Landschlacht, Switzerland, 31 August 2017
It is with great fascination I read of the events of the Russian Revolution and the role that Switzerland played in it.
I have visited exhibits in Zürich`s Landesmuseum and have photographed the outside of the residence where Lenin lived during his time in that city.
I have always found it curious that the man so responsible for so much bloodshed and suffering in the name of communism once called neutral Switzerland “home”.
The concept of neutrality is an interesting idea, in that those who claim to be neutral are supposedly not acting for any particular side except one´s own.
Switzerland defines neutrality for itself as taking no one`s side in military conflicts between nations.
But how truly neutral is Switzerland?
Is the manufacture and sale of weapons to other nations “neutral”?
Is the sheltering of political or intellectual leaders out of favour with their homelands “neutral”?
Is the storage of wealth regardless of how that wealth was acquired “neutral”?
Is the refusal to take a side despite the possible consequences of the “wrong” side winning “neutral”?
This year marks the centennial of the beginning of the Russian Revolution.
“If one had to pick the single event which has shaped 20th century history and our world in the early years of the 21st, this must be it.
The Revolution put in power the totalitarian communism that eventually ruled 1/3 of the human race, stimulated the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and the Second World War and created the great enemy the West faced for the forty-year Cold War balance of terror.
It is hard to think of another example where the events of a few years, concentrated in one country, and mostly in one city, have had such vast historical consequences.”
(Tony Breton, editor, Historically Inevitable?: Turning Points of the Russian Revolution)
That Russians were enduring severe living conditions that desperately cried out for change and reform is unquestionable.
That the change became so bloody and tragic lies primarily on the shoulders on one man whom the Swiss sheltered and the Germans financed.
On Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, a small, bald Russian with a red goatee beard boarded a train in Zürich where he had been living in exile to travel to Russia to begin a Revolution that would transform the world.
His name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov or Lenin, and he would become the founder of an authoritarian regime responsible for political repression and mass killings done in the name of socialism and the championing of the working class.
Above: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin (1870 – 1924)
Had Switzerland not granted asylum to Lenin would he have still engineered the Russian Revolution?
Had Germany not assisted Lenin, an enemy alien, in entering and travelling across their territory, would he have been forced to remain in exile in Switzerland?
How did a Russian end up exiled in Switzerland?
Why did Germany assist him in returning back to Russia?
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born on 22 April 1870 in Simbirsk.
He was the third child of six surviving children of Ilya Nikolayevich Ulyanov, a teacher and later a director of schools, and Maria Alexandrovna Blank.
Both his parents were well-educated and were considered well-to-do members of the middle class.
His family gave him the childhood nickname of “Volodya”.
Vladimir showed already in his youth that he had an extremely competitive nature and could be destructive.
A keen sportsman, Vladimir spent much of his free time outdoors or playing chess and excelled in school.
His father died of a brain haemorrhage in January 1886 when Vladimir was 16.
Vladimir´s behaviour became erratic and confrontational.
At the time, Lenin`s elder brother Alexander – whom Vladimir affectionately knew as “Sasha” – was studying at Saint Petersburg University.
Involved in political agitation against the absolute monarchy of Tsar Alexander III, Sasha studied the writings of banned leftists and organised anti-government protests.
Above: Russian Tsar Alexander III (1885 – 1881)
Sasha joined a revolutionary cell determined to assassinate the Tsar and was selected to construct a bomb.
Before the attack could take place the conspirators were arrested and tried and in May 1886 Sasha was executed by hanging.
Despite the emotional trauma of his father´s and his brother´s death, Vladimir continued studying at Simbirsk Classical Gimnazia (equivalent to High School), graduating with honours.
He decided to study law at Kazan University.
In Kazan, Vladimir joined a Zemlyachestvo, a student´s society, and in December 1887 he took part in a demostration against government restrictions that banned student societies.
The police arrested Vladimir and accused him of being a ringleader in the demonstration.
He was expelled from the University and exiled to his family´s estate in Kokushkino.
There Vladimir read voraciously, becoming enamoured with Nikolay Chernyshesky´s 1863 pro-revolutionary novel, What Is to Be Done.
Above: Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828 – 1889)
Vladimir´s mother, Maria, was concerned by her son´s radicalisation and convinced the Interior Ministry to allow him to return to Kazan but not the University.
On Vladimir`s return to Kazan, he joined Nikolai Fedoseev´s revolutionary circle, through which he discovered Karl Marx´s Das Kapital.
Above: Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)
Marx argued that society developed in stages, that this development resulted from class struggle and that capitalist society would ultimately give way to socialist and then communist society.
