Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter VI:
Solitary Confinement

Trotsky did not take with him his mimeograph machine nor the paper and ink, but arranged to have them brought by a worker whom he promised to meet at the railroad station the next day. He went to the station the next day, and several days after, but the worker did not appear. Trotsky had the material all composed for his journal and was eager as a child with a scrapbook to get to work. Moreover, he was in complete darkness as to what had happened in Nikolaev, and the doubt made him restive.

His father could not help noticing his nervousness, but he said nothing about it. He had been in Nikolaev himself the day after Trotsky left, and they had given him the package, thinking to expedite matters; and he, suspecting its contents, had stowed it under his own bed where it was dark. He watched Trotsky fret with a mixture of distress and satisfaction, until one morning he saw him getting ready to go back to Nikolaev, and then he said:

"What's your hurry? I've got your stuff here. They gave it to me.

Trotsky took it, locked himself up in his room and went to work. He worked all day long and practically all night too. He would come out for a meal once in a while, as grudgingly as a woodchuck in winter, and answer evasively when his parents asked him what he was doing.

It was their turn to be nervous, and they were. They became indeed so deeply distressed that he finally decided to take his machine and his papers and ink and go away. It was the morning of January twenty-seventh, and he saw his father's house then for the last time. They were already building the big, respectable stone mansion, and it stood there in the field without any roof on it.

Trotsky had not been long out of the house when a small army of the czar's police descended upon it and performed what is officially described as a "search." It left the house standing, but the inmost nooks of its walls and ceilings were ransacked, the furniture was thrown about and turned upside down, the upholstery ripped off the chairs, the bedding slashed open, the cupboards were emptied on the floor and the unhappy father and mother left standing amid the ruins, convinced that they had given life to the most dangerous criminal in Russia, and that he would be hanged without judgment if caught. Further than that it accomplished nothing, for Trotsky had all the incriminating material with him under his arm, and he was half a day's journey away. He had gone to Svigofsky's new home, which had been agreed upon by the conspirators as a rendezvous and source of mutual information.

Poor Svigofsky! He never meant to be a revolutionary. He only wanted to be an intelligent man and a carrier of culture to the people. But how could you be intelligent in Russia without getting into trouble? His house stood a little apart from the general farm buildings; it was an ideal place for other people to conspire in. And, besides, the conspirators were his best loved friends. He could hardly have been sorry when he saw Trotsky come trudging through the snow with his big bundle of crime, laughing and full of the plans for his next number. They soon, had it untied and all spread out on the tables and chairs and all over the floor, and were working away together, like well-entertained children when Alexandra Lvovna's younger sister, Maria, arrived with the news that her brother had just been arrested in Nikolaev and that she had been followed all the way down there by a spy.

"He will be here any minute," she urged, "and you must gather up all these papers and hide them quick."

Trotsky would not take it seriously, and even the prudent Svigofsky insisted on arguing the question before, instead of after, the papers were concealed. Maria Lvovna insisted that she had been followed. She described all the expressive actions with which detectives usually make it a point to reveal their identity, and finally through sheer force of distress prevailed upon them to conceal the papers. They took them out in the cabbage patch and buried them in a deep pit with the cabbages.

Then they came back and continued the discussion. It turned into a discussion as to whether they ought, in view of these arrests, to leave Nikolaev and go and take up their work in some other town where they were not known, or whether that would not merely result in the arrest of the workers they had led, and give color to the propaganda against them as "irresponsible students," "Jews," "outside agitators."

The whole field of revolutionary theory had to be canvassed in considering this question. Every Russian argument lasts all night. And they were still talking when the lamp grew pale, and Svigofsky remembered that it was time for him to go to his morning chores.

It seemed evident that Maria Lvovna had been mistaken about the detective, and so before going to work Svigofsky dug up Trotsky's portfolio again, and brought it in and set it on the top of a barrel that stood full of water in the entry. He turned around to go out again and met the detective coming in. The man had "planted" them there early in the evening, and then summoned enough help from Nikolaev to surround the house and make sure of their arrest.

He started back with a shock of surprise when he saw Trotsky.

"Oh, that's you!" he said, grinning.

His satisfaction was so great that he went rather hastily through the rest of the job, and his "thorough search of the premises" failed to reveal the incriminating portfolio, which sat there all the while in plain sight on the water barrel. Svigofsky, moreover, found an opportunity to whisper to his good-natured housekeeper to be sure to destroy it after they were gone. They rode away in two wagons, Trotsky on a back seat with an enormous gendarme beside him, Svigofsky in front with two gendarmes and Maria Lvovna in the other wagon with the detective.

