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Home | History | Russians in London: Lenin

Russians in London: Lenin

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I’m no fan of Lenin, but he spent a good deal of time in London, so must be included in this series.

Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, mugshot from 1895 arrest, St Petersburg

Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, mugshot from 1895 arrest, St Petersburg

I haven’t chosen this mugshot as an expression of my disapproval – it’s just that most of the photos that are available were taken after the revolution, and this one is the closest I could find in date to his first, and longest, visit to London. No doubt posing for portraits was not really a priority for an underground revolutionary.

But if pictures are scarce, source material on Lenin’s connections with London isn’t a problem, at least in terms of its availability. The difficulties lie elsewhere. Obviously no sort of history involves the unambiguous recitation of ‘the facts’, but works about Lenin bear greater resemblance to hagiography than history, and Krupskaya receives much the same treatment. When I read that ‘one is amazed by her rich memory, expressive style and accuracy … Grief and the pain of her loss sharpened Krupskaya’s memory, and those first years of revolutionary work and life together seemed as clear as yesterday’ (Muravyova, p. 21), I truly wondered whether I had read the same Reminiscences of Lenin as the authors of Lenin in London (and whatever the inadequacies and inaccuracies of the latter work, it is the main source on this topic, so all page references given are to this book, unless otherwise stated).

The excesses of Bolshevik-speak occasionally provide amusement, as when they quote M. Essen on Lenin in Switzerland: ‘He climbs up a wonderful mountain, yet he isn’t thinking about the mountain at all, but about the Mensheviks’ (p. 106), but generally it’s just turgid. There’s also the need to read between the lines, particularly where Stalin and Trotsky are concerned, because of the re-writing of Soviet history. Despite these problems, I’ve used a number of Soviet sources, as a) many of them are available on the net, and many of these are contemporary(-ish), and b) Western sources, having other axes to grind, are generally less concerned with the details of location that interest me. Helen Rappaport’s recent book Conspirator: Lenin in Exile, tells a good story, but [comment withdrawn] has a rather relaxed approach to citing sources, which makes it extremely difficult to check some of the claims she makes.

Lenin and Krupskaya left Germany because of increased persecution by the police, and arrived in London in mid-April 1902 to transfer the publication of Iskra, the newspaper of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). They were met at Charing Cross station by a fellow exile, Nikolai Alekseev, and used his address (14 Frederick Street, off Gray’s Inn Road) for correspondence at first, before finding accommodation ‘two steps’ from there, according to a letter from Lenin to Plekhanov (p. 19), at 30 Holford Square, Pentonville. The house is no longer there, and the block of flats that was built in its place, planned in the early 1940s, was originally going to be called Lenin Court. By the time it was completed a decade later, enthusiasm for things Soviet had waned, to say the least, and it was called Bevin Court instead. You can read more about it in this BBC article.

The Ulyanovs spent just over a year in London, living in Holford Square under the name of Richter and upsetting the bourgeois landlady Mrs Emma Yeo with their bohemian behaviour, which apparently included hanging curtains on a Sunday (p. 23). It is worth noting that Lenin always stayed around the fairly salubrious environs of Bloomsbury and Pentonville. His excuse was proximity to the British Museum, but am I alone in suspecting that he wasn’t actually that keen on rubbing shoulders with the proletariat, at least not on a regular basis?

At first there were practical difficulties, not least with language. Lenin and Krupskaya had translated Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s Industrial Democracy whilst in Siberia, but neither had any real experience of spoken English. The Takhtarevs – Konstantin, the former editor of Rabochaia mysl’, and his wife Apollinaria Iakubova from the St Petersburg group, living nearby at 20 Regent Square (only nos. 1-18 of the original houses are still standing) – took Lenin and Krupskaya under their wings and helped them in this respect, despite ideological differences. In May 1902 Lenin advertised in the Atheneum journal and was soon exchanging lessons with a Mr Raymond (or Rayment, according to Rappaport, p. 77), who worked for the publisher George Bell & Sons, a clerk, Mr Williams, and a worker named Mr Young (no relation) (p. 35). Predictably, Lenin in London informs us that the speed with which our hero mastered spoken English was nothing short of miraculous.

Lenin spent the mornings working at the Reading Room at the British Museum (and was highly impressed with ‘the world’s richest library’, as Krupskaya called it, but not by the museum). His ticket number was A72453. He then conducted Iskra business on the way home (continuing the tradition of Russian radical publishing in London).

Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green

Marx Memorial Library, Clerkenwell Green

The offices of Iskra were at 37a Clerkenwell Green (now the Marx Memorial Library) – Harry Quelch, the editor of the British Social Democrat weekly, Justice, made their printing press available, with Iskra just having to provide its own typesetters (p. 40). Numerous addresses where Iskra workers and other activists and sympathizers lived were used for correspondence. These included: the flat of L. Deutsch, narodnik, Social Democrat and member of the Emancipation of Labour group, at 26 Granville Square, off King’s Cross Road (p. 48); 22 Ampton Street, off Grey’s Inn Road, the new address of Nikolai Alekseev from October 1902; the flats of British Social Democrats A. Hazell, at 85 Avenell Road, Highbury, V. C. Clews, at 62 Mildmay Grove (near Newington Green), and W. Woodroffe, at some distance from the others at 26 Barset Road, Nunhead (not ‘Barsett Road, Nanhead’, as Lenin in London has it, pp. 76-80).

Houses on Sidmouth Street

Houses on Sidmouth Street

In addition, the Iskra editorial board rented a 5-room flat in Sidmouth Street, again just off Gray’s Inn Road, and this became a commune. Most of the sources I have read do not record the house number (Rappoport gives it as no. 14, p. 74), and in any case only three of the original houses survive. Julius Martov and Vera Zasulich (the latter had previous lived in London between 1894 and 1897 and, like Lenin, had made great use of the British Library; Bergman, p. 106) lived there in absolute squalor, by all accounts, and it was frequented by many visiting Russians, such as Plekhanov in September 1902 (p. 85) and, in the same month, a group of Social Democrats who had escaped from Lukyanovo prison in Kiev, including Maxim Litvinov (p. 91), future Soviet ambassador to the United States. Trotsky also visited when he arrived in October 1902; Lenin in London omits to mention this visit, but, perhaps surprisingly, given that it was written in 1933, Krupskaya does. Lenin also gave a number of speeches, including one on ‘the programmes and tactics of the Socialist-Revolutionaries’ at Liberty Hall, Whitechapel, on 29 November 1902 (p. 184), and on 21 March 1903 he spoke at a meeting to commemorate the anniversary of the Paris Commune at the New Alexandra Hall, Jubilee Street, Mile End. Louise Michel was another of the speakers (p. 185).

But all work and no play makes Volovdya a dull revolutionary, and we learn that in between his extraordinary feats of intellectual labour and tireless activities for the revolutionary cause, Lenin enjoyed exploring London. He particularly liked walking in Primrose Hill and visiting Regent’s Park zoo (pp. 102-4), but many of his leisure activities do seem to have been connected with his work: he regularly attended Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park to listen to speeches, and visited socialist churches, including Seven Sisters’ Church on Seven Sisters’ Road (pp. 94-7). As Krupskaya tells us:

Ilyich studied living London. He liked taking long rides through the town on top of the bus. He liked the busy traffic of that vast commercial city, the quiet squares with their elegant houses wreathed in greenery, where only smart broughams drew up. There were other places too – mean little streets tenanted by London’s work people, with clothes lines stretched across the road and anaemic children playing on the doorsteps. To these places we used to go on foot. Observing these startling contrasts between wealth and poverty, Ilyich would mutter in English through clenched teeth: “Two nations!”

In May 1903, following a decision by the Iskra board to move to Geneva, which Lenin alone opposed, the Ulyanovs left London. But they returned soon afterwards, when the 2nd congress of the RSDLP was forced to move from Brussels because of police persecution, and reconvened in London, under the guise of an Anglers’ club, according to Alan Woods. The first session was held on 11 August 1903 (29 July o.s.) at the Communist Club at 107 Charlotte Street. The building that now stands there houses Saatchi & Saatchi. For more on the history of the club, see Keith Scholey’s pamphlet. There don’t appear to be any records on where subsequent sessions were held.

The usual suspects were present: Trotsky, Plekhanov, Zasulich, Martov, Axelrod… According to tradition this was the congress at which the Russian Social Democrats split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, but in fact it was not at this stage a definitive rift. Few of the Soviet sources in any case give much detail on the substance of the differences. Most seem more interested in who was in which faction and what those factions were called than in the ideological differences between them – the description in the Short Course History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) is pretty typical in this respect. I suppose the idea is that the correct line (i.e. Lenin’s line) is beyond question and therefore doesn’t even need stating. If you are interested in some of the nitty-gritty, Lenin’s speeches are probably the best source, and Alan Woods gives an account that is very sympathetic to Lenin, but reasonably straightforward. After the congress, probably on 24 August 1903, Lenin led a group of Bolsheviks to Highgate Cemetery to visit the grave of Karl Marx (p. 141).

