Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

9. Trotsky on trial

ON 19 SEPTEMBER 1906 the trial of the Petersburg Soviet began. From the first day the court was flooded with resolutions signed by thousands of workers protesting aginst the trial. One such document states:

We, the undersigned, workers at the Obukhov plant ... protest against the government’s unjust treatment of the Soviet, and particularly against the charges made against our comrades, who merely fulfilled our demands within the Soviet; and we declare to the government that if our comrade, P A Zlydnev, whom we all respect, is guilty, then we are guilty likewise, to which we testify with out signatures.

Over 2,000 signatures accompanied the resolution. [1]

The court building was placed under martial law, and virtually transformed into a military encampment. In the courtyard, at the gates, in the adjoining streets, were several companies of soldiers and Cossacks. Along the entire length of the underground corridor connecting the prison with the law courts, in every room of the law courts building, at the backs of the defendants, at every comer, probably even inside the chimney stack, were gendarmes with drawn sabres.

Some 400 witnesses were called, of whom more than 200 appeared and testified before the court. Workers, factory owners, gendarmes, engineers, domestic servants, ordinary citizens, journalists, post office officials, schoolboys, members of the Duma, janitors, senators, hooligans, deputies, professors and soldiers, passed in review before the court throughout the month and under the crossfire of questions from the court, the prosecution, the defence and the defendants – especially the defendants – they reconstructed line by line, brushstroke by brushstroke, the picture of the period of activities, so rich in events, of the workers’ Soviet.

The sentiments of the anti-Tsarist public expressed itself in a thousand incidents:

Newspapers, letters, sweets and flowers – infinite quantities of flowers! – appeared in the dock. There were flowers in the buttonholes, flowers held in hands and on laps, finally flowers simply lying on benches. The president of the court did not dare to remove these fragrant intruders. In the end, even gendarmerie officers and officers of the court, totally ‘demoralised’ by the prevailing atmosphere, were handing flowers to the defendants ...

And then the workers were called as witnesses! They gathered in dozens in the witness room, and when the court officer opened the door to the courtroom a wave of revolutionary song would reach the president’s chair. These worker witnesses made an astonishing impression. They brought with them the revolutionary atmosphere of the factory suburbs, and such was the divine contempt with which they ignored the mystic solemnity of court ritual that the president, yellow as parchment, could only spread his hands helplessly. [2]

At one moment the defendants rose to pay homage to the memory of one of their number who had been executed before the trial:

... the witnesses, the defending counsel, members of the public – all rose in silence to honour the memory of the fallen victim. Police and gendarmerie officers, in utter confusion, rose to their feet with the rest. [3]

The prosecution’s main case was that the Soviet had been involved in organising an insurrection. On 4 October Trotsky rose to his feet. He began with a statement that the issue of an armed uprising had never figured on the Soviet agenda, but only because the Soviet had taken its attitude on this matter for granted, and had no need to discuss it. Then Trotsky dealt with the general problem of using force for political ends:

Did the Soviet consider itself entitled ... to use force or repressive measures in certain cases? My answer to this question put in such general terms is Yes! ...under the conditions created by a political general strike, whose nature consists in the fact that it paralyses the state mechanism – under such conditions the old power which had long outlived its day and against which, precisely, the political strike was directed, found itself ultimately incapable of action, quite unable to regulate and maintain public order, even by the barbaric means which were the only ones at its disposal. Meanwhile the strike had thrown hundreds of thousands of workers from the factories into the streets, and had freed these workers for public and political life. Who could direct them, who could bring discipline into their ranks? What order of the old state power? The police? The gendarmerie? The secret police? I ask myself: who? And I can find no answer. No one except the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. [4]

The Soviet, he said, challenges the Tsarist state machine as to how to organise a disciplined workers’ power:

