St. Petersburg: to the Finland Station

August 7, 2011 • 5:22 am

I often wonder what Russia would have been like had Lenin and the Bolsheviks not assumed power during the Russian Revolution.  A revolution was clearly in the offing anyway, and surely the tsar would have been deposed, but perhaps had Lenin not existed, Russia might have avoided the tortures, famines, and persecutions of the years under Communism.

At any rate, I saw few signs of those times in St. Petersburg.  There are a few plaques and statues of Lenin, but not much else.  There are, however, a few monuments to the revolution. One is at the Finland Station, a railroad station famous as the arrival point of Lenin on April 16, 1917, an event that ultimately triggered the October revolution that put the communists in power.  Lenin was in Switzerland when he heard about the earlier February revolution, and he, in complicity with the German government, arranged to be ferried across Germany in a closed train. (Germany was at war with Russia, and hoped that Lenin’s arrival there would speed Russia’s withdrawal from the war.)

Lenin then went to Sweden, and was taken to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) on a train whose locomotive is now preserved on the platform at the Finland Station (below). This locomotive is also the same one, with the same driver, that brought Lenin back from Finland when he had to beat a hasty retreat there in August after the Bolsheviks had been arrested.  Lenin returned to the Finland Station for the second time in October, 1917.  The rest is history.

When Lenin arrived the first time, he made a famous address to the crowd while standing atop an armored car.  The substance of his revolutionary speech has, as far as I know, been lost to history.  Lenin’s writings, produced during his exile in Switzerland, were well known to the Russian public, but his arrival in Petrograd was the first time that many of them had actually seen the man who would so alter their lives. Here’s a depiction of his arrival:

The title of my post comes from a famous book by literary critic Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History, an erudite but readable account of the history of revolutionary thought beginning with the French Revolution and culminating with Lenin’s arrival at the station. I’d recommend it if you have any interest in the Russian Revolution. (Wilson was, by the way, one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best friends when they were undergrads at Princeton).

Here’s the plaque at the locomotive site. (As I said in a previous post, I had to do some extremely fast talking, helped by a Russian student, to get onto the platform to see the locomotive. I think that few tourists try to see it, for entry to the platform is forbidden):

My colleague Ilya Ruvinsky translates the Russian as follows: “13.6.1957 – June 13, 57.  The Government of Finland gifted this steam engine to the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in memory of the trips taken by V. I. Lenin in Finland during difficult times.”

A statue of Lenin stands in the square in front of the station, supposedly right on the spot where he addressed the crowd from the armored car. He seems to be standing on a turret:

Sadly, the original Finland Station was torn down in 1970 to make way for the new station, a Soviet-style monstrosity.

One other relic of the Revolution is a naval vessel that floats, permanently at rest, in the Bolshaya Nevka harbor.  It’s the Russian cruiser Aurora, built in Petrograd for the Russo-Japanese war.  The ship returned to Petrograd in 1916, where revolution was already in the air, and many of the crew became Bolsheviks.  Supposedly at Lenin’s orders, the ship fired a blank shot at the Winter Palace at 9:45 p.m., Nov. 7, 1917 (October 25 under the old-style calendar).  It was that shot that was the signal for the assault on the Palace that led to the Bolsheviks’ assumption of power.

The Aurora was sunk during the Nazi’s siege of Leningrad, but was raised, repaired, and now serves as a museum.  I couldn’t enter because it was closed on the day I visited, but the ship is still evocative of not only the Revolution, but of a bygone era when warships look antiquated to our eye (note the two masts for sails):

30 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: to the Finland Station

  1. I wonder: what is the modern Russian’s opinion of Lenin and Stalin? In the States, of course, they’re boogeymen — but, then again, they always have been.

    Are there Russians (in any sort of significant numbers) who still support either?



    1. I’ve read articles which indicate that Stalin has his fans in Russia today, as a symbol of Russian power.

      I have no idea how widespread that support is, but it exists. It may be similar to neo-Nazism in Germany.

      Of course, not all Russians suffered under Stalin. For many, Communism meant a rise in their standard of living, free education, etc.

      I have a friend, now in his 60’s, who was schooled in the Stalinist era, and he does say that public education was excellent then, although very authoritarian in its nature. By the way, my friend, who now lives in the U.S., is by no means pro-Stalin.

    2. I attended college with people who thought the light shone out of Stalin’s fundament. I never could see it myself.

  2. Soviet statuary is brutal and dehumanizing—I saw this firsthand in Budapest. But today, Soviet statues of the “future looking New Man” are simply funny.

