The Bolsheviks (Classroom Activity)

The Social Democratic Party in Russia supported the ideas of Karl Marx. In 1903, radical members left the party to form a group called the Bolsheviks. The leader of this group, Lenin, was in neutral Switzerland during the First World War. After the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin arranged to travel back to Petrograd in a special sealed train. Within days of arriving in Russia, Lenin had published his April Theses which stated that the Bolshevik party should work for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. At this stage there were only about 50,000 Bolsheviks in Russia and most of these lived in two places, Petrograd and Moscow. However, their policies of land redistribution and peace negotiations proved popular and by the summer of 1917, membership had risen to about 240,000.

Primary Sources

Cartoon of Lenin in the satrical journal, Pugach. "Lenin reading his own newspaper. The truth - not to be found in Pravda - is that I got two million from Wilhelm! But even that's not the whole truth. If they knew, I'd hang." (April, 1917)
(Source 1) Cartoon of Lenin in the satrical journal, Pugach. "Lenin reading his own
newspaper. The truth - not to be found in Pravda - is that I got two million from
Wilhelm! But even that's not the whole truth. If they knew, I'd hang." (April, 1917)

(Source 2) Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (1926)

From the moment the news of the February revolution came, Ilyich burned with eagerness to go to Russia. England and France would not for the world have allowed the Bolsheviks to pass through to Russia... As there was no legal way it was necessary to travel illegally. But how? On March 19th there was a meeting of the Russian political emigre groups in Switzerland ... to discuss ways and means of getting back to Russia. Martov presented a plan to obtain permits for emigrants to pass through Germany in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners of war interned in Russia. But no one wanted to go that way, except Lenin, who snatched at this plan. When news came that the German Government would give Lenin and his friends safe passage through Germany in a "sealed train" Lenin wanted to leave at once.

(Source 3) Richard von Kühlmann, telegram to Army Headquarters (December, 1917)

The disruption of the Entente and the subsequent creation of political combinations agreeable to us constitute the most important war aim of our diplomacy. Russia appeared to be the weakest link in the enemy chain, the task therefore was gradually to loosen it, and, when possible, to remove it. This was the purpose of the subversive activity we caused to be carried out in Russia behind the front - in the first place promotion of separatist tendencies and support of the Bolsheviks had received a steady flow of funds through various channels and under different labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ, Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably to extend the originally narrow basis of their party.

(Source 4) General Max Hoffmann, The War of Lost Opportunities (1924)

We naturally tried, by means of propaganda, to increase the disintegration that the Russian Revolution had introduced into the Army. Some man at home who had connections with the Russian revolutionaries exiled in Switzerland came upon the idea of employing some of them in order to hasten the undermining and poisoning of the morale of the Russian Army.

He applied to Reichstag deputy Mathias Erzberger and the deputy of the German Foreign Office. And thus it came about that Lenin was conveyed through Germany to Petrograd in the manner that afterwards transpired.

In the same way as I send shells into the enemy trenches, as I discharge poison gas at him, I, as an enemy, have the right to employ the expedient of propaganda against his garrisons.

Lenin on the train to Petrograd by Pyotr Vasiliev (1949)
(Source 5) Lenin on the train to Petrograd by Pyotr Vasiliev (1949)

(Source 6) Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2009)

The Germans had, of course, been well aware, since Lenin's arrest in Galicia in 1914, of his usefulness to them in subverting the Russian war effort and bringing it towards a speedy conclusion. They had been pumping German marks into revolutionary anti-war propaganda in Russia since 1915, in hopes of engineering a defeatist peace in Russia so that their troops on the Eastern Front could be diverted to the deadlocked western campaign against Britain and France. Robert Grimm now approached Count Gisbert von Romberg, the German ambassador in Berne, who was coming under pressure even from the Kaiser himself to accede to the Russians' request for safe conduct through Germany. Lenin's Polish colleague Yakub Hanecki was already in Stockholm raising money for his return, and had been officially appointed as his foreign representative to the Bolshevik Central Committee, when another player and an associate of Hanecki's entered the game. Alexander Helphand, codenamed Parvus, the enigmatic German Social Democrat who had provided Lenin with valuable assistance during Iskra days in Munich, arrived in Switzerland. Now grown fat, sexually corrupt and wealthy on business concerns in Turkey and with a penchant for expensive cigars, the opportunistic Helphand had gone over to the German government, operating its an aims contractor and recruiter for the war effort, with an import-export business based in Copenhagen as the front.

(Source 7) Orders published by the Petrograd Soviet (1st March, 1917)

In all companies, battalions, regiments, parks, batteries, squadrons, in the special services of the various military administrations, and on the vessels of the navy, committees of elected representatives from the lower ranks of the above-mentioned military units shall be chosen immediately...

The addressing of the officers with the titles "Your Excellency", "Your Honour," and the like, is abolished and these titles are replaced by the address of "Mr General," "Mr Colonel," and so forth.

Bolshevik Poster (1917)
(Source 8) Viktor Deni, Comrade Lenin cleans the Earth from Scum (1920)

(Source 9) Sergei Pushkarev, a member of the Mensheviks (July, 1917)

The Bolshevik speaker would ask the crowd "Do you need more land?" (Yes of course we do...) "Do you have as much land as the landlords do?" (No, they have much more than we have). "You see! But will the Kerensky government give-you land? No never. It protects the interests of the landlords. Only our party, the Bolsheviks, will immediately give you land"... Several times I tried to take the floor and to explain that the Bolsheviks make promises which they can never fulfil. I used figures from agrarian statistics to prove my point; but I saw that the crowded square was unsuitable for academic discussion, and especially for statistics.

(Source 10) Resolution passed by the Bolshevik Central Committee (10th October, 1917)

The Central Committee recognizes that the international position of the Russian revolution... as well as the military situation (the indubitable decision of the Russian bourgeoisie and Kerensky and Co. to surrender Petrograd to the Germans), and the fact that the proletarian party has gained a majority in the Soviets - all this, taken in conjunction with the peasant revolt and the swing of the popular confidence towards our Party (the elections in Moscow), and, finally, the obvious preparations being made for a second Kornilov affair (the withdrawal of troops from Petrograd, the dispatch of Cossacks to Petrograd, the surrounding of Minsk by Cossack, etc.) - all this places the armed uprising on the order of the day.


Questions for Students

Question 1: (a) Use the sources in this unit to explain the meaning of source 1. (b) Compare the impressions given of Lenin in sources 1 and 5.

Question 2: Study sources 2, 3, 4 and 6 to explain why the German Government helped the exiled Bolsheviks to go back to Russia in 1917.

Question 3: Interpret source 8 from the point of view of: (a) an observer sympathetic to Lenin; (b) an observer hostile to Lenin.

Question 4: Explain why Sergei Pushkarev meant by the phrase "I used figures from agrarian statistics to prove my points, but I saw that the crowded square was unsuitable for academic discussions".

Question 5: Study source 10 and then give three reasons why the Bolsheviks believed that the time was right to overthrow the Provisional Government.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.