On 27 March 1917, Lenin, Krupskaya, Zinoviev and Stalin’s Georgian patron Tskhakaya boarded their famous Sealed Train. Almost a month after the February Revolution, Lenin had finally found a way to return to Russia. In the interim, he had entertained fantasies of taking a train pretending to be a deaf - and - dumb Swede or hitching a ride on a rickety biplane across central Europe. “We must get home,” he said. “But how?” Fortunately, the German High Command believed that the clinical insertion of Lenin and his revolutionary bacillus might infect Russia with the virus of pacifism, thereby knocking her out of the war.1
Lenin dominated the Sealed Train as he would Russia herself: he would have approved the smoking - bans of our era and insisted on dictating the smoking rules and lavatorial visitation rights of the entire train—in preparation, the Bolshevik Karl Radek joked, “for assuming the leadership of the Revolutionary Government.” Smokers were allowed to light up only in the lavatory, whereas non - smokers were issued with special “first - class” lavatory passes that gave them priority access.
On 3 April, they stopped at the Beloostrov Station on the Finnish - Russian border in what Krupskaya grandly called “those dear wretched little third - class railroad cars.” Stalin’s friend Ludmilla Stal welcomed Krupskaya with a delegation of women. Kamenev blithely climbed aboard to greet Lenin, but got a shock.
“What the hell have you been writing?” barked Lenin. “We’ve read a few issues of Pravda and we cursed you roundly.”
The train steamed into Petrograd’s Finland Station. Stalin boarded the carriage to greet “the Old Man,” who was still only forty - six. With his Homburg hat, tweed suit and bourgeois umbrella, this bald little man was a stranger to Russia, new and old. Yet this was an angrier Lenin, more violent, merciless and impatient than the man who had gone into exile a decade earlier: if he lacked Soso’s vindictive personal malice, he more resembled Stalin than the gentle fatherly image later peddled by Soviet propaganda. “I can’t listen to music too often,” he said after hearing Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. “It makes me want to say kind stupid things and pat the heads of people. But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.” Lenin was buzzing with this next battle. “One fighting campaign after another,” as he told his sometime mistress Inessa Armand. “That’s my life.” Stalin would have said the same things. Hailing from such different worlds—one with the manners of a nobleman, the other those of a peasant—they shared the same sentiments and favoured identical methods.
We do not know what Lenin said to him in the carriage,* but virtually as soon as they met, Stalin abandoned the “flabby” Kamenev and backed the Old Man.
Just before midnight, Lenin “alighted from the carriage with Stalin,” observed Molotov, who was present. The famous yet mysterious Lenin found Finland Station in revolutionary fiesta. A military band burst into “The Marseillaise;” searchlights scanned the avid crowds. Lenin reviewed an honour guard of revolutionary sailors from the Kronstadt Base, 2,000 Putilov plant workers, a crowd waving red banners and an array of armoured cars.
A phalanx of Red Guards—armed Bolshevik workers—escorted Lenin into the station’s Imperial Lounge, where he was greeted by the Soviet chairman, Chkheidze. But Lenin bounded onto an armoured car, telling the crowd (including Molotov, Voroshilov and Alliluyev) that the Provisional Government, with their “sweet speeches and great promises, are deceiving you just as they are deceiving the entire Russian people.” The speech, writes one witness, “shook and astonished the Faithful . . . like a clap of thunder.” The Bolsheviks must overthrow the government, end the “predatory imperialist war” and immediately transfer power to the soviets.
Many thought the Old Man was mad and out of touch. “Lenin is a has - been,” the Menshevik Skobelev told Prince Lvov. Yet even his opponents could only marvel at his raging certainty: “Lenin,” says Sukhanov, “displayed such amazing force, such superhuman power of attack.”
Lenin rode his armoured car through the streets, surrounded by the blaring band, and the workers and soldiers, towards the Kseshinskaya Mansion, where, in the ballerina’s white - columned drawing - room, he harangued incredulous Bolsheviks. The next morning, he addressed them in Room 13 of the Taurida Palace. “Everyone was dumbfounded,” said Molotov. At first, only Alexandra Kollontai supported him unreservedly. The Bolsheviks, said Trotsky, “were as unprepared for Lenin as they had been for the February Revolution.”
