Vladimir Lenin - The February Revolution

The February Revolution

In February 1917 popular demonstrations in Russia provoked by the hardship of war forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate. The monarchy was replaced by an uneasy political relationship between, on the one hand, a Provisional Government of parliamentary figures and, on the other, an array of "Soviets" (most prominently the Petrograd Soviet): revolutionary councils directly elected by workers, soldiers and peasants. Lenin was still in exile in Zurich.

Lenin was preparing to go to the Altstadt library after lunch on 15 March when a fellow exile, the Pole Mieczyslav Bronski, burst in to exclaim: "Haven't you heard the news? There's a revolution in Russia!" The next day Lenin wrote to Alexandra Kollontai in Stockholm, insisting on "revolutionary propaganda, agitation and struggle with the aim of an international proletarian revolution and for the conquest of power by the Soviets of Workers' Deputies". The next day: "Spread out! Rouse new sections! Awaken fresh initiative, form new organisations in every stratum and prove to them that peace can come only with the armed Soviet of Workers' Deputies in power."

Lenin was determined to return to Russia at once. But that was not an easy task in the middle of the First World War. Switzerland was surrounded by the warring countries of France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, and the seas were dominated by Russia's ally Britain. Lenin considered crossing Germany with a Swedish passport, but Krupskaya joked that he would give himself away by swearing at Mensheviks in Russian in his sleep.

Negotiations with the Provisional Government to obtain passage through Germany for the Russian exiles in return for German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war dragged on. Eventually, bypassing the Provisional Government, on 31 March the Swiss Communist Fritz Platten obtained permission from the German Foreign Minister through his ambassador in Switzerland, Baron Gisbert von Romberg, for Lenin and other Russian exiles to travel through Germany to Russia in a sealed one-carriage train. At Lenin's request the carriage would be protected from interference by a special grant of extraterritorial status. There are many evidences for German financial commitment to the mission of Lenin. The aim was to disintegrate Russian resistance in the First World War by spreading the revolutionary unrest. Financial support was continued until July of 1917, when the Provisional Government, after revealing German funding for the Bolsheviks, outlawed the party and issued an arrest warrant for Lenin.

On 9 April Lenin and Krupskaya met their fellow exiles in Bern, a group eventually numbering thirty boarded a train which took them to Zurich. From there they travelled to the specially arranged train which was waiting at Gottmadingen, just short of the official German crossing station at Singen. Accompanied by two German Army officers, who sat at the rear of the single carriage behind a chalked line, the exiles travelled through Frankfurt and Berlin to Sassnitz (arriving 12 April), where a ferry took them to Trelleborg. Krupskaya noted how, looking out of the carriage window as they passed through wartime Germany, the exiles were "struck by the total absence of grown-up men. Only women, teenagers and children could be seen at the wayside stations, on the fields, and in the streets of the towns." Once in Sweden the group travelled by train to Stockholm and thence back to Russia.

Just before midnight on 16 April 1917, Lenin's train arrived at the Finland Station in Petrograd. He was greeted, to the sound of the Marseillaise, by a crowd of workers, sailors and soldiers bearing red flags: by now a ritual in revolutionary Russia for welcoming home political exiles. Lenin was formally welcomed by Chkheidze, the Menshevik Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. But Lenin pointedly turned to the crowd instead to address it on the international importance of the Russian Revolution:

The piratical imperialist war is the beginning of civil war throughout Europe ... The world-wide Socialist revolution has already dawned ... Germany is seething ... Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash ... Sailors, comrades, we have to fight for a socialist revolution, to fight until the proletariat wins full victory! Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!

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