Michael Pearson :
The Sealed Train

Chapter 6


At 5:10 a.m. in the Early Light of the next morning, Tuesday, April 10, the sealed carriage and its baggage wagon were connected to a train and drawn backward toward Switzerland out of Singen, for the line ahead led to Radolfzell and Ulm, then curved onto the branch track that would take them to Stuttgart.1

Tea made on Nadya's portable Swedish kerosene cooker had eased some of the discomfort of a night of sleeping in their clothes in the carriage .  The Swiss frontier authorities had permitted them to keep the rolls they had brought with them — though they were growing a little stale by morning — so breakfast had not proved too much of a problem.

Through the windows, the travelers peered sleepily at picturesque hilly country :  sloping meadows, thick with clumps of trees, fir woods, village after village that were almost identical with Gottmadingen, groups of houses with stylistic curving roofs cloistered around a little church .  All the time the train was gaining height as it ran through ever-higher hills.

Their journey across Germany — attached to various trains — would take them over four different state railways, and each time they crossed from one system to another, a new engine would take over .  Owing to military restrictions on the lines to the front, they would at times move out of one state railway for a few miles and then return to it .  At present, they were in Baden on the Baden State Railway.

Arrangements to feed the travelers would be somewhat unsatisfactory until they reached Frankfurt, where, it would seem from Nadya's reference to “the cook,” a restaurant car was part of the train that took them on the long haul to Berlin .  Until then they would have to make do with what food they had brought and with sandwiches obtained for them at the stations.

In his end compartment, Lenin was absorbed in work, writing in an exercise book, according to Radek, in his small narrow-nibbed scrawl.  Almost certainly, 1905 was in his mind — in fact, he spoke of it to the comrades — for it was the last time he had made this journey.

There were similarities between the two trips.  As on this occasion, he had been traveling to revolution, had written letters urging the arming of the people, had cursed the distance between Switzerland and Russia which made judgment of the revolutionary situation so much harder .  And, as he had this time, he had left his papers with Karpinsky.

The pattern, of course, was only repeated at a very superficial level, for now there was no Tsar to order in the Semenovskys.  This time there was an unprecedented crisis of history, a period of opportunity, when a correct assessment of the strength of the forces of revolution, of sheer timing, was vital.

Zina Zinovieva, with nine-year-old Stepan, was in a second-class compartment, next to one that was occupied by Lenin and Nadya.  Almost certainly she was sharing this with Helen Kon, Ussievich's dark wife, young Robert and his mother and Gregory .2  Zina had first met Lenin fourteen years before in 1903, when she went to hear him speak at a café in Berne .  The Okhrana was tailing Gregory, and it had seemed wise to leave Russia for a while .  At this time, although Lenin was well known in revolutionary circles, his photograph was rarely published, and few of the young Marxists knew what he looked like.

The café had been packed with people when she arrived breathless a little after the time the lecture was due to start .  “You're late,” a man standing near the entrance reproved her gently — so she recalled in Leningradskaya Pravda .  He was short, bald, his head fringed with red hair .  His eyes were small and round and almost disappeared into slits when he smiled.

Zina laughed .  She was very young, barely out of her teens .  “This charming man wouldn't start without me,” she answered cheerfully.

“Are you sure ? ” he asked quietly.

“Certainly, I'm sure,” she said brightly.

“Then now you have arrived,” he asked with overelaborate courtesy, his eyes lightening with amusement, “may I please have your permission to begin ? ”

“My blood ran cold,” Zina wrote .  Lenin still teased her about their life with Lenin, revealing facets of his personality the occurrence on occasions.

It was during the conflicts with the Mensheviks, soon after the split at the party conference in London when, as Gregory put it, “Martov had begun to sing flat .”  Gregory was then only twenty .  They had gone to see Lenin with a few other young Berne Bolsheviks.

They were deeply impressed with his informality, with the fact that he listened to them intently and explained with great simplicity these ideological problems they did not understand.

They had also gone to see Plekhanov and been struck by the contrast .  Plekhanov had treated them with polite formality, offering tea in delicate china in his drawing room .  Instead of china cups, Lenin had drunk tea with them out of mugs, sitting around the kitchen table .  They had not seen him for another five years until, once more, they had come out of Russia, this time to exile.

