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):