Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter II:
A Moral Matter

THUS at the age of nine Trotsky arrived in a new home with new parents to take care of him—to try, that is, to keep him from studying too hard and rocking the baby to death. For these were apparently his two principal bad habits. The baby was only three weeks old when he arrived in the house, and he watched over her development with intense affection. He detected her first smile, he taught her to walk, he taught her to read.

She is a gay and lively young woman now, studying dramatic art in Moscow and cherishing like jewels the memory of his friendship and the little shreds of his letters that used to come to her from Siberia, torn and blotted by the czar's censor. Her mother and father are still living, too—kindly-quiet, poised, intelligent. You can hardly imagine a more wholesomely peaceful environment for this boy of too intense mental energy, who cared too intensely about; having things right.

To the mother his coming to their home was turning on a light. She can only tell you how his eyes shone, and how beautiful he was, and polite, and terribly clean, and always busy, and always merry, and how all the teachers in their school loved him, and everybody loved him. And if you ask her, just for the sake of the picture put in a little of the darker color, she will answer:

"I never saw him rude and I never saw him angry in my life. The worst trouble I had was that he was so terribly neat. I remember once he had a new suit, and we went out walking, and all the way he kept picking imaginary lint off that suit. I said to him, 'If you do that everybody will know that you have on a new suit.' But it made no difference. He had to have everything perfect.

"That is why he stood so high in drawing. The first time he brought me a sketch to show me, it was so accurate and complete that I thought it was one they had given him to copy. But then he always stood at the tap of the class in everything. He would always get hold of other books besides the ones they were supposed to study out of, and then he would read all about a subject, and most of the teachers would skip him when they were asking questions, for fear he would tell them something they didn't know.

"There was one teacher there who never would give a mark of five. 'Only God gets five!' he used to say. But he gave Leon five—he simply had to. Another boy tried his best to get that mark, but the teacher told him again, 'I don't give fives.'

"'You gave Bronstein five!' the boy said.

"'That's Bronstein!' the teacher answered."

It is a relief to know that Trotsky committed at least one sin in those days. He abstracted a few of Mr. Spencer's best books from the bookcase and sold them to buy candy. He did not want the candy, either; it was worse than that; he just wanted to take the books. That gave him a great feeling of independence. He remembers standing in a doorway a little way down the street, eating that candy rapidly and laboriously, as one gets rid of the unpleasant consequences of an indulgence.

In general, however, his life there in Odessa seemed to have been as virtuous and serene as Mrs. Spencer's happy memory of it. Spencer remembers that this serenity was in part the result of a personal reserve extraordinary in so young a child. "We did not really know what Leon was thinking about," he said. "I can only tell you two things: That during that time he had no interest in girls, and he had no interest in sports. He was a very clever child—not only in his books—but he was tactful. He knew that he had come into a strang family, and he knew how to behave. He was only ten years old, but he was self-contained and self-confident. Ads he had an extraordinary sense of duty that must have been instinctive. No one had to take charge of his training, no one had to worry about his lessons. He always did more than was expected him."

To this somewhat appalling perfection of Trotsky, as reported by teachers, guardians and the like admiring elders, must be added the further appalling fact that he liked it. He liked to excel everybody. It was not the pure thirst of knowledge that brought him those high marks; it was a thirst of high marks. Indeed he was not even content to excel his school-mates, but he would go and think up impossible questions that he knew even the teachers could not cope with, and then when they floundered hopelessly he very politely suggested the answer.

The Russians, whose language often shows a better psychology than ours, have a special word for this quality, distinguishing it on the one hand from ambition, and on the other hand from self-conceit. Trotsky had at this time no particular ambition, and he could not at any time be called conceited. He was exceedingly samoliubiv, and you will have to know what that word means if you want to understand him and appreciate the difficulties that he must have had, or life had, in disciplining his nature. It means a fierce eagerness to excel others, and an intemperate sensitiveness to a challenge, or to the presence of a challenging personality.

It is that set of electric springs in the nervous system which we cultivate by selective breeding in race-horses, and which might be called in English an instinct for rivalry. It makes them, you know, even when they are ambling along at a resting pace, keep at least one white eye backward along the track to see if there is anything in the field that considers itself an equal. It involves an alert awareness of self, and is upon the whole a very disagreeable trait—especially as it appears to those horses who were not bred for speed.

It is something of a problem, in view of these facts, to know why Trotsky was so well loved as he was by his playmates. I can not find anyone who will say that he stood apart because of his superior ability. He was a popular boy in school.

"Even the boys in the upper class," said one of them, "knew that in the first class there was this little boy, Leon Bronstein."

It was not because of any heroism on the playground; Trotsky's genius for excelling did not seem to function here. He did not play much-i in all his seven years in Odessa he never went rowing with the boys on the bay. And he was not much of a fighter either.

