Lenin in Stockholm

To the Russians, Vladimir Ulyanov was already a living symbol in 1917. Ulyanov – now better known by his revolutionary nom de guerre, Lenin — himself was in exile in Switzerland, and his Bolsheviks Party was withering when the Russian Revolution actually took place in 1917.  On 15th March 1917, Lenin’s problem was to travel back from Zurich to St. Petersburg to lead his party again. Although he wanted to charter a plane and fly back, the war made it risky. He approached the German government, then fighting the Provisional Government of Russia, for a transit visa. Since he didn’t want to be seen as ‘consorting with the enemy’, Lenin also have his train granted the extra-territorial status as a foreign embassy. Both requests were readily honored by the Germans. (There were two German military escorts on the train, but they too were kept separate from Lenin’s cadre).

The party atmosphere accompanied the ‘sealed train’. Lenin had to silent his crew at times, order lights outs and rearrange sleeping arrangements to separate merrymakers. They were an unruly company; a conflict arose immediately between the smokers and non-smokers. Lenin, who despised cigarette smoke, ruled that smoking was to be allowed only in the toilet. This was immediately followed by a second argument between the smokers and those who needed to use the toilet. Another argument was between the Russians and two Germans, who protested that the former’s penchants for the French revolutionary songs were insulting to the German nation.

Above was the only one photograph of the travelers, taken in Stockholm on 13th April 1917. Above, Lenin was carrying an umbrella and wearing a hat. Behind him, with an enormous hat, was his wife, Nadezhda. Behind her was the other woman in Lenin’s life, his mistress and revolutionary Inessa Armand. At the back, holding the hand of four-year old Robert was Grigory Zinoviev, Lenin’s designated successor, later to be purged by Stalin. In Stockholm, the Swedish socialists threw a banquet in his honor and for the first time in his life, Lenin was received as a prominent statesman. The Swedes, however, didn’t fully understood his vision; they found him quaint, and even gave him some money to buy new clothes, unaware that formerly poor revolutionary was now being lavishly funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Communist history books rigorously denied this, but when Lenin arrived back to St. Petersburg, the Provisional Government – with the help of the French intelligence service – began a through investigation into the Bolshevik finances, but the 21-volume dossier was destroyed on the orders of Leo Trotsky right after the October Revolution.

Buoyed by the German money, the Bolsheviks went from strength to strength, buying out printing presses, publishing their propaganda in multiple languages, and sending them out into the battlefields. By October, train and police stations, electricity plant and telephone switchboards were firmly in the Bolsheviks’ hand that the storming of the Winter Palace – despite its prominence in subsequent Communist hagiography – was simply a walk over.

Storming of the Winter Palace


The Tsarist government had fallen in March and the provisional government under Kerensky, supported by the middle-class deputies of the Duma, was barely tethering on. This was the general atmosphere when the Bolsheviks, a minority party in the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, staged a putsch now glorified as the Great October Revolution.

On the night of 25/26 October 1917 (Julian), spurred by a blank shot from the cruiser Aurora, the Bolsheviks captured Winter Palace (the seat of the Kerensky government). Since the actual siege took place at night, there were no cameras present. Yet, in the subsequent years, the storming of the Winter Palace became the centerpiece of an artificial historicizing.

To preserve the memory of this historic event, theatrical re-enactments were staged annually in the streets, and stills from these ‘ritual theaters’ were widely distributed. (Images from Bloody Sunday of 1905 were among those equally fabricated.) The above photo, one of the most well-publicized ones, was from Sergei Eisenstein’s film October, which was made from the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917. The photo was darkened and the windows of the palace “were painted white to give the illusion of a building seen at night and lighted from within”, and distributed abroad as the real thing.

Despite fire and carnage that occupies Eisenstein’s image, the storming itself as almost a bloodless affair–the Palace was guarded only by a small unit of military cadets, and they offered no resistance worth mentioning to 300-400 revolutionary soldiers who ‘storm’ the palace. The soldiers simply crossed the square and entered the palace by a side entrance. When just before two o’clock in the morning they entered the malachite hall, the ministers of Kerensky government were willing to surrender. The action was over at 3:10 am, and the Bolsheviks took power. Compared to the intensity of the later battles of the civil war, this ‘storming’ was unspectacular.

But it was not so in the eyes of many Soviet artisans. Memoirs, films and paintings embellished the episode in vivid colors. For the West, the storming marked the birth pang of that great propaganda machine that Soviets would later wield.