Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

2. Meeting Lenin

AFTER four and a half years of prison and exile Lev longed for a wider field of action than the Siberian colonies. So in summer 1902 he decided to escape. During the great labour movement upsurge that year, Alexandra Sokolovskaya urged him to escape from Siberia and go abroad. She herself could not accompany him or join him later because of her young children, one of whom was only four months old. Lev therefore fled by himself. But the deep affection and political bond between them were to last to the end of their lives. In 1937 Alexandra, now a steadfast opponent of Stalinism, would be arrested and exiled to the far north of Siberia.

Before Lev left Irkutsk his comrades supplied him with a false passport. He had to inscribe the name he would assume hastily, and scribbled that of one of his former gaolers in the Odessa prison – Trotsky. He was then taken to a nearby railway station hidden in a peasant’s cart.

He alighted from the train at Samara on the Volga, where Iskra’s organisation had its Russian headquarters. He was heartily welcomed by Krzhizhanovsky-Kler, a prominent engineer and close friend of Lenin. Trotsky’s literary reputation had preceded him, and Krzhizhanovsky-Kler nicknamed him Pero (the Pen) and sent a glowing report on him to Iskra headquarters in London. Trotsky was sent to Kharkov, Poltava and Kiev to inspect the groups of Social Democrats. In the meantime he was urged by Lenin to hasten his departure for abroad.

In October 1902 Trotsky arrived in London. Krupskaya remembers:

At about that time we learned from Samara that Bronstein (Trotsky) had arrived there following his escape from Siberia. They said he was a fervent supporter of Iskra and produced a very good impression on everybody. ‘He is a real young eagle,’ wrote the Samara comrades ...

One morning there was a violent knocking at the front door. I knew full well that if the knock was unusual it must be for us, and hurried downstairs to open the door. It was Trotsky, and I led him into our room. Vladimir Ilyich had only just awakened and was still in bed. Leaving them together, I went to see to the cabman and prepare coffee. When I returned I found Vladimir Ilyich still seated on the bed in animated conversation with Trotsky on some rather abstract theme. Both the hearty recommendations of the ‘young eagle’ and this first conversation made Vladimir Ilyich pay particular attention to the newcomer. He talked with him a great deal and went walks with him.

Vladimir Ilyich questioned him as to his visit to the Yuzhnyi Rabochy (Southern Worker). He was pleased with the definite manner in which Trotsky formulated the position. He liked the way Trotsky was able immediately to grasp the very substance of the differences between Yuzhnyi Rabochy and Iskra. [1]

Under the spell of the veterans

Krupskaya took Trotsky to a house a few blocks away where Vera Zasulich and Martov lived. It was Zasulich who had, the year before Trotsky’s birth, shot at General Trepov, head of the Gendarmerie in Petersburg, in protest against the maltreatment of a political prisoner. She had unwittingly inspired the Narodnaya Volya to follow her example. After the jury acquitted her she escaped abroad. Shortly afterwards she became one of the founders of Russian Marxism. To the young Trotsky she was the heroine of a glorious epic. He come to stay under one roof with the living legend of the revolution.

Trotsky writes in his autobiography:

In London, as well as later on in Geneva, I met Zasulich and Martov much more often than Lenin. Since we lived in the same house in London, and in Geneva usually had our meals in the same restaurants, I was with Martov and Zasulich several times a day, whereas Lenin led the life of a family man, and every meeting with him, aside from the official meetings, was a small event. The Bohemian habits and tastes which weighed so heavily with Martov were utterly alien to Lenin. He knew that time, be it ever so relative, was the most absolute of gifts. He spent a great deal of time in the library of the British Museum, where he carried on his theoretical studies, and where he usually wrote his newspaper articles. [2]

The fact that Trotsky spent far more time with Zasulich and Martov than Lenin was probably an element in his taking their side, not Lenin’s, in the split in the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1903.

