Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter III:
A Garden of Ideas

THERE was no seventh class in the St. Paul's School in Odessa, so the boys were accustomed to go from there to another school in the same city. But because it was nearer to his lonely parents, Trotsky decided to finish his course in the smaller city of Nikolaev, a night's ride by steamboat down the coast from Odessa.

Here his father engaged a comfortable lodging for him, and here he arrived in the autumn of 1895, wearing a nicely pressed new suit of a rich tan color, his hair cropped short and a stylish hat on his head, very handsome, very bourgeois – according to those who offered him the lodging – and almost a bit of a swell. It is not quite true that he "had no interest in girls." He was very shy in his relations with girls and disposed when he was particularly interested in one to cover it up or express it by treating her with special rudeness and brutality – a method which did not get him along very fast. But he had a great love of social laughter and a boisterous good time and enjoyed the advantages of his good looks like any other boy excited about life.

Inwardly he was not quite so slick and cocksure, however, as he appeared. He was troubled about himself in two respects. He had an ambitious impulse toward knowledge and literary expression, and he had a perpetual sense of the impossibility of ever satisfying it. He lay awake at night, troubled about this. He did not know what he was going to do; he thought he would earn his living as a mathematician or an engineer.

The other thing that troubled him was an inability to make decisions. He thought that his will was sickly. He seemed to be perpetually going around in a desperate circle, considering the pros and cons of every little movement and doing nothing. He did not see how he could ever play the part of a man with this moral impediment!

Trotsky says that he still finds it difficult to make decisions in small matters. Perhaps it is choices, rather than decisions, that he finds difficult. In those days in Nikolaev and even in the great matters he had not chosen his goal. He had no calling, and he had no love.

He was a republican in feeling. He loved the victories of the people in history and hated their slavery in Russia to the czar. But he had not yet touched that dark current of political change that had been gathering power in his country for half a century. Two men brought him in contact with it – one, Franz Svigofsky, a thoughtful gardener; the other Galatsky, a book-seller. In czarist Russia all book-sellers were radical – to sell books was a radical occupation – and book-seller leaned to the left even among his own adventurous kind. He gave Trotsky radical pamphlets and rational-idealistic books to read, like Lavrov's "Historic Letters" and Michaelovsky's "What Is Progress?" – books painted a Socialist ideal and warmly glorified the lives of those who should devote themselves to its attainment.

These were among the first books in Russia which proposed a revolutionary social evangel in the place of the religious evangel which has absorbed so much of the aspiration of mankind. They advocated a "going to the people" on the oart of young men and women who had the advantage of education and wished to further the progress of the race. The peasants are the people, they said; go and live among the peasants in the villages; teach them all that you know; but teach them particularly about Socialism and about the advisability of overthrowing the czar, if necessary, in order to establish a Socialist society.

In these books, written in a very noble and elevated style, Trotsky found a common channel for many of the prevailing currents in his nature. Without offending his hard sense of reality they offered him an ideal. They offered him the world as a field for that instinct toward "having things right" which was so strong in him.

There is a terrible seriousness in people to whom religion seems trivial. And these books showed Trotsky how he might live life seriously, and with a goal greater than himself and his daily bread and bootblacking. They showed him the glory of the adventure of human progress. And they gave him companionship in those peculiarly strong feelings of social sympathy and revolt which he had brought with him out of his childhood. He felt that he belonged to this company of reasonable and devout rebels of human progress.

In this mood it was inevitable that he should come in contact with a group of bold and radical-minded and excessively noble-minded young people, who met in the outskirts of the town in the garden of Comrade Franz Svigofsky. Comdrade Svigofslsy's brother was in the high-school with Trotsky, and he already called himself a Narodnik – a believer, that is, in "the people" and in "going to the people."

And Comrade Svigofsky himself, while not exactly a Narodnik – not quite so revolutionary as that name implied – was a man of broad and free culture, who had gathered around himself by a kind of natural gravitation everybody in the town who had a radical opinion. A gardener by trade, he had leased this plot of ground, and was trying to make an independent living raising fruit and vegetables. His little house, however, had a comfortable dining-room and an open arbor under an apple tree where you could sit around the samovar and talk about the possibilities of perfecting human society; and it was always full of Narodniki and Narodsvoltsi and Narodopravtsi; and even now and then a Marxist would creep in, and it is to be feared that the fruit and vegetables led a very precarious life among all these high-minded people. At any rate Comrade Svigofsky's garden was better known to the police than it was to the green-goods merchants of Nikolaev; and when the news reached Trotsky's parents that he was "hanging around" this notorious place a very tempestuous situation developed.

