Leon Trotsky

In British Captivity


Written: 1917
First Published: The Class Struggle [United States], Vol.II No.4, December 1918.
Translated: Unknown.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.
Proofreading: Einde O’Callaghan, December 2006.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

I consider it at this time a matter of political necessity to publish the documents bearing upon my imprisonment by the British for the period of one month. The bourgeois press – the same press which has been spreading defamatory statements of the worst black-hundred type against political emigrants who were forced to return to Russia by way of Germany – appeared to be deaf and dumb the moment it came in contact with the lawless attack by England upon the Russian emigrants who were returning home by way of the Atlantic ocean. The servile Social-patriotic, now the ministerial press is not acting more decently, and this press has no urgent motives to explain the ticklish circumstances why the brand new Socialist ministers who are at this time still professing to be so highly respectful to the emigrants, their “teachers,” are in fact the nearest and most immediate allies of Lloyd George, who is grabbing by the collars those same “teachers” upon the great Atlantic highway. In this tragicomical episode is revealed with sufficient convincingness the relation of England’s ruling class towards the Russian revolution, as well as the general meaning of the sacred alliance into whose service citizens Tseretelli, Tchernoff and Skobeleff have entered.

For whatever assertions may be made by the left ministerial groups and parties, the ministerial socialists are fully responsible for the government of which they appear to be a part. The government of Lvov-Tereshtchenko is in alliance not with the English revolutionary socialists, MacLean, Askew and others, whom the ruling imperialists of England are keeping in prisons, but with their jailers Lloyd George and Henderson.

The first two years of the war I spent in France. There I had the opportunity of closely observing the experiment of socialists in the ministry during the epoch of the “liberating” war. Guesde and Sembat, of course, justified their acts by alleging the unprecedented nature of the circumstances which compelled them to enter the war cabinet: the fatherland was in danger, the Germans were at the gates of Paris, general devastation, the necessity of defending the republic and the traditions of the revolution, in short, they have advanced the same arguments which are now being used in a more naive form by Tseretelli and Tchernoff in order to prove that their ministerialism is distinguishable from that of Guesde and Sembat as is heaven from earth.

With the kind participation of the French “comrade” ministers I was expelled from France for my work on the daily Russian international paper Nashe Slovo (Our Word) and for taking part in the “Zimmerwald” movement. The Swiss government, in obedience to the order of the Czar’s diplomats, refused to admit me. French gendarmes, who have donned civilian clothes – to keep up the honor of the republic – have taken me to the Spanish frontier. Three days later the Prefect of Paris, Lorane, telegraphed to the police of Madrid about the dangerous agitator who had crossed the Spanish frontier. The Spanish guardians of peace could think of nothing better than to arrest me. Having freed me, after an inquiry in Parliament from their “model” prison at Madrid, the Spanish government escorted me under convoy to the extreme southwest of the Iberian peninsula, Cadiz. From here the officials wanted to send me immediately to Havana, and it was after I threatened to resist and after the intervention by Spanish socialists and republicans, that I was permitted to leave with my family for New York.

After a stay of two months, we got the news of the Russian revolution. A group of Russian exiles, among them the writer of these lines, made an attempt to start for Russia on the first steamer. But the Russian Socialist proposes and Lloyd George disposes. At Halifax the English officers took us off and interned us in a camp for war prisoners. Regarding the circumstances of this arrest and the conditions of our confinement, see the letter addressed to the Russian Minister For Foreign Affairs, printed herein below. This letter I wrote on a Danish steamer after my release from British captivity, intending it for Mr. Milukoff. But the leader of the Cadet party fell beneath the burden of his loyalty to the London Stock Exchange before the Finnish train brought us to Beloostrov. Mr. Tereshtchenko with his colleagues, however, had taken over in full the heritage of Mr. Milukoff, just as the latter took over in its entirety the heritage of the Czar’s diplomacy. Therefore, I am fully justified in addressing to Mr. Tereshtchenko the letter which was intended for Mr. Milukoff.

The original of this letter was forwarded to him through the medium of the chairman of the Petrograd Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, H.S. Cheidze.

I wish to say a few words about the German war prisoners with whom I have spent a month. There were 800 of them; about 500 sailors from German Naval vessels sunk by the British; about 200 workingmen who were caught in Canada when the war broke out, and about 100 officers and civilian prisoners coming from bourgeois circles. Our relations took shape from the first day, or more correctly, from the moment the bulk of the war prisoners found that we were arrested as revolutionary socialists. The officers and non-commissioned Naval officers who had separate quarters, at once beheld in us their hated enemies.