One member of Iskra’s editorial board was from the first moment very antipathetic towards Trotsky: that was Plekhanov. The two men possessed many similar gifts. Both were brilliant, imaginative writers, both were sharp-witted polemicists, both had a dramatic way of speaking and behaving. But while Trotsky’s star was beginning to rise, Plekhanov’s was on the decline. Trotsky aptly described Plekhanov’s condition:

Plekhanov was already beginning to enter upon a state of decline. His strength was being undermined by the very thing that was giving strength to Lenin – the approach of the revolution. All of Plekhanov’s activity took place during the preparatory, theoretical days. He was Mandan propagandist and polemicist-in-chief, but not a revolutionary politician of the proletariat. The nearer the shadow of the revolution crept, the more evident it became that Plekhanov was losing ground. He couldn’t help seeing it himself, and that was the cause of his irritability toward the younger men. [3]

On 2 March 1903, four months after Trotsky’s arrival, Lenin wrote to Plekhanov:

I am submitting to all members of the Editorial Board a proposal to co-opt ‘Pero’ as a full member of the Board. (I believe that for co-optation not a majority but a unanimous decision is needed).

We are very much in need of a seventh member both because it would simplify voting (six being an even number) and reinforce the Board.

‘Pero’ has been writing in every issue for several months now. In general he is working for Iskra most energetically, delivering lectures (and with tremendous success), etc.

For our department of topical articles and items he will be not only very useful by quite indispensable.

He is unquestionably a man of more than average ability, convinced, energetic, and promising. And he could do a good deal in the sphere of translation and popular literature ... Possible arguments against: 1) his youth; 2) his early (perhaps) return to Russia; 3) a pen (without quotation marks) with traces of feuilleton style, too pretentious, etc.

... Stylistic shortcomings are not a serious defect. They will be ironed out. At present he accepts ‘corrections’ in silence (and not too readily). In the Board there will be debates, things will be put to the vote, and the ‘instructions’ will acquire a more definitive and imperative form. [4]

Martov wrote to Axelrod on 10 March 1903:

Vladimir Ilyich has proposed to us that we admit ‘Pero’ to the editorial board, with full rights. His literary works reveal indubitable talent, he is quite ‘ours’ in thought, he has wholly identified himself with the interests of Iskra, and already he wields great influence here thanks to his exceptional oratorical gifts ... He possesses knowledge and works hard to increase it. I endorse Vladimir Ilyich’s proposal without reservation. [5]

Axelrod also agreed to Trotsky’s joint the editorial board of Iskra. The only opposition come from Plekhanov.

Lunacharsky relates an anecdote current among the émigrés which, whether true or not, indicated Plekhanov’s attitude to Trotsky:

Vera Ivanovna Zasulich, with her usual expansiveness, having met Trotsky, exclaimed in the presence of Plekhanov: ‘That young man is undoubtedly a genius’; the story goes that as Plekhanov left the meeting he said to someone: ‘I shall never forgive this of Trotsky’. [6]

Lenin became more and more enraged with Plekhanov’s opposition to Trotsky’s joining the paper’s editorial board. As Krupskaya remembers:

Once Vladimir Ilyich returned from an editorial meeting in a terrible rage. ‘A damned fine state of affairs,’ he said. ‘Nobody has enough courage to reply to Plekhanov. Look at Vera Ivanovna! Plekhanov trounces Trotsky, and Vera just says: ‘Just like our George. All he does is to shout.’ I can’t go on like this.’ [7]

No sooner had Trotsky arrived in London than Lenin pitted him in debates against venerable Narodnik and anarchist émigrés in Whitechapel. The novice was pleasantly surprised at how easily he beat those veterans.

At that time ... I gave a public lecture in Whitechapel, when I had a passage-at-arms with the patriarch of the Russian émigrés, Tchaikovsky, and with the anarchist Tcherkezov, also a man of advanced years. I was honestly amazed at the infantile arguments with which these worthy elders were trying to crush Marxism. I returned home, I remember, as if I were walking on air. [8]

After that Trotsky was sent on a lecture tour to Brussels, Liege, some German towns and Paris. The subject of his lectures was the defence of historical materialism against the criticism of the so-called Russian subjective school’. In Paris he met Natalia Sedova and married her. Trotsky’s political future was to affect with equal tragedy both Alexandra Sokolovskaya and Natalia Sedova, and the children of both.


1. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin (London 1970), pages 59-60.

2. Trotsky, My Life, page 146.

3. Trotsky, My Life, page 150

4. Vladimir Lenin, Works (Moscow), volume 43, pages 110-111.

5. Pisma P.B. Akselroda i Iu.O. Martova (Berlin 1924), pages 79-80.

6. A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes (London 1967), page 59.

7. Krupskaya, page 65.

8. Trotsky, My Life, page 145.

Last updated on 18 July 2009