The Soviet, which directed this colossal elemental force, saw its immediate tasks in reducing internal friction to a minimum, preventing excesses and making sure that the inevitable victims of the struggle were as few as possible. And, that being so, the Soviet, in the political strike which had created it, became nothing other than the organ of self-government of the revolutionary masses: an organ of power. It ruled the part of the whole by the will of the whole. It was a democratic power and it was voluntarily obeyed. But inasmuch as the Soviet was the organised power of the overwhelming majority, it was inevitably compelled to use repressive measures against those elements among the masses who brought anarchy into its united ranks. The Soviet, as a new historical power, as the sole power at a time of total moral, political and technical bankruptcy of the old apparatus, as the sole guarantee of personal immunity and public order in the best sense of that term, considered itself entitled to oppose its force to such elements. The representatives of the old power, which is wholly based on murderous repression, has no right to speak with moral indignation of the Soviet’s violent methods. The historical power which the prosecutor represents in this is the organised violence of a minority over the majority. The new power, whose precursor was the Soviet, is the organised will of the majority calling the minority to order. In this distinction lies the Soviet’s revolutionary right to existence, a right that extends above any legal or moral doubt. [5]

Trotsky then went on to argue that a political strike must lead naturally to insurrection:

What does a political strike do? It paralyses the economic apparatus of the state, disrupts communications between separate parts of the administrative machine, isolates the government and renders it powerless. On the other hand, it politically unites the mass of workers from the factories and plants and opposes this workers’ army to the state power. Therein, gentlemen of the court, lies the essence of an insurrection. To unite the proletarian masses within a single revolutionary protest action, to oppose them as enemies to the organised power of the state – that, gentlemen of the court, is insurrection as the Soviet understood and as I understand it too. [6]

For a victory of the insurrection the soldiers have to be won to the revolution:

Under what conditions did we think an insurrection might lead us to victory? The condition of the army’s sympathy. The first requisite was to bring the army over to our side. To force the soldiers to recognise the shameful role they were playing, to persuade them to work with the people and for the people – that was the first task we set ourselves ...

Under what conditions, then, did we think – and do we think now – that the army can be expected to pass over to the side of revolution? What is the prerequisite for this? [7]

The answer to this question was the workers’ readiness to sacrifice their lives in the struggle:

However important weapons are, it is not in weapons that the most essential strength lies. No, not in weapons. Not the capacity of the masses to kill, but their great readiness to die, that, gentlemen of the court, is what we believe ensures, in the last count, the success of a people’s rising. [8]

Only when the mass of the workers show their readiness to die on the barricades can they win over the soldiers:

A barricade is not just a physical obstacle. The barricade serves the cause of insurrection because, by creating a temporary barrier to the movement of troops, it brings them into close contact with the people. Here, at the barricades, the soldier hears – perhaps for the first time in his life – the talk of ordinary honest people, their fraternal appeals, the voice of the people’s conscience; and, as a consequence of such contact between citizens and soldiers, military discipline disintegrates and disappears. [9]

Having thus defined the role of the insurrection in the revolution, Trotsky then turned to an attack on the Tsarist government with its Black Hundreds and secret police. The Tsar himself had been the protector of the Black Hundreds. Trotsky quoted revelations made in the first Duma by the liberal Prince Urusov, who related the boast of one of the leaders of the gendarmerie (already quoted above) that ‘it is possible to arrange any kind of pogrom involving ten people, if you like, or 10,000, if you like.’ Trotsky ended his speech with the following words:

The prosecution invites us to admit that the Soviet armed the workers for the struggle against the existing ‘form of government’. If I am categorically asked whether this was so, I shall answer Yes! Yes, I am willing to accept this accusation, but on one condition only. I do not know if the prosecution and the court will accept my condition.

Let me ask: what does the prosecution mean by ‘form of government’? Do we really have a form of government? For a long time past the government has not been supported by the nation but only by its military- police-Black Hundreds apparatus. What we have is not a national government but an automaton for mass murder. I can find no other name for the government machine which is tearing into parts of the living body of our country. If you tell me that the pogroms, the murders, the burrings, the rapes ... if you tell me that everything that happens in Tver, Rostov, Kursk, Siedlce ... if you tell me that Kishinev, Odessa, Bialystok are the form of government of the Russian Empire, then I will agree with the prosecution that in October and November last we were arming ourselves, directly and immediately, against a form of government of the Russian Empire. [10]

What a heroic speech!

