Lenin giving a speech in Moscow in 1920.
Lenin giving a speech in Moscow in 1920. Wikimedia

From Zurich’s backstreets to the centre of world revolution

Lenin’s explosive ideology, which would go on to shake the world, was partly concocted in Bern and Zurich. Yet he considered his Swiss comrades social romantics and opportunists.

Helmut Stalder

Helmut Stalder

Helmut Stalder is a historian, publicist and book author specialising in economic, transport and technical history.

As he did every morning, on 15 March 1917, Russian refugee Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, also known as Lenin, put on his threadbare coat and the sturdy shoes that cobbler Titus Kammerer had made for him. He and his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, were living in Kammerer’s home at Spiegelgasse 14, Zurich, as lodgers in a small second-floor room. Downstairs from their lodgings was the Restaurant Jakobsbrunnen, and behind it a courtyard filled with the stench from a neighbouring sausage factory. Krupskaya had just finished washing up in the shared kitchen and was about to accompany Ulyanov to the Zentralbibliothek, the library where the inconspicuous exile had been going to read at 9 o’clock every morning for well over a year. But that day, it wasn’t to be. A Polish comrade from the far left Kegelklub debating society came running from the direction of the Niederdorf district of Zurich’s Old Town to breathlessly announce the latest news: that revolution had broken out in Russia. Lenin was dumbfounded. “For a moment it was like he couldn’t breathe,” Krupskaya wrote in her memoirs.
Lenin and his wife lived in this room on Spiegelgasse in Zurich from 1916.
Lenin and his wife lived in this room on Spiegelgasse in Zurich from 1916. © Anton Krenn / Swiss Foundation for Photography
The pair rushed straight to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung boards at Bellevue where the latest editions were on display. They read the report several times: the day before, after a three-day struggle, the revolutionaries in St. Petersburg had triumphed, Tsar Nicolas II had abdicated, all ministers had been arrested, and twelve members of the Duma had formed a provisional government. Lenin knew straight away that his time had come. In a letter to a friend he wrote: “We are afraid that it will be some time before we succeed in leaving this damned Switzerland.” Associates later recalled how in Switzerland he had felt “completely cut off from Russia; corked up, as if in a bottle” and that all he could think about was getting out of this “blasted country”. That very same day, he started instructing people to investigate options: travelling to Russia via France and England with a “borrowed” Swiss passport or false papers and a wig, or travelling through Germany illegally with the help of a smuggler, or pretending to be a deaf-mute Swede with a fake identity, or taking a plane. He just had to get out of Switzerland to St. Petersburg to turn the bourgeois revolution into a Bolshevik one.

Radicalisation in exile

This was the goal towards which Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov had been working for years. He was born in 1870 in Simbirsk on the Volga river, the son of a school principal and state councillor. When his elder brother was executed for plotting to kill the tsar, Ulyanov joined the Marxist Socialists. Although he had been expelled from the University of Kazan, he was allowed to sit the state law examination. He first came to Switzerland in 1895 for a cure at a sanatorium. There, he rubbed shoulders with Russian émigrés, in particular the Marxist theoretician Georgi Plekhanov, one of his role models at the time. On returning to Russia, Ulyanov was jailed for 15 months for his involvement in revolutionary activities against the tsar and was then sent into exile in Siberia for three years. At the end of his exile in 1900, he travelled around Europe to read, write and campaign, by now having adopted his nom de guerre, Lenin. In 1903 he went to Geneva, and then to Munich, where he published his manifesto What Is To Be Done? and made the case for a tightly organised vanguard party. He then went to London to continue his work, where he made the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ part of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s political manifesto, and positioned his radical Bolsheviks (‘the majority’) against the moderate Mensheviks (‘the minority’). When the first Russian revolution broke out in 1905, he moved back to Russia, before fleeing to Finland in 1907 and then to Geneva in 1908. He worked from Paris for a time, turned up in Poronin near Krakow, and in 1912 helped launch the newspaper Pravda (meaning ‘truth’) while in exile. When the First World War broke out in the late summer of 1914, he was in Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire and immediately regarded as a hostile foreigner. In the end he was allowed to travel to a neutral third country.
The first issue of the newspaper Pravda from May 1912.
The first issue of the newspaper Pravda from May 1912. Wikimedia

“Soaked in petty-bourgeois dullness”

On 5 September 1914, Lenin found himself at the customs post in Buchs (at the Swiss border with Liechtenstein) with Krupskaya and his mother-in-law but without a passport. He was only allowed to enter Switzerland when Socialist leaders Herman Greulich from Zurich and Robert Grimm from Bern put in a good word for him. Lenin moved to Bern, where he was granted asylum against bail but with no other conditions. But things didn’t exactly calm down for the Ulyanovs. In their 17 months living in the Swiss capital, they stayed at four different addresses in the Länggasse neighbourhood: Donnerbühlweg, Distelweg, Waldheimstrasse and Seidenweg. Once, they had to move out because the landlady only wanted tenants who were devout Christians, and another time because they used the electric light in the daytime. “Everything in Switzerland is soaked in a sort of petty-bourgeois dullness,” complained Krupskaya. While Bern possessed many good libraries “the petit bourgeois mentality pervades every aspect of life here”. Lenin recognised the country’s “great political freedom”, its “maximum realised democracy” and its federalist structures. But “he couldn’t escape the feeling that we were cooped up in a petty-bourgeois democratic cage.”
Lenin was an avid visitor to the library in Bern. Lending slip dated 1914.
Lenin was an avid visitor to the library in Bern. Lending slip dated 1914. e-manuscripta
In Bern he organised conspiratorial meetings, put forward theories on the ‘Tasks of revolutionary Social Democracy in the European War’, gave lectures, and took part in conferences. All the while his goal was to rebuild the international socialist movement that had fallen apart at the beginning of the war, and to utilise it for a revolutionary uprising. He had some trouble with the Swiss social democrats. Robert Grimm, the influential politician from Bern, engaged with him but rejected revolutionary violence and the notion of the proletarian dictatorship. Ernst Nobs, on the left of the party at the time, distanced himself from Lenin. Others, such as the National Councillors from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Charles Naine and Ernest Paul Graber, shunned him. Outside of his small circle of followers, he was seen as a “hopeless, obsessive sectarian” and as a “mischief maker and oddball”. Conversely, he considered his Swiss comrades to be pacifists and tame opportunists.

