Michael Pearson

The Sealed Train
Chapter 12

That Evening, as Lenin was talking to the party leaders in the apartment in Shirokaya Street, Alexander Kerensky was at army headquarters at the front, considering the reports from the forward units of the Russian Army.1

At dawn that morning the offensive on which he was relying to rally Russia and check the Bolshevik threat had been launched.  The early reports were encouraging.  The enemy line had broken at two points.  Ten thousand German prisoners had been captured.  Russian soldiers were attacking the German enemy in front of them and not—as urged repeatedly by Lenin’s soldiers’ press—“the class enemy at the rear.”

For two days, the Seventh Army advanced, pushing the Germans back toward Berezhany.  Then the momentum slowed ;  the forward movement ground to a halt.  Morale slumped, even though special “shock battalions” had been carefully placed in the line, even though Kerensky had toured the regiments before the attack, performing his special magic.

Three days later, farther to the south, another Russian army attacked the Austrians, took the ancient town of Halicz and pushed on toward Kalush—and again, like their comrades to the north, failed to maintain the offensive.

In Petersburg, however, news of the early advances was greeted with rapture by the bourgeois classes.  Once more Kadet processions marched in the Nevsky Prospect with banners calling the nation to rally to protect “Mother Russia.”  Orators renewed their attack on Lenin and his alliance with the Germans.

This time no confrontations with the Kadets were planned from the Kshesinskaya Mansion, where Lenin faced trouble enough.  The reality of the offensive had caused an angry upsurge of feelings in the barracks.  A stream of demands arrived from regimental committees demanding action.

Soldiers of the 180th Reserve Regiment demanded of one Bolshevik agitator :  “What are they doing there, fast asleep, in Kshesinskaya’s palace?  Come on, let’s kick out Kerensky!”

The most serious challenge to Lenin came from the basement of the party headquarters where Military Organization men from all over Russia were in conference.  Representing 30,000 Bolshevik soldiers—agitators in an already demoralized army—they were confident they could mount an immediate revolution.

So militant were they that Podvoisky sent an emergency call to Lenin to address them—and he lost no time answering the summons.  “One wrong move on our part can wreck everything . . .” he told them.  “If we were able to seize power, it is naive to think that, having taken it, we would be able to hold it. . . . Events should not be anticipated.  Time is on our side.”

He prevented an immediate conflagration, but his listeners did not really want to listen to calls for delay.  “It is necessary to look truth in the eye . . .” insisted one.  “Believe me, the front will support us.  At the front the mood is not Bolshevik;  no, there the spirit is antiwar.  And that tells all.”

In another part of the mansion the Petersburg Committee was in session—and its impatient, critical mood was similar to that of the military men.  A strike in the Putilov factory in the Narva had been checked with enormous difficulty to comply with party orders.

There were now signs of a disturbing new danger.  In some areas, the apparent success of the offensive was causing a swing against the party.  Patriotism-that seductive appeal to Russian nationalism against which, even in exile, Lenin had been forced to be so alert—had begun to emerge.

It provided an urgent reason to take action now before the movement spread and several disgruntled speakers, with whom the cancellation of the demonstration ten days before still rankled, attacked “the lack of leadership” at the top.  One urged that the party should give the Soviet an ultimatum :  Take power or else.

Agitators from the Vyborg grumbled about being “fire hoses,” damping down the embers of rebellion which, under previous party orders, they had helped ignite.

Lenin did his utmost to dampen the emotional outpouring.  In an article in Pravda that carried just a hint of desperation, he declared, “We understand your bitterness, we understand the excitement of the Petersburg workers, but we say to them : ‘Comrades, an immediate attack would be inexpedient.’ ”

Kamenev—for once lined up with Lenin—made a similar appeal in Pravda the next day under the headline NOT SO SIMPLE COMRADES insisting that “sympathy” for the party was not enough.

By contrast, on the same day Soldatskaya Pravda ran an emotional article which reflected the erosion of Lenin’s authority.  “Comrades,” it declared, “enough of sacrificing ourselves for the welfare of the bourgeoisie. . . . Wake up whoever is asleep.  Be ready at any minute.”

