Karl Radek: On Lenin's Sealed Train
Posted on 22nd March 2021
In February 1917, serious disorder in Russia resulted in the abdication of the Tsar and the formation of a Provisional Government but there was no desire on the part of those now in charge to change the structures of power or fundamentally re-order society and they had vowed to continue the war.
Germany was desperate to end the war in the East to free the troops for a major offensive in the West but how? There was a way, to introduce what Churchill would later describe as a ‘plague bacillus,’ into Russia – Revolution.
Early on the morning of 3 April, 1917, Vladimir Lenin and a small number of fellow Bolsheviks boarded a train in Switzerland bound for Germany. Once there they would switch to a sealed train provided by the Government for the journey to Russia.
When, after the February Revolution in 1917, Vladimir Ilyich became convinced that the Entente powers would never allow him and his comrades to make the journey through to Russia, there were still two possibilities available: either we could try to travel through Germany illegally, or we could travel with the knowledge of the authorities.
Crossing illegally entailed the greatest risk, firstly because we could very easily be detained for a long time and also because we found it hard to distinguish between the traffickers whose services we should require and German government spies. If the Bolsheviks had to come to an agreement with the German government about their journey across the country, then this had to happen in a completely open fashion, in order to lessen the danger which this whole affair might conjure up against Lenin as leader of the proletarian revolution. Hence we were all in favour of an open agreement. On behalf of Vladimir Ilyich I turned, in association with Paul Levi, who at the time was a member of the Spartacus group, and who was temporarily staying in Switzerland, to the representative of the Frankfurter Zeitung, who was known to us. If I am not mistaken, it was a Dr Deinhard. Through him we asked the German Ambassador Romberg whether Germany would allow émigrés returning to Russia to pass through its territory. In turn, Romberg enquired of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin and received a reply that was in principle favourable. Thereupon we elaborated the conditions on which we were willing to undertake the journey through Germany. The main conditions were as follows: the German government should allow all applicants to pass through, without asking for their names; those travelling through should enjoy the protection of extraterritoriality and nobody would be entitled to enter into negotiations of any sort with them during their journey. With these conditions we sent the Swiss Socialist deputy Robert Grimm, the secretary of the Zimmerwald Union, and our political ally and comrade Platten to see Romberg. After the meeting with the German Ambassador we met in the trade-union premises. Grimm related how surprised the Ambassador had been, when they had read out to him our conditions for the journey. “Forgive me,” said the German Ambassador, “but it seems to me that is not I who am requesting permission to travel through Russia, but Mr Ulyanov and the others who are asking me for permission to travel through Germany. Here it is we who are in the position to impose conditions.” Nonetheless he passed on our demands to Berlin. We continued to send comrade Platten to the following negotiations. Vladimir Ilyich had insisted on this for the following reasons: in conversation Robert Grimm had let slip the remark that he would prefer to carry on the negotiations alone, since Platten was certainly a good comrade but a very bad diplomat. “And nobody can tell what may yet result from these negotiations.” Vladimir Ilyich looked carefully at Grimm, squinted with one eye, and when he had gone away, said: “Whatever happens, we must keep Grimm away from these discussions. Out of personal ambition he is capable of starting any kind of negotiations about peace with Germany, and thus he could involve us in some embarrassing business.” So we thanked Grimm for his services, and explained to him that he was overburdened with work and we didn’t want to harass him. Ilyich’s suspicion, as is well known, turned out to be completely correct. Grimm, who continued the negotiations in the name of Martov group, had undoubtedly already in Switzerland engaged in negotiations about conditions for peace, and later from Petrograd he sent communications about the prospects for peace from “his” government, which the Swiss government then probably passed on to the Germans. The attempts to represent him as a German spy or agent are absurd. He wanted to play an important role; Ilyich had already considered that such ambition was the principal motive of his activity. The Germans hoped that in Russia the Bolsheviks would act as opponents of the war and declared themselves in agreement with our conditions. I recommend those gentlemen who are still raising an outcry against the Bolsheviks on this account to read Ludendorff’s memoirs, for he is still tearing his hair out over the fact that he let the Bolsheviks through; he has finally grasped that in so doing he was not performing a service for German imperialism, but for the world revolution.