Lenin’s tour deforce won over Stalin, who confessed: “Many things became clearer.” The people longed for peace and land, but the well - intentioned government insisted on honouring the Tsar’s promises to fight on against Germany and foolishly delayed settling the land question until the election of a Constituent Assembly, months away. Lenin alone grasped that this interval was his unique opportunity to seize Russia. After 6 April, Lenin and Stalin started working closely together at Pravda.2
On 18 April, Lenin was helped by the blunder of Foreign Minister Milyukov, who issued a diplomatic note informing Britain and France that Russia intended to annex Ottoman territories, an imperial war without an emperor. The Soviet had backed the Provisional Government only providing it waged a defensive war. A wave of revulsion shattered the fragile ministry. Prince Lvov formed a new coalition with Kerensky as Minister of War.
Radical Bolsheviks called for an armed uprising. Lenin, in the first of many such retreats after arriving with all ideological guns blazing, had to restrain his own hotheads: the uprising was “incorrect . . . at present.” When the Bolshevik Conference started on 24 April in Kseshinskaya’s ballroom, Lenin “entered like an inspector coming into a classroom.” Until Lenin’s arrival, thought Ludmilla Stal, “all comrades wandered in the darkness.” Stalin was firmly out of the darkness. When Kamenev attacked Lenin, Stalin mocked his erstwhile ally. He was a Leninist again—but that did not mean they agreed on everything.*
Stalin gave the report on the national question. He won the debate, but he was still best known for Caucasian banditry, and needed Lenin’s support. “We’ve known Comrade Koba for very many years,” Lenin declared. “We used to see him in Cracow where we had our Bureau. His activity in the Caucasus was important. He’s a good worker in all sorts of responsible work.” Molotov remembered Lenin explaining the essence of Stalin’s attraction for him: he was a “commanding figure—you could assign Stalin any task.”
On 29 April, Stalin came third with ninety - seven votes in the CC elections, just after Lenin and Zinoviev, a result that showed his standing in the Party. Stalin now spent most of his time at the Soviet, editing Pravda or working at the Central Committee with Lenin. The Central Committee chose Lenin, Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev as a decision - making Bureau for the first time, a precursor of the all - powerful Politburo.3
On 4 May, Trotsky finally arrived from America and immediately dazzled Petrograd, speaking almost nightly at the “packed - out” Cirque Moderne, where “he was often carried to the stage” by the crowd. He was, noticed Sukhanov, “intoxicated with his popularity.”
Lenin recognized Trotsky’s worth and courted him, inviting him to join the Bolsheviks a week later. The only thing that divided them, said Lenin, was “ambition.” Stalin must have resented the return of this revolutionary star. He was to write more than sixty articles in 1917, but Trotsky sneered that he just produced “dull comments on brilliant events.” When Lenin appointed a delegation to negotiate with Trotsky, Stalin was understandably left out.
Unlike Trotsky, Stalin did not make his mark in 1917. He put it best himself: “Before the Revolution, our Party led an underground existence—a secret Party. Now circumstances have changed”—and they did not really suit him. He flourished in the shadows.
Nineteen - seventeen was really Stalin’s only experience of open democratic politics, hardly the ideal environment for someone trained in the cutthroat clan intrigues of the Caucasus. He spoke quietly with a comical Georgian accent. “I didn’t make out much of what he said,” reports a witness, “but one thing I noticed: all of Stalin’s sentences were sharp and crisp statements distinguished by clarity of formulation.” A worker who saw him speak thought that “what he said sounded all right, understandable and simple, but somehow one couldn’t remember his speech afterwards.” He “avoided making speeches at mass meetings,” but the plain, modest delivery of his anti - oratory proved to be surprisingly impressive and convincing for the many who distrusted showy intellectuals.
When Lenin seized power and, beleaguered on all sides, ran his government like a conspiratorial camarilla, Stalin was again in his element.
On 3 June, Soso’s young fans Anna and Nadya Alliluyeva came to admire their hero at the First Congress of the Soviets in the Military School on Vasilevsky Island. “Stalin and Sverdlov attended the opening sessions—they were the first to arrive with Lenin. I saw the three of them enter the empty hall,” reports Anna Alliluyeva, who was working for the Party. “We had not seen Stalin for many days and his room in the flat stood empty.”
“We must call on him,” whispered the schoolgirl Nadya. “Perhaps he’s changed his mind about coming to live in our apartment.” Next day, they witnessed the most dramatic moment of the Congress.
“There’s no party in Russia that dares say, ‘Just place power in our hands,’” boomed the Menshevik Tsereteli.
At this, Lenin leaped out of his chair and shouted: “There is such a party!”
