Lenin in London

“Special Branch therefore paid no attention at all in April 1902 when the respectable sounding, if rather shabby, Dr and Mrs Jacob Richter – aka Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and his wife Nadezhda – arrived at Charing Cross station.

London offers a refuge to the first Russian political émigrés

Most people know the now legendary tale of how Lenin, the architect of the Russian Revolution, returned to Russia after many years in exile on a sealed train across wartime Germany, arriving at Petrograd’s Finland Station on 16 April 1917. But few are aware of the life he led in Europe between 1900 and his dramatic return. During those years he came to London on five separate occasions. London in fact had been notable for its political tolerance of foreign radicals for some time, so much so that the Italian anarchists who arrived toward the end of the 19th century called the capital ‘the most comfortable place in the world’. In the mid-1850s political émigrés began arriving from Russia, following in the footsteps of Alexander Herzen, the socialist writer and essayist, who came in 1852. The anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, soon joined him to work on their anti-tsarist newspaper The Bell.

Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin

In England Russian political exiles received a sympathetic reception, born of a general British admiration for Russian literature and a contempt for the repressive nature of tsarism and its draconian transportation system to Siberia. This welcome was extended even to perceived extremists such as Prince Peter Kropotkin, the father of Russian anarchism, who settled in London in the 1880s. By the end of the 19th century foreign radicals were by now being watched by Special Branch, created in 1887 specially to monitor Irish Fenian terrorist activity. In general though, the London police took a jaundiced but still tolerant view of ‘all the foreign scallywags in the world’ that seemed to be congregating in the capital, particularly the East End. Until the turn of the century they continued to show far more concern for Latvian and Jewish anarchists hanging out in Whitechapel than they did the Russians.

Lenin’s 1st visit to London: 1902–3

‘Special Branch therefore paid no attention at all in April 1902 when the respectable sounding, if rather shabby, Dr and Mrs Jacob Richter – aka Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and his wife Nadezhda – arrived at Charing Cross station. The said ‘Dr Richter’ soon registered as a reader at the British Museum’s Reading Room, claiming rather vaguely that he had come ‘to study the land question’.

In fact, Lenin and his wife had just fled their undercover operation in Munich, fearing imminent arrest by the German police. London seemed a far safer option at the time, and indeed their year-long stay, in a small community of Russian political exiles living just off the Gray’s Inn Road passed without harassment or probably even surveillance. Lenin and Nadya – and her mother Elizaveta who soon joined them, (and who trailed round with them in exile for the best part of 16 years), seemed the archetypal new immigrants, modest in manner and frugal in their ways. They took first-floor rooms at £1 a week with a respectable widow Mrs Emma Louise Yeo at 30 Holford Squarenot far from King’s Cross station.
Here they lived largely on tea, porridge and boiled potatoes, paid their rent on time and made a fuss of Mrs Yeo’s cat. They kept themselves apart from the slovenly émigré commune at neaby Sidmouth Street where their friends Georgy Martov and Vera Zasulich lived in impoverished chaos. Lenin was totally focused on his political work and spent much of his time either at the editorial office of his radical newspaper The Spark provided by the socialist 20th Century Press at their premises in Clerkenwell Green, or at the British Library, often saving the bus fare by walking there. There was little time and no funding for a social life in London but when they had the money, Lenin and Nadya took a sixpenny bus ride to Primrose Hill or went to Speakers Corner to listen to the speech-making and practice their English. Lenin also attended socialist lectures at the settlement house, Toynbee Hall in the East End, where he took part in the debates in his somewhat strangulated English and was noticed for his vehement hatred of capitalist London and the English class system. He did however like English beer, and when he could he enjoyed a pint at the Crown Tavern opposite his office on Clerkenwell Green, or at the Pindar of Wakefield (now The Water Rats) on the Gray’s Inn Road, where he also enjoyed its regular English music hall evenings. Within three months of leaving London in the spring of 1903 Lenin was back, under cover, for the second congress of the Russian Social and Democratic Labour Party at which the historic Bolshevik/Menshevik split in the party took place. So secretive were the delegates about it, that to this day we still don’t know the conference’s precise locations, though it is likely it was held in several hired rooms in pubs and clubs in and around Charlotte Street off the Tottenham Court Road and around the Gray’s Inn Road.

Lenin’s 2nd Visit to London: 25 April – 10 May 1905

After the events of Bloody Sunday in Russia in January 1905, when Cossack troops charged a peaceful protest march of workers demanding improved conditions and wages, London saw a large influx of Russian and Jewish political émigrés. Many of them settled in the East End, and so London was chosen once again as the location for the 3rd congress of the RSDLP. However, its numbers were severely limited because many delegates could not get out of Russia to attend, and because the Mensheviks boycotted it. During the conference – once again held in the back rooms of various pubs in the Kings Cross area – Lenin stayed at a safe house at no 16 Percy Circus, which still has a blue plaque to this day.
By 1905 Special Branch had finally awoken to the rise of the RSDLP and its proselytising abroad for revolution in Russia. Despite the best efforts of the Russians to conceal their activities, this time they were being watched. One of the venues hired for the 1905 Congress was an upstairs room of the Crown and Woolpack pub on St John Street in Islington. Before leaving, Lenin took delegates to the British Museum reading room where Marx and Engels had worked, to the Natural History Museum and Regent’s Park Zoo plus, the obligatory pilgrimage to Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery.

