Alexander Helphand — impresario of revolutionary disaster who smoothed Lenin’s return to Russia

Ukrainian millionaire businessman, lauded for his business acumen, made an enormous contribution to the twentieth-century's dark history of violence - he was instrumental in supporting Lenin's return to Russia to foment revolution.

Alexander Helphand
Caricature of Alexander Helphand. 1920. Credit: INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Who has not dreamed, this year at least, of watching Putin’s fall from power? Who has not hoped to see the day the Russians get to organise and push him out themselves? And which spy team, in thinking that, has not looked for some Russian they might sponsor for that job, some active oppositionist who has coherent plans?

If any spy is reading this, I have a message now. The whole trick has been tried before, and it did not go well. A century ago, indeed, in the midst of another deadlocked war, the German Foreign Service backed a whole string of assorted anti-Tsarist nationalists, Marxists, adventurers and crooks. The most successful of these was Lenin (a warning in itself, of course). But the most colourful was another Bolshevik, a millionaire businessman and bon viveur called Alexander Helphand. Both mastermind and sad buffoon — well-read, unscrupulous and vastly fat — this man helped shape his century. He died forgotten all the same, his many fortunes spent. To picture him — he deserves that — imagine Orson Welles.

Israel Lazarevich Helphand (the ‘Alexander’ bit came later) was born in 1867 in Berezino in Minsk province. The boy had barely started school when the family’s home burned down, prompting Lazar, the father, to take everyone back to his native city, Odessa. That choice helped decide his son’s fate. For one thing, young Helphand developed a passion for Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, and came to regard himself as Ukrainian, at least for a time. But he was also exposed to a welter of alternative cultures and ideas, the polyglot fare of a Black Sea port so different from Russia’s heartland. By the time he was twenty, he had become a socialist, albeit a crisis-prone one with severe doubts about Russia’s uncultured, slumberous working class. He learned a craft — he was apprenticed to a locksmith — but his goals were always to travel, to hasten an international workers’ revolution, and (meanwhile) to sample life and the bright lights.

The place for all of that was Europe, and Helphand’s choice was Switzerland. There, though he met several famous men, he came to despise the inward-looking milieu of Russia’s exiled intelligentsia, the types who passed their pointless days in the cafes of Zurich and Geneva. In 1888, therefore, he enrolled to study political economy at Basel. From there he headed for Germany, the centre of European socialism. Another love affair began for him; this country felt like home at last and he longed to be part of it. For the time being, however, he concentrated on socialist literary endeavours, principally journalism and publishing. Like all Europe’s conspirators, he also acquired a number of aliases. The children of Karl Kautsky, the leading German socialist, all called him ‘Dr Elephant’, while Vera Zasulich, grande dame of Russian socialism, described him as ‘The Seal.’ The name that stuck, however, was the most unlikely one for a man of his heroic dimensions: Parvus.  

‘He used the Marxian method skillfully,’ Trotsky would later write. The two first met in Munich, both aspiring journalists. ‘He was possessed of a wide vision and kept a keen eye on … world events. This, coupled with his fearless thinking and virile, muscular style, made him a remarkable writer.’ Not everyone was quite so kind. ‘He came to be looked upon as a natural catastrophe,’ the Marxist Rosa Luxemburg recalled. ‘Both unexpected and devastating.’  

The way he made his money would prove Luxemburg correct. In 1902, Helphand set up a publishing house, the Verlag Slavischer und Nordischer Literatur [Publisher of Slavic and Nordic Literature]. Its mission was to publish translations of progressive Russian writing — a venture made possible by a loophole in the 1886 Bern Convention on copyright — and to return some of the proceeds to the underground socialist movement in Russia. An early sign-up was Maxim Gorky, whom Helphand met in secret at the railway station in Sevastopol. As they agreed, The Lower Depths, Gorky’s much-admired play, came out under Helphand’s imprint; the profits were substantial. As they had not agreed, however, Helphand kept all the loot himself. The comrades received none of it.

Still, Helphand was no simple crook. His belief in socialism was genuine, and over time it found a root in his passion for Germany. Among his more original ideas was an impatience with Russian Menshevism, for he believed the working class should take power without regard for the so-called bourgeois stage of revolution. The goal, he went on to explain, was revolution everywhere. If Russia’s workers led the way, however small their numbers at home, then Europe’s proletariat would seize the baton, pushing forward to a global triumph (led by Germany, naturally). Ideas like this, in the worked-up form of ‘Permanent Revolution,’ would soon help inspire Trotsky (who acknowledged Parvus) and Lenin (who did not).  

In the short term, however, Helphand’s first practical exposure to revolution came in 1905, when he sat beside Trotsky on the podium of the world’s first soviet, aka a worker’s council, established in St Petersburg in the wake of protests and mass strikes. It was one of his finest hours, all his expenses met by the advance German royalties he’d negotiated for a future memoir. The soviet collapsed in weeks and its leaders were thrown into solitary confinement. Then came the sentence of exile. It was too much for the big man. As his train crossed the Yenisei, Helphand escaped, armed with some concealed diamonds. ‘The fat one has lost weight,’ commented Rosa Luxemburg on seeing him again. He would never return to Russia.

