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Zinovy Khokhlov
Zinovy Khokhlov

Lenin on the Train: A Secret and Sealed Journey that Shook History

Lenin on the Train: A Historical and Cultural Review

Have you ever wondered how Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolution that transformed Russia and the world in 1917, managed to return to his homeland from his exile in Switzerland? Have you ever heard of the mysterious sealed train that carried him across Germany, Sweden and Finland to reach Petrograd, where he delivered his famous speech at the Finland Station? Have you ever seen or read any of the artistic or literary works that depicted or analyzed this extraordinary journey? If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating episode of history and culture, then this article is for you. In this article, I will review some of the main sources of information about Lenin on the Train, as well as some of the main themes and perspectives that emerge from them. I will also discuss some of the historical and political debates that surround this topic, as well as some of the implications and lessons that we can draw from it today.


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The Historical Context of Lenin's Journey

To understand why Lenin on the Train was such a pivotal event, we need to first examine the historical context in which it took place. In 1917, Russia and Europe were undergoing a period of unprecedented turmoil and transformation. Let us look at some of the key aspects of this situation.

The situation in Russia in 1917

In February 1917, after months of protests, strikes and riots, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his throne, ending centuries of autocratic rule in Russia. A Provisional Government was formed by a coalition of liberal and moderate socialist parties, who promised to introduce democratic reforms and continue fighting in World War I alongside their allies. However, they faced many challenges and oppositions from different sectors of society. One of them was the Petrograd Soviet, a council of workers' and soldiers' deputies that claimed to represent the interests of the masses. The Soviet wielded considerable influence over the army, the railways and the factories, and often clashed with the Provisional Government over issues such as land reform, peace negotiations and political power. Another challenge was the fragmentation and radicalization of the political scene, as various parties and factions competed for support and influence. Among them were the Bolsheviks, a revolutionary socialist party led by Lenin, who advocated for a violent overthrow of the Provisional Government and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

The situation in Europe in 1917

In 1917, Europe was also in a state of crisis and chaos, as World War I had reached a deadlock and caused millions of casualties and enormous destruction. Germany, the main enemy of Russia and its allies, was facing a shortage of resources and manpower, and was looking for ways to break the stalemate and win the war. One of their strategies was to destabilize Russia by supporting its internal enemies, such as separatists, nationalists and revolutionaries. Another strategy was to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against the British and French ships, hoping to cut off their supplies and force them to surrender. However, this also provoked the United States to enter the war on the side of the Allies, adding a new dimension to the conflict. Meanwhile, Switzerland, a neutral country that hosted many refugees, exiles and dissidents from all over Europe, became a hub of intellectual and political activity. Among them were many socialists, who were divided over their stance on the war and their vision for the future of Europe. Some of them, such as Lenin, opposed the war and called for a socialist revolution in all countries. Others, such as Karl Kautsky, supported the war and advocated for a democratic reform of capitalism.

The motivations and challenges of Lenin's return

Lenin was one of the most prominent and radical socialists in Switzerland. He had been exiled from Russia since 1905, after his involvement in the failed revolution of 1905. He had spent most of his time in Zurich, where he wrote books and articles, organized meetings and conferences, and maintained contact with his followers in Russia and abroad. He was also one of the most isolated and frustrated socialists in Switzerland. He had been marginalized by most of his fellow socialists, who disagreed with his views on the war and the revolution. He had also been cut off from most of his sources of information and communication, as the war had disrupted the postal service, the telegraph and the newspapers. He had also been denied access to most of his funds, as they were frozen or confiscated by the authorities. When he heard about the February Revolution in Russia, he was overjoyed but also impatient. He saw it as an opportunity to realize his lifelong dream of leading a socialist revolution in Russia. He also saw it as a necessity to prevent the Provisional Government from consolidating its power and betraying the interests of the workers and peasants. He decided to return to Russia as soon as possible, but he faced many obstacles. The most obvious one was how to cross Germany, which was at war with Russia and had closed its borders to anyone without a special permit. He also faced opposition from some of his comrades, who feared that he would be arrested or killed by the Germans or their agents. He also faced criticism from some of his rivals, who accused him of being a traitor or an agent of Germany.

