Lenin

Throughout the winter, Lenin had been quietly living in Zurich with his wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, of very little concern to anyone, banished indefinitely from his homeland. They lodged with a cobbler and rarely went out. The great revolutionary was something of a bookworm, going to the public library every day when it opened at nine, coming home to his tiny apartment for lunch at 12:10, and going back to the library from 1 p.m. until closing. There, he read longingly of earlier revolutions—the Paris Commune above all—and wrote inflammatory articles that were read by tiny numbers of purists, equally far removed from the action. But his own revolution seemed to be receding. He was getting older, and he thought it would be many years before Russia was ready. Krupskaya later wrote, “Never, I think, was Vladimir Ilyich in a more irreconcilable mood than during the last months of 1916 and the early months of 1917.” “We old folks may not live to see the decisive battles,” he admitted glumly in a January speech. He felt “corked up, as if in a bottle,” his wife said.

On March 15th, the day he heard the news that food shortages had led to chaos in Russia, he was stunned, and walked to the lakefront in Zurich, where newspapers were publicly posted. There, for the next few days, he received the vertiginous news. The tsar had abdicated! Up was down, and vice versa. Could he go back now? A new world was opening up. It was almost surreal.

In fact, the word “surrealism” was coming into existence at exactly that moment, one of the many ways in which artists and writers were trying to invent what Guillaume Apollinaire, the inventor of the word, called a “New Spirit.” To a surprising degree, Zurich, the Swiss city we think of as home to banks and burghers, was also a fountain of creativity, embracing irrationality even more passionately than Paris did. From around Europe, expatriates had descended upon Zurich to escape the horrors of the war. Not far from Lenin’s flat, James Joyce was writing word symphonies into his “Scribbledehobble” notebook and beginning to write “Ulysses.” A few streets away, another word, “Dada,” had been coined to describe the deliberate nonsense one group of spirited artists wanted to create, reading poems full of words that they invented on the fly, choreographing Dada dances, and spending much time, the way artists do, in a local café that they called the Cabaret Voltaire. They chose the word “Dada” because it meant so many things in so many different languages—a rocking horse in French, or “yes, yes” in Romanian and Russian.