Lenin and Geneva: the story of an unknown love

The Russian Revolution was started in Switzerland. Discover curiosities and mysteries surrounding Lenin's stay in Geneva

Perhaps not everyone is aware that the father of the Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, also known as Lenin, spent several years in Geneva. It is precisely in Geneva that, together with other comrades, he laid the theoretical foundations for the communist revolution taking place in 1917. If you, like me, are curious and passionate about Lenin’s story, take some time and go through my notes.

Where everything began

At the start of the 20th century, Geneva and particularly Rue de Carouge was a nest of Russian revolutionaries and exiles. The Carouge-Bastions-Jonction triangle represented and housed all political forces opposing to the tzarist authority. While the Bolsheviks dominated Rue de Carouge (named “Karoujka” by Russian students), Rue Caroline was the stronghold of the enemy brothers Mensheviks (i.e. the minorities, more prone to debate) and anarchists (i.e. who were for the hard way and bombs).

Lenin and Geneva

Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov arrived in Geneva for the first time in May 1895, when he was only 25 years old, to see the philosopher Georges Plekhanov, a Marxist thinker whom Lenin had long admired.

That was the first of many visits before, in 1917, he boarded a train with diplomatic immunity from Zurich, accompanied by his wife and a handful of devoted comrades, to cross Germany and spark the revolution.

After three years in Siberia, Lenin returns to Geneva in August 1900 to work on the publishing of the clandestine Russian newspaper “Iskra” (i.e. The Spark, the below picture shows the first print).

“From the Spark the flame of revolution will spring”.

The Iskra was the first Marxist newspaper published in Russian. Thousands of copies were printed in Rue de la Coulouvrenière and distributed around Europe.

But it was from 1903 until 1916, from the neutral Geneva, that Lenin conceptualized the October Revolution, laying the groundwork for the toppling of the Tzar and takeover of power in 1917. His frequent visits to the University Public Library, commonly known as the “Geneva Library,” and the Reading Society provide testament to his work as a conscientious reader and writer in two emblematic venues in cosmopolitan Geneva.

Member of the Societe de Lecture (The Reading Society) and the Geneva Library

The Reading Society was an important study location in Geneva that Lenin attended. He used to sit in the Sphere room, where a large globe was installed at the time, and read books, dictionaries, and a vast range of daily newspapers printed in French, English, German,  Italian or from other nations. Lenin had access to the press, which he used to stay up to date on European affairs. According to witnesses at the time, he used to prepare his talks in the Sphere room by wandering ceaselessly for hours between the shelves of the library and loudly reciting the main lines.

The Reading Society still maintains a list of Lenin’s reads, which include several novels by Maupassant that he read in French, works by Nietzsche in German, books on military art, works on the history of the Paris Commune, and, most notably, Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus. In the book, Lenin highlighted a statement about Jesus’ desire to destroy money and power without taking it. On the side, he wrote: like current socialism.

Lenin’s application to the Reading Society (see below) was endorsed by two existing members: Tolstoy’s friend Paul Birukoff and engineer Armand Dussaux. He applied unsuccessfully at the end of 1904 before being admitted in 1908.

In Geneva’s libraries, he developed his intellectual culture. His wife, Nadejda Krupskaya, recalled Lenin’s commitment to the Reading Society and the Geneva Library, citing the Swiss libraries’ organization and order as a model for the coming Russian revolution.

The Reading Society was frequented not only by Lenin, but also by Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, the writers Albert Cohen and Nicolas Bouvier, and the anarchist Élisée Reclus. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a key figure in May 68, recently conducted a conference here.

Lenin and Geneva

Lenin and Geneva: the story of a secret love

The presence in Geneva of the father of the Russian revolution is rarely publicized by Geneva elites, and we can see why! But, whether we like it or not, Lenin is a part of Europe’s and Geneva’s modern history.

Despite his tumultuous relationship with Geneva, Lenin visited the city whenever he could. Even if he didn’t enjoy Geneva, it was the right spot for him to write and study in relative safety after his clandestine excursions. Besides, Switzerland was exceedingly cheap at the time (he used to pay 12 CHF per month for rent), far less than London or Paris.

Evenings were often difficult for Lenin to fill. He and Krupskaya felt the desire to escape the cold and cheerless room’ they had rented and be into the company of other people. They regularly went to the cinema or the theater, although they usually departed in the midst of the show to “wander around the streets or around the lake.”

After the defeat of the 1905 revolution, he began to see Geneva as his tomb, like a course. He was distressed by the fact that he had to live so far away from his native Russia. When he returned to Switzerland following the events of 1905, he observed, “Unfortunately, the devil takes me again here, in this damned Geneva.”

“Sadly, the devil takes me again here, in this damned Geneva”

In a letter to his sister in 1914, Lenin compared his life in Paris with that in Geneva, writing, “Often we remembered the period in Geneva when we could work better, where the Library was more accessible, and life was less unpleasant and demanding.” I would chose London or Geneva over any other city I have visited. Geneva is comfortable, particularly because of its general culture and exceptional services.”

