Leon Trotsky

My Life


Now it is time to speak of “The train of the Predrevoyensoviet.” [1] During the most strenuous years of the revolution, my own personal life was bound up inseparably with the life of that train. The train, on the other hand, was inseparably bound up with the life of the Red Army. The train linked the front with the base, solved urgent problems on the spot, educated, appealed, supplied, rewarded, and punished.

An army cannot be built without reprisals. Masses of men cannot be led to death unless the army command has the death-penalty in its arsenal. So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements – the animals that we call men – will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear. And yet armies are not built on fear. The Czar’s army fell to pieces not because of any lack of reprisals. In his attempt to save it by restoring the death-penalty, Kerensky only finished it. Upon the ashes of the great war, the Bolsheviks created a new army. These facts demand no explanation for any one who has even the slightest knowledge of the language of history. The strongest cement in the new army was the ideas of the October revolution, and the train supplied the front with this cement.

In the provinces of Kaluga, Voronezh, and Ryazan, tens of thousands of young peasants had failed to answer the first recruiting summons by the Soviets. The war was going on far from their provinces, the registration of conscripts was inefficient, and consequently the draft to service was not taken seriously. Those who failed to present themselves were known as deserters. It became necessary to launch a strong campaign against these absentees. The war commissariat of Ryazan succeeded in gathering in some fifteen thousand of such deserters. While passing through Ryazan, I decided to take a look at them.

Some of our men tried to dissuade me. “Something might happen,” they warned me. But everything went off beautifully. The men were called out of their barracks. “Comrade-deserters – come to the meeting. Comrade Trotsky has come to speak to you.” They ran out excited, boisterous, as curious as schoolboys. I had imagined them much worse, and they had imagined me as more terrible. In a few minutes, I was surrounded by a huge crowd of unbridled, utterly undisciplined, but not at all hostile men. The “comrade-deserters” were looking at me with such curiosity that it seemed as if their eyes would pop out of their heads. I climbed on a table there in the yard, and spoke to them for about an hour and a half. It was a most responsive audience. I tried to raise them in their own eyes; concluding, I asked them to lift their hands in token of their loyalty to the revolution. The new ideas infected them before my very eyes. They were genuinely enthusiastic; they followed me to the automobile, devoured me with their eyes, not fearfully, as before, but rapturously, and shouted at the tops of their voices. They would hardly let me go. I learned afterward, with some pride, that one of the best ways to educate them was to remind them: “What did you promise Comrade Trotsky?” Later on, regiments of Ryazan “deserters” fought well at the fronts.

I recall to mind the second grade of the St. Paul realschule in Odessa. The forty boys there did not differ materially from any other group of forty boys. But when Burnande, with the mysterious cross on his forehead, superintendent Mayer, superintendent Wilhelm, inspector Kaminsky, and director Schwannebach struck with all their force at the daring and more critical group of boys, the tale-bearers and envious dullards promptly reared their heads and led the others after them.

Every regiment, every company, comprises men of different qualities. The intelligent and self-sacrificing are in the minority. At the opposite pole is an insignificant number of the completely demoralized, the skulkers, and the consciously hostile. Between these two minorities is a large middle group, the undecided, the vacillating. And when the better elements have been lost in fighting or shoved aside, and the skulkers and enemies gain the upper hand, the unit goes to pieces. In such cases, the large middle group do not know whom to follow and, in the moment of danger, succumb to panic. On February 24, 1919, I said to the young commanders gathered in the Hall of Columns in Moscow: “Give me three thousand deserters, call them a regiment; I will give them a fighting commander, a good commissary, fit officers for battalions, companies and platoons – and these three thousand deserters in the course of four weeks in our revolutionary country will produce a splendid regiment ...

“During the last few weeks,” I added, “we tested this again by experience in the Narva and Pskov sections of the front, where we succeeded in making fine fighting units out of a few scattered fragments.”

For two and a half years, except for comparatively short intervals, I lived in a railway-coach that had formerly been used by one of the ministers of communication. The car was well fitted out from the point of view of ministerial comfort, but it was scarcely adapted to work. There I received those who brought reports, held conferences with local military and civil authorities, studied telegraphic despatches, dictated orders and articles. From it I made long trips along the front in automobiles with my co-workers. In my spare time I dictated my book against Kautsky, and various other works. In those years I accustomed myself, seemingly forever, to writing and thinking to the accompaniment of Pullman wheels and springs.