Wary of Vladimir´s Marxist views, Maria bought her son a country estate in the village of Alakaevka in the hope that he would turn his attention to agriculture.
Above: Maria Alexandrovna Blank, Lenin´s mother (1885 – 1916)
But he had little interest in farm management.
In September 1889, the Ulyanov family moved to the city of Samara Oblast, where Vladimir joined Alexei Sklyarenko´s socialist discussion group.
There Vladimir produced a Russian translation of German-born Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel´s The Communist Manifesto.
In May 1890, Maria persuaded the authorities to allow Vladimir to take his legal exams externally at the University of St. Petersburg, passing the exams with honours.
Above: Coat of Arms of St. Petersburg University
Vladimir remained in Samara for several years, working first as a legal assistant for a regional court and then for a local lawyer.
He devoted much time to radical politics, formulating how Marxism applied to Russia.
In late 1893, Vladimir moved to St. Petersburg, working as a barrister´s assistant while rising to a senior position in a Marxist revolutionary cell that called itself the “Social Democrats” after the Marxist Social Democratic Party of Germany.
By late 1894, Vladimir was leading a Marxist workers´ circle, had begun a romantic relationship with Nadezhda “Nadya” Krupskaya, a schoolteacher, and authored a political tract.
Above: Nadezhda “Nadya” Krupskaya (1869 – 1939)
Vladimir hoped to cement connections between his Social Democrats and the Emanicipation of Labour, a group of Russian emigrés based in Switzerland.
He visited Geneva to meet Emanicipation members Georgi Plekhanov and Pavel Axelrod, and then proceeded to Paris to meet Karl Marx´s son-in-law Paul Lafarge and to research the Paris Commune of 1871, which Vladimir considered an early prototype for a proleterian government.
Above: Barricade on Rue Voltaire, Paris, during the Paris Commune government of 18 March to 28 May 1871)
Financed by his mother, Vladimir stayed in a Swiss health spa (St. Moritz?) before travelling to Berlin, where he studied for six weeks at the Staatsbibliothek and met the Marxist activist Wilhelm Liebknecht.
Above: Berlin State Library facade
Returning to Russia with a stash of illegal revolutionary publications, Vladimir travelled to various cities distributing literature to striking workers.
While involved in producing a news sheet, Rabochee delo (“the workers´ cause”), Vladimir was among 40 activists arrested in St. Petersburg and charged with sedition.
Refused legal representation or bail, Vladimir denied all charges against him but remained imprisoned for a year before sentencing.
In February 1897, Vladimir was sentenced without trial to three years exile in eastern Siberia.
He was granted a few days in St. Petersburg to put his affairs in order and used this time to meet with the Social Democrats, who had renamed themselves the League of Struggle for the Emanicipation of the Working Class.
Above: The League of Struggle for the Emanicipation of the Working Class, 1897 (Lenin is in the centre of the photograph.)
His journey to eastern Siberia took 11 weeks.
Deemed only a minor threat to the government, Vladimir was exiled to a peasant´s hut in Shushenskoye where he was kept under police surveillance.
He was nevertheless permitted to correspond with other revolutionaries, many who visited him, and permitted to go on trips to swim in the Yenisei River and to hunt duck and snipe.
In May 1898 Nadya joined Vladimir in exile, having been arrested for organising a strike.
They married in a Shushenskoye church on 10 July 1898.
After their exile, Vladimir and Nadya settled in Pskov in early 1900.
There he began raising funds for a newspaper, Iskra (“spark”), as a new organ of the Russian Marxist Party, now calling itself the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP).
In July 1900, Vladimir left Russia.
In Switzerland he met other Russian Marxists and at a conference in Corsier-sur-Vevey (birthplace of Swiss architect Eugene Jost and final burial site of English actors Charlie Chaplin and James Mason, as well as the present day headquarters of the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles – the international governing body for amateur wrestling) they agreed to launch Iskra from Munich.
Vladimir and Nadya relocated to Munich in September 1900.
Containing contributions from prominent European Marxists, Iskra was smuggled into Russia, becoming the country´s most successful underground publication for 50 years.
Vladimir adopted his pseudonym “Lenin” in December 1901.
Under this pen-name, Lenin published the political pamphlet What Is to Be Done in 1902, his most influential publication dealing with Lenin´s thoughts on the need of a vanguard party to lead the proletarian revolution.
To evade the Bavarian police, Lenin moved to London with Iskra in April 1902, there becoming friends with fellow Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky.
In London, Lenin fell ill with erysipelas and was unable to take a leading role in the publication of Iskra, which in his absence moved its base of operations to Geneva.