The birthplace of the Bolshevik Party

Building 2 on Rue de Candolle housed the iconic Landolt cafe, which hosted several talks and events. Every night, the Bolsheviks would gather there and talk for hours in front of their beers, discussing Russian events and fantasizing about their revolution. Its location between the University and the Library, not far from Rue de Carouge, reveals a lot about the area and the Geneva universe of the young Russians of the time.

Georges Plekhanov lived not far away (Rue de Candolle 6). The building is no longer the same, but the gate of Parc de Bastions is still visible from the windows of his flat.

Lenin used to be a very good frined of Plekhanov, before his views drove him away from his more moderate elder.

This occurred towards the end of October 1903, during a meeting of the party’s Foreign League at the Landolt cafe. The Mensheviks, especially Plekhanov, launched a personal attack on Lenin that night. Lenin strode out of the room, slamming the door in his wake. On November 16, 1903, he proclaimed the separation of the Bolsheviks (Lenin) from the Mensheviks (Plekhanov), as well as his resignation from the Iskra editorial board and the party council. The schism was irreversible, and all attempts to heal it failed due to Lenin’s obstinacy.

Art SHop Geneva

Houses and Addresses of Lenin in Geneva

During his time in Geneva, Lenin moved several times, most notably in 1900, between 1903 and 1905, in 1908, in 1912, and finally in 1914. He resided in Vésenaz, Carouge, Plainpalais, Sécheron, la Jonction, and Corsier, among other places.

Rue de Carouge 91 and 93 was Lenin’s first known address in Geneva. The facades of that building remain still the same as they were in 1903, when Lenin occupied the two apartments on the ground level. The structure literally served as the Bolsheviks’ European headquarters, housing the party’s archives and library (around 4000 books and 120 journals).

The Lepenchinsky canteen was also housed in that structure, where all revolutionaries could always find cheap food and drinks and discuss over six large tables and a piano. In addition to the Lenin group (Vatslav Vorovsky, Nikolai Semachko, Anatoly Lounacharski, Grigori Sokolnikov, Grigori Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin), one may encounter Menshevik leader Julius Martov and, on rare occasions, Leon Trotsky, who spent the fall of 1903 in Geneva.

Lenin and his wife, Nadejda Krupskaya, moved from one flat to another in April 1903. The first was a room at the Pension Morhard on Avenue du Mail 15 in Paris (at the corner with the Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers). At the time, the landlord’s sympathies for Russian revolutionaries were well known in the town. Despite the passage of time, the structure retains its original appearance. Vera Velichkina and her husband, Vladimir Dmitrievich Bontch-Bruyevich, who will be Lenin’s secretary in Moscow after the revolution, were also staying there.

Lenin and his wife had their first home in Sécheron. They moved then to Carouge, where they stayed between May and June 1903 in a house which still exists at Rue de la Tannerie 2 bis. This neighborhood corner has kept its suburban feel. An inscription on the white facade recalls the passage of Lenin in these places.

At the fall, they returned to Pension Morhard before moving to Onex, where they stayed in the “Russian Villa” (still standing at Route du Grand-Lancy 154) owned by Paul Birukov, Tolstoy’s friend, who was also housing Paul Plekhanov and many other exiled compatriots. The Rue de la Tannerie 2 bis is not the only structure in Geneva worthy of preserving the mark of the Soviet Union’s founder’s stay. The facade of Rue des Plantaporrêts 3 recalls Lenin’s residence there from 1904 to 1905.

Lenin left Geneva in 1905 to closely monitor the events of 1905 in Russia and Finland. He returned to Geneva in January 1908, staying in the Rue des Deux-Ponts 17 from January to April and then in the Rue des Maraîchers 61 from April to December.

Karoujka Geneva

Curiosities

Geneva is known to be a city of refugees, and Lenin was one of them. A relief with Lenin’s head and the words GENEVA CITE DE REFUGE was installed on the Molard Tower in 1920.

Lenin and Geneva

The fate of the round wooden table where Lenin sat with other refugees in the Landolt cafe and where his name was purportedly etched with a knife in capital letters remains unknown. When the Landolt cafe closed in 1999, no one knows what happened to the renowned table.

According to legend, Lenin met Benito Mussolini at least twice during his stay in Geneva. The first time it happened was in the Library. In reality, Mussolini’s name appears in the reading room record for numerous days from March to April 1904, the same time period in which Lenin used to visit. The second time was on March 18, 1904, at the Brasserie Handwerk on Avenue du Mail 4. The “Brasserie de l’Univers,” as it was known at the time, where the “Bier de l’Avenir” was sold, was the ideal setting for individuals who wanted to discuss a worldwide proletariat revolution. On that day, Lenin attended a big gathering to remember the 1871 Paris Commune. Mussolini was also among the speakers that evening. They could have ended up singing the Commune’s hymn together.

Conclusions

Lenin: benefactor of humanity or gravedigger of ideals and masses? Certainly, one of the most influential men of the 20th century. The architect, some would say tyrant, of a revolution that altered global geopolitics.

Leave your thoughts in the comments.

References

Stefano Meroli
Stefano Meroli

CERN scientist. PhD in Nuclear Physics.

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