Vereshchak, Stalin’s Bailovka cell mate, noticed that “Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev were the main speakers” but “Sverdlov and Stalin silently directed the Bolshevik Faction—the first time I realized the full significance of the man.”
Stalin impressed Trotsky, whose description reveals why he lost their struggle for power. “Stalin was very valuable behind the scenes,” he wrote. “He did have the knack of convincing the average run of leaders, especially the provincials.” He “wasn’t regarded as the official leader of the Party,” says Sagirashvili, another Georgian Menshevik in Petrograd throughout 1917, but “everyone listened to what he had to say, including Lenin—he was a representative of the rank and file, one who expressed its real views and moods,” which were unknown to émigrés like Trotsky. Soso was the “unquestioned leader” of the Caucasians. Lenin, says Sagirashvili, “felt that behind him stood countless leaders from the provinces.”* While Trotsky was prancing on the stage at the Circus, Stalin was finding new allies such as the young man he had unceremoniously kicked off the Buro, Molotov.4
Stalin moved in with Molotov, who lived at a spacious flat on Shirokaya Street, across the Neva on the Petrograd side, with three other comrades. “It was like a kind of commune,” said Molotov. Stalin, unusually, apologized to Molotov for what the latter called “Stalin’s big mistake.” “You were the nearest of all to Lenin in the initial stage in April,” confessed Stalin. The two became friends. Besides, Molotov, who had not been elected to the Central Committee in April, was in need of a patron. They were opposites: the sturdy, stammering and bespectacled Molotov was ponderous, correct, rather bourgeois. But they shared Marxist fanaticism, a head for boozing, a Robespierrean belief in Terror, a vindictive inferiority - complex—and a beliefin Stalin’s mastery.
Stalin had been constantly moving home, working at night and then grabbing sleep at friends’ places. He often slept where he worked at the Kseshinskaya Mansion. Tatiana Slavatinskaya worked there as an assistant at the Central Committee under Sverdlov and Stasova. Ludmilla Stal helped edit Rabotnitsa (Working Woman) and manage relations with the Kronstadt sailors: they must have seen each other. It was said that Stalin reheated his romance with Stal. If so, she was not the only one.
Stalin did not just avail himself of Molotov’s political fidelity and domestic residence. “He stole my girl, Marusya,” Molotov laughed. Marusya was not the last woman whom Molotov would sacrifice to Stalin’s will.
Early one evening, Anna and Nadya Alliluyeva arrived at Pravda to see him. “The offices were crowded and filled with cigarette smoke.” An aide told them that “Stalin was busy,” says Anna, so “we sent a message saying we’d like to see him and he came out to meet us.”
“Well, hello,” said Soso, smiling affectionately, “I’m glad you’ve come. How are things at home?”
“Your room’s waiting for you,” said the girls.
“How kind, but I’m terribly busy,” he said. “But keep that room for me.”
Then “someone came up to him and Stalin hurriedly shook hands with us”—and rushed back to work.5
Nineteen - seventeen was, to paraphrase Lenin, a game of two steps forward, one step back. During June, the radicals in the armed wing of the Bolshevik Party—the Military Organization, which now claimed the allegiance of 60,000 troops—demanded an armed demonstration. The date was set for this accidental revolution: 10 June. At a Party meeting, Lenin supported them. It was “wrong to force matters, equally wrong to let the opportunity slip,” opined Stalin, who helped plan the demonstration and wrote its proclamation: “At the sight of armed workers, the bourgeois will take cover.” Zinoviev and Kamenev opposed it.
On 9 June at the Soviet, the Mensheviks read out Stalin’s appeal and Tsereteli railed against “the Bolshevik conspiracy to seize power.” Lenin needed Soviet support—he hoped to use its legitimacy as cover for his Bolshevik coup. Instead the Soviet banned the demonstration. After hours of panic, Lenin agreed to call it off: “One wrong move on our part can wreck everything.” He now became as cautious as Kamenev and Stalin had been in March. On the eleventh, Stalin, criticizing this “intolerable wavering,” threatened to resign.
The Soviet defiantly held its own demonstration on 18 June, but the Bolsheviks hijacked it, with Stalin publishing his proclamation in Pravda. It was a propaganda triumph. “Bright sunny day,” reported Stalin the next day, “the column of demonstrators is endless. From morn to eve, the procession files towards the Field of Mars, a forest of banners . . . a steady roar from the crowd . . . the Marseillaise and Internationale gave place to ‘You Have Fallen Victims.’” There were “cries of ‘All power to the Soviets!’ . . . but not a single regiment or factory displayed ‘Confidence in the Provisional Government!’” Meanwhile in the continuing war against Imperial Germany, Kerensky, War Minister, ordered an offensive that he hoped would bolster the government. The offensive, Russia’s last of the war, was a disaster.6
Lenin was exhausted; suffering headaches, he retreated to sunbathe at a lakeside villa in Finland. Then the government faltered again: Kerensky’s offensive ground to a halt while Finland and Ukraine moved towards independence. The Kadet ministers resigned in protest.