The rank and file, however, surrounded us with a tight ring of sympathy. This month’s life in the camp resembled one continuous meeting. We told the prisoners about the Russian revolution, about the causes of the breaking up of the Second International, of the groupings within socialism ...The relations between the democratic rank and file and the officers, some of whom kept tabs on their sailors, became very acute. The German officers finally addressed to the Commandant of the camp, Colonel Morris, a complaint against our anti-patriotic propaganda. The British Colonel, of course, immediately sided with Hohenzollern patriotism and prohibited my further public appearances. This, however, occurred during the last days of our stay in the camp, and made our relations with the German sailors and workingmen more intimate who replied to the Colonel’s prohibition with a protest bearing 530 signatures.

When they were taking us away from the camp, the prisoners gave us a send-off which will always remain in our memory. The officers and non-commissioned officers, in general a patriotic minority, locked themselves in their quarters; but “our” internationalists stood in two lines along the entire camp, the orchestra played the socialist march, and hands were stretched out to us from all sides ... One of the prisoners delivered a speech in which he expressed his delight with the Russian revolution, emitted a sincere curse against the German government, and asked us to give his fraternal greeting to the Russian Proletariat. That’s the way we fraternized with the German sailors at Amherst. It is true at that time we didn’t know yet that Prince Lvov’s own Zimmerwaldists, Tseretellis and Tchernoffs looked upon fraternizing as contradicting the fundamentals of International Socialism. In this they agree with the Hohenzollern government, which has also forbidden fraternizing with a less hypocritical reasoning, however.

It is superfluous to say that the American-Canadian press has explained our imprisonment as being due to Germanism. Our own fatherland’s yellow Cadet papers have taken, of course, the same road.

This charge of pro-Germanism I had occasion to hear during the War, not for the first time. When the French chauvinists were preparing for my exile from France, they spread a rumor about my pro-German tendencies, but the same French press informed its readers before that of having sentenced me in Germany to imprisonment for the German pamphlet, Der Krieg und die Internationale, which was directed against German imperialism and against the policy of the official majority of the German social democracy. Having been published in Zurich at the beginning of the War, this pamphlet was smuggled by Swiss Socialists into Germany and there it was spread by the same socialists of the left wing, the friends of Liebknecht, whom the German yellow press has been hounding as the agents of the Czar and of the London Stock Exchange. In the denunciations of us by Milukoff and his Hessians, there was nothing original. They were literal translations from the German language. Sir Buchanan, the English Ambassador at Petrograd, went further. He directly stated in his letter intended for the press that we were returning to Russia with a plan subsidized by the German Government to overthrow the Provisional Government. In “informed” circles, as we are told, even the amount of the subsidy was named in round figures, 10,000 marks. It seems that the German government must have appraised at this modest sum the stability of Guchkoff-Milukoff’s government.

English diplomacy, generally speaking, is not devoid either of carefulness, nor of a decorous surface gentlemanliness. But the assertion made by the British Ambassador that we were subsidized by Germany is obviously devoid of both said qualities; it is both ungentlemanly and stupid. This is explained by the fact that British politicians and diplomats possess two kinds of manners: one kind for “civilized countries”; the other kind – for the colonies. Sir Buchanan, who was the best friend of the Czar’s monarchy and has now transferred himself to the friends of the republic, feels just the same way in Russia, as in India and in Egypt, and therefore does not find it necessary to be discreet. British officers consider they have the right to take Russian citizens off neutral steamers and imprison them in camps for war prisoners; the British Ambassador thinks it possible to hurl outrageous defamations against active Russian revolutionaries. It is about time to put an end to this. And the object of this pamphlet is to help to accelerate the moment when democratic Russia will say to Mr. Buchanan and his masters: “Please take your feet off the table.”

