Michael Pearson

The Sealed Train
Chapter 9

When Lenin Awoke Early next morning, the sky was leaden gray—a suitable setting for the events that lay ahead.  Shirokaya Street, where the Elizarov apartment was situated, was a broad, nondescript thoroughfare of tall, gray and rather gloomy apartment buildings in the middle of Petersburg Island.  This was the oldest section of the city in which Peter the Great himself had lived and built his golden-spired fortress complex of Sts. Peter and Paul.1

Number 52 Shirokaya, in which the Elizarov apartment was on the sixth floor, had been constructed on a sharp street corner.  As a result, the flat was triangular in shape, and the living room, since it was in the apex, gave an impression of a salon on a ship.  There were windows on both sides of the room which narrowed at one end to french doors.  Beyond was a balcony that came to a point, like a prow.

The flat was large and comfortable.  Mark Elizarov’s position as a director of a marine insurance company enabled the family to keep a maid.  Both Anna and Maria worked on the staff of Pravda.  Anna, at fifty-four, was the more reserved of the two sisters.  As a young girl she had been striking with dark eyes and long hair, but now in middle age she had become thinner and her face had tautened, sharpening the contours of nose and cheeks.  She was a highly disciplined woman, controlled and severe-and looked it.

Maria, by contrast, was far warmer and more spontaneous.  Plumper than her married sister and ten years younger, she had a wide Mongol-looking face with a broad nose and dark eyes that resembled her elder brother’s.  Even as a girl she had been plain, but she had always been Lenin’s favorite—possibly because she was the closest in age but also because his role in her life had been that of a father as well as a brother.

Mark Elizarov was an elegant still-handsome man in his early fifties with an ample black beard.  Anna had met him in a revolutionary situation, for he had been a close friend and fellow student of Sasha’s at Petersburg University.  In fact, he had proposed to her during the period after Sasha’s arrest when the Ulyanov family was ostracized, an act of courage that must have removed any doubts that might have lingered in Anna’s mind.

The arrival of Lenin and Nadya had required a change in the family’s living arrangements.  Maria had moved into the same room as her sister.  Mark had a bed set up in his study.  This was to be Lenin’s home for some weeks—until it was no longer safe for him to remain in the city.

In the living room was a chess table, fitted with a secret drawer which had long been a hiding place for the more incriminating documents and which had survived many police raids.

Now the police—in the two forms that they had existed in Tsarist days—had been broken up, but many of their members had entered the new militia that had been set up to replace them.  Lenin refused to recognize the difference—seeing it as one more aspect of the duping of the masses—and continued to refer to “the police” as though the Okhrana still existed.

Early that Tuesday morning a deputation from the party arrived at the apartment to see him because, in the trauma that followed Lenin’s shocking speech the previous evening, they had quite forgotten to tell him that an important meeting was scheduled that day—to discuss with the Mensheviks once again the question of merging the two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party.  In his speech Lenin had, of course, attacked the Menshevik leaders as “compromisers,” and even from Zurich, he had insisted that there should be no alliance with other parties.  It was, therefore, with some trepidation that the Bolsheviks broke the news to their leader that his orders had been disobeyed.

He could hardly complain.  The Bolshevik organization was not a dictatorship, and the decision to open merger talks had been made constitutionally by a party conference.  It was also a fact that a close degree of cooperation already existed.  In some cities the two factions were working together, even sharing premises.

It is doubtful if Lenin made an issue of this any more than he had of Kamenev’s compromising line in Pravda.  The revolution had been a dazing emotional experience, one hardly conducive to clear thought.  It was precisely because of this that Lenin had known it was vital for him to get to Petersburg without delay.  Now that he had arrived, he could start giving the party the intellectual guidance that it so obviously needed—and he was going to get his first opportunity that morning.  For Bolsheviks from all over Russia were in Petersburg for a conference that had ended the previous evening.  They wanted to hear him before they left the city to return home, since only the more important among them had attended his reception in the Kshesinskaya Mansion.

