Lenin in London
“The immensity of London staggered us. Although the weather was filthy the day we arrived, Vladimir Ilyich brightened up at once and began to look around this citadel of capitalism with curiosity ...”
In April, 1968 the Soviet English language magazine Sputnik published an article about the various times Lenin and Krupskaya stayed in London, England and the experiences they had there. They were in London in 1902-03, again in 1905 and 1907, and finally in 1908.
There are many interesting anecdotes including their living conditions, dislike of much of English cuisine, the publishing of Iskra and preparations for the Second Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party.
The two -- who used the last name Richter while there -- really enjoyed the sights of London, the buses, Hyde Park, Speaker's Corner and other features. They liked to visit working class neighbourhoods on pay day to watch the hustle and bustle and street food culture. They attended lectures, went to meetings and even visited a socialist church—Seven Sisters—at which they heard the congregation sing a hymn:
“Lead us, O Lord,
from the Kingdom of Capitalism
into the Kingdom of Socialism”.
Lenin was very impressed by London's reading rooms where people would gather to read newspapers and magazines and after the revolution hoped that similar reading rooms could be introduced in the USSR.
Today, in honour of the anniversary of Lenin's birth, we reproduce the article in full with its illustrations.
The British Museum Reading Room, an Irish speaker in Hyde Park, rides through the city on the tops of buses—these were some of the things Lenin liked about London on his first visit there in 1902-03. “The immensity of London staggered us. Although the weather was filthy the day we arrived, Vladimir Ilyich* brightened up at once and began to look around this citadel of capitalism with curiosity ...”
Thus Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, records their arrival in April 1902. Iskra, the illegal Russian Marxist paper, of which Lenin was editor, had been transferred to London from Munich, where further publication had become impossible.
Both Lenin and Krupskaya had studied English previously, and while in exile in Siberia had even translated the Webbs’ massive work on British trade unionism into Russian. Their theoretical knowledge, however, proved streets ahead of their spoken English, and they were horrified to discover that they understood nobody, and nobody understood them, once they were there.
While the comical situations it got them into amused Lenin, he decided that the language had to be tackled seriously. Teachers were advertised for, and they started going to all sorts of meetings.
“We went fairly often to Hyde Park at the beginning,” Krupskaya recalls. “Speakers there harangued the crowds on all kinds of subjects. One man—an atheist—tried to prove to a group of curious listeners that there was no God. We particularly liked one such speaker—he had an Irish accent, which we were better able to understand. Next to him a Salvation Army man was shouting out appeals to Almighty God, while a little way off a salesman was holding forth about the drudgery of shop assistants in the big stores.”
Lenin also enjoyed listening to after-service lectures and debates held at some working-class chapels, and once or twice he and Krupskaya visited a socialist church—Seven Sisters—at which they heard the congregation sing a hymn:
“Lead us, O Lord,
from the Kingdom of Capitalism
into the Kingdom of Socialism”.
He himself gave many lectures while in London. On March 18, 1903, for example, he made an anniversary speech on the Paris Commune at a workers’ meeting in Whitechapel.
Soon after their arrival. Lenin and Krupskaya moved into two rooms at 30 Holford Square, Finsbury, where they could cook for themselves and live more cheaply. “We found all those oxtails, skates fried in fat, and indigestible cakes were not made for Russian stomachs,” Krupskaya elaborates.
This house was partly destroyed by a bomb during the last war, and in March 1942, soon after the bombing, a plaque was placed on the wall:
Here, in 1902-1903 lived the founder of the
USSR VLADIMIR ILYICH ULYANOV-LENIN
The Finsbury Borough Council erected a monument to Lenin which was unveiled on April 22, 1942. Then, in 1951, on the redevelopment of Holford Square, the Lenin memorial and plaque were removed to Finsbury Town Hall.
British Social Democrats, particularly Harry Quelch, editor of Justice, the organ of the Social Democratic Federation, were of great assistance to Lenin in his work, and Quelch placed the offices and press where Justice was produced— now Marx House in Clerkenwell Green—at Lenin’s disposal for the production of Iskra, which was smuggled into Russia.
Apart from his work on Iskra, Lenin was also involved in preparations for the Second Congress of the illegal Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, in the writing of a pamphlet “To The Rural Poor”, and in maintaining general contact with socialists in Russia.
“Correspondence with Russia,” says Krupskaya, “frayed his nerves badly. Those weeks of waiting for answers to his letters, constantly expecting the whole thing to fall through [preparations for the Congress], that constant state of uncertainty and suspense, were anything but congenial to Vladimir llyich’s character. His letters to Russia were full of requests to write punctually.”
Secrecy from the czarist authorities was essential, and Lenin and his wife took the name of Richter while in London. An advantage, Krupskaya comments, “was that all foreigners look alike to English people, and our landlady took us for Germans all the time we were there.”
Security precautions in their correspondence with Russia were extremely primitive, she considers in retrospect. “All those letters about handkerchiefs (meaning passports), beer being brewed and warm fur (illegal literature) . . . the whole thing was so thin, so transparent” although, she added, “to a certain extent it had succeeded in throwing the police off the track.”
Among the visitors Lenin and Krupskaya had while in London were various Russian Social Democrats who had escaped from czarist prisons and then from Russia. One of them had broken out of the jail in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), and had been helped across the border by high-school boys, who had dyed his hair. The boys, it seemed, were more devoted than skilled, and the poor man turned up in London with crimson hair.
A great deal of Lenin’s time was spent at the British Museum. He did not care much for ordinary museums, and the only part of the British Museum that appealed to him was the Reading Room. As soon as he arrived in London, Lenin obtained a reference from J. H. Mitchell, General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, and applied for a ticket.
He considered it the world’s richest library, and later said: “When I am in London I always work at this library. It is a wonderful institution from which a great deal can be learned. This is particularly true of their remarkable reference department. You will be told in a very short time in what books you can find material on any question that interests you.”
He was also highly impressed by the many reading rooms in London where people could go in to read newspapers, and in later years wanted to see similar rooms organised all over the Soviet Union.
London life was just as interesting to Lenin as the books at the British Museum. He enjoyed long bus rides through the city and liked to look at the busy traffic and the quiet elegant squares. “Once or twice,” says Krupskaya, “we took a ride on the top of the bus to some working-class district on the evening of pay day. An endless row of stalls, each lit up by a flare, stretched along the pavement of a wide road; the pavements were packed with a noisy crowd of working men and women, who were buying all kinds of things and satisfying their hunger right there on the spot.”
Another form of relaxation Lenin and Krupskaya enjoyed was rambles on the outskirts of London. Their favourite outing was to Primrose Hill. It was the cheapest trip—a sixpenny fare, there was a fine view of almost the whole of London, and it was near Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx was buried.
Just a year after his arrival Lenin had to leave London for Geneva, it having been decided to move the Iskra headquarters there. Lenin himself did not agree with the move but was in a minority of one when voting took place on the editorial board.
He was to visit London four more times after this—again in 1903, then in 1905 and 1907 for the Second, Third and Fifth Party Congresses. His final visit was in April-May 1908, when he made the journey specially to do research at the British Museum for his book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.
*Vladimir lyich—Lenin's first’ name and Patronymic.