Sean McMeekin, a professor of history at Bard College, is the author of “The Russian Revolution: A New History.”
Figures of Vladimir Lenin on display at the House of History in Bonn, Germany. Credit Ulrich Baumgarten/Getty Images
On April 16, 1917, Vladimir Ulyanov, the Russian exile better known by his revolutionary alias, Lenin, arrived at St. Petersburg’s Finland Station following a roundabout journey from Switzerland, after spending nearly two decades abroad. Lenin made an immediate splash with a fiery speech and a radical political program known as the "April Theses.” Russian, and world, politics would never be the same.
Because he returned home by way of Germany — and with the obvious cooperation of the German High Command — which was then at war against Russia and her Entente allies (France, Britain and, from April 6, the United States), allegations that Lenin was a German agent were immediately hurled by his opponents, a charge that remains controversial to this day. If it is ever proved that Lenin was acting on behalf of the German Imperial Government in 1917, the implications for our understanding of the October Revolution, and the Soviet Communist regime born of it, which lasted until 1991, would be profound. This would amount to the greatest influence operation of all time, making present-day concerns about Russian meddling in Western elections, including last year’s American presidential contest, seem tame in comparison. Was it true?
In a sense, there was nothing particularly new about a German plot to undermine an enemy government in wartime. For centuries, great powers had played at this game. During the Napoleonic wars, France aided Irish rebels to undermine Britain, and Polish nationalists against Russia. Britain, in turn, backed Spanish guerrillas fighting French occupation forces. The Germans, though latecomers to the arena, were quick learners after Germany’s unification in 1871. They even coined a word for this specific type of influence operation: "Revolutionierungspolitik,” or policy of revolutionizing.
Had the British or French governments been weaker in World War I, they might have been undermined by other Lenins. In fact, Germany did target them, too, though German support for Irish nationalists and French pacifists never amounted to much.
Russia, long troubled with labor agitation and peasant unrest, was the weak link of the Entente alliance, and it is not surprising the Germans put so much effort into undermining Czarist rule. Ecumenical in their support for Russian revolutionaries, the Germans subsidized not only Lenin’s Bolsheviks, but also socialist rivals such as Leon Trotsky, then a Menshevik, who published antiwar articles in Paris and then New York City.
If Lenin was not the only recipient of German largess, however, he was the most important. Although what most people today understand as Communism is the Marxist program of the abolition of private property, state ownership of the means of production and a planned economy, it was not this program, endorsed by other European Marxists, that recommended Lenin to the German Imperial government.
What singled Lenin out from fellow Russian socialists was his fanatical opposition to the war and his support for Ukrainian independence, a key aim of the Central Powers. While other antiwar socialists like Trotsky genuinely abhorred the carnage and strove to bring the war to a halt by supporting protests and draft resistance, Lenin argued in his 1915 pamphlet "Socialism and War” that revolutionaries should instead infiltrate the armies and turn them red, promoting mutinies and actively seeking the defeat of " ‘their’ governments” (Lenin’s own quotation marks).
So explosive were the implications of Lenin’s program, known as "revolutionary defeatism,” that the German Foreign Office intervened to prevent this program from being distributed to front-line soldiers, lest it lead the czarist government to arrest Bolshevik Party members for treason. For similar reasons, Berlin concocted a public relations ruse around Lenin’s journey across German soil, the notorious sealed train — a convenient myth for Lenin, also, to distance himself from German sponsorship. In reality, the train was not sealed: Lenin got off on several occasions, and stayed overnight in a German hotel at Sassnitz. According to witnesses, Lenin even gave political speeches on German soil at Russian prisoner-of-war camps.
Nor did Lenin conceal his antiwar views after returning to Russia. The "April Theses” advocated toppling the provisional government that had come to power after the February Revolution. During the April Days putsch, which occurred two weeks after Lenin’s return, Bolshevik activists held up antiwar placards that openly urged fraternization with the enemy ("the Germans are our brothers”).
