant strategist.  The prospect that now lay before the people to assume power, to create a socialist society, had never existed before.  If it was not grasped very soon before the impact of the inevitable counterrevolution, it might not occur again for a very long time.  For Lenin, standing with Nadya, jostled by the crowd on the embankment of the Lake of Zurich, the time had come for which he had been preparing himself and forging his party all his adult life.  But his ability to exploit the opportunity depended on his reaching Petersburg without delay.  The problem that this posed that March afternoon seemed immense.

Fritz Platten, the secretary of the Swiss Social Democratic Party, pushed his way through the crowd to join Lenin and Nadya.  He was a tall, slender, handsome young man with a flamboyant taste for broad-brimmed hats and elaborate scarves that was unusual in a Marxist.  Like Bronski, he had gone to the Spiegelgasse with the news of the revolution, and the Kammerers, Lenin’s landlords, had told him they had gone to the lake.

Already, Lenin was trying to make plans.  The three of them walked to the post office.  There, Lenin sent a telegram to Berne to Gregory Zinoviev, his main aide who helped him direct the party, summoning him immediately to Zurich for consultations.  He scribbled a postcard to Mikha Tskhakaya, the leader of the Bolshevik group in Geneva.  He was already carrying a package, addressed to Inessa Armand, who was then living at Clarens on Lake Geneva.  He opened it, wrote a brief note to her and mailed it.

While he waited impatiently for Zinoviev to arrive, he went to look for Bronski and, according to Nadya, asked him about a smuggler he knew.  Could he not smuggle him through Germany?  It was very much of a confused first thought, for later, when he had considered all aspects, he realized that the political repercussions of this within Russia could be enormous.  Whatever method he chose to get back to Russia, it must not be secret.  Anyway, it later transpired, Bronski’s smuggler could get him only to Berlin.

Zinoviev arrived in Zurich that night, and they did their planning on their feet, too elated to sit down in the Ulyanovs’ room in the Spiegelgasse.  “Vladimir Ilyich and I wandered about without any purpose,” Zinoviev recalled, “still under the impact of those earth-shattering events, making plans.”  Desperate for more news, they went to the office of the Zurich newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, trying to assess what the situation was in Russia from “scraps of information.”

There was not much planning they could do at that early stage, but they knew much about the characters who would be involved in the events that were taking place in Petersburg, who would shape the future face of Russia.  Many of them were exiled, like themselves, in various parts of Europe or America.  Others were now taking part in the revolution.  Some they knew personally, some only by their records, but all were men they had marked.

For years, Lenin had studied them, analyzing their speeches and their articles, combing every report received through the party network.  Two years ago, for instance, he had told Zinoviev to set up a file on Nicholas Chkheidze, one of his socialist opponents who was a member of the Duma in Petersburg, since he detected a swing to “chauvinism.”  “All documents concerning Chkheidze & Co. [against them] should be carefully collected,” he ordered.  Time would reveal his instincts to be sound.

For the conflict of the next few months that would change the world, that would transform so fantastically Lenin’s position in world affairs, lifting him from poverty and obscurity to the rule of 160,000,000 people, was rooted in the past—in the first years of the century.




1 Main sources:  Collected Works of Lenin, 4th Edition, Vols. 35,36,37,43;  G. Zinoviev, Pravda, April 16, 1924 (R);  N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, and Pravda, April 16, 1924 (R):  for Fritz Platten’s account, L.D. Davidov, Leninskaya Gvardia Planet, (R); Valentinov, Encounters with Lenin;  A. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes;  Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution; W. Gauchi, Lenin in Switzerland (G); Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station.

* Nadya is known by most historians as Krupskaya, which was both her main cover name and her maiden name.  However, since my characters refer to her either as Nadya or Nadezhda Konstantinovna, I am following their lead.

2 Non-Soviet historians tend to mock the contention of Soviet historians that the execution of Lenin’s brother turned him into a revolutionary—which raises the question:  How does one define a revolutionary?  The facts at this period of his life are hazy.  Possibly, he did not become truly active until after he had qualified as a lawyer some four years after Sasha’s death, but the impact on his studying and his reading must have been enormous.

** Officially, since 1914, St. Petersburg had been named Petrograd because the old name sounded too German for wartime conditions, but to the characters in this book it was always Petersburg or merely “Peter.”  I follow their lead.
    Also, throughout the book, I am employing the Western calendar, still in use today, rather than the Russian calendar that in 1917 was thirteen days behind it.