Lenin’s éminence grise

Prodigiously talented and duplicitous, Parvus Efendi was a larger-than-life writer, arms dealer, fixer and bon vivant. Norman Stone sizes up the grand capitalist who oiled the wheels of the Russian Revolution and ingratiated himself with the Young Turks

  • Agents of revolution: Parvus (left) with Leon Trotsky (centre) and Leo Deutsch, in the House of Detention, St Petersburg, 1906. Parvus would later escape from Siberia

The title of a classic romantic account of the rise of Socialism by the American critic Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station, refers to the journey taken by Lenin at the start of the Russian Revolution, through wartime Germany to a rapturous red-flag reception at the St Petersburg terminal of the Finnish railway. In 1940, when Wilson wrote, capitalism was in bad odour, and Socialism offered a new dawn. On April 9, 1917 Vladimir Ilyitch Ulyanov (the name Lenin was born with), his cantankerous wife and two dozen companions embarked at Zurich, where they had lived in exile, and proceeded to the German border.

As enemy aliens they needed special protection, and were joined by two officers detailed to see them safely through to Berlin and the Baltic. A little sign of the dictatorship to come was that the train was the first no-smoking one in history. Lenin hated cigarettes: his addicted companions had to sneak into the lavatory. They reached Russia a week later, and Lenin launched his revolutionary programme. By November he had seized power.

Getting the German Foreign Office to set up Lenin’s journey had taken some doing. Scruffy revolutionaries had to deal with parchment-faced aristo-bureaucrats through left-wing Swiss intermediaries before the business was concluded, but the Germans were in something of a hurry, because the USA had just declared war, envoys were queuing up in the Wilhelmstrasse to follow their lead, and the Germans were desperate to knock Russia out of the war – something Lenin, they thought, could arrange.

The man who had given them this idea was one Parvus, who had presented the plan to the ambassador in Istanbul, Freiherr von Wangenheim. The name Parvus was an alias, and something of a joke, for the man was huge. Registered in Istanbul as Moise Gelfand, he had been born (in 1867) as Israel Lazarevitch Gelfand, sometimes transcribed from the Cyrillic as Helphand. He was an Odessa Jew, but Jewishness meant nothing at all to him, and he changed his first name to Alexander. In Istanbul he was very rich, and well connected enough to have Wangenheim’s ear. But he had not always been very rich. Until well into his forties he was a revolutionary exile, living from hand to mouth, latterly from dodgy publishing ventures, from other people’s hands.

In 1910 he turned up penniless in Istanbul, and through adventures in arms deals that have never quite been catalogued, made money, buying a grand house on the island of Büyükada. His usefulness to the Germans came about because, from his past, he knew the revolutionaries in Edmund Wilson’s pantheon, including Trotsky (to whom he apparently suggested the doctrine of “permanent revolution”, which some of us only understand as Marx turning in his grave).

Parvus had much the same background as many of them – a clever schoolboy (the Bolsheviks always came top in maths), sent to university abroad because Jews had difficulty entering Russian universities (girls could only attend St Petersburg University if they registered as prostitutes). He went to Basel, where he studied physics and economics, and only just scraped a doctorate, the examiners disliking his Marxism. He fell in with Russian exiles like himself and, along with many of them, gravitated towards the German Socialists, taking part in the now-forgotten rows over “revisionism” and the revolutionary general strike, as advocated by Rosa Luxemburg, with whom he had a brief affair.

He acquired excellent German (and other languages) and turned out to have prodigious journalistic talent, contributing heavyweight articles in thick journals on the technicalities of finance, agriculture and foreign trade. In 1905, when the first Russian Revolution erupted, he returned to St Petersburg and had a hand in organising the Soviet. He was arrested and sent to Siberia, but escaped and turned his hand to German publishing, getting the right to publish Gorky. There were ugly rumours that Parvus had defrauded Gorky, and his career did not flourish. By 1910, penniless and without family (like Trotsky, he abandoned women and children), he proceeded via Vienna to Istanbul. And there, rather mysteriously, his career took off. We do not quite know how. He destroyed his own papers. Left-wing Turks have been interested enough in his writings, but have not so far looked into the practical side. However, much can be guessed.