My train was hurriedly organized in Moscow on the night of August 7, 1918. In the morning I left in it for Sviyazhsk, bound for the Czecho-Slovak front. The train was continually being reorganized and improved upon, and extended in its functions. As early as 1918, it had already become a flying apparatus of administration. Its sections included a secretariat, a printing-press, a telegraph station, a radio station, an electric-power station, a library, a garage, and a bath. The train was so heavy that it needed two engines; later it was divided into two trains. When we had to stop for some time at some one section of the front, one of the engines would do service as courier, and the other was always under steam. The front was shifting constantly, and one could take no chances.

I haven’t the history of the train at hand. It is buried in the archives of the war department. At one time it was painstakingly worked over by my young assistants. The diagram of the train’s movements prepared for the civil-war exhibition used to attract a great many visitors, as the newspapers reported at the time. Later it was put in the civil-war museum. To-day it must be hidden away with hundreds and thousands of other exhibits, such as placards, proclamations, orders, flags, photo graphs, films, books and speeches reflecting the most important moments of the civil war and connected, in some way or other, with my part in it.

During the years of 1922 to 1924, that is, before repressions were begun against the opposition, the military publishing house managed to bring out five volumes of my works relating to the army and the civil war. The history of the train is not dealt with in these volumes. I can only partially reconstruct the orbit of the train’s movements from the place names under the leading articles in the train newspaper, En Route – Samara, Chelyabinsk, Vyatka, Petrograd, Balashov, Smolensk, Samara again, Rostov-on-Don, Novocherkask, Kiev, Zhitomir, and so on, without end. I haven’t even the exact figures of the total distance covered by the train during the civil war. One of the notes to my military books mentions 36 trips, with a total run of over 105,000 kilometres. One of my former fellow travellers writes that he reckons from memory that in three years we circled the earth five and a half times – he gives, that is, a figure twice as large as the one mentioned above. This does not include thousands of kilometres done by automobile from the railway line into the heart of the front lines. Since the train always went to the most critical points, the diagram of its journeyings gives a fairly exact and comprehensive picture of the relative importance of the different fronts. The greatest number of trips was in 1920, the last year of the war. My trips to the southern front were especially frequent, because all during that period it was the most stubborn, dangerous and extended of all the fronts.

What was the train of the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council seeking on the civil-war fronts? The general answer is obvious: it was seeking victory. But what did it give the fronts? What methods did it follow? What were the immediate objects of its endless runs from one end of the country to the other? They were not mere trips of inspection. No, the work of the train was all bound up with the building-up of the army, with its education, its administration, and its supply. We were constructing an army all over again, and under fire at that. This was true not only at Sviyazhsk, where the train recorded its first month, but on all the fronts. Out of bands of irregulars, of refugees escaping from the Whites, of peasants mobilized in the neighboring districts, of detachments of workers sent by the industrial centres, of groups of communists and trades-unionists – out of these we formed at the front companies, battalions, new regiments, and sometimes even entire divisions. Even after defeats and retreats, the flabby, panicky mob would be transformed in two or three weeks into an efficient fighting force. What was needed for this? At once much and little. It needed good commanders, a few dozen experienced fighters, a dozen or so of communists ready to make any sacrifice, boots for the barefooted, a bath-house, an energetic propaganda campaign, food, underwear, tobacco and matches. The train took care of all this. We always had in reserve a few zealous communists to fill in the breaches, a hundred or so of good fighting men, a small stock of boots, leather jackets, medicaments, machine-guns, field-glasses, maps, watches and all sorts of gifts. Of course, the actual material resources of the train were slight in comparison with the needs of the army, but they were constantly being replenished.

But – what is even more important – tens and hundreds of times they played the part of the shovelful of coal that is necessary at a particular moment to keep the fire from going out. A telegraph station was in operation on the train. We made our connections with Moscow by direct wire, and my deputy there, Sklyansky, took down my demands for supplies urgently needed for the army, sometimes for a single division or even for a regiment. They were delivered with a despatch that would have been absolutely impossible without my intervention. Of course, this is not exactly a proper way of doing things – a pedant would tell us that in the supply service, as in military departments in general, the most important thing is system. That is absolutely true. I am myself rather inclined to err on the side of pedantry. But the point is that we did not want to perish before we could build up a smoothly running system. That is why, especially in that early period, we had to substitute improvisations for a system – so that later on we might develop a system on their foundations.

