Lenin’s Return to Russia and the Beginning of a New Regime

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Vladimir Lenin, one of the most prominent socialists in the early 1900s, always believed that revolution was the key to establishing socialism. But when the First World War broke out, he was extremely surprised to see his fellow socialists aligning with their governments to vote for war. He was furious with the actions of his comrades and cut ties with them.

A photograph of Vladimir Lenin at his desk.
When news of the revolution reached Lenin in Switzerland, he became quite restless and impatient to return to Russia. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Impact of Russia’s War Efforts

Russia’s war efforts resulted in heavy strains on its society. Almost 12 million soldiers were sent to the war. These soldiers were not equipped to fight in a war and most of them did not even have rifles. The war management was extremely inefficient and angered the people of the state. Some politicians suspected treason, for they could not find a suitable explanation for the inefficiencies in war management. As Russia continued to face one defeat after another, it was clear that the war did not favor them. The Great Retreat of 1915 was a severe blow to Russia’s war efforts. The withdrawal on the Eastern Front in the First World War resulted in the loss of Poland and Galicia. By 1917, the Russians have suffered almost five million casualties — dead, wounded, or missing. Some Russians even blamed Rasputin, the Tsarina’s confidant, for the misfortunes that had befallen their country. Soon the revolution broke out and women protestors took to streets, demanding bread in Petrograd.

Learn more about Vladimir Lenin’s ideas and actions that propelled him to become the first man to bring communist theory into power in 1917.

February Revolution, 1917

In February 1917, the government sent troops to stop the women’s protests. However, in the turn of events that took place, the troops ended up joining the protestors and soon more regiments followed suit. This accelerated the revolution and imperial authority was completely vaporized. Tsar Nicholas II had no choice but to abdicate, ending three centuries of Romanov rule. A provisional government was formed by the Duma parliament that included the Constitutional Democrats and socialists from different factions. The provisional government, however, proved to be restricted toward reform. It argued that everyone had to wait for the election of a proper constituent assembly as fundamental transformations needed legitimacy. As a result, Russia continued its role in the First World War. This led to the emergence of dual power—with the Petrograd Soviet claiming to speak for soviets in the army regiments, in factories, and in the countryside.

Photo showing crowds on street during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
In February 1917, the government sent troops to stop the protests. However, the troops ended up joining the protestors. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Lenin’s Rush to Reach Russia

When news of the revolution reached Vladimir Lenin in Switzerland, he became quite restless and impatient to return to Russia. But, the journey to reach Russia was not easy since Switzerland was surrounded by war-infected countries. Lenin, who was quite desperate to return to his own country, came up with various plans that included a disguise and fake passports among others. None of these plans was successful. But soon, Lenin got an offer from the German Imperial government. The Germans agreed to help Lenin, but they wanted him to convince Russia to leave the war. After much negotiation, an agreement between Lenin and the German Imperial government was finally reached. It was agreed that 32 Russian revolutionaries, including Lenin, would be transported across Germany in a ‘sealed train’. It was agreed that Lenin’s train car would be off-limits to any strangers. This was one of the major turning points of modern history.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Lenin’s Historic Train Ride

Lenin’s return journey to Russia from Zurich started on April 9, 1917. Lenin and his comrades traveled on board a green wooden carriage that had several second-class compartments and two toilets. It was an intense train ride and discipline was severe on the train. Lenin was on a mission and took serious steps to ensure that their plan was not exposed. A German socialist tried to travel in their carriage without detection, but Lenin caught him and threw him off the train. In another instance, Lenin threatened to beat up a different German socialist who wanted to come on board and say hello. Instead of spending his train ride in peace and reflecting on his plans, Lenin spent most of his time working and forming new strategies with his comrades. Lenin forbade celebrations in the carriage and got angry when his comrades joked and laughed. He also forbade smoking in compartments or corridors that proved to be quite difficult for some of his comrades who were chain-smokers. He imposed several rules, including a curfew, and a regimen to introduce order to smoking. Revolutionaries who were chain-smokers made use of the toilets on board, but that posed a problem when another member had to use the toilet urgently. To deal with this problem, Lenin came up with a ticket system.

After three days of an intense train ride through Germany, the revolutionaries finally reached the Baltic Sea at Stralsund and the island of Rügen, to the port of Sassnitz, from where the party boarded a ferry that took them to Sweden. Once they reached neutral Sweden, the revolutionaries could finally relax. Lenin was so eager to reach Russia that he did not take care of his appearance. He dressed shabbily in old clothes. Karl Radek, who traveled with Lenin, was concerned with his state and decided to get him new clothes, shoes, etc. in Stockholm with funds donated to them by some local Russians. However, Lenin had little patience for shopping and told Radek that his main objective of going to Russia was to start a revolution, and thus he was not concerned with his looks.

Vladimir Lenin speaking outside Petrograd station in 1917.
In 1917, Lenin’s supporters lifted him on top of an armored car outside Petrograd station, from where he declared what came to be known as his ‘April Theses’. (Image: Grigory Goldstein (1870-1941)/Public domain)

Even though Karl Radek was a Russian citizen, he decided to stay behind in Sweden instead of continuing with Lenin into Russia. He decided to promote Bolshevism from neutral Sweden. Lenin finally reached Petrograd on April 16, 1917. As he walked out of the station, he saw that many of his followers were waiting for him. The supporters lifted Lenin on top of an armored car, from where Lenin declared what came to be known as his ‘April Theses’—no support for the provisional government, peace, and land! After the October Revolution in the same year, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and started a regime unlike the world had ever seen before.

Learn more about Lenin’s arrival at Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917.

Common Questions about Lenin’s Return to Russia After the First World War

Q: What was the main cause of the February Revolution of 1917?

The poor economic conditions due to Russia’s war efforts were the main cause of the February Revolution of 1917. Social unrest in the state led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.

Q: How did the German Imperial government help Vladimir Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries to return

According to an agreement between Lenin and the German Imperial government, 32 Russian revolutionaries, including Lenin would be transported across Germany in a ‘sealed train’.

Q: When did Lenin start his journey from Zurich to Russia?

On April 9, 1917 Lenin started his journey from Zurich to Russia.

Q: What is Lenin’s ‘April Theses’?

When Lenin reached Petrograd on April 16, 1917, his supporters lifted him on top of an armored car, from where he declared — no support for the provisional government, peace, and land! This was what came to be known as his ‘April Theses‘.

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