His first arrival in the school was signalized by an event very little suggesting the future commander of an army. He was all dressed up in a brand-new uniform—and Trotsky loves to be dressed up; he loves gloves and shapely costumes—all those things that are supposed to be incompatible with revolution. His uniform had yellow buttons and a yellow buckle at the belt and a cap with a blue peak and crossed golden palm-leaves with letters signifying the "St. Paul's School of Odessa."

"Those yellow buttons afforded me an indescribable delight," he told me, "and in general it seemed to me that upon my shoulders, or at least in my knapsack, rested the dignity of the whole school whose threshold I was about to cross for the first time. I advanced, I imagine; with majestic solemnity. There came to meet me one of the so-called 'street boys,' most likely a pupil from a work-shop—fourteen years old, if not more. I was nine.

"As we met, he stood still, looked me over from head to foot, cleared his throat deeply and spat on my sleeve. That was as unexpected as if a burnt-out meteor had fallen on me from a clear sky. Especially it seemed incomprehensible to me, that he could spit on that magnificent brand-new costume, which signified so profound a turning-point in my existence. After a complete stupefaction which lasted several seconds—the boy meanwhile going away to his friends—I began to wipe off the shameful spot with chestnut leaves. To my offender I said never a word—in the main, I judge, through utter bewilderment, but perhaps in part also through awe before a being to whom nothing in the world was sacred.

"I understand him better now, I must confess, and in some sense sympathize with him. That wild spit was a form of protest for his dirty and degraded childhood."

Trotsky was not much of a fighter in the school-boy sense, but he was absolutely without fear. And that rare union of sensitive sympathy with imperious force, which so distressed his father, must have endeared him to his companions. They all remember one famous incident of his eleventh year, which sums up his character for them. They all remember it differently, but I think I have found out the true story.

One evening Leon, the happy, the strong-hearted, came home from school quivering and sobbing wildly. He could hardly say what had happened to him. Mrs. Spencer to this day does not know exactly what happened. He could only gasp:

"I don't want to be expelled! What will my papa say, if I am expelled from school!"

And he would not be consoled, though she and her husband promised to see the principal, and assured him that he would be taken back after everything was straightened out and explained. He felt that nothing could be straightened out, that nothing could be explained.

This is what had happened. A boy named Vakker, who was the son of the cook in a teacher's family, was a very stupid boy, who had already been two years in the same class. If he had to stay in that class another year he would be automatically dismissed from the school. A teacher named Gustave Burnand was a very priggish and unamiable teacher, with a big scar on his forehead and a thin, mean face lengthened with a little piece of a beard. Burnand gave Vakker so low a mark in his course that it was evident he could not pass out of the second class that year, and Vakker sat there almost all day crying.

Leon organized a protest. That was his crime—he organized. It was a very elementary sort of protest, but it was well organized and came off splendidly. When Burnand turned his back to go out of the room after the lesson, his exit was welcomed with a loud and prolonged "boo!" from the entire class. He wheeled around with an indignant glare, but all was still and respectful. He glared long enough to appall the most unruly, and then turned again. The "boo!" was repeated, a little feebler, but it followed him all the way down the hall.

Vakker, however, still was sitting in the corner crying, and it seemed as if nothing substantial had been accomplished. So Trotsky proposed a further measure of protest. He thought up the name of a very lofty official—something like the President of the State Board of Education—and proposed that they should write him a letter on the urgent need for rectification in the conduct of the second class in French in the St. Paul School. "But we would be expelled from school!" the other boys said.

"We will each write one letter of each word," he answered, "and they won't be able to say who did it. They can't expel us all."

In the midst of this more elaborate conspiracy on behalf of the oppressed, Professor Burnand appeared in the doorway with the principal of the school. They had come to ascertain the primary source of this booing, and they opened their investigation by dragging the oppressed himself out of his corner and inquiring what he had to do with it.

"It wasn't me," he wailed, pointing tearfully at the champion of his rights. "It was Leon done it!"

So Leon was invited to remain after school, and please to appear at four o'clock in the office of the principal. He remembers vividly the scene in that holy-of-holies from which no sinner returns unrepentant. He remembers the old priestly-ferocious German who conducted the school, and who was to give him his sentence of expulsion. He remembers the prim and exalted attitude of his accuser, and how as he entered tremulously the awful chamber this man announced with an inflection meant to wither the bones of the guilty:

"The first boy in my class is a Moral Monster!"

Mrs. Spencer put on her bonnet and coat and appeared early in that office the next morning to know why her boy should be expelled from school.

"Bronstein!" said the old German. "You want us to take that boy back? Let me tell you that's a bad boy. He has all the boys in the school under his power. That boy is going to be a dangerous member of society. We don't want him here."

"How can you say that about a child eleven years old!" said Mrs. Spencer.

"Madam, I have an experienced eye. I tell you that when that boy grows up he will be dangerous."

"But you have no right to deprive such a brilliant child of an education."

"Oh, he is brilliant all right. That's just the trouble." The old man was relenting a little. I'll tell you how much I'll do. I'll bring this matter up again before the faculty council; let them decide."