On 13 October a sensation occurred in the court. One of the defence counsel received a letter from Senator Lopukhin, a recently dismissed director of the police department, asking to be called as a witness. A semi-liberal official, Lopukhin had conducted a special inquiry into the secret activities of his own department, and he forwarded to the court a copy of the report he had submitted to Stolypin, the new minister of the interior. According to this report pogrom proclamations were printed at the printworks of the secret police. These proclamations were distributed all over Russia by secret police agents and members of the Monarchist parties; close organisational links existed between the department of the police and the Black Hundred gangs; General Trepov, Commandant of the Imperial Court, personally submitted to the Tsar regular reports of these activities, and disposed of immense state funds for the express purpose of organising pogroms.

The court refused to take cognisance of the letter or to call Lopukhin as a witness. The refusal effectively exposed the political character of the trial, and much besides. The defence also asked that Witte, the former prime minister, and Durnovo, former minister of the interior, be summoned to the witness stand. This request was also refused. The defendants and their attorneys decided to boycott further proceedings.

On 2 November the verdict was delivered to an empty courtroom. Trotsky and fourteen others were sentenced to deportation to Siberia for life and loss of all civil rights. Two received short prison terms. The rest were acquitted.

Escape from Siberia

On 3 January Trotsky and his colleagues were taken to a Tsarist prison and made to change into the grey trousers, jackets and caps of the convict uniform. But they were allowed to keep their own underwear and boots. The keeping of the boots was of no small consequence to Trotsky, for in the sole of one of them he had a well-forged passport, and in the high heels, gold coins.

Two days later, at six in the morning, in the dark and empty streets, the party of deportees, with their wives and children, was taken to the railway station to start the long journey into exile. Before departing, the deportees managed to smuggle out a ‘Farewell Message’ to the workers of Petersburg, thanking them for their solidarity with the Soviets, and reaffirming their confidence in the future victory of the revolution. All the deportees were to be sent to the village of Obdorsk, far within the Arctic Circle. The distance of this village from the nearest railway line was 1,500 kilometres, and from the nearest telegraph station, 800 kilometres.

Exceptional measures were taken to guard the prisoners. Since the authorities feared that soldiers from Petersburg might be unreliable, the escort used was summoned from Moscow.

A letter from Trotsky to Natalia gives a lively description of the journey into exile:

We are very cheerful – and this after thirteen months in gaol. Although the carriage windows are barred, beyond them we can see freedom, life and movement ... The officer in command of our escort is obliging, and as for the men – nearly all of them have read accounts of our trial and show us marks of the greatest sympathy ... Up to the last minute, they did not know what kind of people they would be escorting, nor where. The strict security precautions surrounding our sudden departure from Moscow to Petersburg made them think we were about to be taken to Schlusselburg for execution. I noticed in the hall of the prison that the men seemed very moved and quite exceptionally considerate, as if they felt slightly guilty. I didn’t discover the reason until we boarded the train ... How happy the soldiers were when they found they were in the presence of ‘workers’ deputies’ who had been sentenced to no more than exile! ...

The gendarmes seemed to keep a special watch on the escort; at least, that’s what the latter think ...

12 January 1906:

At every station, our carriage is surrounded by gendarmes and at larger stations they are reinforced by the mounted police. The gendarmes, their rifles slung, threaten anyone approaching, whether by accident or out of curiousity, with drawn revolvers. Only two kinds of people are guarded like this, ‘state criminals’ and the most distinguished ministers ... On the one hand, there is this strict supervision, and on the other, tremendous courtesy within the limits prescribed ... We are entitled to be proud of ourselves: they are afraid of the Soviet even after its death. [11]

The prisoners were taken by rail as far as Tyumen, deep in Siberia. In a letter to Natalia on 16 January, Trotsky writes:

Tyumen prison was crowded with political detainees; most of them had been deported by administrative decree. During their exercise period, they stopped beneath our windows and started to sing. They even waved a red banner inscribed with the words ‘Long Live the Revolution!’ They made quite a good choir; they had no doubt had time enough to learn how to harmonise their voices ... It was all very impressive and even moving ... We sent them a brief message of sympathy through the ventilators. The non-politicals sent us a very long petition, in prose and verse, asking us, ‘noble Petersburg revolutionaries’ that we were, to help them in their ordeal ... [12]

Throughout the journey Trotsky’s letters were secretly mailed by soldiers of the convoy.