Two years later, in the wake of the 1905 revolution, the third RSDLP congress – the first Bolshevik congress – was held in London, from 12 April to 10 May 1905. There were between 40 and 50 delegates representing the various Bolshevik committees and the central committee (p. 150), including Lunacharsky and Bogdanov (Woods). Lenin, who chaired the congress, and Krupskaya, stayed around the corner from their old Holford Square Flat, at 16 Percy Circus, now marked with a blue plaque. There were also delegates staying at 9 and 23 Percy Circus (p. 149). I have not come across any details about where the sessions of the congress were held.



The Water Rats, once the Pindar of Wakefield

The Water Rats, once the Pindar of Wakefield

Lenin in London does have details of some of the extra-curricular activities: visits to the National Gallery and the theatre, the zoo and the Natural History Museum, the British Library and Highgate Cemetery, and also to a pub on Gray’s Inn Road, the Pindar of Wakefield (the book has ‘Pindor of Walkfield’, p. 149 – here and elsewhere, the translator obviously didn’t do much in the way of checking the spelling of English place names), which Lenin apparently frequented when he lived in the area. It’s now called The Water Rats, and is a well known music venue, notable, among other things, for hosting Bob Dylan’s first British gig in 1962. Another pub Lenin was known to visit with his comrades, and possibly one of the venues used for the congress, was the Crown and Woolpack, St John’s Street, Clerkenwell, now The Chapel hairdressing salon.

The Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell Green: Lenin and Stalin did not drink here

The Crown Tavern, Clerkenwell Green: Lenin and Stalin did not drink here

A third social venue, the Crown Tavern on Clerkenwell Green, proudly flaunts its reputation as the pub in which Lenin met Stalin for the first time at the 1905 congress, and the story is repeated in the BBC report on Lenin’s London haunts. Alas, this is a myth. Lenin may well have drunk in the pub during that congress or at other times, and possibly had a pint with Stalin at a later date (although the evidence doesn’t support this either), but Stalin most definitely wasn’t at the 1905 congress. Even the sycophantic Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute biography of Stalin, which tries its best to affiliate Stalin to Lenin’s victories and decisions from the earliest possible stage, doesn’t manage to place him at the scene, and states that the two men first met at the Bolshevik congress in Finland in December 1905-January 1906.

Tower House: Stalin stayed here?

Tower House: Stalin stayed here?

Stalin was, however, in London for the 5th RSDLP congress in 1907, but where he stayed is a source of some confusion. According to most sources, he lodged at Tower House, Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel (then a notorious doss house, now an improbably smart refurbished block advertising loft-style apartments to let). This article by Robert Service from the Evening Standard claims Stalin stayed at ’77 Jubilee Road’. There is no such place in the East End and I assume he means Jubilee Street. Rappaport says that after surviving  couple of nights in Fieldgate Street (she calls the building Rowton House), Stalin moved to the greater comforts of ‘Jubilee Road’ (p. 156).
The 1907 congress was a much bigger affair than the Bolshevik event of 1905, with over 300 delegates. I’ve seen different breakdowns. Lenin in London says there were 103 Bolsheviks, 97 Mensheviks, and others from the Social Democratic parties of Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, and the Bund (pp. 165-6). Stalin claims there were 92 Bolsheviks and  85 Mensheviks. Woods has 89 Bolsheviks and 88 Mensheviks. According to Woods, the Menshevik delegates included Plekhanov, Martov, Axelrod, Deutsch and Dan, and the Bolsheviks Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Nogin, Bogdanov, Tomsky and others. Trotsky was present as a non-factional delegate, and others present included Maxim Gorky and Rosa Luxemburg. Felix Dzerzhinsky was due to attend but was arrested en route. Stalin, apparently, ‘had no voice in the proceedings as he had no credentials from any recognised party organisation in the Caucasus’ (Woods, part 3). Unsurprisingly, the Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute biography paints a somewhat different picture, saying that Stalin took an ‘active part’.

Brotherhood Church, Southgate Road

Brotherhood Church, Southgate Road

The main congress was held from 13 May to 1 June (30 April-19 May o.s.) at the Brotherhood Church,  on the corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, on the Islington/Hackney border. It’s now been replaced by an unprepossessing block of flats. But there was also a Bolshevik congress held at a socialist club in Fulbourne Street, off Whitechapel Road on 10 May (p. 167), A BBC4 programme, Watching the Russians, followed the trail of Russian revolutionaries in London, and William Fishman states that the door on the far left of the picture below led to this club. There are links to clips on this Hackney website. On 3-7 June, the second congress of the Latvian Social Democrats was held at King’s Hall, Commercial Road, Whitechapel (p. 172).