Together with the party deputation, Lenin traveled to his friend Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich’s apartment on Khersonskaya in the center of the city for a short meeting with Zinoviev and the party leaders.  From the Troitsky Bridge, as they crossed the Neva, which bends in a big U through the city, Lenin would have seen for the first time for more than a decade the Petersburg that he had come to know so well during the years when he was young, first as a student and then as a radical young lawyer with revolutionary plans.  On the north side of the river, beyond the golden-spired Fortress of Peter and Paul, was the big Exchange building on Vasilevsky Island.  On the south bank was the long fagade of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace ;  behind them, the famous pillared tower of the Admiralty at the head of the Nevsky Prospect and the great golden dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

The car moved off the bridge into the center of modern Petersburg, passed through the Field of Mars—those symbolic gardens where a month ago the hundreds of dead had been lowered into the ground one by one, each coffin marked by a boom from the cannon in Peter and Paul—and turned into Nevsky.

The Nevsky cut straight and wide across the heart of the city.  Lined with the most expensive shops and the finest apartments, it was the core of the bourgeoisie in the capital—which was why it had been the scene of much of the shooting in March.

To Lenin that morning, there was little sign of revolution on the Nevsky.  The men in their neat suits and bowler hats and the women in their long and ample dresses still thronged the pavements.  The carriages and automobiles of the rich were still proceeding slowly through the traffic congestion of the fashionable thoroughfare.  Commissionaires still stood outside the big hotels, wearing sashes of green, gold or scarlet and peacock feathers in round Chinese-looking caps.

Bourgeois babies were still pushed in big prams by nursemaids dressed in traditional costume—blue if the children were boys, pink if they were girls—their heads covered by white kokoshniks decorated with silver tassels and encrusted with imitation pearls.

However, even if the revolution was not too apparent on that cloudy April morning, it had in fact produced enormous changes.  Petersburg, like much of Russia, was still on the brink of social and organizational collapse.  During the few weeks that had passed since those traumatic March days the entire nation—as Kerensky put it—had been swept by “a sense of unlimited freedom, a liberation from the most elementary restraints essential to every human society.”

Crime had soared.  In the factories, people had stopped working.  For all of Sir George Buchanan’s optimism, discipline had vanished in the army and the navy.  In the streets soldiers forcibly relieved officers of their swords.

Throughout Russia, in plants, military camps and villages, the newly formed committees were in session.  There was endless talk, but little constructive action.

The one factor that prevented a complete breakdown was the Soviet.  The government ruled in name, but the Soviet made it possible.

Because chaos was so close, the early extremism, with its undertones of the French Revolution, had now been replaced by an almost universal belief within the Soviet that order must be preserved.  Many party aims had been shelved temporarily in the cause of stability.  In this sense, they had almost all become “compromisers.”  Certainly the leading Bolsheviks subscribed to this view of the revolution.

Among the socialist intellectuals, this common attitude was logical and consistent with Marxist theory.  It was the first stage of revolution.  Autocracy and feudalism had been overthrown.

To the ordinary worker and soldier, the revolution had brought a keen sense of personal achievement.  Everyone was “comrade.”  In the restaurants, a notice on each table declared :  “Just because a man must make his living by being a waiter, do not insult him by offering him a tip.”  Everywhere there were red flags, symbolizing the victory of the revolution.  Everywhere the imperial insignia had been ripped from the buildings, leaving crude, bare patches torn in the stone and plaster.

The mood of the city to which Lenin returned for the first time since the 1905 uprising was, therefore, one of intense pride.  It was a mood, colored by complacency, that Lenin planned that day to shatter.

First, though, he had a personal visit to make.  In Bonch-Bruevich’s car he drove to the cemetery where his mother had been buried the previous year.  For a few minutes he stood, his head bared, beside her grave.  Then he strode away through the memorial stones to start a new revolution.