From Tyumen the prisoners set out under close guard, slowly by sleigh, northward towards Tobolsk. It was very cold, the temperature around 30 degrees below zero. The convoy of 40 horse-driven sledges moved only between sunrise and sunset, so as to prevent any attempt at escape.

Trotsky noted how radically the Siberian peasantry had changed as a result of the revolution:

They talk of political matters; they ask if this state of things will last forever or whether it will end soon. Our driver, a boy of thirteen – he assured me he was fifteen – kept shouting during the whole drive: Wake up! Wake up! All you working people get ready for the fight, you hungry people!’ The soldiers scolded him (although it was plain to be seen that they sympathised with him) and threatened to report him to the officer. The lad knew quite well that they were all on his side and he continued to roar his call for the workers to revolt ... [13]

Day after day the convoy sped northwards, through an area where typhus was raging. At Berezov, on 12 February, Trotsky wrote the last letter of his journey, as he had decided to attempt to escape from there, rather than continue to Obdorsk and so add another 500 kilometres to his journey.

At Berezov Trotsky met a deportee doctor who taught him how to simulate sciatica, so as to dodge the last lap of the journey and be left behind under mild surveillance in the local hospital. Sciatica cannot be verified. The malingering requires much will-power. Trotsky proved so persuasive that he was left behind in hospital, to follow as soon as he had sufficiently recovered. Nobody had ever escaped from Berezov before. The task looked particularly hopeless in February, the month of snow blizzards. The police did not think that anyone would try to escape.

Trotsky had to choose one of three routes. The one by which the convoy had come was the easiest but also the most risky, since it was dotted with police posts, and a telegraph report on his escape would bring instant pursuit. A second route led directly westwards across the Urals to the port of Archangel and a ship, but this was difficult as well as dangerous. So Trotsky chose the third route – across the roadless tundra southwest along the river Sosva, to a gold-mining settlement in the Urals, which was the terminus of a small single-track railway connected with the Perm-Viatka line.

In a little book originally titled There and Back, Trotsky described the dangers involved in the escape route he chose:

The way leads through a desolate and barren country. In the whole stretch of some thousands of versts there are no police, not a single Russian colony, only isolated Yakut yourtas. There are, of course, no telegraph stations – and not a horse along the whole route. One must travel only by reindeer ... the way is full of dangers, incredible dangers and privations.

There are stretches of a hundred versts and more without a trace of human habitation. Among the Yakuts, the only inhabitants of this section, infectious and contagious diseases are prevalent. There is no end of syphilis, and typhus is almost perpetual. Once taken ill there one must not expect relief. This last winter there died in the yourta of Ourvisnk, on the Sosvinski highway, a young merchant from Beresov, named Dobrovolsky. He lay for two weeks suffering from fever, with no care or attention. And suppose the reindeer become exhausted and cannot be replaced. And again – the blinding snowstorms. They continue for days and nights and February is just the month for snowstorms. Should one overtake you there would be no hope. [14]

Trotsky found a sympathetic peasant ready to help. And the latter found him a guide, a native Zyrian drunkard who knew his way in the tundra and spoke Russian and the native dialects. They struck a bargain:

We drew up the terms of the contract, Nikita and I. I am to buy three reindeer, the very best to be had. I am also to provide the sleigh. If Nikivor brings me safely to the mining district the sleigh and the reindeer are to be his and I am to pay him fifty roubles in addition. [15]

As the day of escape approached, Trotsky pretended to recover from the sciatica. On the evening before the escape he went to an amateur theatrical performance of a Chekhov play. During the interval he met the chief of the local police and told him he was feeling well enough to make the last lap of the journey northwards to Obdorsk. The ruse worked.

At midnight Trotsky hurried to the peasant’s farmyard where a sleigh was waiting. The peasant spread frozen hay over him, bound it with rope, and they set off. The frozen hay gradually thawed to drip cold water over his body. He was driven a short distance from the town. The Zyrian was at the appointed meeting place, unutterably drunk.