There had been a revolution in Turkey in 1908–09, when Abdülhamid II was at last overthrown, and a Committee of Union and Progress took over. A British observer would have said of their name, “choose two”, for they were in many ways naïve, open to suggestion. This attracted adventurers – in the manner of Browning’s Pied Piper: “Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,/ Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,/ Grave old plodders, gay young friskers” – but a free press came into existence. This was Parvus’s opportunity.

In a muddled way, the Young Turks (as the world called the Committee) understood that they were trapped: their revenues were earmarked to pay off foreign bond-holders; they could not collect tariffs because of foreigners’ legal privileges, could not even run their own post A Tsarist secret police mugshot of Lenin’s wife, Nadya Krupskaya office or plan their own railways. Parvus, with his Marxist understanding of imperialism, could explain their resentments systematically, and he wrote learnedly but clearly on all such subjects (including agriculture) in the new newspapers and periodicals. He even produced a book in 1912 on Ottoman finance. He won the confidence of the Young Turks’ financial expert, Cavid Bey, and was given a lease of agricultural land in Thrace.

But he did not forget his revolutionary vocation. When war broke out in 1914 he welcomed it as a chance to destroy Tsarist Russia, and ardently took the Germans’ part. It was for this that Wangenheim received him and listened to his ideas. Parvus said that with German money he could establish a revolutionary network in Russia, complete with newspapers and plans for sabotage. Wangenheim sent him to Berlin, where, in the spring of 1915, he wrote a 20-page memorandum containing a detailed programme.

At this stage of the war, even the chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, was telling the Kaiser that “if we do not lose this war, we shall have won it”, and was anxious for Russia to drop out. Parvus was therefore given the wherewithal. The money could be got into Russia because there was still a certain amount of trade, through Denmark, for the Russians needed German optical and medical goods, and Parvus established a sociological research institute (not entirely bogus) which would employ his agents. This was run by one Jakob Haniecki, also known as Fürstenberg, who was wholly plausible, and a Russian network was indeed established, with underground newspapers. In January 1916 the first of the preRevolutionary strikes broke out.

Parvus went to see Lenin in May 1915, trying to interest him, but here he ran into a considerable snag: Lenin did not trust him. By now Parvus was used to the good life, and he set up in the grandest hotel in Zurich, surrounding himself with young women and drinking a bottle of champagne at breakfast. If it had been known that Lenin was taking German money, the Bolshevik cause could have been ruined, and thereafter the two men dealt only through intermediaries (of whom Haniecki was the main one). But Parvus continued, through the German ministers at Copenhagen, Ulrich von Brockdorff Rantzau, and at Berne a Baron von Romberg, to supervise proceedings. When the Russian Revolution broke out in March 1917, the machinery was ready for the transfer of Lenin. In power, Lenin promoted Haniecki Fürstenberg, but he dropped Parvus entirely, and so did the German left-wing Socialists, Rosa Luxemburg especially, who called him “a whore”. He could not go back to Turkey, and tried living in Switzerland, but was expelled. In the end he bought a villa on the Wannsee in Berlin, and tried his luck again as a German publisher, holding grand dinner parties, trying to establish himself in the politics of the Weimar Republic. Honest people sneered. As to his activities before and during the war, he was secretive, and made a bonfire of his archives.

There is to Parvus more than a little of Robert Maxwell, also (in a way) Ukrainian-Jewish, also with murky Communist connections, also an astute but thieving publisher, also a grand capitalist, also grossly overweight. In 1924, aged 57, Parvus died of a heart attack, to generally hostile obituaries – in the end, the biggest of the Browning rats in pre-war Istanbul, although his writings (recently collected by Cenk Beyaz: Parvus Efendi, Istanbul 2013) are still a great deal more interesting than anything that might have been written by Robert Maxwell.

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