The mansion was burning with rebellion against Lenin.  It was a rebellion that stemmed directly from the propaganda techniques by which his big German resources had enabled him to promote so effectively those simple themes that were reiterated day and night across Russia.  It is interesting to consider whether Lenin, as he rethought his plans in the Sealed Train, possibly after meeting top German officials in Berlin, had considered the dangers that might lie in overpromotion.

Certainly, as he tried desperately to control the party from his corner room on the second floor of the mansion, he knew how delicate was the issue of timing.  Too many of the masses were “wavering” but still supporting the two big parties in the Soviet.  If Kerensky’s offensive failed, the faith of these Russians would break, and there would be a massive swing to the Bolsheviks.  That would be the moment for aggressive action by the party.

Meanwhile, the government prosecutors had made what they believed was enormous progress with their case against Lenin.  On July 4, the day that Lenin’s appeal for restraint was published in Pravda, Colonel Nikitin received a visitor in his new offices on the Voskrenskaya Quay beside the Neva.  Captain Pierre Laurent, military attaché to the French Embassy, handed the colonel what he regarded as final and convincing proof that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were using German money.

Both the French and the British clearly believed that the government was being far too careful in its approach to Lenin’s arrest.  Laurent, whose French agents had achieved more than Nikitin’s, began applying pressure.

Laurent’s evidence concerned a woman named Eugenia Sumenson who lived in the nearby suburb of Pavlovsk.  Nikitin already had her under surveillance, and as a lead, she seemed enormously important.  During the last few weeks, she had drawn 800,000 rubles from an account in the Siberian Bank—an astonishing figure for a “demimondaine,” as Nikitin called her, living in a fairly modest way.  There were still 180,000 rubles in her account.  Bolsheviks had been noted among her friends—especially the Polish Bolshevik lawyer Mecheslav Kozlovsky, who was suspected of being the party’s main channel to German funds.

Pierre Laurent now handed Nikitin a series of telegrams that he had intercepted between Eugenia Sumenson and Jacob Fürstenberg in Stockholm.  Though coded, they seemed damning evidence.  One, for example, from her read :  “Nestle not sent flour.  Agitate.”  Another from Fürstenberg to Petersburg was worded :  “Cable what funds in your hands—Nestle.”

Considering the large sums that Eugenia Sumenson was handling, these telegrams seemed to Nikitin certainly to justify prosecution.  The fact that she worked for the firm that was Petersburg correspondent of the company part owned by Parvus and run by Fürstenberg—which could, of course, provide a legitimate commercial reason for the transfer of funds—only increased Nikitin’s certainty that this was at least one way that Lenin was financing his campaign.

However, when Nikitin requested permission to prosecute, he was ordered not to take action for the time being.  The reason was that Pereverzev had received an important tip, presumably from his high contact in the Kshesinskaya Mansion.  Jacob Fürstenberg was coming to Petersburg.  He would cross the border around July 18 and would be carrying documents that would provide conclusive proof for the case against Lenin.

In fact, it is highly unlikely that Fürstenberg, experienced as he was, would be so naive as to carry incriminating evidence through a frontier post where a search of his person was probable.  But since he was so central a figure in the network of evidence, it was clearly desirable that he be arrested and interrogated even if no documents were found on him.  All action was therefore suspended until July 18.  The frontier officers were warned to be on the alert.

Suddenly, on July 12, Lenin decided to take a vacation.  It was a last-minute decision and, in light of the explosive situation within the city, quite astonishing.  His control of the party had been weakened.  Feelings among the troops were so intense that there was open talk of an imminent rising, yet it was vital that they be held back until the failure of Kerensky’s offensive was an undeniable fact.

Still, Lenin chose this moment, when the situation was more critical than it had been at any moment since his return to Russia, to leave the city.