On all of my trips, I was accompanied by the chief workers in all the principal departments of the army, especially in those connected with the supply service. We had inherited from the old army supply service officers who tried to work in the old way or in even worse fashion, for the conditions became infinitely more difficult. On these trips, many of the old specialists had to learn new ways, and new ones received their training in live experience. After making the round of a division and ascertaining its needs on the spot, I would hold a conference in the staff-car or the dining-car, inviting as many representatives as possible, including those from the lower commanding force and from the ranks, as well as from the local party organizations, the Soviet administration, and the trades-unions. In this way I got a picture of the situation that was neither false nor highly colored. These conferences always had immediate practical results. No matter how poor the organs of the local administration might be, they always managed to squeeze a little tighter and cut down some of their own needs to contribute something to the army.

The most important sacrifices came from institutions. A new group of communists would be drawn from the institutions and put immediately into an unreliable regiment. Stuff would be found for shirts and for wrappings for the feet, leather for new soles, and an extra hundredweight of fat. But of course the local sources were not enough. After the conference, I would send orders to Moscow by direct wire, estimating our needs according to the resources of the centre, and, as a result, the division would get what it desperately needed, and that in good time. The commanders and commissaries of the front learned from their experience on the train to approach their own work – whether they were commanding, educating, supplying or administering justice – not from above, from the stand point of the pinnacle of the staff, but from below, from the standpoint of the company or platoon, of the young and inexperienced new recruit.

Gradually, more or less efficient machinery for a centralized supply service for the front and the armies was established. But, alone, it did not and could not satisfy all needs. Even the most ideal organization will occasionally misfire during a war, and especially during a war of manoeuvres based entirely on movement – sometimes, alas! in quite unforeseen directions. And one must not forget that we fought without supplies. As early as 1919, there was nothing left in the central depots. Shirts were sent to the front direct from the workshop. But the supply of rifles and cartridges was most difficult of all. The Tula munition factories worked for the needs of the current day. Not a carload of cartridges could be sent anywhere without the special authorization of the Commander-in-chief. The supply of munitions was always as taut as a string. Sometimes the string would break, and then we lost men and territory.

Without constant changes and improvisations, the war would have been utterly impossible for us. The train initiated these, and at the same time regulated them. If we gave an impulse of initiative to the front and its immediate rear, we took care to direct it into the channels of the general system. I do not want to say that we always succeeded in this. But, as the civil war has demonstrated, we did achieve the principal thing – victory.

The trips to the sections of the front where often the treason of the commanding officers had created catastrophes were especially important. On August 23, 1918, during the most critical period before Kazan, I received a coded telegram from Lenin and Svyerdlov: “Sviyazhsk Trotsky. Treason on the Saratov front, though discovered in time, has yet produced very dangerous wavering. We consider your going there at once absolutely necessary, for your appearance at the front has an effect on soldiers and the entire army. Let us together arrange for your visits to other fronts. Reply stating date of your departure, all by code, August 22, 1918. Lenin. Svyerdlov.”

I thought it quite impossible to leave Sviyazhsk, as the departure of the train would have shaken the Kazan front, which was having a difficult enough time as it was. Kazan was in all respects more important than Saratov. Lenin and Svyerdlov themselves soon agreed with me on this. I went to Saratov only after the recapture of Kazan. But telegrams like this reached the train at all stages of its travels. Kiev and Vyatka, Siberia and the Crimea would complain of their difficult positions and would demand, in turn or at the same time, that the train hasten to their rescue.