To the Minister Tor Foreign Affairs

Dear Sir:

In this letter I have the honor to direct your attention to a wholly irresponsible, piratical attack, to which I was subjected together with my family and several Russian citizens, on the part of agents of the British government, which is as far as it is known, an ally of that government of which you are the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

On the 25th of March, relying upon the amnesty published by your government, I appeared at the General Consulate in New York, from which by that time they had removed the portrait of Nicholas the Second, but where the atmosphere of the old regime of a Russian Police Station was still retained. After unavoidable discussions the Consul-General decided to issue to me a document to be used for admission to Russia. At the British Consulate in New York, where I had to fill out some blanks, I was told that the British authorities would put no obstacle in the way of my return to Russia. From the office of the British Consulate, in the presence of one of its officials, I have telephoned to the Russian Consulate which assured me that I had complied with all formalities and could make my journey without any difficulties.

On the 27th of March, with my family I sailed on the Norwegian Steamer Christianiafjord. At Halifax (Canada) where the steamer was undergoing an inspection by the British naval authorities, the police officers, who looked through the papers of Americans, Norwegians, Danes, etc., with only perfunctory formality, subjected us Russians to a direct examination, in the style of old Russian gendarmes, regarding our convictions, political plans, etc. In conformity with good old Russian tradition, I declined to enter into any conversation with them about such matters, having explained to them that I was ready to give them all necessary information establishing my identity, but that my relations to internal Russian politics were not at present under the control of British naval police. But this did not prevent the investigating officers McCann and Westwood from gathering information about us among other passengers, for instance, from Mr. Fundaminsky, these officers insisting at the same time that I was a “terrible socialist.” The entire investigation generally was of such undignified nature and put the former Russian emigrants in such an exceptional position as compared with other passengers who did not have the misfortune to belong to a nation allied with England, that some of us deemed it their duty to enter, through the ships captain, an energetic protest to the British authorities against the conduct of their police agents. At that time we had not foreseen the further development of events. On April 3rd, British officers appeared on board the Christianiafjord, accompanied by armed sailors, who demanded in the name of the local admiral, that I, my family and five other passengers, Messrs. Tchudnovsky, Melnitchansky, Frisheleff, Muchin and Romantchenko, leave the steamer. When asked as to the causes of this demand, they promised to “explain” the entire incident at Halifax.

The British authorities, according to the admission of their own officers had not the slightest doubts about my identity nor of the identity of the others whom they detained. It was clear, that we were detained as socialists, imaginary or real ones, that is, as opponents to war. We declared the demand to leave the steamer to be illegal, and refused to comply. Then the armed sailors, with the cry of “shame” from a considerable portion of the passengers, carried us down to a military cutter which, convoyed by a cruiser, brought us to Halifax. When the sailors were carrying me in their arms, my older boy ran to my rescue and cried: “Shall I hit him, father?” He is 11 years old, Mr. Minister, and I think, he will retain for the rest of his life a clear idea of some of the peculiarities of the dominant British democracy and of the British-Russian alliance. At Halifax not only was nothing “explained” to us, but they even refused to call the local Russian Consul, assuring us that there was a Russian Consul at the place to which we were brought. This assurance proved to be false as well as all the other assurances of the British secret police, who in their methods and morals stand entirely on the same level as the old Russian “Okhrana.” Indeed, they brought us by rail to Amherst, a camp for German prisoners. Here we were subjected to a search such as I did not have to go through even in my confinement in the fortress of Peter and Paul. For the stripping and feeling of our bodies by gendarmes was done at the fortress in private, with no one else present, but here, our democratic allies subjected us to this impudent horseplay in the presence of a dozen men. And those commanding scoundrels who were in charge of this procedure, well knew that we were Russian socialists who are returning to their country that was set free by revolution. Only the following morning did the commandant of the camp, Colonel Morris, tell us officially that the cause of our arrest was “that we were dangerous to the present Russian government.”

And upon calling his attention to the fact that the agents of the Russian Provisional government had issued to us passports to go to Russia and that this matter should be left to the Russian government, Colonel Morris replied, that “we were dangerous to the allies in general.” They never handed us any written documents about our detention. The Colonel added a personal remark that, as political emigrants, who had been obliged to leave their own country for some reason, we should not be surprised at what was happening to us now. The Russian revolution did not exist for this man. We tried to explain to him that the Czar’s ministers, who made political emigrants of us, were themselves in prison now, but this was too complex for the commandant, who had made his career in the British colonies and in the Boer War. For characterizing this worthy representative of ruling Britain it is sufficient to state, that one of his favorite expressions addressed to disobedient or disrespectful prisoners was: “If I only had you on the South African coast” ... If it can be said that style is the man, then it can be said that this style – that is, this system, is the British colonial system ... For Colonel Morris we were political emigrants, rebels against legal authorities and therefore a camp for war prisoners was the most natural place for us to live in.