According to his letters, he was unwell.  The pressure of the past three months had been immense.  He was tormented by fierce headaches and severe stomach trouble.  He could eat little.  His nights were restless and marked by acute insomnia.  His sisters, worried by the danger that he would have a nervous breakdown, had been begging him to take a few days of rest in the country.

Admittedly, his health offered a plausible reason for Lenin’s leaving the city, but for him to do so was completely out of character.  He had experienced long periods of crisis before, and each time his health had suffered.  But he had survived them.  Almost certainly other factors were involved, factors which must be considered in the light of subsequent events.

Nadya seems to have been with him little at this time.  His sisters, working as they did for Pravda, saw much more of him.  It appears that Nadya had buried herself in her work at the Vyborg, perhaps giving up the unequal struggle in the Elizarov apartment over who should be the guardian of her husband’s health.  Elena Stasova recorded that at one point, when Lenin stayed with her for a few days, it was Maria, rather than Nadya, who gave her detailed instructions on his diet.

And it was with Maria, not Nadya, that Lenin traveled by train on July 12 to visit Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich’s dacha in the village of Neyvola on Finland’s Karelian Isthmus.  They left the train at Mustiamiaki and cautiously, to mislead police agents, took a droshky to the home of Demyan Bedny, a celebrated poet who lived in Neyvola.  From there, they walked.

The Bonch-Brueviches were not expecting them, though they had often invited Lenin to the dacha.  They were surprised, therefore, when Demyan Bedny, a burly, jovial character with thick ginger hair, “clambered up the rickety stairs of the balcony,” as Bonch recorded, “and said :  ‘Look who I’ve brought you.’ ”

Bonch and his wife, Vera, had been among the twenty-two people who had formed the nucleus of Lenin’s Bolshevik faction in Geneva after the split of 1903.  Ever since they had been staunch supporters, which was perhaps why he now chose their invitation from the many that had been proffered to him.

They sat on the balcony late in the fine, misty evenings and listened to the crickets.  During the day Lenin rested on a rug underneath the shade of Bonch’s lilac trees.  Sometimes, he read books—nothing political, mainly novels in English.  He went for walks with Maria beside the nearby lake.  He bathed with Bonch and, though “a magnificent swimmer,” caused his host concern by swimming “far far out.”

The lake was deep, and Bonch warned him of the cold currents that created whirlpools, but Lenin laughed.  “People drown, you say?” he called out.

“Yes, they drown,” answered Bonch, “and not long ago.”

“Well, I’m not going to drown,” answered Lenin, disappearing under the water “like a dolphin.”  He swam inshore, stood up in shallow water waist high, shook his head and smoothed back his hair with his hands.  “It’s wonderful here,” he shouted.  “Wonderful.”  This exuberant activity also suggests that his ill health can hardly have been serious enough for him to leave the city in crisis.

Some of the local fishermen, who knew about the currents, asked Bonch about his bold friend.  “He’s a sailor from the Baltic fleet,” Bonch told them.  “A relative of mine.”

At Neyvola, Lenin slept well, helped by a green sedative liquid that Vera Mikhailovna insisted he drink every night.  Sometimes his friend Demyan Bedny, who was a skillful chessplayer, came over, and they would sit in the Bonch-Bruevich yard hunched over a board laid out on a stool.

The vacation lasted four days.  At 6 A.M. on July 17, Bonch was awakened by a hammering on the windowpane of his bedroom.  It was a comrade from Petersburg.  There had been an uprising in the city.

According to Bonch, after Lenin had been roused, he sat staring gloomily into a glass of milk.  “It’s absolutely the wrong time,” he said.

There was no question that it was the wrong time, but Lenin’s comment must be seen in context.  The rising can have come as no great surprise, for the danger of it was only too evident before he left the city.  Strangely, too, the Central Committee allowed the crisis—the most serious crisis since March—to escalate for some twelve hours before even informing Lenin.

Why did they delay?  Part of the answer was that a contingency plan had been drawn up before Lenin left the city.  It is inconceivable that he would have gone to Finland at such a time without considering what action the party should take in the event of trouble.  The crucial question is :  What was the nature of this plan?

