Lenin at Speakers Corner

Post date: May 4, 2010 9:50:31 PM


We were astounded at the tremendous size of London. Although it was exceedingly dismal weather on the day of our arrival, Vladimir Ilyich's face immediately brightened up, and he began casting curious glances at this stronghold of Capitalisrn, forgetting for the while Plekhanov and the editorial conflicts.

We were met at the station by Nikolai Alexandrovich Alexeyev, a comrade living in London in emigration and who had a fine knowledge of English. At first he acted as our guide, as we were in a rather hopeless position ourselves. We thought we knew the English language, having even translated a whole book (the Webbs') from English into Russian, when we were in Siberia. I learnt English in prison from a self-instructor, but had never heard a single live English word spoken. When we started translating Webb at Shushenskoye, Vladimir llyich was appalled at my pronunciation. "My sister used to have an English teacher," he said, "but it didn't sound like that." I did not argue, but started learning again. When we arrived in London we found we could not understand a single word and nobody understood us. At first this was very comical but although Vladimir Ilyich joked about it, he soon got down to the business of learning the language. We started going to all kinds of meetings. We stood in the front row and carefully studied the orator's mouth. We went fairly often to Hyde Park, where speakers harangued the passing crowds on diverse themes. An atheist, standing among a group of curious listeners, proved there was no God. We were particularly keen on listening to one speaker of this kind. He spoke with an Irish accent, which was easier for us to understand. Nearby a Salvation Anny officer uttered hysterical shouts in appeal to God Almighty, while a little farther on a shop-assistant was holding forth on the hours of servitude of assistants in the big stores...We learnt a great deal by listening to spoken English. Afterwards, by means of an advertisement, Vladimir Ilyich found two Englishmen desirous of exchanging lessons, and began studying assiduously with them. He got to know the language fairly well.

Vladimir Ilyich also studied London. He did not, however, explore the London museums, except the British Museum, where he spent half his time. But there he was attracted, not by the museum, but by the richest library in the world, and the conveniences it afforded for scientific study. Ordinary museums bored Vladimir Ilyich. In the Ancient History Museum he showed signs of unusual fatigue after the first ten minutes. We generally passed very quickly through the rooms hung with medieval armour and the endless wings filled with Egyptian and other ancient vases. But I remember one little museum from which Vladimir Ilyich could not tear himself away. This was the Museum of the 1848 Revolution in Paris in the Rue des Cordeliers, where he examined each little item, every single drawing, with profound interest. For him it was a fragment of the living struggle. When I have visited our own Museum of the Revolution, in Moscow, I have imagined Ilyich standing there, drinking in every detail.

Ilyich studied living London. He loved going on long rides about the town on top of an omnibus. He liked the movement of this huge commercial city. The quiet squares, the detached houses, with their separate entrances and shining windows, adorned with greenery, the drives frequented only by highly polished broughams were much in evidence - but tucked away nearby the mean little streets, inhabited by the London working people where lines with washing hung across the street, and pale children played in the gutter - these sights could not be seen from the bus-top. In such districts we went on foot, and observing these howling contrasts in richness and poverty, Ilyich would mutter through clenched teeth, and in English "two nations!"

But even from the top of an omnibus it was possible to view many characteristic scenes from the life of the people. Standing outside public-houses were groups of bloated and bedraggled lumpen-proletarians, in whose midst might be observed some drunken woman with a black eye and a torn and trailing velvet dress of the same colour...We once saw from the top of a bus a powerful 'bobby' - typical in his helmet and chin-strap - holding before him in an iron grasp a little urchin who had evidently been caught pilfering, and a whole crowd following with shouts and whistles in his wake. Some of the people on the bus also stood up and shouted things at the little thief. Vladimir Ilyich just murmured "humph!" Once or twice we went for a bus ride in a working-class district on pay-day evening. Ranged along the pavement of a wide street was an endless row of stalls, each illuminated by a flare. The pavements were thronged with crowds of working men and women, who were noisily purchasing all kinds of things and assuaging their hunger on the spot. Vladimir Ilyich was always attracted by working-class crowds. He went wherever they were to be found. He went on outings, where tired workers, glad to be away from the city, lounged for hours on the grass. He also visited public-houses and reading-rooms. In London there were reading-rooms with direct entry from the street, which were without even sitting accommodation, merely having stands to which were attached current files of the newspapers. At a later period, Ilyich remarked that he would like to see such reading-rooms established all over Soviet Russia. We also went to a little public restaurant and to church. In the English churches the service is generally followed by a sermon, or in socialistic churches by a lecture and discussion. Vladimir Ilyich was very fond of listening to these discussions, as rank-and-file workers took part in them. He searched the papers for advertisements of working-class meetings in out-of-the-way districts, where there was no ostentation, no leaders, but merely workers from the bench - as we now term them. The meetings were usually devoted to the discussion of some such question as a garden-city scheme. Ilyich would listen attentively and afterwards joyfully exclaim: "Socialism is simply oozing from them. The speaker talks rot, and a worker gets up and immediately, taking the bull by the horns, himself lays bare the essence of Capitalist Society." Ilyich always placed his hope on the rank-and-file British workman who, in spite of everything, preserved his class instinct. People travelling to England generally notice merely the labour aristocracy who have been corrupted by the bourgeoisie and themselves become petty-bourgeois. Ilyich, of course, studied also this upper stratum and the concrete forms which this bourgeois influence assumed. But while not forgetting for one moment the significance of this fact, he also endeavoured to feel the pulse of the motive forces of England's future Revolution.

(From Memories of Lenin by Krupskaya, pages 65-67)