‘Lenin himself is coming, then the real thing will begin!’

On the 3rd of April [April 16 on the modern calendar] Lenin arrived in Petrograd from abroad. Only from that moment does the Bolshevik Party begin to speak out loud, and, what is more important, with its own voice. …

The part of the Central Committee which lived abroad and the Central Organ, The Social Democrat, had been the spiritual centre of the party. Lenin, with Zinoviev as assistant, had conducted the whole work of leadership. The most responsible secretarial duties were fulfilled by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaia. In the practical work this small centre relied upon the support of a few score of Bolshevik emigrants. During the war their isolation from Russia became the more unbearable as the military police of the Entente drew its circle tighter and tighter. The revolutionary explosion they had so long and tensely awaited caught them unawares. …

In his farewell letter to the Swiss workers Lenin reminded them of the declaration of the central organ of the Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1915: If the revolution brings to power in Russia a republican government which wants to continue the imperialist war, the Bolsheviks will be against the defence of the republican Fatherland. Such a situation has now arisen. “Our slogan is no support to the government of Guchkov-Miliukov.” With those words Lenin now entered the territory of the revolution.

However, the members of the Provisional Government did not see any ground for alarm. Nabokov writes: “At one of the March sessions of the Provisional Government, during a recess, in a long conversation about the increasing propaganda of the Bolsheviks, Kerensky exclaimed with his usual hysterical giggle: ’Just you wait, Lenin himself is coming, then the real thing will begin!’” Kerensky was right. The real thing would begin only then. However the ministers, according to Nabokov, were not greatly disturbed: “The very fact of his having appealed to Germany will so undermine the authority of Lenin that we need not fear him.” As was to be expected, the ministers were exceedingly perspicacious.

Friendly disciples went to meet Lenin in Finland. “We had hardly got into the car and sat down,” writes Raskolnikov, a young naval officer and a Bolshevik, “when Vladimir Ilych flung at Kamenev: ‘What’s this you’re writing in Pravda? We saw several numbers and gave it to you good and proper.’” Such was their meeting after a separation of several years. But even so it was a friendly meeting.

The Petrograd Committee, with the co-operation of the military organisation, mobilised several thousand workers and soldiers for a triumphal welcome to Lenin. A friendly armoured car division detailed all their cars to meet him. The committee decided to go to the station with the armoured cars. The revolution had already created a partiality for that type of monster, so useful to have on your side in the streets of a city.

The description of the official meeting which took place in the so-called “Czar’s Room” of the Finland station, constitutes a very lively page in the many-volumed and rather faded memoirs of Sukhanov. “Lenin walked, or rather ran, into the ’Czar’s Room’ in a round hat, his face chilled, and a luxurious bouquet in his arms. Hurrying to the middle of the room, he stopped still in front of Cheidze as though he had run into a completely, unexpected obstacle. And here Cheidze, not abandoning his previous melancholy look, pronounced the following ‘speech of greeting,’ carefully, preserving not only the spirit and voice of a moral instructor: ‘Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd Soviet and the whole revolution. We welcome you to Russia … but we consider the that the chief task of the revolutionary democracy at present is to defend our revolution against every kind of attack both from within and from without … We hope that you will join us in striving towards this goal.’ Cheidze ceased. I was dismayed with the unexpectedness of it. But Lenin, it seemed, knew well how to deal with all that. He stood there looking as though what was happening did not concern him in the least, glanced from one side to the other, looked over the surrounding public, and even examined the ceiling to the ’Czar’s Room’ while rearranging his bouquet (which harmonised rather badly with his whole figure), and finally, having turned completely away from the delegates of the Executive Committee, ‘answered’ thus: ‘Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers, I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army … The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters … The Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!’”

Sukhanov is right – the bouquet harmonised badly with the figure of Lenin, and doubtless hindered and embarrassed him with its inappropriateness to the austere background of events. In general, as it happens, Lenin did not like flowers in a bouquet. But doubtless he was far more embarrassed by that official and hypocritical Sunday school greeting in the parade room of a station. Cheidze was better than his speech of greeting. He was a little timid of Lenin. But they undoubtedly had told him that it was necessary to pull up on the “sectarian” from the very beginning. To supplement Cheidze’s speech, which had demonstrated the pitiable level of the leadership, a young naval commander, speaking in the name of the sailors, was brilliant enough to express the hope that Lenin might become a member of the Provisional Government. Thus the February revolution, garrulous and flabby and still rather stupid, greeted the man who had arrived with a resolute determination to set it straight both in thought and in will. Those first impressions, multiplying tenfold the alarm which he had brought with him, produced a feeling of protest in Lenin which it was difficult to restrain. How much more satisfactory to roll up his sleeves! Appealing from Cheidze to the sailors and workers, from the defence of the Fatherland to international revolution, from the Provisional Government to Liebknecht, Lenin merely gave a short rehearsal there at the station of his whole future policy.

And nevertheless that clumsy revolution instantly and heartily took its leader into its bosom. The soldiers demanded that Lenin climb up on one of the armoured cars, and he had to obey. The oncoming night made the procession especially impressive. The lights on the other armoured cars being dimmed, the night was stabbed by the sharp beam from the projector of the machine on which Lenin rode. It sliced out from the darkness of the street sections of excited workers, soldiers, sailors – the same ones who had achieved the great revolution and then let the power slip through their fingers. The band ceased playing every so often, in order to let Lenin repeat or vary his speech before new listeners. “That triumphal march was brilliant,” says Sukhanov, “and even somewhat symbolic.”