The July Days, as the crisis is known, are marked with controversy.  The official Soviet version is that the rising was started by one regiment and spread through the city.  The party tried to stop it and, when it failed to do so, assumed leadership in an attempt to control it.  This may be true, but when considered along with Lenin’s strange departure and the Central Committee’s delay in sending for him, the explanation seems a little oversimplified.

Some eminent Western historians have asserted that the rising was a Bolshevik bid for power.  Yet this does not agree with Lenin’s clearly recorded efforts to damp down passions within the party and outside it or with his interests.  For the rising was bound to fail unless it had major backing among the workers and the troops—especially the soldiers at the front.  It did not, at that stage, have such support on any large scale.  For Lenin to initiate an uprising without this support would have been out of character and in direct contravention of all Marxist teachings on revolutionary tactics.  And the vacillation of the party leaders during the crisis makes such an explanation untenable.

Consider, however, what would have been in the party’s interest during that first week in July when Lenin was forced to exert all his efforts to curb his militants.  What was needed to swing the masses to the Bolsheviks was the unequivocal realization that Kerensky’s offensive had failed.  But this would take a few weeks until the offensive petered out and it became obvious that no further progress was going to be made.  If, however, the Germans counterattacked in response to Kerensky’s offensive—a limited counterattack that took relatively little territory but subjected the Russian Army to yet another humiliating defeat—then the conditions that Lenin needed to increase his support among the masses would be created much more quickly.  Kerensky and his policy would be discredited.  Lenin could then remove the curbs from his militants, whom he was finding so hard to restrain, and order an uprising with an overwhelming chance of success.

If this was Lenin’s plan, it meant he was timing his party’s operation in coordination with the movements of the German Army—collusion that went far beyond the acceptance of funds for the pursuit of a common aim.  This would mean that a live communication system existed between Lenin and Berlin, and unlike the matter of German money, there is absolutely no evidence for this—at least no prime evidence.  It can also be argued that even allowing for the German policy of taking no provocative military action that might inspire Russian patriotism, a counterattack was a reasonable response to Kerensky’s offensive.

However, the fact is that the communication channels between Lenin and Berlin did exist and their use would be a logical development of the financial links, since this would facilitate the target of seizing power.  There is clear proof in the German documents that Parvus was in regular contact with the Foreign Office and even with Zimmermann himself.  It is a matter of record that Parvus was closely connected with Jacob Fürstenberg, who, again without question, was in communication with Lenin and Kozlovsky.

Even more significant is the admission by the German socialist historian Gustav Mayer in his book Erinnerungen that in Sweden Mayer acted as a link between Fürstenberg and Karl Radek—whom he used to meet in their seaside villa at Neglinge—and the German authorities.  Furthermore, he reported direct to Berlin—personally to Diego von Bergen, the senior official in charge of political subversion in Russia.2

If Lenin had known that a German counterattack was scheduled for July 16, it would explain his strange departure from the city on July 12 for the rest he so desperately needed.  For with a Bolshevik bid for power timed for the reaction to this offensive, he knew he had time for relaxation before he would need to return to Petersburg to direct the rising.  The other party leaders, he probably believed, could keep the party under control without his assistance for the few days before the plan went into operation—and he had reason to believe this.  Had not the canceled demonstration on June 10 proved that although the militants might fight against the party’s orders, they would in the ultimate obey them?

The Bolshevik plan to hold back the uprising until the humiliation of Kerensky’s failed offensive was truly established is well recorded—notably by Stalin in his account of the July Days at the Sixth Party Congress in August—though not, of course, that Lenin had any prior knowledge from Berlin.

Kerensky, however, also concluded in his memoirs—and in an attacking speech in November in the Mariinsky Palace—that the German counterattack was planned in collusion with Lenin.  As a theory it had some logic, for although the main German counterattack did not take place until July 19, General Ludendorff has confirmed that it was scheduled for July 16—when the rising in Petersburg started—but postponed owing to bad weather.