The war unrolled on the periphery of the country, often in the most remote parts of a front that stretched for eight thousand kilometres. Regiments and divisions were cut off from the rest of the world for months at a time. Very often they had not enough telephone equipment even for their own intercommunication, and would then succumb to hopelessness. The train, for them, was a messenger from other worlds. We always had a stock of telephone apparatus and wires. A wireless aerial had been arranged over a particular car in our train, so that we could receive radio messages from the Eiffel Tower, from Nauen, and from other stations, thirteen in all, with Moscow, of course, foremost. The train was always informed of what was going on in the rest of the world. The more important telegraphic reports were published in the train news paper, and given passing comment, in articles, leaflets and orders. Kapp’s raid, conspiracies at home, the English elections, the progress of grain collections, and feats of the Italian Fascismo were interpreted while the footprints of events were still warm, and were linked up with the fates of the Astrakhan or Archangel fronts.

These articles were simultaneously transmitted to Moscow by direct wire, and radioed from there to the press of the entire country. The arrival of the train put the most isolated unit in touch with the whole army, and brought it into the life not only of the country, but of the entire world. Alarmist rumors and doubts were dispelled, and the spirit of the men grew firm. This change of morale would last for several weeks, sometimes until the next visit of the train. In the intervals, members of the Revolutionary Military Council of the front or the army would make trips similar in character, but on a smaller scale.

All my work in the train, literary and otherwise, would have been impossible without my assisting stenographers, Glazman and Syermuks, and the younger assistant, Nechayev. They worked all day and all night in the moving train, which, disregarding all rules of safety in the fever of war, would rush over shaken ties at a speed of seventy or more kilometres an hour, so that the map that hung from the ceiling of the car would rock like a swing. I would watch in wondering gratitude the movements of the hand that, despite the incessant jerking and shaking, could inscribe the finely shaped symbols so clearly. When I was handed the typed script half an hour later, no corrections were necessary. This was not ordinary work; it took on a character of heroic sacrifice. Afterward, Glazman and Syermuks paid dearly for their sacrifices in the service of the revolution. Glazman was driven to suicide by the Stalinites, and Syermuks has been shut away in the wilds of Siberia.

Part of the train was a huge garage holding several automobiles and a gasoline tank. This made it possible for us to travel away from the railway line for several hundred versts. A squad of picked sharpshooters and machine-gunners, amounting to from twenty to thirty men, occupied the trucks and light cars. A couple of hand machine-guns had also been placed in my car. A war of movement is full of surprises. On the steppes, we always ran the risk of running into some Cossack band. Automobiles with machine-guns insured one against this, at least when the steppe had not been transformed into a sea of mud. Once during the autumn of 1919, in the province of Voronezh, we could move at a speed of only three kilometres an hour. The automobiles sank deep into the black, rain-soaked earth. Thirty men had to keep jumping off their cars to push them along. And once, when we were fording a river, we got stuck in midstream. In a rage, I blamed everything on the low-built machine which my excellent chauffeur, an Esthonian named Puvi, considered the very best machine in the world. He turned round to me, and raising his hand to his cap, said in broken Russian:

“I beg to state that the engineers never foresaw that we should have to sail on water.”

In spite of the difficulty of the moment, I felt like embracing him for the cold aptness of his irony.

The train was not only a military-administrative and political institution, but a fighting institution as well. In many of its features it was more like an armored train than a staff head quarters on wheels. In fact, it was armored, or at least its engines and machine-gun cars were. All the crew could handle arms. They all wore leather uniforms, which always make men look heavily imposing. On the left arm, just below the shoulder, each wore a large metal badge, carefully cast at the mint, which had acquired great popularity in the army. The cars were connected by telephone and by a system of signals.

To keep the men on the alert while we were travelling, there were frequent alarms, both by day and by night. Armed detachments would be put off the train as “landing parties.” The appearance of a leather-coated detachment in a dangerous place invariably had an overwhelming effect. When they were aware of the presence of the train just a few kilometres behind the firing-line, even the most nervous units, their commanding officers especially, would summon up all their strength. In the unstable poise of a scale, only a small weight is enough to decide. The rôle of that weight was played by the train and its detachments a great many times during its two and a half years of travel. When we took the returned “landing party” aboard, we usually found some one missing. Altogether, the train lost about fifteen men in killed and wounded, not counting the ones who joined the units in the field and disappeared from our view. For instance, a squad was made up from our train crew for the model armored train named for Lenin; another joined the troops in the field before Petrograd. For its share in the battles against Yudenich, the train as a whole was decorated with the order of the Red Flag.