In Lenin’s absence, his Military Organization* decided to seize power. The “night sky was lit up so brightly by the Aurora Borealis,” writes Sagirashvili, “that one could read a newspaper outdoors. Men didn’t sleep and some unknown force drew them out of doors to roam the streets. They could raise their eyes to this heavenly spectacle. A grandiose struggle of Darkness and Light.”
On 3 July, masses of soldiers, sailors and workers, toting machine - guns with bandoliers of ammo criss - crossing their chests, marched on the Taurida Palace, the Bolshevik First Machine - Gun Regiment in the vanguard. Cars were held up at gunpoint and requisitioned. As armoured cars and trucks full of gunmen raced around the streets, some of the troops started firing haphazardly at burzoi shoppers on Nevsky Prospect. Gunfights broke out. Out at the Kronstadt naval base, Bolshevik sailors rose up, murdered 120 officers, including their admiral, and then demanded that Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev give them their orders to take the capital. When they received no answers, they telephoned Stalin, sitting at his Pravda desk with the Bolshevik bard Demian Bedny: should they march with their guns?
“Rifles?” replied Stalin. “You comrades know best . . . As for we scribblers, we always take our guns, our pencils, everywhere with us, [but] as for you and your arms, you know best!” Stalin had half encouraged this semi - accidental coup, asking, “Did the Party have the right to wash its hands and stand apart?” Trotsky was probably right that Stalin was one of the organizers of the July uprising: “Wherever a fight started, whether on a square in Tiflis, in Baku Prison, on a Petrograd street, he always strove to make it as sharp as possible.”
The gun - toting mob seethed around the Taurida Palace, expecting the Soviet to seize power as in Lenin’s slogan: “All Power to the Soviets.” But inside, Chkheidze and the Soviet, discussing the formation of a new ministry, did not want power. They feared it. The mob was inflamed by the Soviet’s reluctance. Meanwhile Stalin’s ambiguous answer had worked: the Kronstadt sailors were on their way.
At the Kseshinskaya Mansion, Stalin and the Central Committee suddenly lost their nerve and summoned Lenin back from holiday. “We could have seized power,” Stalin said, “but against us would have risen the fronts, the provinces, the Soviets.” Stalin rushed to the Taurida to reassure Chkheidze and the Soviet—but the genie was out of the bottle.
Lenin was on the train bound for Petrograd when Stalin heard that Justice Minister Pavel Pereverzev was about to accuse the Bolshevik leader of treason, revealing that he had been funded by Imperial Germany. This was partly true, but Stalin returned to the Taurida Palace and appealed to his Georgian compatriot Chkheidze to suppress the story. Chkheidze agreed, but it was too late.
In the early hours of 4 July, Lenin rushed to the mansion. “You should be thrashed for this!” he yelled at the Bolshevik hotheads.
In the overcast morning, 400,000 workers and soldiers ruled the deserted streets, soon joined by 20,000 heavily armed sailors who landed in a flotilla of boats. They had no plan: the cock - of - the - walk sailors with brass bands playing were more interested in parading their girlfriends through the boulevards and terrorizing the burzois: “Sailors with scantily dressed and high - heeled ladies were seen everywhere.” The streets, recalled Stalin, “were scenes of jubilation.” The sailors gathered outside the Kseshinskaya Mansion to demand some leadership: where was Lenin? He tried to hide in the mansion before emerging sheepishly to give a short speech that settled nothing.
The sailors, boosted by another 20,000 Putilov workers, headed for the Taurida Palace to sort out the diffident Soviet whose members had disappointed them. There were ugly scenes*—but at 5 p.m. the heavens opened: rain doused the accidental revolution. The crowds dispersed. The loyal Izmailovsky Guards relieved the besieged Soviet, now exposed as a toothless talking - shop. Lenin and the dispirited Bolshevik Central Committee retreated pathetically. The July Days were over.
The government, strengthened by Kerensky’s growing popularity, decided to destroy the Bolsheviks. Despite Stalin’s pleading, Justice Minister Pereverzev published evidence of Lenin’s German financial backing. Many of the soldiers were swayed by this talk of treason.
