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Exporting Revolution – Lenin’s Return to Russia

Revolution had broken out in Russia in early 1917. The First World War had taken it’s toll on the country and unrest led to the end of Tsarism. The war however continued under the new government. Russia’s enemy, Germany, wanting to end fighting in the east, sponsored Lenin’s return to Russia. This led to the second revolution within a year and established Soviet Russia.

Lenin was an active revolutionary in Russia had to flee the country following the 1905 revolution. He lived in Switzerland during the First World War. When revolution broke out in March 1917 (February according to the Russian calendar – hence “February Revolution“), he was looking for a way to return to Russia and play an active role.

Switzerland was surrounded by the opposing fractions in the war. The German side however saw an opportunity and organized Lenin’s return to Russia.

Why Germany sponsored Lenin’s return

Germany and it’s allies, the Central Powers, faced difficult strategic situations in the war: Fighting on two major fronts and a smaller population compared to the Entente among the most pressing.

Additionally, no one could predict how long the population in Germany or Austria-Hungary would continue to endure hardships before revolution would break out. The revolution in Russia was not a special case. It was just the first country to collapse under the new industrialized warfare.

One way out of the deadlock was seen in ending the war against Russia and taking the troops from the east to overwhelm British and French armies on the Western Front.

Facilitating Lenin’s return to Russia was the tool to further destabilization and the potential peace with Russia.

Lenin’s train journey to St. Petersburg

Lenin together with a group of fellow exiled Russians started their arranged train journey in Zurich, Switzerland on 9.April 1917. They traveled through Germany in a sealed railway car with no contact to the population. After all, social unrest was a severe risk to the war effort in Germany, too.

Following a ferry crossing to Sweden, the group traveled north by train to reach the Swedish-Finnish border at Tornio. Finland was part of the Russian Empire at the time but was preparing for its own independence in 1917 in the turmoil of Revolution.

Lenin arrived at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg on 16.April immediately making clear that his goal was a socialist revolution.


It did not take long for both Lenin’s and Germany’s plans to work out.

In November 1917 (again, October on the Russian calendar) the second revolution that year established soviet rule. It took five more years of civil war however, before the Soviet Union emerged victorious.

An armistice on the front in the east was established on 15.December 1917, with a formal peace treaty following in March 1918.

Germany had closed down one front and was able to reinforce the Western Front. The arrival of American troops in 1918 however, prevented it from exploiting the plan.

In October 1918, revolution broke out in Germany as well, following the collapse of army on the Western Front. Germany now was a republic too.


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