Lenin on the train to Petrograd by Pyotr Vasilievich Vasiliev
‘Lenin on the Train to Petrograd’ by Pyotr Vasilievich Vasiliev

In the palace of Kshesinskaia, Bolshevik headquarters in the satin nest of a court ballerina – that combination must have amused Lenin’s always lively irony – greetings began again. This was too much. Lenin endured the flood of eulogistic speeches like an impatient pedestrian waiting in a doorway for the rain to stop. He felt the sincere joyfulness at his arrival, but was bothered by its verboseness. The very tone of the official greetings seemed to him imitative, affected – in a word borrowed from the petty bourgeois democracy, declamatory, sentimental and false. He saw that the revolution, before having even defined its problems and tasks, had already created its tiresome etiquette. He smiled a good-natured reproach, looked at his watch, and from time to time doubtless gave an unrestrained yawn. The echo of the last greeting had not died away, when this unusual guest let loose upon that audience a cataract of passionate thought which at times sounded almost like a lashing. At that period the stenographic art was not yet open to Bolshevism. Nobody made notes. All were too absorbed in what was happening. The speeches have not been preserved. There remain only general impressions in the memoirs of the listeners. And these have been edited by the lapse of time; rapture has been added to them, and fright washed away. The fundamental impression made by Lenin’s speech even among those nearest to him was one of fright. All the accepted formulas, which with innumerable repetition had acquired in the course of a month a seemingly unshakeable permanence, were exploded one after another before the eyes of that audience. The short Leninist reply at the station, tossed out over the head of the startled Cheidze, was here developed into a two hour speech addressed directly to the Petrograd cadres of Bolshevism.

The non-party socialist, Sukhanov, was accidentally present this meeting as a guest – admitted by the good-natured Kamenev, although Lenin was intolerant of such indulgences. Thanks to this we have a description made by an outsider – half-hostile and half-ecstatic – of the first meeting of Lenin with the Petersburg Bolsheviks.

“I will never forget that thunderlike speech, startling and amazing not only to me, a heretic accidentally dropped in, but also to the faithful, all of them. I assert that nobody there had expected anything of the kind. It seemed as if all the elements and the spirit of universal destruction had risen from their lairs, knowing neither barriers nor doubts nor personal difficulties nor personal considerations, to hover through the banquet chambers of Kshesinskaia above the heads of the bewitched disciples.”

Personal considerations and difficulties – to Sukhanov that meant for the most part the editorial waverings of the Novy Zhizn circle having tea with Maxim Gorky. Lenin’s considerations went deeper. Not the elements were hovering in that banquet hall, but human thoughts – and they were not embarrassed by the elements, but were trying to understand in order to control them. But never mind – the impression is clearly conveyed.

“On the journey here with my comrades,” said Lenin, according to Sukhanov’s report – “I was expecting they would take us directly from the station to Peter and Paul. We are far from that, it seems. But let us not give up the hope that it will happen, that we shall not escape it.”

For the others at that time the development of the revolution was identical, with a strengthening of the democracy; for Lenin the nearest prospect led straight to the Peter and Paul prison-fortress. It seemed a sinister joke. But Lenin was not joking, nor was the revolution joking.

“He swept aside legislative agrarian reform,” complains Sukhanov, “along with all the rest of the policies of the Soviet. He spoke for an organised seizure of the land by the peasants, not anticipating … any governmental power at all.”

“‘We don’t need any parliamentary republic. We don’t need any bourgeois democracy. We don’t need any government except the Soviet of workers’, soldiers’, and farmhands’ deputies!’”

At the same time Lenin sharply separated himself from Soviet majority, tossing them over into the camp of the enemy. That alone was enough in those days to make his listeners dizzy!”

“Only the Zimmerwald Left stands guard over the proletarian interests and the world revolution” – thus Sukhanov reports, with indignation, the thoughts of Lenin, “The rest are the same old opportunist speaking pretty words but in reality betraying the cause of socialism and the work masses.”

Raskolnikov supplements Sukhanov: “He decisively assailed the tactics pursued before his arrival by the ruling party groups and by individual comrades. The most responsible workers were here. But for them too the words of Ilych were a veritable revelation. They laid down a Rubicon between the tactics of yesterday and today,” That Rubicon, as we shall see was not laid down at once.

There was no discussion of the speech. All were too much astounded, and each wanted a chance to collect his thoughts. “I came out on the street,” concludes Sukhanov, “feeling as though on that night I had been flogged over the head with a flail. Only one thing was clear: There was no place for me, a non-party man, beside Lenin!”

Indeed not!

The next day Lenin presented to the party a short written exposition of his views, which under the name of Theses of April 4 has become one of the most important documents of the revolution. The theses expressed simple thoughts in simple words comprehensible to all: The republic which has issued from the February revolution is not our republic, and the war which it is now raging is not our war, The task of the Bolsheviks is to overthrow the imperialist government. But this government rests upon the support of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, who in turn are supported by the trustfulness of the masses of the people. We are in the minority. In these circumstances there can be no talk of violence from our side. We must teach the masses not to trust the Compromisers and defensists. “We must patiently explain.” The success of this policy, dictated by the whole existing situation, is assured, and it will bring us to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and so beyond the boundaries of the bourgeois régime. We will break absolutely with capital, publish its secret treaties, and summon the workers of the whole world to cast loose from the bourgeoisie and put an end to the war. We are beginning the international revolution. Only its success will confirm our success, and guarantee a transition to the socialist régime.

These theses of Lenin were published in his own name and his only, The central institutions of the party met them with a hostility softened only by bewilderment. Nobody – not one organisation, group or individual – affixed his signature to them.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Bolsheviks and Lenin,” The History of the Russian Revolution

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