His father invaded Nikolaev like an army. He fell upon Trotsky, and he fell upon the poor woman who kept the lodging where Trotsky lived, and who, he thought, should have had some regard for a young man's development. His son was to have a course in civil engineering at St. Petersburg or, if he preferred it, an education abroad. There was to be no nonsense about it. There was money enough in the family to produce something besides a radical ne'er-do-weel for a son!

Trotsky was not sure that he would not study engineering; but he was sure that he would not let anybody else choose his life for him, and he said so.

The conflict that ensued was sharp and rude and cruel. The will that had built up that great estate and personality in spite of illiteracy and the disadvantage of race had projected itself forward into this incomparable son. The farm was not enough – sugar-mills and breweries were to be built now – an engineer was indispensable.

The son, on the other hand, was far away from building sugar-mills and breweries. He was organizing the people who dropped in at Svigofsky's garden into a little society, which he took a poetic pleasure in calling the Razsadnik. It means a garden in which things are grown for the purpose of transplantation. And the things to be grown in this garden were revolutionary ideas. The members met every week or so to discuss the problem of the liberation of Russia and the regeneration of human life, and they paid each a certain proportion of his income, to be used in buying books for distribution among the peasants. It was only a "little circle of intellectuals" – but it was a typical forerunner of the events to come, a small forge in which instruments were being sharpened for the use of the great forces of history. And to Trotsky, who believed then that these instruments were the great forces of history, it was of more pressing importance than his hypothetical career as a civil engineer. He said this to his father, and he said it with a sharp and violent tongue.

His father knew nothing about defeat.

"You will either quit this business and get to work, or you will quit spending my money," was his ultimatum.

If any last touch was needed to drive Trotsky straight into the camp of the revolution, it was this act of paternal tyranny. His revolt against his father and his revolt against the social system now became united. To assert himself as a grown man was to assert the revolution. He made no remonstrance against the terms of the ultimatum. He gave up the lodging that had been rented for him, advertised himself as a private tutor and moved over to Svigofsky's garden to live.

The incident has repeated itself in Trotsky's own family. His eldest boy, having decided that the privileges of life in the Kremlin as the son of a Commissar are not befitting his dignity as an individual, has moved out into the town and lives there upon the small stipend provided by the university to its students. He visits his family once a week as a guest, refusing to accept even his car-fare when he leaves the house. He is only sixteen years old, and it was with a mixture of admiration and solicitude that Trotsky told me about it.

"We have made no protest," he said; "but it is too early – he is too young."

Trotsky was too young – he was just past sixteen. He had come to Nikolaev only in order to be near his family. He had no clear or defined purpose in life except to live it. It was a hard moment for his affections. But it was not altogether hard, for the world into which he had cast himself was warm and full of friends. Indeed it was almost an ideal world. Franz Svigofsky was a simple and most genial man, a man with a big beard and a big brow, and his relation with this brood of young rebels that surrounded him was that of an appreciative but prudent father. Together they had established in that garden a kind of Communal Utopia – he and his brother and the two Sokolovsky brothers, and in the summer-time a Doctor Zif who was studying medicine at Kiev.

Doctor Zif had a home in Nikolaev, but he was very fond of the Svigofskys, and particularly he loved Trotsky, and you could almost say that he lived there in the garden. By taking turns at the cooking and dishwashing, and with the very important help of Svigofsky's long-suffering vegetables, these five or six friends managed to enjoy the best pleasures of human society at the modest rate of eleven rubles apiece per month.

And Trotsky's income as a "private tutor" sometimes amounted to eleven rubles a month, although it was the most uncertain thing in the world. At one time he managed to rope in the son of a local dry-goods merchant and filled him so full of unnecessary knowledge that at the end of two months his father, taking fright at the boy's development, refused to pay the bill.

There could hardly have been a more unlikely location for a private tutor of Nikolaev's wealthy sons than Comrade Svigofsky's garden. And there could hardly have been a more inauspicious regalia than the blue workman's blouse, the wildgrowing hair and the cane of a special form which had been "standardized" by the habitues of that nest of liberality and sedition.

The truth is that Trotsky immediately accepted a real and complete poverty as a part of the choice that he was making. When he did earn money he did not spend it on himself. He gave up all those attributes, except fastidious cleanness, of the slick young man who had arrived in Nikolaev a half a year ago. He was no less gay and humorsome, but he had turned to a new life; and he lacks the capacity for half-hearted action. He is described as "ragged" by his bourgeois friends during the two years that he lived and worked for Socialism in Nikobev and Odessa, and he was often actually hungry for a meal.