So Mrs. Spencer took her way to everyone of Trotsky's teachers, and from all but one she received the same answer:

"He is the pride of the school—we will do everything in our power to keep him here."

So early the disagreement began!

The old man did have an experienced eye. And Burnand, too, was not without a poetic felicity in his choice of epithets. The thing that makes Trotsky's moral arrogance seem monstrous is that it sleeps in the breast of so gracious a person. The Communists have agreed in large part with the rest of the world in picturing their military hero as a nervous, proud Satanic rebel, wearing a perpetual ironic scowl. But Trotsky is distinguished in an ordinary public assembly by his serene composure. His head held high, but his body solid and without nervous movement, he conveys an impression of alert and childlike quietude. What you see in his blue eyes is goodness; his mouth is sensuous and happy in its curve; and there is always the readiness for a social dimple in his cheek. If you add to these engaging qualities, extreme youth, a long-suffering attentiveness in the classroom, and a silent, diligent accuracy in doing the work, you will understand with what sincere horror a teacher might behold those dimples harden into iron ruts, those blue eyes shoot lightning, and some perfectly intolerable insolence come out of that mouth.

Trotsky's absorbing interest as a student in those days was history. He read the text-books of history at school, and then he read all the books about history that he could find in the Spencers' library. He read the Bible as history.

It had been an ambition of his father's—as combining cultural elevation with a certain conventional piety—to have a private tutor read the Bible with his son in the original Hebrew. Trotsky, being only eleven years old, was somewhat abashed before the bearded old scholar who undertook this task. And the scholar, being old and full of his duty, was hesitant about unveiling his own critical views to so young a boy. So it was not quite clear at first whether they were reading the Bible as history and literature, or as the revealed word of God. Trotsky remarked one day, in a reconnoitering spirit:

"I heard some people say that there is no God, and I asked them:

"'How, then, can you explain the existence of the world?'

"It was too much for the self-restraint of an old agnostic, who answered:

"'Yes, but after you have explained the existence of the world by means of God, by what means then will you explain the existence of God?'"

After that an intellectual friendship was established, and Trotsky was the more encouraged in the development of his own extremely positivistic mind.

In the later years his interest turned from history to mathematics as the chief concern. But all through these school-days—and indeed all through his life—Trotsky has had an interior thirst after literature and literary creation—a feeling that he cannot possibly know enough or attain enough in this field, that is restless and not happy. It is the wistfulness of a born man of action—the reverse of Hamlet's wistfulness. And it makes him the most indefatigable buyer of books in the whole world.

"If they would just let me come back to Paris once more," he said to me, "and wander along the banks of the Seine, selling my old clothes to buy books!"

It was this thirst that brought Trotsky again in the sixth year into conflict with the law and order of the school. His teacher up to that time, in literature and the Russian language, had been a sincere lover of his subject and of the art of teaching. He had encouraged the boys in founding a little magazine for their compositions-had encouraged Trotsky in particular, after the appearance of the first number, to study the laws of meter before he wrote any more poetry.

Upon graduating into the sixth class Trotsky came into the hands of another teacher of composition, a lazy man who cared little about composition and nothing about teaching. This man could simply never get around to the point of correcting the papers. Trotsky would labor through forty books gathering material for an essay, and then write the essay not with a pen, but with a sharp flame—such eagerness, such mental and manual energy and exactitude. And then he would hand it in to his teacher and never hear of it again. It was like dropping jewels into a well.

Trotsky decided to organize. One morning when the teacher had announced for the fiftieth time that he would return their papers the next day and was proceeding to give out the subjects for a new composition, he was startled to hear from the first boy addressed a weak but valiant announcement:

"I won't write the new composition until after you correct my last one."

("Keep still! What do you mean?" said the teacher.

"Well, you ought to correct our papers," murmured the boy, looking around helplessly for support.

"You may leave the room," was the answer. And Trotsky felt his organization crumbling. He jumped to his feet.

"He is entirely right," he said. "You will have to correct our first papers before you ask us to write a second!"

It was the voice of command. I have noticed that voice, and I am not surprised at what happened. It is deep, but it is not a big, liquid, luminous sound like Chaliapin's. There is an electric crackle in it. You feel when you are talking to Trotsky a little bit as though you were doing something dangerous.

The teacher walked out of the room. Trotsky was sixteen years old, and his popularity and mental brilliance had given him a rather formidable character. The other boy was expelled for insubordination, but Trotsky—on the ground that he had already been expelled once—was sentenced to twenty-four hours of solitary confinement.

He was locked up, but his former teacher, the good friend of his poetry, was now the "inspector" of the school. He came to talk with the culprit several times during the day, and at nightfall secretly unlocked the door and sent him home.

After that the compositions were corrected. And our moral monster succeeded in graduating from the St. Paul's School without further alarming the experienced eye and vegetative soul of its management. He left behind him, indeed, a glow of personal affection and intellectual glory which never entirely died out to this day, when the boys of the working-classes of Odessa go there to receive a free education in the "School of the Name of Comrade Trotsky."