The moment the news of the February Revolution was received, Ilyich was all eagerness to go back to Russia.
England and France would never have allowed any Bolsheviks to go through to Russia. That much was clear to Ilyich, who wrote to Kollontai: “We are afraid we shall not be able to leave this accursed Switzerland very soon.” With this in mind, he discussed with Kollontai in his letters of March 16 and 17 how best to organize contact with St. Petersburg.
As there were no legal ways of travelling, illegal ways would have to be used. But what ways? From the moment the news of the revolution was received, Ilyich had no sleep. His nights were spent building the most improbable plans. We could fly over by plane. But such an idea could only be thought of in a waking dream. Put into words, its unreality became at once obvious. The thing was to obtain the passport of some foreigner from a neutral country, best of all a Swede, who was less likely to arouse suspicion. A Swedish passport could be obtained through the Swedish comrades, but ignorance of the language was an obstacle to using it. Perhaps just a little Swedish would do? You might easily give yourself away, though. “Imagine yourself falling asleep and dreaming of Mensheviks, which will start you off swearing juicily in Russian! Where will your disguise be then?” I said with a laugh.
Nevertheless Ilyich wrote to Ganiecki enquiring whether there was any way of getting into the country through Germany.
On March 18, the anniversary of the Paris Commune, Ilyich went to Chaux-de-Fonds, a large Swiss labour centre. He went there gladly. Abramovich, a young comrade, worked at a factory there and took an active part in the Swiss labour movement. The thought of the Paris Commune, of utilizing its experience in the newly launched Russian revolutionary movement, and of avoiding its errors occupied Ilyich’s mind a good deal those days, and so his lecture went off very well and he was pleased with it himself. His address impressed our comrades tremendously, but the Swiss thought it impracticable – even the Swiss working-class centres had but a vague idea of what was going on in Russia.
The Russian emigrant groups of internationalists living in Switzerland met on March 19 to discuss ways of getting back to Russia. Martov proposed a plan for allowing emigrants to pass through Germany in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners of war interned in Russia. However, no one was inclined to accept this plan. Lenin was the only one who jumped at it. We would have to go about it carefully, he said. The best thing would be to have the negotiations started at the initiative of the Swiss Government. Grimm was authorized to enter into negotiations with the Swiss authorities. Nothing came of it, however. No replies were received to the telegrams sent to Russia. Ilyich fretted. “What torture it is for us all to sit here at such a time!” he wrote to Ganiecki in Stockholm. But he had already taken a grip upon himself.
Pravda started coming out in St. Petersburg on March 18, and on the 20th Ilyich started to send in his “Letters from Afar.” They were five in number (“The First Stage of the First Revolution,” “The New Government and the Proletariat,” “Concerning a Proletarian Militia,” “How To Achieve Peace,” and “The Tasks Connected with the Building of Revolutionary Proletarian State System”). Only the first letter was published on the day Lenin arrived in St. Petersburg, three others were lying in the editors’ office and the fifth had not even been sent to Pravda, as Lenin had started writing it just before leaving for Russia.
These letters strikingly reflect Ilyich’s train of thoughts on the eve of his departure. I particularly remember what he then said about the militia. This question is dealt with in the third of the series – “Concerning a Proletarian Militia.” It was not published until 1924, after the death of Ilyich. In it Ilyich expounds his ideas on the nature of the proletarian state. To obtain a really proper understanding of Lenin’s book The State and Revolution, one must read these “Letters from Afar.” The whole subject is treated in this article with extraordinary concreteness. Ilyich spoke about a new type of militia, consisting entirely of armed citizens, of adult citizens of both sexes. Besides its direct military duties, this militia was to effect prompt and proper appropriation and distribution of grain and other food surpluses, act as sanitary inspectors, see to it that every family had bread, every child a bottle of good milk, and that not a single grown-up in a rich family should dare to have any extra milk until the children had been provided for, that the palaces and rich homes should not stand empty, but be used as shelter for the homeless and destitute. “Who can carry out these measures except a people’s militia, to which women should without fail belong equally with men?” Ilyich wrote.
“These measures do not yet constitute socialism. They pertain to the distribution of articles of consumption, and not to the reorganization of production…. How to classify them theoretically is not the point now. We would be committing a great mistake if we attempted to force the complex, urgent, rapidly developing practical tasks of the revolution into the Procrustean bed of narrowly conceived ‘theory’ instead of regarding theory primarily and mostly as a guide to action.” The proletarian militia would actually educate the masses to take part in all state affairs. “Such a militia would draw the young people into political life and teach them not only by word of mouth, but also by action, by work.” “On the order of the day is the task of organization, but certainly not in the stereotyped sense of working only on stereotyped organizations, but in the sense of drawing unprecedentedly broad masses of the oppressed classes into an organization and of making this organization itself take over military, state and national-economic functions.”
Rereading this letter of Ilyich’s today, after so many years, I can see him before me, as large as life: on the one hand, his extraordinary sober-mindedness, his clear appreciation of the necessity of an irreconcilable armed struggle and of the fact that no concessions or vacillation could be tolerated at that moment; on the other hand, his unremitting attention to the mass movement, to the organization of the broad masses in a new way, to their concrete needs, and to the immediate improvement of their conditions. Ilyich spoke about all these matters a great deal in the winter of 1916-1917, and especially in the period immediately preceding the February Revolution.
The negotiations dragged on. The Provisional Government obviously did not want to allow the internationalists entry into Russia, and the news from Russia pointed to certain vacillation among the comrades there. All this necessitated our speedy departure. Ilyich sent a telegram to Ganiecki, which the latter did not receive until March 25, saying: “Cannot understand delay. Mensheviks demand sanction of Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Send someone immediately Finland or Petrograd make possible arrangements with Chkheidze. Opinion Belenin desirable.” By Belenin was meant the Bureau of the Central Committee. Kollontai arrived in Russia on March 18 and explained how matters stood with Ilyich’s arrival. Letters were received from Ganiecki. The Bureau of the Central Committee issued instructions through him that “Ulyanov must come immediately.” Ganiecki re-telegraphed this message to Lenin.
Vladimir Ilyich insisted that negotiations be opened through Fritz Platten, the Swiss Socialist-Internationalist. Platten came to a definite written understanding with the German Ambassador in Switzerland. The principal points of this agreement were: 1. That all emigrants were to be allowed to go regardless of their views on the war, 2. That no one could enter the railway car in which the emigrants were travelling without the permission of Platten. There was to be no inspection of passports or luggage; 3. That the passengers undertook to agitate in Russia for a corresponding number of Austro-German internees to be repatriated by way of exchange. Ilyich got busy making preparations for departure, and wrote to various comrades in Berne and Geneva, etc. The Vperyod-ists Ilyich was negotiating with refused to go. Karl and Kasparov, two close comrades who were dying in Davos, had to be left behind. Ilyich wrote them a farewell greeting. Or rather he added a postscript to my long letter. I wrote in detail about who was going, what preparations we were making and what our plans were. The few words that Ilyich added showed how well he understood the feelings of those who were staying behind.
“Dear Kasparov,” he wrote, “I send you and Karl my heartiest greetings and wish you good cheer. You must have patience. I hope we shall meet soon in St. Petersburg. My best wishes to you both. Yours, Lenin.”
“I wish you good cheer. You must have patience….” Aye, that was just the thing. We never met again. Both Kasparov and Karl died soon after.
N.K. Krupskaya, “Last Months in Emigration,” Reminiscences of Lenin