Fulbourne Street, Whitechapel: the Bolshevik congress of 1907 was held in this building

Fulbourne Street, Whitechapel: the Bolshevik congress of 1907 was held in this building

I have not come across any reference to where Lenin lodged during this visit, but Gorky, with whom he spent a good deal of time (they had only met once previously, but consolidated their friendship during the congress), stayed at the Imperial Hotel, Russell Square, and Lenin worried that the damp there would affect his health (pp. 176-7). In their spare time Lenin and Gorky visited the British Museum, and ‘the delegates warmly remembered … a discussion with Lenin on the grass in Hyde Park’ (p. 179) – a slightly unexpected picture. There are also reports that Lenin was seen drinking tea at the workers’ club at 165 Jubilee Street, Whitechapel, established by Rudolf Rocker’s Jewish anarchist group and the newspaper Arbeter Fraint (Fishman, p. 264). As he was in the area for the satellite conferences, this seems not unlikely – the club was not exclusively used by anarchists – but I’m less sure about the story that he created a scene by accusing another person at the club of being a Russian police spy and was arrested in the subsequent disturbance (Graur, p. 99). I haven’t found any other reference to Lenin being arrested in London. Other connections are made with the Jubilee Street Club by Rappaport. She says the inaugural meeting of the RSDLP congress was held there on 10 May (p. 156). This is not supported by other sources. The Whitechapel meeting was of the Bolshevik faction only, and the Fulbourne Street location seems much more likely. Her claim that Kropotkin was also there (introducing ‘his friend’ Lenin to a detective outside the club, p. 157), and indeed present at some of the main sessions of the congress, suggests a misunderstanding of the nature of the revolutionary movement. Nothing else I have read puts Kropotkin anywhere near the scene, and it seems highly improbable that he would have had any involvement with either the congress or Lenin.

Tavistock PlaceIn May 1908, Lenin returned to London to work in the British Library. He lodged at 21 Tavistock Place, near his old haunts of Sidmouth Street and Regent Square, and spent his time preparing materials for writing Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which was published the following year. Lenin’s final, brief, trip to London was in Autumn 1911. He stayed at 6 Oakley Square, near Mornington Crescent (p. 188), and gave a lecture on ‘Stolypin and the Revolution’ at the New King’s Hall, Commercial Road, on 11 November (p. 193).


Jay Bergman, Vera Zasulich: A Biography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983)

Central Committee of the C.P.S.U.(B.), ed., History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). Short Course (International Publishers, 1939)

William J. Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914 (London: Duckworth, 1975)

Mina Graur, An Anarchist ‘Rabbi’: The Life and Teachings of Rudolf Rocker (New York: St Martin’s Press; Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1997)

N. K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, trans. Bernard Isaacs (International Publishers, 1970)

Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Stalin (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1947)

L. Muravyova and L. Sivolap-Kaftanova, Lenin in London: Memorial Places, trans. Jane Sayer (Moscow: Progress, 1983)

Helen Rappaport, Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (New York: Perseus, 2010)

Keith Scholey, The Communist Club (London: Past Tense, 2006)

Alan Woods, Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution (London: Well Red Books)


Lenin in London: A Reply to Helen Rappaport

I recently received a comment from Helen Rappaport, responding to the criticisms I made of of her book Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (New York: Perseus, 2010) in my post on Lenin in London. You can read her comments on my Contact Me page, but I have decided to reply here rather than there, as I have realized that some of the things I said were unfair and I owe her an apology. I described the book as ‘having numerous inaccuracies and a rather relaxed approach to citing sources’, which is unjust. I did find some inaccuracies, for example the assertion that Kropotkin lived ‘in a tiny house in Highgate’ (p. 70). Actually it was Hampstead, although that could be my mistake in my notes, but the real problem is that Kropotkin only lived there briefly in 1893 (at 55 Frognal, according to S. K. Romaniuk’s Russkii London (Moscow: Astrel, 2009), p. 158 – a very useful guidebook I’ve only just got hold of). By the time Rappaport is referring to, 1907, he had lived at 6 Crescent Road, Bromley, for more than a dozen years. Nevertheless, such problems are hardly on the scale I suggested, and it was certainly not my intention to imply that other references I made to the book were inaccurate – in particular, on the question of Lenin’s teacher Henry Rayment, and the name of the building in which Stalin stayed, she has provided the correct version.