Kerensky saw the plan as a simultaneous attack on two fronts—from within and from without—and although it can be argued that as a participant he was a prime source, it still does not conform with Lenin’s plan to exploit the humiliation of the failure of the Russian Army, since for this he needed to wait.  Also, the desperate efforts of the party leaders to stop the rising—which are clearly recorded—and the sheer muddle in which they found themselves make Kerensky’s theory untenable.

However, what could explain these efforts and confusion of the Central Committee was the simple fact that the impatient militants, unaware of secret plans with the Germans, if there were any, set off the uprising too soon—and thereby created disaster.  Lenin’s belief that they would ultimately obey party orders was wrong.  He had lost control.  So when he insisted in the Bonch-Bruevich dacha that early morning that the timing was “absolutely wrong,” he meant that his whole strategy had been ruined.

As they traveled by droshky to Mustiamiaki Station on their way back to Petersburg, Lenin was in the position of a field general who knew that his troops had been committed to the wrong battle plan, but who had no way of withdrawing the orders to attack.


The crisis, as Lenin was now aware, had begun to emerge three days before, on July 14—ironically within the one regiment in which the Bolsheviks had their greatest support, the First Machine Gunners.  A section of the regiment had been ordered to the front.  The men refused to go and were demanding an uprising to overthrow the government.

When the situation was reported to the party leaders in the Kshesinskaya Mansion, they ordered the MO to stifle the movement.  At that stage it seemed easily controllable, seemed no more than an example of the militancy that the party was having to restrain all the time in the restless city.

The leader of this mutiny, however, was a Bolshevik—a hothead named Lieutenant A. Semashko—and he had a lot of sympathizers among the MO leaders.  “This time there is no stopping them,” Semashko assured Nevsky, who, as the party’s ace troubleshooter, had been sent to talk the soldiers out of their plan.  But Semashko was certainly not trying to stop them.  Nor did Nevsky.  When he addressed the machine gunners, he paid lip service to the party line, but, as he admitted later, he spoke in such a way that “only a fool could come to the conclusion that he should not demonstrate.”

The crisis came on July 16.  Throughout the morning and early afternoon, under Semashko’s urging, machine gunners toured the factories and the barracks of the other regiments throughout the city asking for their support.  One group took a boat out to Kronstadt to urge the sailors to join them.  Trucks with guns mounted were on the move throughout Petersburg.  The regiment took possession of the Finland Station, set up roadblocks on the Troitsky and Liteiny bridges, the main arteries from the industrial areas on the north side of the city, and patrolled the Nevsky Prospect.  Men in one truck, bearing a flag lettered THE FIRST BULLET FOR KERENSKY, went in search of the War Minister.  But he had just left the Mariinsky Palace on his way to the front, where danger of a German counterattack was imminent.3  Only minutes after his departure, his pursuers roared into the forecourt of the Baltic Station to discover that they were too late.

At two thirty in the afternoon, most of the Central Committee were in the Bolshevik rooms in the Tauride Palace when news of the rising reached them.  Immediately, they took action to stop the crisis.  Formally, the Central Committee issued an order to the soldiers not to demonstrate.  Hurriedly, Kamenev and Zinoviev drafted an appeal for that night’s Pravda urging the masses to reject the machine gunners’ summons.  Stalin hurried to a meeting of the Soviet Central Executive Committee and insisted that the party’s declared policy to curb the uprising should be read into the record.  But the delegates mocked the grim mustached Georgian.  Often enough, they had read Pravda and Soldatskaya Pravda in which an uprising had been openly discussed.  To them the Bolsheviks were just being devious as usual.

Nothing the party leaders did had any effect.  Raskolnikov telephoned from Kronstadt to ask for orders.  When Kamenev told him firmly that he was to stop the sailors from coming into the city, he said he would do his best but he doubted if he would be successful.

At eight o’clock that night, the machine gunners—led despite party orders by Lieutenant Semashko—started marching toward the city center.