The Cultural Impact of Lenin's Journey

Despite these difficulties, Lenin managed to return to Russia in April 1917, thanks to a secret agreement with the German government that allowed him and his small group of revolutionaries to travel across Germany in a sealed railway car. This journey was not only a historical turning point, but also a cultural phenomenon. It inspired many symbolic meanings, artistic expressions and historical debates that have shaped our understanding and interpretation of this event ever since. Let us explore some of these aspects.

The symbolism and mythology of the sealed train

The sealed train that carried Lenin across Germany was more than just a mode of transportation. It was also a symbol of mystery, intrigue and contrast. The mystery stemmed from the secrecy and uncertainty that surrounded the journey. No one knew for sure where Lenin was going, what he was planning to do or what he had agreed with the Germans. The intrigue stemmed from the suspicion and speculation that followed the journey. Many people wondered whether Lenin was a hero or a villain, whether he was acting on his own or following someone else's orders or whether he was bringing salvation or destruction to Russia. The contrast stemmed from the difference between Lenin and his fellow travelers. Lenin was a serious and austere man who spent most of his time reading or writing in his compartment. His fellow travelers were mostly young and boisterous men who spent most of their time singing or playing cards in their compartment. They also differed in their political views and expectations about their destination.

became a source of inspiration and imagination for many artists and writers who depicted or analyzed it in various forms and genres. It also became a subject of controversy and debate for many historians and politicians who questioned or challenged its significance and consequences. Let us look at some examples of these cultural expressions and discussions.

The artistic and literary representations of the journey

One of the most immediate and widespread forms of artistic representation of Lenin's journey was the painting. Many painters, especially those who supported or sympathized with the Bolsheviks, created portraits or scenes of Lenin on the train or at the Finland Station. Some of the most famous examples are Lenin in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky, Lenin Arrives in Petrograd by Boris Kustodiev and Lenin Proclaims Soviet Power by Vladimir Serov. These paintings portrayed Lenin as a charismatic and visionary leader who was greeted by enthusiastic and hopeful crowds. They also emphasized the contrast between Lenin's simple and modest appearance and the grandeur and splendor of his surroundings.

Another form of artistic representation of Lenin's journey was the poster. Many posters, especially those produced by the Soviet propaganda machine, used images or slogans related to Lenin on the train or at the Finland Station. Some of the most iconic examples are The Way of October by Viktor Deni, The Leader of the World Proletariat by Gustav Klutsis and The Great Beginning by Dmitri Moor. These posters presented Lenin as a revolutionary and internationalist hero who was leading the workers and peasants to victory and liberation. They also stressed the connection between Lenin's journey and the October Revolution and its achievements.

A third form of artistic representation of Lenin's journey was the photograph. Many photographs, especially those taken by journalists or eyewitnesses, captured moments or aspects of Lenin on the train or at the Finland Station. Some of the most memorable examples are Lenin on His Way to Petrograd by Karl Moor, Lenin Speaking to Workers at the Finland Station by Karl Bulla and Lenin Leaving for Smolny by Pavel Zhukov. These photographs showed Lenin as a dynamic and determined activist who was interacting with his supporters and opponents. They also revealed some of the details and difficulties of his journey and arrival.

A fourth form of artistic representation of Lenin's journey was the film. Many films, especially those made by documentary or drama filmmakers, recreated or reinterpreted events or episodes of Lenin on the train or at the Finland Station. Some of the most remarkable examples are October: Ten Days That Shook The World by Sergei Eisenstein, The Sealed Train by Damiano Damiani and The Train That Changed The World by Chris Boulding. These films depicted Lenin as a complex and controversial figure who was facing challenges and dilemmas on his way to power. They also explored some of the historical and political implications and ramifications of his journey.