An hour later in the gallery of the Tauride Palace, Lenin addressed his Bolsheviks—and his speech shook the organization he had created to its roots.  Most of it, of course, echoed what he had said the previous night in the Kshesinskaya Mansion, but that had been an intimate explanation of his views to close comrades.  Now he was the head of the party demanding that its members face up to their responsibilities, attacking them for betraying socialist principles.  And, although they did not know it, he was doing so as the director of a political organization that, though relatively small at present, had as great potential financial resources as any other party in Russia—including the big bourgeois Kadet Party.  That knowledge must have provided Lenin with an immense source of extra strength, extra confidence, and it is intriguing to ponder whether he would have been quite so dogmatic, quite so scathing, if it had not existed.

In ten clear points—the April Theses—he laid down the structure of his dramatic new program intended to catapult 160,000,000 Russians toward socialism.  They included :  no support of the Provisional Government ;  a complete break with capitalism and an end to the predatory war ;  the establishment of a republic of Soviets and workers and peasants that would control production and distribution of goods ;  the nationalizing of all banks under Soviet control ;  the confiscation of all private lands ;  a rebuilding of the revolutionary international ;  and the destruction of the bourgeois state establishment (army, police, bureaucracy) which would be replaced by Soviet organs, consisting of officials who would be elected by the people and replaceable at any time—rule from below, as he was to repeat so often, not from above.

Possibly the most important aim of all, for it was tactical, was his guidelines for the party.  In the Soviet the Bolsheviks were a minority, so they must “patiently explain” to the masses how they were being misled—especially to the frontline troops who should be encouraged to fraternize with the German troops who faced them.  For this was the start of a world revolution, the transformation of an imperialist conflict into civil class war, and Germany was the first area into which it would spread.

This was his message, but as he delivered it, he taunted the Bolsheviks with duping themselves, with being dazed by the heady atmosphere of the March Revolution.

“Why didn’t you seize power?” he challenged them, rocking back on his heels, his thumbs in the armpits of his waistcoat.  Then gave them the answer.  The bourgeoisie were organized and conscious of the class war.  The workers were not.

“We must ... frankly admit it,” he admonished his listeners, “and tell the people that we have failed to assume power because we are not class-conscious and not organized.”

And because they had failed—the people, the party—an imperialist war was continuing.  Thousands of men were dying.  And astonishing though it was, the masses, “trustingly ignorant,” still had faith in the ministers.

It was not only the masses who were misled.  “Even our own Bolsheviks,” he jeered at them in apparent amazement, “show confidence in the government. ... You comrades have faith in the government.”  Then, jutting his head forward, he warned them :  “If that is your position, our ways must part.  I’d rather be in a minority. ...”

Rounding on the party journal, he taunted :  “Pravda demands that the government renounce annexations [i.e., foreign territory].  To demand that a government of capitalists renounce annexations ... is crying mockery. ...”

Lenin knew there were secret treaties between the Allies—they had appalled Kerensky when he learned of them.  Under these, Russia was to gain Constantinople, the Dardanelles and much of Mesopotamia as spoils of victory.

“The fundamental question is :  Which class is waging the war?” cried Lenin.  “The capitalist class, tied to the banks, cannot wage any but an imperialist war. ... We must make it clear to the masses that the soviet is the only possible government, a government of a kind that, barring the [Paris] Commune, the world has never seen.”

An hour later, as the result of urging from Mensheviks who had entered the gallery as he was speaking, Lenin repeated his speech before a much larger audience in the Grand Hall of the Tauride Palace—with Chkheidze, his main target, acting as chairman.

This was the conference which had been called to discuss once more the merging of Mensheviks and Bolsheviks into a combined Social Democratic Party and end their fourteen years of feuding.

It was because of this that Lenin, as he walked onto the platform, was given a tremendous ovation by an audience that included men and women who had known him for years—and known the astringent contempt of his articles and his speeches.  If they expected him to reinforce Kamenev’s merger pleas, it was partly because of the euphoria of the revolution and partly because at the time of the last revolution in 1905, Lenin himself had pressed for a united front.  Even so, Chkheidze, after Lenin’s surly response to his welcome at the Finland Station, must at least have been apprehensive.