At dawn on 5 July, government troops raided Pravda, just missing Lenin who was smuggled out by Stalin only minutes earlier. Overnight, howitzers and eight armoured cars took up positions to storm the Kseshinskaya Mansion, but the Bolsheviks had no will to defend their strongholds. Stalin speeded to the Bolshevik stronghold, the Peter and Paul Fortress, “where I managed to persuade the sailors not to accept battle;” shuttled between the soldiers and the Kseshinskaya Mansion to avoid a massacre; then asked Chkheidze and Tsereteli at the Taurida Palace for a guarantee of no bloodshed if the Bolsheviks surrendered the mansion and the fortress. Tsereteli agreed: “Stalin gave me a puzzled look and left.” On 6 July, the 500 Bolsheviks inside the ballerina’s mansion gave themselves up. Then Stalin returned to the Peter and Paul Fortress to oversee its surrender.
Lenin appreciated Stalin’s tireless troubleshooting. But, “as a result of their disastrous failure,” wrote John Reed, a socialist journalist from Portland, Oregon, “public opinion turned against them. Their leaderless hordes slunk back into the Vyborg Quarter, followed by a savage hunt of the Bolsheviki.”
The thirty - five - year - old Kerensky, the only man who could unite left and right, assumed the premiership. Ironically the son of Lenin’s headmaster in Simbirsk, he was a speaker of “burning intensity”—“the sudden fits and starts, the twitching of lips and the somnambulistic deliberation of his gestures make him like one possessed.” Kerensky’s Justice Minister ordered Lenin’s arrest.*
The Bolsheviks were on the verge of destruction. Lenin was on the run. Stalin took charge of his safety.7
* The seductive Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai had just delivered Lenin’s furious Letters from Afar to the defiant Stalin and Kamenev. Even as the Old Man approached, Stalin had shortened or refused to publish Lenin’s articles, which he criticized as “unsatisfactory . . . a sketch with no facts.” Lenin called for immediate power seizure but did not deign to explain how he had decided to jump the first formal stage of Marxist development and jump straight to the second—“the transition to socialism.”
* Lenin’s retreat from his extremism had brought him much closer to Stalin’s often - denounced policies. Stalin felt that Lenin’s insistence on “European civil war” was over the top, talk of “dictatorship” impolitic, and demands for “land nationalization” insensitive to peasant hopes. Lenin, attuning himself to the real demands of Russian politics, gradually altered these policies in public.
* These “provincials” were the tough Committeemen who loathed Trotsky and would become the Stalinists of the future, many of them friends from the Caucasus. Such Bolshevik praktiki certainly knew Stalin’s faults but they had much more in common with him than with Zinoviev or Trotsky. There was the excitable Sergo, the handsome Shaumian, the blond playboy Yenukidze, the easygoing ex - butler Kalinin and Voroshilov. Yet many Caucasians, especially the Mensheviks, hated Stalin. And he also had his Bolshevik critics from the Caucasus. Makharadze and Japaridze, old comrades from Tiflis and Baku, attacked Stalin’s approach to the Caucasian peoples at the April Conference, as did the Pole Felix Dzerzhinsky. Yet Stalin befriended Dzerzhinsky, founder of the secret police, perhaps because Poles and Georgians identified with one another as proud peoples colonized by Russia. Both men studied for the priesthood, wrote poetry, were obsessed with loyalty and betrayal. Both were skilled practitioners of secret - police work. Both were dominated by powerful mothers and suffered from dour fathers. Both were terrible parents; both fanatical and solitary creatures. Surprisingly for two so similar, they became allies.
* The Bolshevik Military Organization ignored Lenin’s caution, showing that the Bolsheviks were still far from a disciplined force under a single leader. On the contrary, they remained insubordinate and fractious. The slavish monolith of the Party of Stalin was still years in the future.
* Some broke into the palace where the Soviet sat under siege, refusing to take power. The mob seized Chernov, the frail SR leader, and started to lynch him until, in a virtuoso performance, Trotsky intervened, leaped onto a limousine, addressed the sailors and rescued the terrified politician.
* Stalin’s Menshevik henchman from Baku, Vyshinsky, was head of Moscow’s Arbat region militia under Kerensky and signed arrest warrants for top Bolsheviks, including Lenin. After October, he joined the Bolsheviks. His shameful obedience to Kerensky ensured canine submission to Stalin to whose whim he owed his very survival.