(Erysipelas, also known as “red skin”, “holy fire” or “St. Anthony`s fire”, is an acute infection with symptoms that include high fever, body tremors, chills, fatigue, headaches, vomiting and a skin rash that favours the legs, toes, arms, fingers and face.)
The second RSDLP Congress was held in London in July 1903.
A schism emerged between Lenin`s supporters and those of Julius Martov.
Martov argued that Party members should be able to express themselves independently of the Party leadership, while Lenin emphasized the need for a strong leadership with total control over the Party.
Martov`s supporters called themselves the Men`sheviki (the minority) while Lenin`s supporters called themselves the Bol´sheviki (the majority).
The Bolsheviks accused the Mensheviks of being opportunists and reformists who lacked discipline, while the Mensheviks accused Lenin of being a despot and autocrat.
Enraged at the Mensheviks, Lenin resigned from Iskra.
The stress made Lenin ill and to recuperate he went on a hiking holiday in rural Switzerland.
By spring 1904, the Bolshevik faction grew in strength to comprise the entire RSDLP Central Committee.
In December, the RSDLP founded the newspaper Vpered (“Forward”).
In January 1905, the Bloody Sunday Massacre of protestors in St. Petersburg sparked a period of civil unrest known as the Revolution of 1905.
Above: “Bloody Sunday”, 22 January 1905, Father Gapon leading protestors at Narva Gate, St. Petersburg: Tsarist troops kill 500
Lenin urged Bolsheviks to take a greater role in the unrest, encouraging violent insurrection, mass terror and the expropriation of gentry land.
In response to the Revolution of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II accepted a series of liberal reforms in his October Manifesto, after which Lenin felt it safe to return to St. Petersburg.
Above: Russian Tsar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918)
Joining the editorial board of Noyava Zhizn (“New Life”), a radical legal newspaper, Lenin used it to discuss issues facing the RSDLP.
Lenin encouraged the Party to seek out a much wider membership and advocated the continual escalation of violent confrontation, believing both to be necessary for a successful revolution.
Recognising that membership fees and donations from a few wealthy sympathisers were insufficient to finance the Bolsheviks´ activities, Lenin endorsed the idea of robbing post offices, railway stations and banks.
Under the lead of Leonid Krasin, a group of Bolsheviks began carrying out such criminal actions.
Although Lenin briefly supported the idea of reconciliation between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, his advocacy of violence and robbery was condemned by the Mensheviks at the 4th Party Congress held in Stockholm in April 1906.
Lenin was involved in setting up a Bolshevik centre in Kuokkala, Finland, before the Bolsheviks regained dominance of the RSDLP at its 5th Congress, held in London in May 1907.
(13 June 1907, Tiflis, Georgia
The two heavily armed carriages rattled slowly into the central square of Tiflis (today`s Tbilisi), the state capital of Georgia.
One contained the State Bank`s cashier, the other was packed with soldiers and police.
There were also numerous outriders on horseback, their pistols cracked and ready.
It was shortly before 11 am and there was good reason for the security: the carriages were transporting more than 1 million roubles to the new State Bank.
Josef Djugashvili – better known as “Stalin” – one of the most audacious leaders of Georgia`s criminal underworld – was about to pull off a dazzling heist.
Above: Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvdi, aka Stalin (1878 – 1953)
The money was urgently needed to finance the Bolsheviks´ political movement and Lenin had given his approval.
The robbery was meticulously planned.
20 heavily armed brigands loitered in Tiflis´ central square, awaiting the arrival of the carriages.
Lookouts were posted on all the street corners and rooftops.
Another band of men was hiding inside one of the taverns close to the square.
All were watching and waiting.
The carriages swung into the square as expected.
One of the gangsters lowered his rolled newspaper as a sign to his fellow brigands.
Seconds later, there was a blinding flash and deafening roar as Stalin`s band hurled their hand grenades at the horses.
The unfortunate animals were torn to pieces, along with the policemen and soldiers.
In a matter of seconds, the peaceful square was turned into a scene of carnage.
The cobblestones were splattered with blood, guts and human limbs.
Six people were killed by the grenades and gunfire and 40 were wounded.
None of the gangsters was killed.
The stolen money was taken to a safe house where it was quickly sewn into a mattress and later smuggled out of Georgia.
Neither Stalin nor any of the others involved in the heist were ever caught.
It was the perfect robbery.
But the stolen roubles included a large number of 500-rouble notes whose serial numbers were known to the authorities, making it impossible to cash them.)
(Giles Milton, History´s Unknown Chapters: When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank)
As the Tsarist government cracked down on opposition – both by disbanding Russia´s legislative assembly, the Duma, and by ordering its secret police, the Okhrana, to arrest revolutionaries – Lenin fled Finland for Switzerland.