    Great post on tourism beyond the stanchions—the only way to travel.

  3. The Aurora according to Wikipedia was also involved with the Dogger Bank incident during the Russo-Japanese war (the Russian Navy fired on a British fishing fleet (and also slightly earlier one of their own ships, Aurora) in the North Sea apparently thinking they were enemy vessels). The British were not amused.

  4. About the translation: I think it should be something more like “13.6.1957 – June 13, 57. The Government of Finland gifted this steam engine to the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in memory of the trips taken by V. I. Lenin in it [the steam engine] during difficult times.” It looks like you had a native speaker translate it, but if the monument is to the train itself that Lenin traveled in, this seems to make more sense. Also, the particular phrase your colleague translates as “in Finland” doesn’t have the right gender to refer to a country.

    1. It refers to travels by the engine “on Finnish territory”. I’m not sure which phrase you’re saying is mistranslated?

      1. The translation seems ok. The Finnish text above the Russian one refers to “the memory of the trips taken by V.I.Lenin with this engine on Finnish soil”. However, the year being 1957, plaques like this might have just a little bit different meanings in Finnish and Russian, depending on what was politically desirable for each side’s old geezers.

  5. The masts on Aurora would not have been for sails, but for signals. She was launched in 1900, before radio was being used to pass signals between ships.

    The Imperial Russian Navy followed the same procedure as the Royal Navy at the time, and made use of flags to signal to other ships.

    There was also something of hangover from the days of sail, and masts were also retained it seems for aesthetic reasons. The admirals who ran the navies of the day liked masts!

    There are ships which were powered by both steam and sail. HMS Warrior, the first ocean-going Ironclad is example.

    Source: Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships 1860-1905, Conway.

    1. There is also another reason for retaining masts, and I need to kick myself for forgetting to mention it!

      If you look at the forward mast of Aurora, you will see what looks like a tin shack about half-way up. In battle this would contained an officer (normally the gunner officer) whose job it was to spot the enemy, and work out the range. He would also have had the job of spotting the fall of shot and issuing corrections to the guns.

    2. I agree with you Matt & I note that the dual mast concept survived WWII ~ it is multi-function & changing function evolution [what’s that called in evolutionarybiologyspeak ?) . The mast is dead now mainly because it is very ‘loud’ on the radar

      The below is a bit speculative

      THIS is a photo of a model of the Russian cruiser ‘Rossia’ or ‘Rossiya’. It’s on display at the St. Petersburg Naval Museum & this is also how the ‘Avrora’ would have looked during the early stages of the Russo-Japanese War ~ far prettier

      In the 1890s all of the major European powers & Russia were doing their best to carve out pieces of coastal China. Russia’s competitors in the arena were England and Japan. Russia recognised that she couldn’t match the RN in a Naval war so chose the French strategy of commerce warfare ~ hence the class of protected cruisers of which the ‘Avrora’ is one of three ships named for Greek goddesses. She didn’t get her St Andrew’s flag until July 1903 due to a few design cockups

      HERE are more pics showing some interesting details of the ship as she is now displayed including speaking tubes to comm with the armoured ‘fire control’ position up in the forward mast. I suspect there may have been ‘fire control’ on the aft mast too for…
      1] Range finding triangulation
      2] Back up should one mast be lost in battle
      If you look HERE at the banner pic you can see how it was done on a larger Russian cruiser of the era

      I think the ship now is a bit of a mishmash ~ not rebuilt accurately to one point in its history

  6. I’ve often wondered how much of the Soviet paranoia of the West was due to the 155,000 man invasion of Russia by allied forces after the country withdrew from WW I. It’s often forgotten that Russia suffered an extended civil war with active participation of foreign troops after the October revolution. I think it is possible that the civil war created the conditions that allowed the creation of a suffocating security state in the Soviet Union. The terrorist attacks of September 11 have been used to institute policies in the United States that never would have been tolerated in previous decades.

    1. I don’t think you mean factoid.

      Factoids are by definition supposed facts that are actually not true!

  7. The Pet Shop Boys’ hit single “West End Girls” includes the line “From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station”, recalling Lenin’s route. Neil Tennant of PSB has a degree in history, and they also wrote a soundtrack for the the silent film “The Battleship Potemkin”.