As Zina gazed out of the window of the carriage, for once in her life with little to do, her thoughts must have lingered on the nine years of exile she was leaving behind her .  She later wrote a lot about their life with Lenin, revealing facets of his personality that other contemporaries have largely ignored — such as his enjoyment of bicycling .  When they all were living in the village of Longjumeau near Paris, they worked hard for the party school all week, but the four of them — Lenin, Nadya, Gregory and Zina — would go bicycling all day on Sundays, starting off early in the morning .  “The condition laid down by Vladimir Ilyich,” wrote Zina, “was :  Not a word about politics .”  He was a “wonderful bicyclist” — and thoughtful, too, watching Nadya and Zina carefully and often taking them in tow on the hills.3

Lenin was fond of young Stepan — “Why is he crying ?” he asked on the day of his birth — and when they were sharing a house in Cracow when the little boy was four, he had often played games with him, even wrestling with him on the floor .  He carried him on his shoulders, scrambled under furniture to retrieve his ball, carried out his “orders.”

“Sometimes,” wrote Zina, “Vladimir Ilyich and Styopka knocked over everything in the room .  When it became very noisy, I would try to stop them .  But Ilyich always insisted :  'Don't interfere ! We're playing !' ”

Once, as they were walking along a Cracow street with the little boy running ahead of them, Lenin mused in sudden melancholy :  “It's a pity we haven't got a Styopka like that.”

Lenin's affection for the boy had remained as he grew older.  In July, 1916, only nine months before they boarded the Sealed Train, Lenin ended a letter to Zina from the mountains where they had gone for a trip for Nadya's health :  “Beste Grüsse, especially to Styopka who must have grown so that I won't be able to toss him up to the ceiling.”

The track curved down into Rottweil .  The passengers could see the three spires of the medieval town set behind a wall of high old red-brick houses .  The train passed through the station, crossed the waters of the Neckar over two bridges as the river twisted through the valley and penetrated a long tunnel, cutting through the hills.

After the darkness of the tunnel, the day seemed unusually bright as the train emerged into a narrow valley with the hills steep and high on either side, very close to the track, thick with firs.

As the valley broadened, the line ran alongside the Neckar again .  The stream was turbulent with small rapids and boulders that jutted up from the waters.

The route they were taking by way of Stuttgart involved a slight detour .  For the direct line to Frankfurt had forked west a few miles back, at Tuttlingen, where they had halted to change the engine as they moved onto the Württemberg State Railway .  But this would have taken them onto one of the main rail supply routes to the German front in France, where at that moment, as the Sealed Train steamed north, the Kaiser's troops were striving desperately to check the new Allied offensive .  Military traffic was permitted only on the rail line that stretched south from Karlsruhe through Offenburg.

The carriage bearing the Russians across Germany and its baggage wagon would have to travel through Karlsruhe, but by diverting through Stuttgart, they would approach from the east, where they would not hamper the military trains.

Soon, as the train clattered through the wide valley of the Neckar, they could see Horb with its high complex of old buildings dominated by an ancient square stone watch tower and a high spire .  The river, streaming over a small waterfall, divided the town, then turned sharply under the rail track .  The valley narrowed here so that there was no view from the train windows — just the close grassy sides of steep banks reaching upward from both sides of the line.

And suddenly they were running down out of the hills, and on both sides there was open country, gently undulating, the monotony offset here and there by a tree or a hill.

To the travelers, it seemed depressing — “I remember the painful impression left by the frozen countryside,” commented Zinoviev, even though it was spring .  To all of them the most remarkable fact was the absence of “adult men,” as Nadya put it — just women, very old men and children.

“The fields,” wrote Olga, “gave an impression of having been allowed to go to waste, abandoned for a long time.”

“The stations,” recorded Zina, “were empty.”

Germany presented a picture of a country that had long been at war, and the travelers realized that the same weary picture would be repeated in Russia, where most of the men of fighting age were at the front — possibly facing the men from the villages through which the train was now continuously passing.

Life in Switzerland had been hard for the exiles because most of them were poor, but Switzerland had not been a country at war .  The difference was harshly emphasized to Sokolnikov who, sitting by the window on the hard wooden seat of one of the third-class compartments, was puzzled by the stares of the few people they had seen in the stations as they slowed or stopped — in particular probably, though he did not specify the place in his story of the journey, at Tuttlingen, where they had changed engines.

Sokolnikov's perplexity was strange .  For he had suffered true hardship .  Like so many others, he had been arrested after 1905 — though only seventeen at the time — and exiled to Siberia .  There, at one stage, he had been shackled because he had refused to take his hat off to the settlement governor .  He knew the agony of solitary confinement which he had eased by playing chess through the wall with the prisoner in the next cell, using pieces of bread as chessmen.