There he tried to exchange banknotes stolen in Tiflis that had identifiable serial numbers on them.
Alexander Bogdanov and other prominent Bolsheviks decided to relocate the Bolshevik centre to Paris.
Although Lenin disagreed, he moved to Paris in December 1908.
Lenin hated Paris, calling it “a foul hole”, and while he was there he sued a motorist who knocked him off his bicycle.
In May 1909 Lenin lived briefly in London where he used the British Museum Reading Room to continue his writing.
Above: The British Museum, London
In August 1910, Lenin attended the 8th Congress in Copenhagen, following this with a holiday in Stockholm with his mother.
With his wife and sisters, Lenin then returned to Paris.
Here Lenin became a close friend to the French Bolshevik Inessa Armand, with whom it has been suggested he had an extramarital affair from 1910 to 1912.
Above: Inessa Armand (1874 – 1920)
At a June 1911 Paris meeting of the RSDLP Central Committee, it was decided to move their focus of operations back to Russia, ordering the closing of the Paris centre and its newspaper Proletari.
Seeking to rebuild his influence in the Party, Lenin arranged for a Party Conference in Prague in January 1912, but he was heavily criticised for his divisive tendencies and failed to boost his status within the Party.
Moving to Krakow, Poland, Lenin used Jagellonian University`s library to conduct research, while staying close in contact with the RSDLP, convincing the Duma`s Bolshevik members to split from their parliamentary alliance with the Mensheviks.
Due to the ailing health of both Lenin and his wife, they moved to the rural town of Bialy Dunajec, before heading to Bern for Nadya to have surgery on her goiter.
Before the hostilities of World War One broke out, Lenin and Nadya were living in Poronin, a peaceful hamlet at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland, then Austrian controlled.
It was as close as a political exile could get to home, with Russian territory only a little to the north.
Although Lenin always travelled frequently – a Party leader had to attend key meetings of Europe`s socialist elite – he had lived happily in this backwater, working on theoretical questions and amusing himself by taking long walks in the nearby woods to pick mushrooms.
The summer of 1914 had been a bitter one for the Russian Tsar: there had been strikes in Baku and barricades were up across St. Petersburg.
On 6 August 1914, Austria declared war on Russia.
All over Europe, thousands of people found themselves suddenly in the wrong place.
As Russians, Lenin and Nadya had become hostile aliens in Austrian territory.
The gendarmes turned up at their door soon after dawn.
Barging inside, they searched the house, turning up a lot of papers and discovering a loaded Browning pistol.
The gendarmes had their proof that Lenin was in Austrian territory to spy.
They took him away and by evening Lenin was sitting in a prison cell in the local town of Novy Targ.
It took a lot of cabling and negotiation, but the authorities agreed to release Lenin once they had become convinced that there was no Austrian alive who hated Russia`s tsarist government as heartedly as Lenin did.
The Lenins had to move.
They had considered Sweden, but they could not cross Germany, Austria´s ally, to get there.
In any case, Lenin liked Switzerland.
He had a good network of contacts there.
He could afford the food and rent.
He enjoyed its lakes and mountains and the opportunities they gave for walking, swimming and loafing.
And while wartorn Europe became increasingly hungry, neutral Switzerland remained a land of milk, cheese and soft white bread and chocolate.
And, though expensive, there was no other country in the world where he preferred to go if he needed medical treatment.
From 1914 to 1916, the Lenins lived in Bern, before relocating to Zürich where he would remain until Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 when he would board a sealed train and assume the reins of the Russian Revolution.
Above: Lenin, Switzerland 1916
In Switzerland, Lenin would assume the mantle of leadership over the Bolshevik movement and would gain recognition as a force capable of tearing down the Tsar.
It was in Switzerland, where this baldheaded, red goateed, stocky, sturdy person, ordinary in appearance but with eyes and movements of a hate-filled political zealot, would rise phoenix-like from relative obscurity as a political refugee to become the revered and feared symbol of Russia and international communism.
The story will begin with a group of bird watchers by a tiny quiet Swiss lake…
(To be continued)
Above: Flag of the former Soviet Union
Sources: Wikipedia; Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia; Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia, Dominic Lieven; Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917, Helen Rappaport; Lenin on the Train, Catherine Merridale; Historically Inevitable?: Turning Points in the Russian Revolution, edited by Tony Brenton; History´s Unknown Chapters: When Churchill Slaughtered Sheep and Stalin Robbed a Bank, Giles Milton; Only in Zürich: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects, Duncan J.D. Smith.