His uncle, Spencer, remembers a morning when Trotsky appeared in front of his office window in Odessa, gaunt and ill-clad as a tramp. Spencer jumped up, shocked and startled, intending to open the door, but Trotsky beckoned him to come out and meet him a little way down the street.

"It was not because he was ashamed of his tattered clothes," Mr. Spencer explained, "but because he was doing illegal work then and did not want to involve me. I took him to a restaurant and bought him a breakfast, and then another breakfast, and then another breakfast, before I could get him filled up."

Trotsky remembers another time, however, when his income as a teacher amounted to sixty rubles a month, and then he was the rich one in the garden. He was the one who had money left over to buy books for the peasants!

Such was their life. And the heart of it – the sustaining joy and justification of it – was a relentless, exhaustive, young, brilliant, burning, day-long and night-long debate on the problems of the social revolution in Russia.

It is impossible for us in America to imagine with what intense realism the idea of a more perfect human society was conceived in Russia, and with what sheer practicality its problems were discussed. To us Socialism came as a gratuitous economic vagary, requiring a philosophic dissatisfaction with the forms of democracy, and proposing a kind of ideal uprising that had as little reality for our lives as the second coming of Christ. To the Russians an ideal uprising was inevitable. Everybody expected it. The czar expected it. And everybody knew that this uprising would destroy, if successful, the most sanctified relations between the classes in Russian society. What set of relations should take their place? That was a simple and practical question that every lively-minded person must ask. Socialism was one of the answers. It was the answer given by the most thoughtful, and also by the most thoughtless. Only a eertain mildly intellectual or dull professorial type of person believed in the Russian revolution without believing in "Socialism."

And so the debates in that Garden of Ideas were not debates about the possibility, or the probability, of overturning this old world and starting a new one. They were debates about the methods to be adopted in bringing this obvious thing quickly to pass. They were debates about the relative importance of "personality" and of "critical thought" in producing this change, and the relative strength of the different classes in Russian society, and the role which they might be counted on to play. In particular they were debates about "Marxism."

And there was a particular reason for this. It was not Doctor Zif – although the doctor had read Plechanov's book on Marxian theory and counted himself a defender of it. Doctor Zif commanded a very light intellectual artillery, as he himself has taken pains to demonstrate in a small book describing his relations with Trotsky.[1] No – there was another reason than the erudition of Doctor Zif why these bold, brilliant young Narodniki could never quite satisfy themselves that they had unhorsed and abolished Marxism. It was the occasional presence at their table, and the vivid image that stayed there after she was gone, of the gentle-eyed, iron-minded sister of the Sokolovskys, Alexandra Lvovna. Alexandra Lvovna was a Marxist – that was what made conversation so uneasy and life a perpetual statement for the defense among these otherwise so confident and unconquerable knights of "the People."

Alexandra Lvovna was older than her brothers. She was six years older than Trotsky, and she had lived through some of the darkest years of the reaction which followed the failure of the Terrorists in Russia. Born in utter poverty and reared by a father who loved the ideal of liberty, she had herself long ago accepted the rebel mood and philosophy of the Narodniki. Reading an account of the trial of Vera Zassulitch, remembering the deeds of that time, she could not endure the inaction, the pessimism, the dull color of revolutionary faith among her contemporaries. She was the new generation – she resolved to go again among the people and teach revolt.

It was a resolution which led her first to a course in midwifery at the University of Odessa, and there she found students who had been at the University of Geneva and had worked with Plechanov and Zassulitch herself and Lenin in the little group called "The Emancipation of Labor," who were sending illegal Marxian literature into Russia. She read the literature and becamea resolute adherent of this new and more coldly scientific method for the regeneration of and the world.

She was, to be sure, no profound wizard in the complexities of the science, but she had read enough to make her know that the boys in Svigofsky's garden were as ignorant as they were brilliant and "logical" and was swift to pounce upon anyone who proposed to cool down the lofty emotions with which they were approaching life.

She remembers how they first announced to her the arrival of Leon Bronstein:

"Oh, now you will see! Here is the man who can talk to you! Such logic! Nobody can beat him!"

She came to dinner that night expecting some mommentous and whiskered professor, who would "Inform her of the errors underlying the economic system of Karl Marx," as momentous professors have done since the system was invented. She was utterly amazed when this smooth young child appeared with the close-cropped black hair and pale-blue eyes.

Was this the great anti-Marxian debater they had been telling her about? But he was! From the first crackle of that voice she felt the force of the attack, and she defended herself sharply, ironically. There was hardly a moment of amicability between them. Not only on that occasion, but every time thereafter when they met some sharp, sarcastic tilt would take place.

"You still think you're a Marxist? I can't imagine how a young girl so full of life can stand that dry, narrow, impractical stuff!"