To mislead the police, one of Trotsky’s friends in Berezov arranged for one of the local men to take a slaughtered calf down the Tobolsk road. As was anticipated, the move was detected, and when Trotsky’s escape was discovered two days later, the police rushed after the calf and lost two more days. [16] Trotsky describes his adventures colourfully:

We took the course along the Sosva. The deer that my guide had bought were the pick of a herd of several hundred. Early in the journey the drunken driver had a way of falling asleep frequently, and then the deer would stop. This promised trouble for both of us. In the end he did not even answer when I poked him. Then I took off his cap, his hair quickly froze, and he began to sober up.

We drove on. It was a magnificent ride through a desert of virgin snow all covered with fir-trees and marked with the footprints of animals. The deer kept up a lively trot, their tongues out at the side, breathing heavily with a ‘chu-chu-chu-chu.’ The track was narrow, the beasts herded close together, and it was a wonder they did not get in each other’s way. Amazing creatures, knowing no hunger or fatigue! They had had no food for twenty-four hours before our sudden departure, and it was another twenty-four hours from the time we started before they got any. According to the driver, they were just getting into their stride. They ran evenly, without effort, at a speed of eight to ten versts an hour. They found their own food. A log of wood was tied about their necks, and they were let loose; they chose a place where they sensed the presence of moss under the snow, dug deep holes with their hoofs, going in almost to the tops of their ears, and then fed themselves. I had the same feeling for these animals that an aviator must have for his motor when he flies over an ocean at an altitude of several hundred feet.

The leader of the three deer went lame. We were much upset about it; he had to be changed. We looked around for an Ostyak settlement. They are scattered here, many versts away from each other. My guide would find camps by almost imperceptible signs – several versts away he could smell the odour of smoke. The changing of the deer lost us another full day. But, on the other hand, I was lucky enough to see a beautiful thing at dawn: three Ostyaks, riding full-tilt, lassoed some deer, already marked, from their herd of several hundred while the dogs drove the deer toward them.

We drove on again through woods, over snow-covered swamps, and through vast forests that had been destroyed by fires. We boiled snow for water, sat on the snow and drank tea. My guide preferred liquor, but I saw to it that he did not over-indulge.

Although it looks always the same, the road is constantly changing, and the deer know it. Now we are going through an open field, between the birch woods and the river. The road is terrible. Behind us, the wind blows away the narrow track which the sleigh has left. The third deer keeps missing the trail. He sinks in the snow up to his belly and even deeper, makes a few desperate leaps, climbs to the road, pushes against the middle one and knocks the leader off the track. In another place the road, warmed by the sun, is so difficult that the straps on the front sled snap twice, and at each stop the sleds freeze to the track; it is only with much effort that they can be made to move again. After the first two runs, the deer seem tired.

But now the sun has set, the road is frozen over, and driving is better again. Soft, but not mushy – the most ‘businesslike’ road, as the driver expresses it. The deer trot on almost noiselessly, and pull the sleigh without effort. In the end, we have to unharness the third deer and tie him behind because easy driving makes them prance about, and they might smash the sleigh. The sleigh glides smoothly and in silence, like a boat on a crystal-clear lake. In the darkening twilight the woods seem even more gigantic. I cannot see the road; the movement of the sleigh is hardly perceptible. The enchanted trees rush toward us, the bushes run away on the sides, slim birches and old stumps covered with snow fly past us. Everything is filled with mystery. Chu-chu-chu-chu resounds the even breathing of the deer in the wooded silence of the night.

The journey lasted a week. We had done 700 kilometres and were nearing the Urals; we were meeting whole trains of sleighs more often now. I posed as an engineer and a member of the polar expedition of Baron Tol. Near the Urals, we met a clerk who had worked on this expedition and knew its members. He overwhelmed me with questions. Fortunately he was not quite sober. I tried to get out of this fix with the aid of a bottle of rum which I had taken for use in emergency. Everything went off beautifully. Once in the Urals, I travelled by horse. Now I posed as an official and, together with an excise controller who was surveying his district, finally reached the narrow-gauge railway. The secret police at the station looked on indifferently as I extricated myself from my Ostyak fur coats.