After a second attempted putsch, known as the July Days, Lenin and 10 other Bolsheviks were charged with "treason and organized armed rebellion.” Scores of witnesses came forward to testify about wire transfers from Stockholm, money-laundering via a German import business, the German financing of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda (including editions aimed at front-line troops), the going rates for holding up Bolshevik placards in street protests (10 rubles) or for fighting in the Red Guards (40 rubles per day). While Lenin fled to Finland, most of his comrades were arrested. The stage was set for a spectacular show trial.
It was not to be. Just as the provisional government’s case was buttressed in late August 1917 with the testimony of the police agents who had raided Lenin’s headquarters, its prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, granted amnesty to most of the arrested Bolsheviks (though not Lenin) in order to enlist their support against a general, Lavr Kornilov, whom Kerensky believed was plotting a right-wing military coup. In a shortsighted move, Kerensky allowed the Bolshevik military organization to rearm, thus acquiring the weapons they would use to oust him two months later.
Lenin, with wanted posters for his arrest plastered all over Russia on the eve of the October Revolution, did not miss his chance. Once Lenin was in power, far from showing caution in relations with his alleged German paymasters, one of his first acts was to send a cable to German military headquarters on the eastern front, offering an unconditional cease-fire. When the harsh terms of the resulting treaty of Brest-Litovsk were announced in Petrograd’s Tauride Palace in 1918 — terms that included detaching Ukraine and the Baltic States from Russia — Lenin was greeted with shouts of "Down with the traitor!” and "Judas!” and "German spy!”
So was Lenin a German agent?
In his own mind, Lenin could and did justify his actions as tactical maneuvers serving the higher cause of Communism, not the sordid war aims of the German Imperial Government. Fair enough. But it is hard to imagine this defense holding up at trial, if the jury were composed of ordinary Russians while the war was still going on. The evidence assembled by Kerensky’s justice department, much of which has only recently been rediscovered in the Russian archives, was damning. No matter Lenin’s real intentions, it is undeniable that he received German logistical and financial support in 1917, and that his actions, from antiwar agitation in the Russian armies to his request for an unconditional cease-fire, served the interests of Russia’s wartime enemy in Berlin. They also brought about disastrous consequences for Russia herself, from territorial dismemberment in 1918 to decades of agony under the suffocating Bolshevik dictatorship.
The Russian Revolution inaugurated a new era in foreign influence operations. Lenin himself helped to found the Communist International, which for nearly a quarter of a century was dedicated to trying to topple capitalist governments around the world. The Nazis played a similar game in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, only to abandon the pretense of influence-peddling for brute force when, along with the Soviet Red Army from the east, they invaded Poland from the west in 1939. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States turned Revolutionierungspolitik into an art form, striving to undermine one another’s allies and satellite states by all manner of subterfuge and subversion.
Today, it appears that a new round of the Cold War has emerged, though with a different ideological flavor, as the Kremlin promotes populist nationalism in Europe and the United States, even as Western leaders and democracy activists mobilize opposition against Russia and Putin-friendly regimes, such as Viktor Orban’s in Hungary — which then crack down on such activists as "foreign agents.” Revolutionierungspolitik has gone global.
Before panic sets in, it is well to be reminded of the difference in degree, and kind, of today’s foreign influence-peddling compared with past episodes. Disinformation spread by state media, online bots and Twitter trolls is a serious nuisance, taking advantage of the openness of Western societies to undermine confidence in democratic institutions; cyberattacks and hacking are more serious still. For their part, Mr. Putin and his defenders denounce outside political interference in places like Ukraine, claiming that Russian moves there are mere reactions to Western meddling.
Yet none of these influence operations are comparable, in scale or geopolitical impact, to Germany’s playing of the Lenin card, or indeed to what the United States and Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Unlike Russia in 1917, the great power governments of today, whether in Washington, Paris, Berlin or Moscow, are too strongly entrenched to fall prey to a Lenin. Or so we must hope.