Fritz Platten: Switzerland, Communism, and Soviet Russia

Fritz Platten (1883–1942) was one of the best-known Swiss Communists of his time. After an early encounter with the radical left, he joined Lenin’s cause at the clandestine Zimmerwald Conference in 1915. He was the organiser of the legendary ‘sealed train’ which, in April 1917, transported Lenin and a group of Russian exiles from Switzerland to Petrograd, and is said to have saved Lenin from an assassination attempt in January 1918. In the same year he played a leading role in the Swiss general strike. In 1919 he was a member of the Executive committee of the 1st Congress of the Comintern in Moscow. Between 1920 and 1922, he held a seat in the Swiss Parliament for the Communist faction of the Social Democratic Party and subsequently for the Communist Party of Switzerland, of which he was a founder member in 1921.

From 1917 onward, Platten frequently travelled to Revolutionary Russia, finally settling in the USSR in 1923 and setting up an agricultural cooperative with a group of like-minded Swiss émigrés. In 1938, after a period teaching at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages, Platten and his third wife Bertha Zimmermann fell victim to the ‘Great Terror’; Zimmermann was shot soon after her arrest, while Platten was sentenced to four years in a labour camp and executed in 1942. After Stalin’s demise and Platten’s rehabilitation Soviet discourse cast Platten as a ‘companion of Lenin’s, who saved his life’, while his memory in Switzerland, by contrast, progressively faded; his son, Fritz N. Platten, made many unsuccessful attempts throughout his life to write a biography of his father, and left a large collection of papers on the subject, now held by the university library of Basel.

This Swiss/Russian collaboration will proceed from Fritz Platten’s transnational life story to explore the intertwinements between Switzerland and Soviet Russia during the twentieth century’s first half. This will entail examining the history of Switzerland’s Communist and socialist movement and the opposition to it, alongside that of Swiss socialists and Communists in Revolutionary Russia and the early USSR. In so doing, the project will point ahead to the Cold War era, whose ideological roots extend deeply into the inter-war period.

With the University of Basel (Unibas) and the European University at St Petersburg (EUSPb) as lead institutions, the project will involve further institutions including Basel University Library, the Swiss Social Archives in Zürich, the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern, the Archives of Contemporary History in Zürich, and the NGO “Memorial” in Moscow.

The project’s central objectives are: 1) to view and review source material in Swiss libraries and archives (Basel University Library holdings; Swiss Social Archives, Zürich; Swiss Federal Archives, Bern) and Russia (RGASPI, GARF etc.); 2) to prepare and stage a joint exhibition to be hosted by Basel University Library and to open in the autumn of 2021; and 3) to prepare a major collaborative research project on the history of entanglements and interrelationships between Switzerland and Soviet Russia between 1918 and 1946.


University of Basel :

European University Saint-Pertersburg :

  • Prof. Dr. Boris Ivanovich Kolonitsky
  • Dr. Konstantin Godunov
  • Mr. Kira Georgievna Valter