On April 5th we made an attempt to wire to the Russian government. Our telegrams were not passed. During the entire period of a month’s captivity by the British, the Halifax authorities systematically refused us the right to communicate with the Russian ministers. We made an attempt to complain of this prohibition to the British Prime Minister. But this telegram was also refused to pass. We then thought with gratitude of the Czar’s prisons, at least, complaints against prison officials were not held up by such officials. All they allowed us to do was to communicate with the Russian Consul-General at Montreal, Mr. Lichatchoff. We received a reply from Mr. Lichatchoff that he had already telegraphed to the Russian Ambassador in London and that he was doing all he could. All our further attempts to communicate with the Consul were unsuccessful. Not one of the telegrams was allowed to pass. The British-Canadian authorities used every means to cut us off from the Russian government and its agents. More than that: When the camp’s commandant was about to permit me to see my wife he imposed the impossible condition that I should deliver no messages through her to the Russian Consul. I refused to see my wife under those conditions. This was two days before they put us on the steamer. In this way the British authorities thought it necessary to conceal the facts even from the local agents of the Consular service.

What Mr. Lichatchoff really did is unknown to us. At any rate, he did not take the trouble to call on us at the camp to see with his own eyes how the British government was treating Russian citizens.

The military camp of Amherst is located in an old building of a foundry. The bunks for sleeping are put up in three tiers, and two rows deep on each side. Under these conditions there lived 800 men.

You can imagine, Mr. Minister, the atmosphere in this sleeping place at night. Among the prisoners, in spite of the heroic efforts they made for their physical and moral self-preservation, there were five insane men. We slept and ate in the same room with those insane men, Mr. Minister. There is no doubt that if the Russian Consul had made the slightest effort, he could have obtained for us, at least, less revolting conditions during our confinement, until the decision of our fate.

But Russian consuls have been brought up to feel the deepest contempt for the dignity of Russian citizens who did not belong to the ruling class, and only hatred for political emigrants. They have stricken out from their envelopes the word “Imperial,” and believed with this to have exhausted their obligations towards the Russian revolution.

The exact time the British authorities made up their minds to liberate us is unknown to us. At any rate, they held us over without the slightest change in our condition for about ten days after Captain McCann, who had charge of our case, told my wife that we were “free,” but they were waiting for the proper steamer for us. Colonel Morris, the same one, who made his career in the Boer War and in suppressing Hindu rebellions, until the very last moment, i.e. to April 29th, talked to us as criminals. We were never told, either that we should be freed, or whither we were to be sent. We were simply “ordered” to pack up our belongings and to start, under convoy, to Halifax. We demanded to know whither, and why we were sent away. They refused to give us any information. We demanded that they communicate with the nearest Russian consul. They again refused. You will admit, Mr. Minister, that we had sufficient grounds for distrusting the good intentions of the masters of the ocean highway. We declared categorically that we should not go voluntarily until they told us the object of our removal. The escorting soldiers carried out our baggage. And only when they were confronted with the task of carrying us out on their arms as they had had to do from the steamer the month before, did the commandant call one of us into his office and, with his usual Anglo-African style, told him, that we were to be put on a Danish steamer to be sent to Russia. From this you will see, Mr. Minister, how our allies “liberated” us after a month’s confinement.

If England seized us as political emigrants (a lot of political refugees, as Colonel Morris expressed himself) then there was even no apparent sign of “criminality” as to one of our number. Konstantin Alexandrowitch Romantchenko came from Tchernigoff to New York with perfectly legal papers, was never engaged in political agitation and belonged to no party. He was returning home with a passport issued to him by a Czarist governor. This did not hinder the British authorities from arresting Mr. Romantchenko together with us, and keeping him for a month in confinement, obviously as a result of a false denunciation, or simply as the result of an error; it is quite difficult for Englishmen to decipher Russian names, and to trouble themselves with a more careful treatment of Russian citizens these gentlemen have not learned as yet.