My position on the local Ural line was still far from secure; on that line, where every ‘stranger’ is noticed, I might easily be arrested by cabled instructions from Tobolsk. I went on fearfully. But a day later, when I found myself in a comfortable car of the Perm railway, I began at once to feel as if my case were won. The train passed through the same stations at which we had been received with such solemn ceremonies by the secret police, guards, and local police chiefs, not so long ago. But now my way lay in a different direction, and I was travelling with different emotions. For the first few minutes the almost empty car seemed too crowded and stuffy, and I went out onto the front platform, where the wind was blowing, and it was dark. A loud cry burst from me spontaneously – a cry of joy and freedom. [17]

Throughout the long hard journey, Trotsky never ceased to be the writer, the artist. Most of the time he fought off sleep, and when they halted to make a fire, and had to melt the snow for tea, he sat by the fire to jot down his observations in an exercise book. He wrote vivid descriptions of the landscape, of the shape of the woods, of the variety of trails left in the snow by the wolf, the fox and other beasts; of his conversations with his driver; of the customs of the Ostyaks.

The Ostyaks here do not speak a word of Russian – except profane words. These, and the officially distributed spirits, are the only contributions Russian culture has given these tribes. It is curious to hear, in the midst of a conglomeration of mysterious sounds which constitutes the Ostyakian speech, the sudden blazing forth, like a meteor, of a certain Russian word very much used in our country, spoken with remarkable distinctness and without the slightest trace of an accent. And they cannot even say ‘good day’ in the Russian language. [18]

Trotsky also described the abject slavery of the Ostyak women.

In his enthusiasm Trotsky now discarded all caution, and at the first stop he wired Natalia, who was living with their infant son in a Finnish town near Petersburg, asking her to meet him at the station where their respective trains would both call. She soon set off without knowing the name of the station, which had somehow been dropped from the text. Entering a compartment full of landowners taking delicacies of all kinds back to their estates, she listened to their talk of caviar and wine. At last they mentioned the right station – Samino.

When the trains going in opposite directions stopped in Samino, Natalia rushed to the platform to look for Trotsky, but could not find him. She ran through all the carriages, but still could not find him. Suddenly she saw his fur coat in a compartment. She rushed out again. There he was! On the platform, looking for her. They both got back into the train, and quite openly he laughed and chatted aloud on the way to Petersburg. ‘I wanted to keep him invisible,’ Natalia wrote, ‘to hide him away, because of the threat of hard labour hanging over him for his escape. But he was in full view and said it was his best protection.’ [19]

Trotsky, Natalia and their son stayed in Petersburg for only a short while. It was too risky a place for him. They went to Finland and stayed for a few weeks in a little village called Oglbu, near Helsingfors. It was there that he wrote of his journey, in the short book There and Back. With the money he received from it they went abroad by way of Stockholm. Trotsky now set forth on a new foreign exile which was to last ten years.


1. Trotsky, 1905, page 360.

2. Trotsky, 1905, pages 355-7.

3. Trotsky, 1905, page 357.

4. Trotsky, 1905, pages 385-6.

5. Trotsky, 1905, page 386.

6. Trotsky, 1905, page 391.

7. Trotsky, 1905, page 396.

8. Trotsky, 1905, page 397.

9. Trotsky, 1905, page 397.

10. Trotsky, 1905, pages 399-400.

11. Quoted in Victor Serge and Natalia Sedova Trotsky, The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (London 1975), pages 18-19.

12. Quoted in Serge and Sedova Trotsky, page 19.

13. Trotsky, Flight from Siberia (Colombo 1969), pages 15-16.

14. Trotsky, Flight from Siberia, pages 20-1.

15. Trotsky, Flight from Siberia, pages 21-2.

16. Trotsky, My Life, page 195.

17. Trotsky, My Life, pages 195-8.

18. Trotsky, Flight from Siberia, page 36.

19. Trotsky, My Life, page 199.

Last updated on 19 July 2009