For weeks, after his escape from Siberia, he had been on the run, making his way across Russia to the Prussian border.

Even so, despite his experience in suffering, he had not recognized the look in those German eyes staring at him in his compartment .  At last he realized the reason why he was attracting such incredulous attention !  A white bread roll that they had brought from Switzerland lay on the small table by the window .  White bread in wartime Germany was clearly unheard of.

From Vailingen, the engineer began to apply the air brakes, vibrating through the train, as the train cut down through woods toward the old city of Stuttgart .  At moments, the trees and grassy banks that lined the track cleared to reveal the town way below them for a few seconds before closing in once more like a screen — until eventually they were running just above red-tiled curving roofs and beyond them a range of church steeples.

It was the first big station in Germany at which they had stopped .  No one, of course, was permitted to leave the carriage, but they stared out of the windows at the platform .  Even this major station appeared strangely quiet and dead.

Fritz Platten was impressed that the two German officers traveling with them were conducting themselves precisely according to the arrangement he had discussed at such length at the German Embassy in Berne .  At no time had either of them attempted to cross the chalk line on the floor of the corridor.

While the train was standing in Stuttgart Station, Captain von Planetz summoned him .  Wilhelm Janson, the trade union leader whom the telegram from Berlin had been so insistent that Lenin should meet, had boarded the train and requested a meeting with Platten.

The Swiss socialist agreed and crossed the white chalk mark in the corridor, as only he was permitted to do .  From the past, he knew the trade union leader whom he now met in the German officers' compartment .  Janson told him that he brought greetings from the General Commission of the German trade unions and would like to pass them personally to the comrades.

Platten explained the travelers were passing through Germany on an extraterritorial basis and were unwilling to see anyone.  However, he promised he would talk to them and give Janson an answer in the morning .  The union leader left the wagon and returned to his carriage in another part of the train.

Platten had a strong sense of the dramatic, and he must have guessed what Lenin's reaction would be when he told him of Janson's request .  “If he enters the carriage, we'll beat him up,” exploded Lenin, so Platten recalled .  “Tell him to go to the devil.”

Janson, a member of the German Social Democrat Party that had destroyed the Second International, had no hope of seeing Lenin, quite apart from the fact that such a meeting would have compromised the Russians .  Certainly, he had not chosen his moment well .  For Stuttgart was the site of the conference where the International had been born.

Janson's presence on the train made Lenin concerned about Radek, whom Janson knew from the days of the scandal when the Austrian was expelled from the German Social Democratic party for theft .  Radek, traveling “like a hare” (incognito), was vulnerable .  Janson might well catch a glimpse of him in one of the stations and might even report him out of malice since he had failed in his mission to talk to Lenin.

Radek was ordered into the baggage wagon for safety .  “They gave me a survival kit of about fifty newspapers so that I should be quiet and not cause any disturbance” — which the emotional and fervent Radek was often tempted to do.

The train continued its journey across the nondescript countryside of Württemberg, pausing at Bretten to change the engine again, for the sealed carriage and its baggage wagon were back once more on the Baden State Railway which it had left at Tuttlingen.

The train ran on into Karlsruhe .  The grim station, in the heart of the industrial area, made no impression on the travelers — despite the fact that military supply trains must have been thundering south toward Offenburg while they waited at the platform.

The section of the track that connected Karlsruhe to Mannheim crossed the Baden plains — bare, flat, open country across which the travelers could see for miles.

As they neared Mannheim, some of the comrades in the third-class compartments were singing again — revolutionary songs in French .  As the train crossed the Rhine and slowed to a halt in the big station, they began to sing louder .  Probably, others took up the songs, maybe in other compartments .  For it became oppressive to the two Germans in the end third-class compartment — conscious that the songs could be heard on the platform.

Once again Captain von Planetz asked Fritz Platten to cross the white chalk line .  This time the German was furious, asserting that the singing of such French songs within his country was an insult to the German nation.

Platten apologized for his comrades and hurriedly quelled the offensive noise.

Once again, the engine was changed as they were now on the Prussian-Hessian State Railway and they moved off from Mannheim across the bare plains toward Frankfurt.

In the Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin, Arthur Zimmermann kept in touch with the journey .  A telegram arrived from the German minister in Stockholm .  The Swedish government would permit the revolutionary party to travel through Sweden on their way to Finland.