On the way the procession massed in front of the Kshesinskaya Mansion, where an action committee was trying to decide what to do as reports came in from all over the city.  Sverdlov addressed the troops from the balcony and urged them to stay on the north side of the river.  He was followed by Podvoisky and Nevsky, who went through the motions of appealing to them to stop the demonstration.  “That’s enough talking,” cried out one soldier.  “Now it’s time for action.”  And they marched off, their band playing the “Internationale,” toward the Troitsky Bridge.

In the Tauride Palace, Kamenev knew that there was no way to stop the processions now reported to be approaching from several directions, so he attempted a skillful ploy to give respectability to the crisis and protect the party from the violent backlash that would come if it was forced to assume the leadership of the movement.  He made a desperate plea to the Soviet to take over the demonstration and guide it into proper channels.  But the Menshevik and SR leaders declined to help Kamenev out of the predicament they believed to have been created by the militancy of Bolshevik propaganda.

With thousands of troops and workers swarming into the city center, there was bound to be serious trouble.  A battle began in the Nevsky Prospect.  Marksmen in the doorways and attics fired into the crowds of marchers.  The troops and Red Guards retaliated.  “Fighting in the streets is panicky business,” wrote reporter Albert Rhys Williams.  “At night, with bullets spitting from hidden loopholes, from roofs above and cellars below . . . the crowd stampeded back and forth, fleeing from a hail of bullets in one street only to plunge into leaden gusts sweeping through the next.  Three times that night our feet slipped in blood on the pavement.  Down the Nevsky was blazed a train of shattered windows and looted shops. . . .”

By midnight the streets surrounding the Tauride Palace were packed with excited soldiers and workers.  Several Soviet leaders made speeches in an attempt to calm the crowd.  Trotsky and Zinoviev addressed them, too.  But they did not go home.  They stayed—a great mass of faces in the darkness lit by flaming torches and the lights of the palace.

After midnight, in the Bolshevik rooms on the first floor, the Central Committee was still trying to find a way out of the impasse.  Trotsky was there, too, together with two of the leaders of his small party, Uritsky and Lunacharsky.  Kamenev argued that it would be fatal for the party to assume the leadership—but eventually there was no alternative.

Raskolnikov phoned again from Kronstadt to say that he had failed to stop the sailors.  Ten thousand of them would be arriving in the city the next morning.  Almost at the same moment that Zinoviev was speaking to him on the phone, news reached them that a procession of 30,000 men, women and children from the vast Putilov works in the Narva District were approaching the palace.  They, too, had been fired on.  They swarmed into the gardens at the rear of the palace.  Many lay down on the ground, vowing not to leave until the Soviet assumed power.

Reluctantly, the Central Committee decided that the party had to take over the leadership of the movement and organize a peaceful demonstration for the next day.

The new decision, reached at 2 A.M., required a quick change of plans.  It was too late to reset the appeal not to demonstrate that Kamenev and Zinoviev had written for Pravda, for the presses were due to start running.  So the printers just broke out the matrix, leaving a large blank white space on the paper’s front page that testified to the party’s indecision.4

At last, now that the decision was taken, the Central Committee decided to send for Lenin.  They had not done so earlier no doubt because their major problem in dealing with the leaders of the Soviet Bolsheviks had been one of credibility.  No one believed the Bolsheviks had not inspired the crisis.  The fact that Lenin was out of the city was the one factor that supported the Bolshevik leaders’ plea of innocence.  For would they mount an uprising without Lenin’s being present to direct it?




1 Main sources :  As for Chapters 9 and 11.  Also, Erich Ludendorff, My War Memories.

2 M. Futrell, The Northern Underground, 222.

3 Kerensky states in his memoirs that he left because the Germans broke the Russian line on July 16.  Ludendorff in his memoirs asserts the attack was not made until July 19.  Something menacing at the front, however, clearly made Kerensky’s presence as War Minister necessary.

4 Some historians, including Sukhanov, have stated that what was cut out of Pravda was a call to a peaceful demonstration—i.e., a stepping down from the leadership in fear of what they had started.  It is clear, however, from party sources that what was cut out was an order not to demonstrate.  See Rabinowitch’s Prelude to Revolution.