"I can't imagine how a person who thinks he is logical can be contented with a headful of vague, idealistic emotions!"

Such is Alexandra Lvovna's memory of their meetings. And instead of growing more friendly or more playful as they got better acquainted, these tilts grew more bitter and frankly hostile until finally she practically gave up attending the general meetings of the group.

"For instance, once I insisted on their reading Plechanov's kook, and they threw it on the floor in rage when they saw his bitter attack on Michaelovsky."

This spirit of fury reached out after her, it seems, even after she had ceased to appear at the garden. There was a Narodnik journal in Russia at this time called "The New Word," and had been subscribed to by the public library of Nikolaev at the request of their group. In the middle of the winter its editorial staff was changed, and its policy became Marxist. As was the first legal expression of Marxism in the Russian press, the journal was very precious to Alexandra Lvovna. Her emotions were bitter enough when she saw a letter posted in the public library and signed by all her friends in the garden, requesting the directors to cancel the subscription to this journal, which did not "respond to the interests or opinions of the readers."

Svigofsky himself was old enough and wise enough to see the ungraciousness of this act and subsequently crossed out his signature. But it was not Svigofsky, but Bronstein, who had done it, and Bronstein made no attempt at qualification or apology.

Omniscience is of course one of the privileges of a biographer, and I avail myself of this privilege when I say that it was not only the materialistic interpretation of history against which Trotsky was here rebelling with such ferocity. He has, to be sure, a faculty of burning absorption in problems of mere truth which you and I, chilly Anglo-Saxons, might fail to understand. But he has also a very living heart, and history demands a record of the fact that everybody else in that garden was in love with Alexandra Lvovna. She stood over them as a kind of Madonna, wiser than they, and more tender, and more firm. In this world of halfway things, a shining mind and heroic character have rarely lodged in so gentle and lovely-looking a person.

You will understand a great many peculiar things about the Russian revolution if you understand this quarrel between Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna. It was the same quarrel exactly, that we saw subsequently between the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks. It was a quarrel between two ways of viewing human progress so profoundly opposite that no working reconciliation possibly could take place between them. The sincerest Socialist-Revolutionaries are in jail now; they would have jailed the Bolsheviks had they won the power. The difference is that they did not win the power. And they did not win the power because their science was not practical. Let me show you that science at its source:

"The seed of progress," said Peter Lavrov, "is indeed an idea, though not mystically existing in mankind; it is born in the brain of a person; it develops there; afterward it passes out of that brain into the brains of other persons, expanding qualitatively in the increased intellectual and moral worth of these persons, quantitavely in the increase of their number, and it becomes a social force when these persons are conscious of their agreement and decide upon a unanimous activity; it triumphs when these persons, penetrated by it, translate it into social forms."

This viewpoint of Lavrov's was developed by his more shining successor, Michaelovsky, into a whole system of sociology. Michaelovsky made it seem probable – and moreover made it seem scholarly – that the very essence of progress, both in nature's evolution and in human history, was the development of "individuality." And thus those "morally worthy" persons of Lavrov's – the "critical thinkers," the revolutionary intelligentsia – became the goal of progress as well as the power which should carry it forward.

Marx had an exactly opposite idea of the relation of thoughts to a social progress:

"It is not the consciousness of men," he said, "which determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, asthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological-forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out."

The followers of Lavrov and Michaelovsky believed that Russia's critical thinkers, convinced of the idea of Socialism, would convince the majority of the Russian peasants, or hypnotize them, and that they would establish Socialism without passing through the period of capitalism or awaiting the development of a revolutionary working class. Marx declared that these critical thinkers would have no dynamic effect upon the process, and that even the enormous hordes of the peasants would not play the leading role. The relatively tiny number of the workers in the towns alone possessed the force and were in the position to overthrow the old society and create the new.

As capitalism and the factory system inevitably developed, the number of these workers would increase, and their dominating position in Russian life would increase faster than their number. The task of the social idealist therefore was not to carry culture and a Socialist evangel to the peasants, but to teach the industrial workers their revolutionary mission, and organize them for the task. They would have not only to overthrow the czar's government, but to overthrow capitalism as well – for these two tasks were alike, according to Marx, in demanding militant agitation and class war. Culture and the propagation of beautiful social ideals could no more produce Socialism than it could batter down the czar's police.

