Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter I:
An Imperious Secretary

Trotsky never lived in the big stone house that testifies to the wealth of his parents. He was born and grew up to the age of ten in a little old-fashioned peasant's hut, with a fat brown roof of straw and five tiny rooms with low ceilings. The sitting-room and dining-room had wooden floors, and the floor in the sitting-room was painted; and here there were comfortable chairs, a table, an immense square stove, and on top of the stove a great big sleepy-eyed cat.

In the winter time, when it is impossible to work all day long and all the evening too, his mother sits reading with quiet concentration the words in a book. The process interests him because she whispers the words as she reads. He is cutting out the letters of the alphabet and sticking them fast in the frost on the window, one in each pane, and each little window has six panes. He is sticking them accurately in the middle, you may be sure. It is all snowy white outside, and the drifts curve half way up the low windows, and it is all warm inside, and tender and friendly and unworried.

The elder brother and sister will explain to him about the letters and give him his first colored books to read. And then when they are gone away to school he will be taken over to an aunt's house in the village, and he will stay there studying with her children. Nominally he will stay all winter, but as a matter of fact he will be at home most of the time, because he is so sweet-tempered and has such merry dimples that his parents cannot get along without him. In the summers an uncle from Odessa will come to visit them, and he too will give lessons to this gifted child with the beautiful manners and the blue light shining out of his eyes. Everybody who sees him will help him, and he will have every opportunity to rise to a place of respectability and comparative honor in Russian society.

And he will avail himself of these opportunities with a speed the memory of which makes people breathless. By the time that you might have learned to make letters with a pen, Trotsky had lost interest in the letters and was making a pen. At the age of eight he was printing with his pen a little magazine—although this with the help of a cousin two years older, a great artist, who made the cover designs. Trotsky's first ambition was to be a great artist like his cousin. And his first job was to be, at the age of seven, his father's secretary and account-keeper, a job which he fulfilled with an accuracy and perfection of penmanship entirely beyond the reach of his elder brother and sister.

Trotsky never played very much out of doors. He never learned to skate, and he can swim only a little. His early friends describe him as a "mischievous" child, but they do not mean that he went around with bow and arrows and a sling-shot, spit-balls and cigarette-butts, sticking burrs in the lambs' tails and riding the cows bareback. They refer to what he said rather than to what he did. His friendship was full of laughter; he liked personal jokes, and had ironical-affectionate ways of appreciating people. The nearest he came to playing, in our sense, was to "hang around" his father's machine-shop and blow the bellows or turn the wheels for his best friend, Grebin, the farm mechanic, with whom his conversations were endlessly lively and adventurous. He remembers, when he was seven years old, talking of the improbability of people's going up in the sky somewhere after they die. But that too was a playful conversation. He can not remember caring much whether they went up there or not. He can not remember ever having a serious emotion in regard to the religion about which his parents tried to tell him a little. His seriousness was bent from the beginning in a different direction.

It would be interesting to understand, if we could, just why this happy and healthy-natured child—a miracle of brain and will-power, as everybody could see—did not rise to a position of respectability and comparative honor in Russian society. Instead he crawled under Russian society, disreputable and like dynamite; and only because of the whole of that society toppled and fell, he rose to his position of honor.

It appears that the fact of his being a Jew had little influence in the formation of Trotsky's character and destiny. It was of course an objective limitation of the things that were possible to him under the czar, but it was not a thing that entered into his heart in childhood. His father had belonged to a community of Jewish people-"colonists," who took up free land wider an edict of the czars designed to increase the population of southern Russia.

But while the others all stayed in the colony, hating the land and satisfied with small trade, his father moved out into the fields and got rich working and hiring the peasants to work with him. He controlled almost three thousand acres of land around the little Ukrainian village of Ianovka, owned the mill, and was altogether the important man of the place. Trotsky had no chance to develop an "inferiority complex" here.

And he received his early education in Odessa, a sea-port trading city, where commercial necessity disciplined the races, Greeks and Jews and Russians, and their relations were in normal times courteous, at least, and not constrained. Unfriendly allusions to his race were "merely another kind of rudeness"; they were not one of the things he cried about. And they hare left no traces apparently in his consciousness of himself. Trotsky has the bearing and the manner toward life of a prince, if you can imagine that nature has her princes, and nothing seems more remote and petty in his presence than the distinctions of race.

It was from his father that Trotsky inherited the most obvious traits of his endowment, the intellect, the confident and penetrating judgment. His father died in a little village near Moscow four years ago at the age of eighty-three. He was managing a mill with energy and success, and he died not of old age, but of typhus fever.

A strong man who had been wealthy, who had been respected with a good deal of fear by his neighbors, he found himself at the age of eighty—thanks to his obstreperous son—in the most uncomforted condition of any man in Russia. Persecuted by the Reds because he was a kulak, a big land-grabber, by the Whites because he was Trotsky's father, and by Machno's bandits on the general theory that he might have something that they wanted, he got the full weight of the "Russian problem."

He thought it over under those circumstances and read it over a little too—for he had learned to read at the age of sixty—and finally gave up the faith of a lifetime and left home. Be went three hundred miles through battle-ridden territory on foot—eighty years old-seeking a friend with whom he could take shelter, and in 1920 he arrived in Moscow, reconciled to the revolution and glad to ask his errant son for a job.

Trotsky is proud of his father, proud of the fact that he died working and understanding. He loves to talk about him.

His memory of his mother is less affectionate. I think it is because he loved her too much when he was a child. But perhaps it is only because she died longer ago, and Trotsky never lived much with his family.