A fifth form of artistic representation of Lenin's journey was the book. Many books, especially those written by historians or biographers, narrated or analyzed facts or aspects of Lenin on the train or at the Finland Station. Some of the most notable examples are To The Finland Station by Edmund Wilson, Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale and The Sealed Train: Lenin's Eight Month Journey from Exile to Power by Michael Pearson. These books described Lenin as a brilliant and ruthless strategist who was exploiting opportunities and circumstances to advance his cause. They also examined some of the sources and consequences of his journey.

The historical and political debates about the journey

Besides being a source of inspiration and imagination, Lenin's journey was also a source of controversy and debate. Many historians and politicians have argued or disputed over various aspects or issues related to Lenin on the train or at the Finland Station. Some of these aspects or issues are:

- The question of Lenin's responsibility for the October Revolution and its consequences. Some have argued that Lenin was the main instigator and architect of the Bolshevik coup that overthrew the Provisional Government and established a one-party dictatorship that led to civil war, terror and famine in Russia. Others have argued that Lenin was only one of many factors that contributed to the October Revolution and that he was not fully in control or aware of its outcomes. - The question of Germany's role in facilitating or manipulating Lenin's journey. Some have claimed that Germany was instrumental in enabling Lenin's return to Russia as part of their plan to weaken their enemy from within and end the war in their favor. Others have claimed that Germany was only marginally involved in arranging Lenin's journey and that they had no influence or interest in his actions or goals. - The question of the alternative scenarios and counterfactuals of Lenin's journey. Some have speculated that if Lenin had not returned to Russia in 1917, the course of history would have been very different and possibly better for Russia and the world. Others have speculated that if Lenin had returned to Russia in a different way or at a different time, the course of history would have been very similar or worse for Russia and the world.


In conclusion, Lenin on the Train was a historical and cultural event that had a profound and lasting impact on Russia and the world. It was a journey that changed the course of history and sparked the imagination of generations. It was also a journey that raised many questions and debates that are still relevant and intriguing today. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I recommend you to read or watch some of the sources that I have mentioned in this article, as well as some of the following ones:


  • Lenin on the Train: The Journey that Changed the Course of History by Catherine Merridale. A detailed and engaging account of Lenin's journey based on extensive research and eyewitness testimonies.

  • The Sealed Train: Journey to Revolution: Lenin - 1917 by Michael Pearson. A vivid and dramatic narrative of Lenin's journey based on historical documents and personal memoirs.

  • Lenin: The Train (1988) by Damiano Damiani. A fictionalized and suspenseful film adaptation of Lenin's journey starring Ben Kingsley as Lenin and Dominique Sanda as his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya.

  • The Train That Changed The World (2017) by Chris Boulding. A documentary film that explores the historical and political context and consequences of Lenin's journey.


Here are some frequently asked questions about Lenin on the Train:


  • Q: When did Lenin return to Russia from his exile in Switzerland?

  • A: Lenin returned to Russia on April 16, 1917, after a journey of eight days across Germany, Sweden and Finland.

  • Q: How many people accompanied Lenin on his journey?

  • A: Lenin was accompanied by 31 people, including his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, his sister Maria Ulyanova, his comrades Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek and Inessa Armand, and several other Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and socialists.

  • Q: What was the name of the train that carried Lenin across Germany?

  • A: The train that carried Lenin across Germany was officially called "Sonderzug Nr. 1" (Special Train No. 1), but it was also known as "Plombierter Zug" (Sealed Train) or "Zimmerwaldzug" (Zimmerwald Train), after the Swiss town where Lenin had attended an anti-war conference in 1915.

  • Q: What was the name of the station where Lenin arrived in Petrograd?

  • A: The station where Lenin arrived in Petrograd was called Finland Station, because it was the terminus of the railway line from Finland. It was also known as Peterburgsky Station or Bolshevik Station.

  • Q: What did Lenin say in his speech at the Finland Station?

  • A: In his speech at the Finland Station, Lenin declared that he had come to lead a socialist revolution in Russia and that he supported the slogan "All power to the Soviets". He also denounced the Provisional Government as a "government of capitalists" and called for an immediate end to the war.



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