More emphatically was this shown in the treatment of my family by the British officials. Notwithstanding the fact that my wife was never a political emigrant, that she left Russia upon a legal passport, that she has never appeared abroad upon the political arena, she also was arrested with my two boys, 11 and 9 years of age, respectively. The term “arresting” applied to my boys, is not merely a figure of speech. At first the authorities tried to separate the boys from their mother by placing them in an asylum. But as a result of a determined protest on my wife’s part, the boys were placed together with their mother in the house of a British-Russian police agent, Horowitz, who, fearing the “illegal” sending of letters or telegrams, would not let the children out on the street, even without their mother, except under a strict watch. And only after eleven days after their arrest, were my wife and children removed to a hotel and compelled to report daily to the police. They were also put on the steamer Hellig Olav together with us, without first consulting either my wife or myself as to whether we thought such a journey sufficiently safe for the lives of our children in view of the changed conditions created during our imprisonment by the entry of the United States into the war with Germany. Captain McCann, or his admiral, did not hesitate, without our knowledge or consent, to dispose of our fate and of the fate of our children, after they saw themselves compelled to free us from the “allied” noose. In reply to my question as to the real and formal grounds of the piratical attack upon me, my family and my fellow passengers, he said with that frankness so common among secret service men, that he himself was only an executive officer, and that he acted upon orders from London, and that I was exaggerating things in general: “Now in this time of a world war, when whole countries were being crushed, when Belgians,” etc., etc., the style is the system, Mr. Minister. I could only point out to the unselfish defender of weak nations, that if some one had grabbed him by the throat and pulled out his purse, and would have justified his act with the unhappy fate of Belgium this would hardly be a satisfactory solution of the incident.

Meanwhile the question which was not answered by the secret service captain, remains in full force: Who arrested us, and on what grounds? That the general order to detain those Russian citizens who happened to hold views not acceptable to the British Government really emanated from the British Government, is without any doubt, for Mr. Lloyd George could not miss the happily offered opportunity, to reveal, at last, that titanic energy, in the name of which he came to power. There is one more question, namely, who pointed us out to the British-Canadian authorities as persons who should be detained? Who furnished Halifax in the short space of three or four days the information as to our views. A line of circumstances points to the fact that this allied service was rendered by the renovated Russian consulate, the same consulate which had removed Nicholas’ portrait from its reception room and has stricken the word “Imperial” from its title.

Handing out to us with one hand the papers entitling us to a safe conduct to Russia and demonstrating thereby its loyalty towards the amnesty which to them appeared so unreliable, the consulate could with its other hand furnish its secret information to the British authorities, hoping that its activity in this direction would prove to be at any rate more reliable.

Whether or not this supposition is correct, to verify this, you, Mr. Minister, at the present time are possessed of better facilities than I am. But, apart from its correctness, apart from the entire mysteriousness of this matter, the fact remains in all its force, that British authorities, on a neutral vessel, arrested seven Russian citizens and two children, who were on their way to Russia with documents issued by the Russian consulate, kept these Russian citizens for a month under conditions which could not be termed as other than shameful, and “liberated” them from captivity under conditions which cannot be called anything but a mockery of those whom they released, and of the government at whose request they were freed. These facts are undeniable. And there is left to me, without going into the region of general political considerations and, therefore, without going beyond my official communication to you, to formulate the following queries:

Don’t you, Mr. Minister, consider it necessary, to take immediate steps to make the British government and its agents in the future treat the elementary rights of Russian citizens who appear to get into the zone threatened by English authorities, if not with respect, then, at least, with care?

Don’t you consider it necessary to accomplish the following: (a) To cause the British government to apologize to the sufferers for the lawlessness and indignities perpetrated upon them; (b) to insist upon the punishment of the agents of the British government who are guilty of those indignities irrespective of the offices they hold; (c) to obtain from the British government compensation for damages sustained by us by reason of loss and theft of property belonging to us, during the searches and transportation, and for our unlawful arrest for the period of one month?

Upon my arrival in Petrograd I acquainted myself with the official communication of the British Ambassador regarding our arrest at Halifax. Mr. Buchanan stated that we, who were detained, were going in pursuance of a plan, fully arranged and subsidized by the German government, to overthrow the Provisional Government (as it was at first constituted).

This information about money received by me from the German Government caps the climax of the conduct of the British Government towards Russian emigrants, a conduct made up of violence, sneaking falsehood and cynical slander. Do you consider it, Mr. Minister, as perfectly proper that England should be represented by a person who has stained himself with such shameless denunciation, and who has not moved a finger to rehabilitate himself?

Expecting your reply, I have the honor to remain,

Very respectfully yours,

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Last updated on: 17.12.2006