He went away to school at the age of nine, and very soon after that he began living in jail. He remembers both his parents as they came to see him in the little cell in the prison at Odessa. It was a very tiny barred shaft into which he had been admitted only for the purpose of the visit; but when they saw him there with his big black mane and gentle eyes, like a wild animal in a cage, they did not understand. They believed that he was kept in that cage to protect the czar's domains from the rage of his terrible ideas.

His father expressed no feeling, but turned white and had to support himself against the wall. But his mother's anger and pain expressed themselves violently. She had not so much of the reserve that Trotsky loves, and that gives to his presence an exciting quality of power. She had the power, however. Her neighbors remember that she was an "insistent" character, and a "great manager," and that the Bronsteins' estate was as efficiently run, and their household as spick and span and punctual to its dates, as the famous military train of the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Armies. They remember that she was a handsome woman, with "a face full of goodness," and that neither she nor her husband was "the kind to sit down in front of any kind of work."

So far there is no reason to see why Trotsky should not become a "regular person" and go serenely upward to that respectable position which his parents desired for him. But there was a difference between them. Trotsky was in the first place an extremely intense and sensitive child. He seemed to "care too much" about things. There never was a child born who had less of the disposition to "let well enough alone." And the things he cared about were unusual.

One day a neighbor's horse broke into his father's wheat-field. The neighbors' horses were always breaking into his father's fields. His father had so many fields. And perhaps it wasn't just the horses who were so clever. At any rate his father was very severe in the administration of justice on these occasions. He locked the horse up, and told the peasant he would let him out when the damages were paid.

Trotsky saw his father striding back into the house and the poor peasant coming after him with his hat in his hand, crying:

"I didn't see him, it wasn't my fault! I didn't see him, it wasn't my fault!"—bent over as though he were a little old woman who needed help.

Trotsky ran into his mother's bedroom and into the bed by the window. He lay there curled up on the blanket, crying. It was dark, 'and it was dinner-time, but he did not answer when they called him to dinner. He felt all the sorrow in the world then, and he looked out of the window in the dark. His mother finally got up from the table to look for him, calling out of both doors and receiving no answer. She found him at last. Perhaps he let her hear a sob from the bedroom. But she came back without him.

"That's a queer child," she said. "He's been crying for a half an hour, and I don't know what he's crying about."

His father was more understanding.

"I think he heard Ivan wailing about that horse," he said. "Tell him Ivan has the horse, and he didn't pay anything."

So Trotsky found himself in the embarrassing position of having to stop crying suddenly because he had made a mistake. He managed it by denying that he had been crying about Ivan's horse, and coming up to the table snuffling and pouting in a solemn way, as though he had been communing with some sorrow too deep for grown-up people to understand.

He probably had been communing with a deeper sorrow—but perhaps we can dimly understand it if we try. Trotsky was devotedly attached to his mother in those early days. His relation with his father—according to the testimony of one who lived often in their house—was "none too cordial." That must hare been the fundamental fact in his emotional life, and it is easy to imagine that some egotistical and jealous pains of his own were mixed up with his sympathy for that unhappy peasant. The deepest and tenderest passion in his heart led him into a mood of rebellion against the dominance of his father. And that mood was more or less continual. It got him into trouble more than once.

Trotsky was a most extraordinary secretary. Sitting there with his big blank books, a big inkwell and pen, a big shock of darkening hair, but everything else about him incredibly small, his legs reaching only halfway down to the floor, he had nevertheless a very important, rapid and solemnly competent manner of doing what had to be done—changing and dealing out money, noting down the amounts paid and the amounts received. On pay-days he was especially busy, for his father had a mill and a threshing-engine on his big farm, and many different kinds of laborers. And here again there would be disputes—particularly with the season workers, who were compelled to pay for damage to property and for the days when they were ill.

You can imagine his father's emotion when in the midst of one of these disputes his small and perfect secretary suddenly stepped in with the announcement that he had computed the amount remaining to the worker, and it was not enough to get along on. He would have to have more. This was offered simply as a statement of fact. But as it seemed not altogether obvious to his father, it was backed up with something approaching the nature of a speech for the opposition, a thing exceedingly mal-a-propos in a seven-year-old secretary. An intolerable thing in fact. His father told him to "shut up," and that was the end of it.

It was in this manner that Trotsky varied from the conventional type and became such a care and disappointment to his well-regulated parents. His sympathies were belligerent. His tenderness was rebellious. He seemed to have an idea arising out of himself as to how things ought to be, and little or no discretion about expressing it.

His father thought that this cantankerous streak in his gifted son would disappear with proper education. He had unbounded faith in Leon's abilities, and he had vast and exciting ambitions for him. He used to exhibit his little magazine to everybody who came into the house—and also his colored drawings, of which Trotsky made enough to fill a hay-mow, all neat and accurate in perspective and without a glimmer of artistic value. And he used to call upon Leon to recite his "poetry"—of which he also poured out an unconscionable stream, for some reason that is beyond understanding. For Leon's poetry had nothing in it, neither music nor images nor emotion, and he himself had no disposition to show it off. In fact he rebelled violently against these exhibitions, dug his fingers in his eyes, crawled around behind the furniture, and on one occasion when a little girl from the neighboring farm had been called in to hear him, he just burst out yelling in the middle of a poem and ran away and hid in the barn.

He was a queer child from the standpoint of an ambitious parent—too sensitive, and yet too obstreperous. But he had brains, he had health, he had energy. The thing to do was to put him to school, and put him to school early. An uncle in Odessa—Spencer—the same one who had given him lessons in the summer months—offered to take Leon into his home as a "paying guest." He could live there in a cultivated family and attend the St. Paul's School, the best boys' school in Odessa.