Instead, he got straight down to work. His book, In the Russian Bastille, published in Dresden in 1907, earned him a quite substantial sum. But Gorky was beginning to ask some awkward questions about his own missing royalties. Helphand blamed ‘unfavourable business trends’ and promptly disappeared again, this time heading to Constantinople and the epicentre of the Balkan revolutionary Left. He later claimed to have arrived so penniless that he had to patch his shoes with newspaper. That poverty did not last long. An Odessa childhood had introduced him to seaborne trade. Now Helphand made a fortune selling grain round the Black Sea. He also shipped weapons for Krupp, the German company. In both concerns, he enjoyed unusual levels of protection and preference from all the relevant governments. The rumours started around then: Helphand must be a spy.   

War was his real saviour now, first in the Balkans and then in Europe. Grain prices rose and made him rich, guns made him richer still. But other opportunities called for a more flexible approach. The imposition of allied trade sanctions on Germany — banning almost any deals with Europe as a whole — presented Helphand with a problem. But challenges were what he loved. Within months, his companies were getting round the blockade by trafficking goods to neutral Denmark, repackaging them with Danish stamps and shipping them onwards, first to Sweden and then to Russia. Coal, medical supplies and pencils were especially profitable, as were German-made condoms. Champagne and fat cigars in hand, Helphand bought houses in Berlin and in Copenhagen’s best street; he had a suite at the Kaiserhof hotel in Berlin and drove an Adler limousine.  

But revolution was still the objective of his life. To further that, he made approaches to the German Foreign Ministry, first proposing his services as a consultant and then as a full-blown impresario of revolution. Their mutual interest, he said, was in bringing Tsarism down. He knew the territory, he said, he knew the best people to help. He’d work through networks he knew well — socialists and anti-Russian nationalists, Ukrainians, Estonians and Bolshevik firebrands. There would be leaflets, newspapers, then strikes for his Freedom and Peace. In no time, Russia would rise up, cast out the Tsar and leave the war. But Helphand’s big scheme had a price. On 11 March 1915, the German imperial treasury approved an initial grant of two million marks ‘for propaganda in Russia.’ It soon paid out five million more.  

That money vanished overnight (throughout his life, Helphand refused to give receipts) but the date of the uprising never seemed to come. Undaunted, Helphand turned to the one group of exiles that he genuinely admired, Lenin’s pugnacious Bolsheviks. In pursuit of the leader himself, he booked the most expensive suite at Zurich’s lavish Baur au Lac and set up court to wait. The two men met one afternoon in Lenin’s rooms above the local bratwurst factory, Helphand perched like Humpty Dumpty on a fragile narrow stool. Lenin would later claim to have harangued and then dismissed the visitor, accusing him of treachery (those royalties of Gorky’s), debauchery, profiteering and social-chauvinism. There are no records either way. But it is very probable the two men talked some more.

Helphand delivered for Berlin. He identified Lenin as the right man for a revolution, urging the Foreign Ministry to back him. It was also his business network that smoothed Lenin’s return to Russia — the famous ‘sealed train’ — in April 1917. His people talked to Berlin’s people and his friends helped out their friends. Meanwhile, funds passed from Denmark to a bank in Stockholm and on to Petrograd, ultimately paying for newspapers and leaflets, just as Helphand had originally promised. The big man may have pocketed his own seven-figure fee, but Lenin’s party shared the profits of his sanctions-busting condom trade. The Germans, in the short term, were delighted with it all.  Russia’s collapse seemed imminent; the Kaiser would prevail. As their man wired back to Berlin: ‘Lenin … is working exactly as we would wish.’

The moral of the story was a lot bleaker than that. In the end, no-one got what they wanted. Far from ending the violence, Lenin’s revolution resulted in tens of millions of deaths. The German Reich itself collapsed, dismembered at Versailles. ‘If you destroy Germany,’ a horrified Helphand warned the victors, ‘you will make the German nation the organiser of the next world war.’ No-one was listening. Perhaps to hide their own debt to imperial Berlin, the Soviets had disowned him as a chancer and a crook, shutting him out of the very dramas he once dreamed of orchestrating. His German socialist comrades — those who were still alive, at least — mostly avoided him. Only the Swiss police still wanted him, but that was on account of his wartime commercial crimes.

He used some profits from those crimes to build himself a mansion on the millionaires’ island of Schwanenwerder, just outside Berlin. His neighbours were bankers and tycoons, but he was never satisfied. ‘This is terrible,’ he wrote.  ‘I need change and life … I want intellectual creativeness, the joy of hope, the triumph of spiritual achievements, the joy of new discoveries — I would like to feel again the heartbeat of civilisation.’ Despair would follow him for good, for he was no-one now. Exiled forever from the glittering Black Sea of his childhood, he could only pace the foggy shores of a cold inland lake. There would be no statue to bear his name, no place in Marxist pantheons. Helphand died in 1924, at the age of 55. A true conspirator to the end, he had his papers burned.


Catherine Merridale