On the question of citing sources, again I was too harsh, although there were a couple of occasions when I looked in the notes for references and was surprised to find nothing, and one text that was particularly relevant to me does not seem to get a full citation anywhere in the notes or bibliography. The real problem here is actually the form the notes take. There are no endnote indicators in the text, and instead the notes just cite a page number, a short phrase from the text, and then the reference. I don’t know why this system was chosen – it may have been a decision by the publisher – but I think it is remarkably unhelpful, and almost seems to suggest that the references are unimportant. When reading the text, you have no idea what is going to be referenced and what isn’t, and when you look at the notes, you have to keep going back and forth to the text to find the bits you want. For anybody who is interested in the sources, this is frustrating and time-consuming, and I have to admit this was the main reason why I got annoyed with the book.

So, although I do have some criticisms, I withdraw my previous comments. However, in relation to Rappaport’s claim that Kropotkin knew Lenin and attended sessions of the 1907 RSDLP congress in London, I stand by what I wrote. In her comment, Rappaport says, ‘I find it perfectly plausible that Kropotkin as a major Russian exile and political celebrity would have been invited to the congress.’ It is, of course, difficult to prove that something did not happen, but I think the evidence at least casts serious doubts on this idea. In the Protocols of the 5th Congress of the RSDLP (available in the Archives of the CPSU), the list of delegates and visitors to the congress (pp. 651-58) does not contain Kropotkin’s name, and the search function (which is pretty reliable – I did test it) reveals no references to Kropotkin in the entire 900-page document. Moreover, this Reminiscence of Lenin by Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich, which describes a meeting between Lenin and Kropotkin in 1919, does not suggest that they had any previous acquaintance. I would also contend that if a congress meeting had been held at the Jubilee Street Club, as Rappaport suggests (p. 156), it would have been mentioned in Rudolf Rocker’s The London Years or another work on Jewish socialist London, but I have come across no such references.

I think countering this sort of evidence requires more reliable sources than Rappaport provides. In her book, she cites E. T. Woodhall’s Secrets of Scotland Yard, a policeman’s memoir published in 1936 (this, incidentally, is the book that does not appear to have a full reference). Woodhall’s story that Kropotkin introduced him to Lenin outside the Jubilee Street Club before a session of the congress (Rappaport, p. 157) is a good one, but on its own it hardly constitutes firm evidence. To me it rather smacks of an embellishment, the author succumbing to the temptation to present himself as a witness to history in the making, instead of sticking to the mundane reality.

Rappaport’s statement that ‘reports of the congress [in the British press] all had focussed on Gorky, as well as Plekhanov, Trotsky, and Kropotkin’ (p. 168) does not seem to be backed up with a specific reference, although the following sentence cites a newspaper article about Gorky. I might be persuaded by multiple articles referring to Kropotkin’s presence, but if he is just a name on a list (even on more than one list), I would suggest it is as likely to be an indication of sloppy reporting as anything else. Can we assume that the average journalist knew enough about the nuances of Russian revolutionary politics to be able to distinguish between different factions? Or did they just throw in names their readers were likely to recognize? I can’t prove this, obviously, but I think there is room for scepticism.

Finally, Rappaport provides a reference in her comment to my post to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia of 1979: ‘He supported the Revolution of 1905–07 and spoke out against the punitive policy of the tsarist regime. As one of a small number of Russian émigrés, he was a guest at the Fifth (London) Congress of the RSDLP in 1907.’ I would question whether this is an entirely reliable source, especially as no evidence is provided. One thing I’ve discovered recently is the extent to which prominent revolutionaries from outside the Bolsheviks (not the Mensheviks – they remained beyond the pale) were at various points co-opted into Soviet thinking, both in attempts to conceptualize the revolutionary experience per se, and to bolster the historic legitimacy of the Bolshevism in relation to a period when it was very much a bit-player in the revolutionary movement. James Goodwin’s Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons: Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), pp. 1-8 and passim, addresses Bakunin’s legacy, as its title suggests, but I believe a similar thing happened with Kropotkin, as the other major Russian anarchist theoretician. The quotation seems to me to have that legitimizing function – if someone as prominent as Kropotkin was there, it must have been important. Again, I don’t have any proof, but neither does this reference constitute proof.

Everything I’ve ever read about Russian anarchists and socialists prior to the revolution (and even after it) suggests that they operated largely in separate spheres, adhering to different ideologies, and did not make common cause with each other; it was very much not a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. For this reason as well, I think it unlikely that Kropotkin attended the RSDLP congress. Others may disagree, but I don’t think that the evidence for such a meeting taking place is strong.