That was the new doctrine, and the tone of voice in which it spoke. Men like Lavrov and Michaelovsky had proposed a revolutionary social evangel in place of the religious evangels of the past. Marx proposed to replace all evangels with a science of historic engineering. The primary occupation of man, he observed, is earning his living, and the primary motive forces in history are economic. If you wish to mold future history you must calculate these forces as a mechanic calculates the forces of nature, and put yourself in a position to guide them. Instead of an evangelist you must be a technician; instead of a politician, a scientist; instead of a hot and windy preacher, a cool and practical engineer.

This is the doctrine which has given such incredible power to the Bolsheviks in Russia, and which makes the rest of the world look upon them either as saints or supernatural devils, according to the point of view – but never as ordinary, amiable human beings. They are, as a matter of fact, extraordinary. They are "visionaries," using in the interest of their vision that same hard, calculating "business sense" which has always been used by their opponents to make them look ridiculous. They are the "children of light" trying to become as wise in their generation as the children of this world.

But you can see how difficult it was for Trotsky at the age of seventeen, all full of fire and power and the sense of infinite possibilities, to accept this hard discipline of fact from the lips of a lovely young girl. There are two kinds of Marxians. There are those who like Marxism because it gives them an opportunity, as they think, to deny the finer values of life; and they enjoy denying. There are others who like Marxism only as they like facts, and as it is necassary to face facts, in order to go on and build up in concrete reality the finer values of life.

Trotsky's violent resistance to the matter-of-fact-interpretation of history, before he had read it or really knew what it is about, was an affirmation of life. It was the expression of a poetic iniversality and free play of interest over all the interests of man, which in spite of his consecration and superhuman hard work he has never lost. He is as little touched with the disease of revolutionary negativism as any Marxian I have ever met.

Thus his graduation from the high-school at Nikolaev, brilliant and resounding through the town as usual, was not for him a very clear or happy occasion. He felt in his thoughts of himself, even if he did not acknowledge in his "Philosophy of History," the feebleness and futility of a life of lonely propaganda in some peasant village under the surveillance of the czar's police. He had enough "moral worthiness" to send books into the country, but he had not enough scientific folly to go off and bury himself there. In short he did not know what to do with himself. For the first time since he stood up in his crib, swaying and beaming on the whole world, so that people went into the bedroom just to get a laugh out of his blue eyes – for the first time, here at the end of his school year in Nikolaev, his friends describe Trotshy as "gloomy."

He had been sick in the spring, had fainted away as he sometimes does upon a slight provecation, and then gone to bed with influenza. His father, learning of this, had declared a kind of armed truce and come to visit him in the garden. While there he had thrown the entire weight of his character into "counter-revolutionary propaganda." That is, be as revolutionary as you like, but at least have the common sense and deecency to urge my son to finish his education!

One of the principal culprits, Galatsky, had failed and moved off to another town, but this resolute father traveled off after him and brought him back to use his influence in behalf of "ordinary common sense." It was a desperate campaign, and if Trotsky's soul was not saved, you need not lay the blame upon this powerful and relentless man.

A friend who stayed often with the Svigofskys, Benjamin Vegman – the editor now of Communist newspaper in Siberia – has described to me his first vision of Trotsky's father at their garden. Vegman was sleeping on the floor in the living-room, and opened his eyes very early one morning to see this big-whiskered farmer standing over him, aggressive and implacable.

"Hello!" he shouts with a loud voice like a bugle. "You run away from your father too?"

The Russians have a word for stubborn, which means "like the stump of a tree," and that it is the word Comrade Vegman used to describe Trotsky's father. We need not wonder with this giant on one side waging the timeless and irresistible campaign of "common sense," and on the other a beautiful Madonna offering him the cold and stony-looking doetrines of Karl Marx – himself in the middle a flame of confused radical aspirations – we need not wonder that Trotsky was "feeling gloomy," he whose very genius is to be clear and to be self-confident.


[1] Doctor Zif is now practicing medicine in New York, a Socialist of the kind who defended the War-for-Democracy and the patrotism of the Allies. When Trotsky came to New York during that war – anti-patriot, anti-war, revolutionist to the depth of his heart – he met Doctor Zif, who he knew had been publishing a little pro-war paper there in the Russian language. He met him most cordially; and, wishing to remember the friendly emotions of these earlier days, he invited him to his house. They talked long and drifted back into the mood of their recollections. But Trotsky, knowing that Zif could teach him nothing and that he could convince Zif of nothing, refrained from opening the political question. It was a characteristically courteous, and a very friendly, exercise of judgment. But to the doctor's editorial vanity it seems to have been an unendurable offense, the manifesation of a self-seeking intellectual arrogance which he suddenly discovered had characterized his friend's activities from the cradle. Hence this little volume of weak and ludicrous personal spite. If a worm could snarl it would make a noise like Doctor Zif's book.

Last updated on: 13.2.2005