So we set off and travelled in a Swiss train as far as Schaffhausen, where we had to change into the German train. There was an anxious moment which has remained in my memory. German officers were waiting for us and directed us into the customs hall where the number of living items of ammunition which they were transporting to Russia had to be established. On the basis of our agreement they were not entitled to ask for our papers. In the customs hall they kept men and women separated, so that on the way it was impossible for one of us to vanish or to substitute a Russian Bolshevik for a German maiden, in order to plant the seeds of the revolution. (I very much wanted to do so, since I as an Austrian could have done so quite legitimately, but Ilyich was against it.) We waited in silence and in a very anxious mood. Lenin stood – surrounded by the comrades – peacefully against the wall. We didn’t want them to keep him under observation.
When we finally settled into the coach, we began to have trouble with Vladimir Ilyich. We put him and Nadezhda Konstantinovna in a separate compartment – at which he protested – so that he would be able to work in peace. But during the journey we didn’t let him get much work done! In the neighbouring compartment were comrade Safarov and his wife, comrade Olga Ravich, Inessa Armand and I. At this time to be sure we were not yet arguing with Safarov about opportunism, but all the same we made a lot of noise in the compartment. Late in the evening Ilyich rushed into our compartment, to remove comrade Olga Ravich, because he thought she and I were mainly responsible for the noise. In order to establish the truth before history and the Control Commission, I must here testify that comrade Olga has always been a serious party member, and that it was I alone who was telling anecdotes and was therefore guilty of making a noise. So comrade Olga left our compartment in splendid isolation.
Ilyich worked throughout the journey. He read, made entries in notebooks, but also concerned himself with organisational questions. Admittedly the matter is a very delicate one, but I shall nonetheless recount it. There was a constant conflict between the smokers and the non-smokers about a certain location in the carriage. We could not smoke in the compartment, because of the little four-year-old Robert and because of Ilyich, who would not tolerate it. Hence the smokers tried to convert a room which normally served other purposes into a smokers’ lounge. Hence outside this room there was a permanent crowd of bickering people. So Ilyich cut a piece of paper in two and distributed permits. For every three tickets of category A for the legitimate use of the premises there was one smoker’s ticket. This naturally evoked further discussions about the value of human needs, and we acutely regretted that comrade Bukharin was not with us, as a specialist in Böhm Bawerk’s theory about marginal utility.
I think it was in Karlsruhe that Platten informed us that a member of the German trade-union leadership, Janson, was on the train, and that he brought us greetings from Legien and the German trade-union leaders. Ilyich instructed us to tell him to go to “the devil’s grandmother” and refused to meet him. Since Janson knew me, and since I as an Austrian was travelling as a stowaway, the comrades were afraid that it might become known that I was travelling with them. Clearly it was my fate from the very beginning to cause difficulties for comrade Chicherin in his diplomatic relations with Germany. So I was hidden in the luggage compartment and left with a supply of about fifty newspapers, so that I would keep quiet and not cause a scandal. Poor Janson was sent by Platten into the carriage of the German officers who were accompanying us. Despite this snub he showed great concern for us, bought the German newspapers for us at every station, and was offended when Platten reimbursed him for them.
In Frankfurt the train stopped for a long time, and the platform was sealed off by the military. Suddenly the cordon was broken, as German soldiers came rushing up to us. They had heard that Russian revolutionaries, who were in favour of peace, were travelling through. Each of them held a jug of beer in both hands. Excitedly they asked us whether and when peace was coming. This mood told us more about the situation than was useful for the German government. The incident was all the more characteristic, since the soldiers were all Scheidemanns. After this we saw nobody else on the journey. In Berlin the platform was cordoned off by the police. So we continued as far as Sassnitz, where we boarded the Swedish steamer. Here we were required to comply with the usual formalities and were asked to fill in a questionnaire. Ilyich suspected a trap and advised us to use pseudonyms, which later led to a comic misunderstanding. The steamer’s radio got a query from our comrade Ganetsky at Trelleborg, as to whether there was an Ulyanov on board. The captain knew from the questionnaire that there was no Ulyanov in the party, but just in case he asked whether there might not perhaps be a Mr Ulyanov among us. Ilyich hesitated for a long time, then admitted that it was he; Ganetsky was now informed of our approach.