In fact, although Zimmermann did not know this, the ambassadors of the Allied powers in Stockholm had met to consider if they should apply pressure on Swedish government to refuse transit or to take some other action “to hold up the arch-revolutionary on the way through” — according to Lord Esme Howard, the British minister in Sweden .  “But the plan seemed impossible .  It looked as if it might make the situation worse .  Indeed, so far had the Revolution gone in Russia at that time that it appeared wiser to let things take their course rather than interfere in matters of which we were then practically ignorant.”

Howard had not been slow to realize that Germany might help Russian socialists, dedicated as they were to peace, to return home.  Seventeen days before, he had alerted London to the security risk at the Swedish-Finnish border .  “Several very doubtful characters have left for the frontier as there seems to be no control whatever and anybody can enter Finland and Russia without inspection .  This is a great danger and it is most likely that the Germans will now send in agents of all kinds to blow up munitions factories etc. as well as to work for a separate peace.”

The British vice-consul at Haparanda on the Swedish frontier, Howard reported, was assisting the British and French military control officers at Tornio, the Finnish border town .  “Owing to the present unrest, Russian officers commanding are practically useless for control and all the work is being done by British and French officers.”  This, of course, explained why Maria Stetskevich, Shlyapnikov's courier from Petersburg, had encountered such trouble and why every effort would be made to block Lenin's entry though, as Howard knew, the means to accomplish this were limited.

Howard and his fellow ambassadors were not the only men pondering how they could check Lenin's passage to Russia .  In Petersburg, just after the March Revolution, a tough, militaristic colonel named B. V. Nikitin had been appointed head of counterespionage with an office on Znamenskaya Street .  His Tsarist predecessors had been dragged off to the Duma during the uprising and had been charged with being agents of the secret police .  As a result, the counterespionage network had eroded rapidly, since clearly it was not too healthy a form of employment in the new conditions.

Nikitin, however, was a determined man, and he gradually reassembled it .  He was concerned only with detecting German espionage, but since, with good reason, he suspected enemy spies of causing trouble and dissension in the chaotic city, this took him into the domestic political area.

The left-wing socialists, especially the Bolsheviks, were demanding an end to the “predatory war.”  Since the Germans also wanted to end the war on the Eastern Front, the colonel concluded that the Bolsheviks must be German agents .  He had already set himself the task of proving this by the early April morning that a Major Alley of the British Embassy called on him with the news that Lenin and a party of thirty “internationalists” were traveling through Germany by train on their way to Russia.  The major even supplied him with a list of the travelers.

Appalled, Nikitin called on General Lavr Kornilov, commander of troops in the Petersburg area, and demanded that he should bar Lenin's entry at the border .  Kornilov, a regular officer with dictatorial ambitions, was to become an important figure at a most critical time for Lenin later in the year .  Now in April, however, with Russia in chaos, a few more left-wing revolutionaries did not strike the general as of overwhelming significance.

Kornilov agreed to do what he could, as did other equally weary authorities, but the formal answers were all the same .  The Executive Committee of the Soviet insisted that the returning exiles should be allowed to enter the country .  Even though the Mensheviks and the SRs who dominated the Soviet were scarcely friends of Lenin, freedom, in those early weeks after the revolution, was highly valued in the new Russia .  Nikitin, however, was a resolute man — and he was to prove a deadly adversary for Lenin.

1 Main sources :  See sources for Chapter 4. Also, Lilina (Zina Zinovieva), Leningradskaya Pravda, 1924, No. 22 (R);  B.V. Nikitin, The Fatal Years.

2 It is assumed that Zina was in the remaining second-class compartment.  It is known that Lenin had one second-class compartment—presumably an end one since it was to enable him to work—that Radek and company had the neighboring compartment, that the German officers had the third-class compartment at the far end of the coach.  Platten recorded that women were given priority to second class, and it is assumed that Zina and Helen Kon availed themselves of this.  Possibly, too, so did Robert's mother, but she may have preferred to stay with the other Jewish Bundists.
    Of the other compartments it is probable that Platten occupied the third-class compartment adjoining the escort officers for easy communication.

3 My source is Zina Zinovieva, writing in Leningradskaya Pravda in 1924, and it is interesting that she does not mention if Inessa, who was at Longjumeau with them, joined them on the bicycle trips.  This could have been tact or even jealousy, for, apart from her closeness to Lenin, Inessa was giving lectures which Zina would never have been asked to do.  Perhaps Inessa just did not like bicycling, though it is strange that she should have been left out of this weekend activity.