Under the guise of an ornithology society in Zimmerwald

In the autumn of 1915, Lenin recognised a way of asserting his radical line. Grimm was organising an international conference of opposing socialists from all warring nations. On 5 September, 38 representatives from Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Romania, Russia, France, Germany and Switzerland gathered at the Berner Volkshaus, before travelling on to Zimmerwald in horse-drawn carriages. Leon Trotsky later said the delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches. In Zimmerwald they stayed at the Beau-Séjour guest house, under the guise of an ornithology society.
Postcard of Zimmerwald, 1904.
Postcard of Zimmerwald, 1904. Wikimedia
In his opening address, Grimm stated that the goal of the conference was not to create a new international socialist movement, but to reawaken the class struggle “to call on the proletariat to take collective action for peace”. Lenin despised the “social romantics” and “social pacifists”, calling mercilessly instead for a new international movement, which would turn the war against other countries into a civil war against their own governments. However, he and his handful of followers failed to make much of an impact. After much to-ing and fro-ing, a manifesto drafted by Grimm and Trotsky was adopted. Its main crux was a demand for an immediate peace agreement and a call to all socialists to oppose the war. “We call to you across the borders, across the smoking battlefields, across the destroyed cities and villages: proletarians of all countries, unite!” Lenin failed to win much support with his calls for civil war, both in Zimmerwald and at the subsequent conference in Kiental in 1916. However, his star was rising among revolutionary socialists elsewhere in Europe. From then on he called his movement the ‘Zimmerwald Left’, which was synonymous with Bolshevism. Trotsky, who sided with Lenin, later wrote: “In Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action. In a Swiss mountain village, he was laying the cornerstone of the revolutionary International.”

An explosive theory made in Zurich

Lenin moved to Zurich in February 1916. He had started his revolutionary manifesto on imperialism and capitalism in Bern and hoped he would be able to get his hands on the material more quickly in Zurich. In addition, Bern was under the grip of Robert Grimm, who had become the very antithesis of Lenin. Meanwhile, in Zurich there was Fritz Platten, secretary of the Zurich workers’ organisation and supporter of Lenin since Zimmerwald, and Willi Münzenberger, who enjoyed a great deal of influence with the socialist youth. In her memoirs, Krupskaya wrote: “There were a large number of revolutionary-minded young foreigners in Zurich, besides working-class elements; the Social-Democratic Party there was of a more Leftist tendency, and the petty-bourgeois spirit seemed to be less in evidence there.” Lenin was incredibly disciplined, working from morning to evening at the Zentralbibliothek, at the ‘Swiss Social Archives’ on Seilergraben, at the Museumsgesellschaft reading society on Limmatquai, and at the Eintracht union building at Neumarkt. Historian Willi Gautschi considers his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which was published in August 1917, as the “authoritative intellectual weapon of world communism in the battle against the capitalist social and value system.” He says that Lenin penned nearly all the fundamental works on which Bolshevism is based in Switzerland. “It’s no exaggeration to say that the intellectual explosive that was detonated in the October Revolution was made by Lenin in Switzerland and dispersed from there by his supporters.” The Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who himself spent two years in Zurich in the 1970s, also sees Lenin’s period of Swiss exile as “the crucial years in which he laid the groundwork for the Soviet state”.
Cover picture of the Schweizer Illustrierte, dated 15 December 1917.
Cover picture of the Schweizer Illustrierte, dated 15 December 1917. Swiss National Museum
Krupskaya once described Lenin as the “white wolf from the Russian north” who banged his head against the bars of his cage day and night. In March 1917, Lenin was frantically searching for a way to get to Russia so he could put his theory into practice. Then the idea occurred to him to travel legally by train through the German Reich. Grimm tested the diplomatic waters, and Germany showed interest in destabilising Russia by infiltrating it with revolutionaries to bring an end to the war in the East. Fritz Platten was tasked with organising the journey and was to accompany the party to the Russian border. Lenin insisted that the group’s carriage be defined as extraterritorial so that he couldn’t be accused of colluding with the German enemy. The train was sealed, meaning the doors remained shut and nobody was allowed on or off. Only Platten was to have contact with the Germans. And so it was.
TV report on Lenin’s return to Russia 1917. YouTube
On 9 April 1917, after dining at the Zähringerhof, around 30 Russian émigrés made their way to the main station. At 3.20pm the express train left Zurich headed for Schaffhausen. Seven days later, after travelling through Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, they arrived in St. Petersburg. Lenin, who until that point had been considered an intellectual oddball lodging with a cobbler, turned into the merciless enforcer of his theory overnight. During the October Revolution, he established the Bolshevik dictatorship, which cost tens of thousands of lives.

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