Lenin’s 3rd visit to London: 13 May–1 June 1907

1907 marked the high point of the radical Russian presence in London when 366 delegates arrived for the 5th party congress of the RSDLP, which would be the last and most extraordinary coming together of Russian, Polish, Latvian, Caucasian and Jewish revolutionaries from all over the tsarist empire before the 1917 revolution. For three weeks Hackney, Islington and the East End were swarming with suspicious looking foreign ‘anarchists’. Such was the desperate shortage of accommodation that some delegates, including Joseph Stalin, were forced to stay at the local doss house. The conference venue this time was the Brotherhood Church on Southgate Road (now demolished), located on the border of the boroughs of Islington and Hackney. Formerly a Congregational Chapel, it had been taken over in 1892 by a vegetarian-pacifist Christian Socialist group inspired by Tolstoy. This time Special Branch were watching, as too were the British press, although the elusive Lenin kept well out of their way.

During that visit Lenin, who arrived in London without his wife Nadya, signed up for the conference at its registration centre in a building on the corner of Fulbourne Street in Whitechapel. He probably went for meals in the nearby Anarchists Club in Jubilee Street, that had opened in 1906. But it is not known exactly where he stayed. Most probably he went back to one of his old haunts – a rented room somewhere off the Gray’s Inn Road. By the time he left London, his revolutionary activities had ensured that he was now Public Enemy No. 1 in Russia, with a warrant out for his arrest. The Russian secret police were searching for him all over Europe.

Lenin in 1920 (cropped)

Lenin’s 4th visit to London: 16 May–10 June 1908

Lenin returned to London in 1908 and spent most of his time here alone, to work on his book Materialism and Empiriocriticism. Staying in a rented room at 21 Tavistock Place (near Regent Square), he once again headed to the Anarchists Club in the East End for cheap meals, sitting in a corner, ‘a small, intense man’ drinking Russian tea. The rest of his time was spent in the British Library, which he thought was a ‘wonderful institution’ – the best library in the world. Fellow readers in the Reading Room were fascinated by the highly focused Russian who sat at his desk day in day out with his nose in a pile of books. The English poet John Masefield, himself a regular at the library, often wondered who that ‘extraordinary man’ was. Many years later, one of the elderly porters there remembered ‘Mr. Ulianov’ to reader Miles Malleson as a ‘very nicely-spoken gentleman’. ‘Can you tell me, sir, what became of him?,’ he asked. After a month’s hard study, Lenin left London having got through two hundred books during his stay.

Lenin’s 5th visit to London: c. 8–20 November 1911

By 1911, with the continuing political repressions and mass arrests of revolutionaries in Russia in the tsarist backlash to the 1905 Revolution, the Russian presence in London had dwindled to a handful. The most notable émigré Maxim Litvinov, having undertaken some hair-raising gun running in Europe for the RSDLP, had now found a safe haven in Camden. But the Siege of Sidney Street involving Latvian anarchists in January of 1911 and the ensuing round up of political activists had prompted many Russians to leave. Lenin paid his last visit to London in November, staying at 6 Oakley Square off Crowndale Rd – north of Euston Station, once again in walking distance of the British Library. He spent most of his time beavering away there, apart from giving a keynote speech on ‘Stolypin and the Revolution’ at a socialist conference held at New King’s Hall on the Commercial Road. By now the Russian Bolshevik and Menshevik émigré communities had, in the main, relocated to Paris. The outbreak of war in 1914 prompted the Russian revolutionary movement in exile – Lenin included – to decamp to the safety of neutral Switzerland. By this time, Special Branch had finally woken up to the threat of Bolshevik activity in the UK, with the party’s avowed intention of pulling Russia out of the war should it seize power. The British authorities began worrying that these Russians would actively try to undermine the Allied war effort and once the revolution broke in February 1917 they began watching Russian exiles more closely.

World War II Postscript

To boost the profile of our Soviet Allies during the Second World War, Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky, unveiled a Lenin plaque on number 30 Holford Square during Aid For Russia Week in March 1942. A month later, on Lenin’s birthday 22 April, a granite memorial containing Lenin’s bust was unveiled in the square. The memorial was, however, repeatedly attacked by Mosleyite Fascists and eventually was removed and put in storage. It is now on show at the Islington Museum on St John Street. After suffering severe bomb damage in the war, the whole of Holford Square was redeveloped and named Lenin Court. But the onset of the Cold War later saw it renamed Bevin Court.
Sadly, during my research for Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, I was unable to trace any Special Branch surveillance notes on Lenin during his visits to London 1902–11. His file in the National Archives at Kew does not begin until he headed back to Russia from Switzerland on the sealed train in April 1917. If there were any earlier British intelligence reports on him, they have not survived. Lenin’s visits to London of 1902–3 and 1907 are particularly rich in detail and feature as entire chapters in Conspirator.

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