  8. he made a famous address to the crowd while standing atop an armored car

    That word ‘atop’ also came up in many accounts of the the so-called ‘failed coup’ of 1991 in which Gorbachev was deposed and Yeltsin took power. History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes.

  9. The tsar had been deposed in March 1917, seven months before the October revolution. Lenin overthrew a social-democrat government.

  10. Yes, the Russian Battleship “Aurora” was old even at the time of the revolution and was probably the only “man of war” they had because it was too old to participate in the Rosso-Japaneses War and because Russia lost practically their whole fleet in the Tsushima Straits. When the Japanese took Port Arthur, Russia was so stung by this little, upstart Japan that the entire fleet steemed 18,000 miles,stopping in Madagascar and Vietnam for coal. They decided to take the shorter route betwen Korea and Japan, the Tsushima Strait. May 1905, Admiral Togo did what every Admiral has dreamed of doing, HE CROSSED THE “T” sinking 8 Russian Battleships and numerous others. In the strait the Russians could not turn left or right and could not fire to the front. Togo caught them with his broadsides as they came out of the strait. IN 1938/9 the US built the North Carolina and Washington, smaller than the later Missouri class but they were built to withstand the recoil of firing their foreward 6, 16 inch guns over the bow.
    The later Missouri and Iowa class could not. The N. Carolina sits in Wilmingtonm NC surrounded by about 4 feet of brown water from the rusting of her 18 inch thick armor at the waterline.

    1. Gayle quote:

      …the Russian Battleship “Aurora” was old even at the time of the revolution and was probably the only “man of war” they had because it was too old to participate in the Rosso-Japaneses War and because Russia lost practically their whole fleet in the Battle of Tsushima on Straits

      ** She wasn’t a battleship, but a ‘protected cruiser’
      ** She wasn’t too old for the Russo-Japanese War [her hull was laid down in 1896 & she was commissioned in 1903]
      ** She was at Tsushima. She & two other cruisers escaped the destruction & broke through to neutral Manila, where they were interned for the duration
      ** In the 12 years between Tsushima & the 1917 revolution the Russian Imperial Navy rebuilt
      ** The reason why the “Aurora” gained revolutionary fame was she was laid up from autumn 1916 in St Petersburg Franco-Russian plant while major repairs were made. Being in close contact to the workers of a plant, the cruiser’s seamen were involved in revolutionary propaganda

      Russia on verge of catastrophe by the war ~ sailors together with the workers hoisted the Red flag. Commanding officer killed, senior officer wounded, most of crew landed and joined the revolt.

      1. In the North Sea they panicked & attccked the Hull fishing fleet almost starting a war with Great Britain.

  11. I suspect — Soviet history buffs will know better — that the Lenin painting is an example of fake history, with Stalin inserted behind Lenin to boost his legitimacy as Lenin’s successor.

  12. I wonder how things would have been different too, except that for some curious reasons I start ~100yrs earlier. How would history have been different if Gustav IY Adolf of Sweden had married Catherine the Great’s granddaughter ca. 1796. Everyone was in the church, ready, when GIVA refused to sign a document delivered to him at the last minute to guarantee that the granddaughter would be allowed to practice Russian Orthodoxy in Sweden. GIVA was insulted that the word he’d already given wasn’t good enough, and the marriage never took place as a result and the granddaughter died of TB a year later. Would that have happened if she had instead been in Stockholm?

    Then, in 1809, GIVA was deposed partly for having lost Finland to Russia, which retained it as a Grand Duchy until 1917. The loss has been attributed at least in part to GIVA’s sense that (as had surely been driven into him) as a royal, his every decision was divinely inspired.

  13. I am in st Petersburg at the moment having visited Finland Station and the Aurora today.
    If you want to see Lenin’s train you need to go on to the platform we found the easiest thing to do was to buy a return ticket to the nearest station so you can pass through the electronic ticket machines. It cost 176 doubles about $6. Worth it.
    I thought that the cannons of the Aurora were removed during the Siege and the Aurora was deliberately sunk on it’s mooring to protect it from the German bombs.
    Our guide was upset because a number of Americans had said that the loss of over 1 million lives in the Siege was Russian propaganda hard to tell whether it was ignorance or a cold war hang over. Sad to have to apologize for bad behavior.
    I think Russians are not keen to discuss the Soviet period because there is still a significant group that would like a return to Communism. Most young people in Russia seem to have little knowledge or interest in 20 th century Russian history but there is a lot of interest in the tsars
    St Petersburg is incredibly beautiful definitely worth the effort of coming here

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