As Lenin waited for the clapping to stop, he pulled down his jacket, smoothed the hair at the back of his head and studied his audience.

They soon realized that they were not listening to a man who was intent on achieving unity.  This was the same disruptive Lenin—but a Lenin who astonishingly, seemed to have discarded Marx.

The murmuring began early in his speech, but when he asserted that the revolution must produce “a Soviet Republic” and defined this as “a state for which the Paris Commune served as prototype,” there was a howl from his audience.  They stamped their feet, banged their desks, catcalled and whistled.  Desperately, Chkheidze tried to restore order, but it was minutes before he could even make himself heard.

Lenin’s whole program seemed wildly impractical to his audience, but his mention of the Paris Commune of 1871 appeared totally absurd.  The people of Paris had set up the Commune by elections in defiance of the government.  It had been an experiment in crude socialism, and it had featured Lenin’s concept of rule from below.  Even the officers of the National Guard, a kind of people’s militia, had been elected.

The French government, frightened by the effect of the commune on the loyalties of the regular troops, had withdrawn from the capital with the army—only to return to smash the experiment in a two-day massacre of some 30,000 citizens.

The few weeks the Commune survived were hardly enough to permit any practical achievement, but even if it had lasted longer, the experience within the limits of a city could hardly be applied to a vast nation like Russia, already tottering dangerously near collapse.

“This is the raving of a madman,” someone yelled.  “Sheer anarchy,” asserted I.P. Goldenberg, a Bolshevik from Iskra days who had defected.  Steklov, one of the editors of Izvestia, the Soviet’s official newspaper, insisted that the Russian Revolution had “passed him by.”  “After Lenin becomes acquainted with the state of affairs in Russia, he himself will reject all these constructions of his.”  This was also the view of most of the Bolsheviks.  “On that day,” wrote V.I. Zalezhsky, a member of the Petersburg Bolshevik City Committee and one of the organizers of Lenin’s welcome the previous night, “Comrade Lenin could not find open sympathizers even in our own ranks.”  Skobelev, who twenty-four hours before had formally greeted him with Chkheidze on behalf of the Soviet at the Finland Station, described him contemptuously as “a man completely played out.”

Happily, British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan reported to London that “all Lenin’s proposals have been rejected.”

In a Cabinet meeting in the Mariinsky Palace Minister of Justice Kerensky declared he was going to visit Lenin.  “He is living in a completely isolated atmosphere,” he explained to the other ministers.  “He knows nothing, sees everything through the glasses of his fanaticism.”  But he did not go.

In Germany, the news of the outraged reactions to Lenin’s speech was received with as much satisfaction as in London.  But unlike Buchanan, who saw Lenin merely as a dangerous demagogue preaching pacifism, the German officials knew better.  From Imperial Headquarters, Zimmermann’s liaison officer wrote that “Lenin is working exactly as we would wish. ...”




1 Main sources :  N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917; Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution; V.D. Bonch-Bruevich, Battle Positions in the February and October Revolutions (R);  V.I. Lenin, The Revolution of 1917 ;  Alexander Shlyapnikov, The Year 1917 (R);  N.I. Podvoisky, The Year 1917 (R) ;  Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia ;  Alexander Kerensky, The Catastrophe and The Kerensky Memoirs ;  P.B. Browder and A. Kerensky, The Russian Provisional Government 1917 ;  Elena Stasova, Pages of Life and Fighting (R);  Frank Golder, Documents of Russian History, 1914-1917;  N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin;  V. Mushtukov and V. Kruchina-Bogdanov, Lenin and the Revolution;  A. Ilyn-Genevsky, From the February Revolution to the October Revolution;  British Foreign Office files ;  newspapers (See list at end of General Works in Bibliography).