In Trelleborg we made a very “striking” impression. Ganetsky invited us all to supper which in the Swedish fashion involved “Smörgas”. We poor fellows, who in Switzerland had been accustomed to have no more than a herring for our dinner, looked at this enormous table with innumerable hors d’oeuvre: we rushed at it like a swarm of grasshoppers and completely emptied the table, to the astonishment of the waiters, who were used to seeing only civilised people at the Smörgas table. Vladimir Ilyich ate nothing. He tried to find out from Ganetsky everything he could about the Russian revolution – but Ganetsky knew nothing. The next morning we arrived in Stockholm. Swedish comrades, journalists and photographers were waiting for us. At the head of the Swedish comrades was Dr Karleson in a top-hat, an inflated chatterer who now, fortunately, has returned from the Communist Party to Branting’s camp. But at that time he greeted us as the most solid of the Swedish Left Socialists and took the chair together with the honourable and sentimental mayor of Stockholm, Lindhagen, at the breakfast which was given in our honour (Sweden is distinguished from all other countries by the fact that at every opportunity a breakfast is organised; when the social revolution comes in Sweden, the first thing they will do is give a breakfast in honour of the retiring bourgeoisie, and then a breakfast in honour of the new revolutionary regime). It was probably the sight of our solid Swedish comrades which aroused in us the powerful desire for Ilyich to look something like a human being. We persuaded him to at least buy some new boots. He had travelled in mountain boots with enormous nails. Even if he wanted to ruin the footpaths of the nauseating Swiss bourgeois cities with these boots, we told him, his conscience must forbid him to take these tools of destruction to Petrograd, where perhaps there were no pavements left at all. Together with the Jewish worker Chapin who knew the local customs and conditions, I went with Ilyich to a Stockholm department store. There we bought some shoes for Ilyich, and nagged him to equip himself with other items of clothing. He resisted as best he could, and asked us if we thought he wanted to open a ready-made clothing shop in Petrograd. But finally we prevailed and also provided him with a pair of trousers which I found he was still wearing when I came to Petrograd in October, admittedly in the deformed condition they had acquired under the influence of the Russian Revolution. In Stockholm Parvus tried to meet Lenin as a representative of the central committee of the German Social Democracy, but Ilyich not only refused to meet him, but charged me, Vorovsky and Ganetsky, together with the Swedish comrades to make a formal record of this attempt. The whole day passed in discussions; we went here and there; but before Lenin left another real deliberation took place. The moment of departure was approaching.
Together with the Swedish comrades and a part of the Russian colony in Stockholm we went from the Regina hotel to the station. When our comrades had already boarded the train, one of the Russians took his hat off and made a speech to Lenin. The emotion at the beginning of the speech, in which Lenin was extolled as “our dear leader” caused Lenin to rise angrily, but the speaker assumed the offensive. The purport of what he went on to say was more or less the following: Take care, dear leader, that in Petrograd you don’t arouse any unpleasant disorder. The bewilderment with which Lenin had listened to the first complimentary phrases of the speech mellowed into a sly smile. The train began to move, and for a moment we could still see this smile.
Finally at 11.10 at night on 3 April the Sealed Train pulled into Petrograd’s Finland Station where Lenin was greeted by a crowd of supporters mostly sailors from the Naval Base at Kronstadt and soldiers who had deserted from the front waving placards and cheering wildly. Hoisted onto a nearby Armoured Car Lenin would deliver his famous ‘April Theses’ promising Peace, Land and Bread.
Karl Radek would arrive in Petrograd following the October Revolution that saw the Bolsheviks seize power and soon after join the recently formed Russian Communist Party. He would go on to be a leading party apparatchik and occasional government minister. A victim of the 30’s Show Trials he was sent to a Labour Camp where in May, 1939, he was murdered on the orders of Joseph Stalin.
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