Sometimes the train was cut off and shelled or bombed from the air. No wonder it was surrounded by a legend woven of victories both real and imagined. Time and again the commander of a division, of a brigade, or even of a regiment would ask me to stay at his staff headquarters for an extra half-hour, just whiling away the time, or to drive with him by automobile or on horseback to some distant sector, or even to send a few men from the train there with supplies and gifts, so that the news of the train’s arrival might be spread far and wide. “This will be as good as a division in reserve,” commanders would say. The news of the arrival of the train would reach the enemy lines as well. There people imagined a mysterious train infinitely more awful than it really was. But that only served to increase its influence on morale.

The train earned the hatred of its enemies and was proud of it. More than once, the Socialist-Revolutionists made plans to wreck it. At the trial of the Socialist-Revolutionists, the story was told in detail by Semyonov, who organized the assassination of Volodarsky and the attempt on Lenin’s life, and who also took part in the preparations to wreck the train. As a matter of fact, such an enterprise presented no great difficulty, except that by that time the Socialist-Revolutionists, weakened politically, had lost faith in themselves and no longer had much influence with the younger generation.

On one of our trips south, the train was wrecked at the station of Gorki. In the middle of the night, I was suddenly jerked out of bed, and was seized by that creepy feeling one has during an earthquake, of the ground slipping away under one“s feet, with no firm support anywhere. Still half-asleep, I clutched the sides of the bed. The familiar rumbling had stopped at once; the car had turned on its edge, and stood stock-still. In the silence of the night, a single, pitiful voice was the only thing to be heard. The heavy car-doors were so bent that they could not even be opened, and I could not get out. No one appeared, which alarmed me. Was it the enemy? With a revolver in my hand, I jumped out of the window and ran into a man with a lantern. It was the commander of the train, unable to get to me.

The car was standing on a slope, with three wheels buried deep in the embankment, and the other three rising high above the rails. The rear and front of the car had crumpled. the front grating had pinned down a sentry, and it was his pitiful little voice, like the crying of a child, that I had heard in the darkness. It was no easy matter to release him from the grating covering him so tightly. To every one’s surprise, he got off with nothing but bruises and a scare. In all, eight cars were destroyed. The restaurant car, which was used as the club for the train, was a heap of polished splinters. A number of men had been reading or playing chess while they waited for their turn to go on duty, but they had all left the club at midnight, ten minutes before the accident. The trucks with books, equip ment and gifts for the front were all badly damaged as well. None of the men was seriously hurt. The accident was due to faulty switching, whether because of negligence or deliberate action we never found out. Fortunately for us, the train was passing a station at the time, running at a speed of only 30 kilometres.

The train crew performed many other tasks besides their special duties. They lent their help in time of famine, during epidemics of disease, in propaganda campaigns, and at international congresses. The train was the honorary head of a rural district and of several children’s homes. Its communist local published its own paper, On Guard. Many an incident of adventure and battle is recorded in its pages, but unfortunately this, like many other records, is not in my present travelling archives.

When I was leaving to prepare an offensive against Wrangel, who had intrenched himself in the Crimea, I wrote in the train newspaper En Route, on October 27, 1920:

“Our train is again bound for the front.

“The fighting men of our train were before the walls of Kazan in the grave weeks of 1918, when we were fighting for the control of the Volga. That fight ended long ago. To-day the Soviet power is approaching the Pacific Ocean.

“The fighting men of our train fought gallantly before the walls of Petrograd. Petrograd has been saved and has since been visited by many representatives of the world proletariat.

“Our train visited the western front more than once. To day, a preliminary peace has been signed with Poland.

“The fighting men of our train were on the steppes of the Don when Krasnov and, later, Denikin advanced against Soviet Russia from the south. The days of Krasnov and Denikin are long since past.

“There now is left only the Crimea, which the French government has made its fortress. The White Guard garrison of this French fortress is under the command of a hired German Russian general, Baron Wrangel.

“The friendly family of our train is starting on a new campaign. Let this campaign be the last.”

The Crimean campaign was actually the last campaign of the civil war. A few months later, the train was disbanded. From these pages, I send fraternal greetings to all my former comrades-in-arms.


1. The train of the Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council. – Trans.

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Last updated on: 3.2.2007