The old lady was faithful to her charge, but her idea of destruction was a mild one. She took the portfolio out and gently buried it in the snow!

The jail at Nikolaev was not adapted to receive political prisoners, and Trotsky got no better comfort there than if he had been an ordinary criminal—or if he had been a political prisoner in America. For in America we do not recognize a distinction, which seemed obvious to the despots of Russia, between idealistic agitators and common thieves. After fulfilling the formalities at the desk, he was led away through a door of steel bars into a corridor and thence into the nearest room. It was a very big room with one window under the ceiling and no furniture—no bed, table, chair; only a white-brick stove in the wall.

A man was crouched on the floor by the stove in a big overcoat and hat. Trotsky thought at first that this man was a non-political criminal, and for a long time they were both too cautious to speak. Only by way of a long series of intimations did they arrive at an acquaintance. The man was a young revolutionist unknown to Trotsky, a hook-binder named Misha Iavitch—"a very dear comrade" as it turned out.

They lived three weeks together in that naked room. They were always cold. The stove was half-heated, and there was a six-inch grating in the door, where the frost blew in from a corridor separated only by an iron lattice from the open air. Not once all day did they take off their rubbers or their overcoats or hats. At night straw mattresses were brought in, and they lay down on them, close to the stove and close to each other, covered with everything they had.

At six o'clock in the morning they were roused by the guards, and as they had no will to move the mattresses were yanked from under them. They dressed hastily and then drowsed again for two hours, sitting on the floor with their backs to the stove. Hot water and prison food were brought to them by "trusties," and through these they managed to establish a communication with the other rooms.

They had no pencils, but would write by pricking holes with a pin under the letters in old scraps of newspaper. In this way Trotsky learned of the arrest of all the leading members of his organization, twenty-eight of them, including Alexandra Lvovna.

The news of Trotsky's arrest had reached Alesandra Lvovna in Ekaterinoslav, where she had withdrawn when the organization dispersed. She learned also of the failure of the detective to find the incriminating evidence; and, thinking that they might all be examined and released more quickly if she were present, she came back purposely into the zone of danger. It was a naive calculation, and characteristic of this most youthful and imprudent conspiracy. She was arrested in the railroad station upon her arrival.

They were in jail ten months before there was any hint of an examination. And during those ten months the snow had time to melt around that eloquent portfolio, and the summer grass to grow up and conceal it; the grass had time to grow too high and be cut down by Svigofsky's diligent successor; and the children of the landlord, playing there, found the portfolio and carried it to their father. He, being loyal to the czar, or—what is the same thing—prudent of his own skin, turned it over in due course to the police. That sealed the fate of the South Russian Workers' Union.

There were six "intellectuals" properly so-called among those arrested. The remaining twenty-two were manual worker steam-fitters, cutters, joiners, boiler-makers, blacksmiths, bookbinders, a seamstress and a soldier. In this small city which had never heard of a labor union, Leon Trotsky, only eighteen years old, had organized in nine months over two hundred of the workers of these essential industries in a criminal conspiracy on a programme calling for the overthrow of the existing government and the expropriation of the capitalist class. You can imagine the confidence that he inspires, the restless and compelling force of his character. You can understand how the Red Army rose up out of the wreckage of a nation and fought off the world.

It would have been a good idea to keep this young man warming his back against a cold stove all the rest of his life. And you wonder why it was not done. Why do government officials who have no fundamental regard for their own laws, have any regard for them at all?

After three cold weeks with his young comrade in the jail st Nikolaev, Trotsky was led out alone one day, placed in a mail-wagon with two gendarmes and driven thirty-five miles through the country. He found himself at nightfall in the city of Kherson, where the jail was not so crowded perhaps—or where his friends would not be able to guess his whereabouts and communicate with him.

Trotsky lived in absolute solitary confinement in a small cell in this jail for about two months and a half. It was warmer here, but the warmth was due only to the absence of openings, and the air was correspondingly foul. Trotsky had no clean linen and no hope of receiving any; and there was no soap, and he found himself covered with lice. He had no book, no paper, ink, pencil. The fight with lice occupied a considerable part of his time, and he would keep walking from one corner of his cell to the other, counting his steps or making up verses and committing them to memory. The loneliness, the inactivity, the loss of his friends, the inability to look forward to anything, and worst of all perhaps the nervousness caused in him by the filth of his body, would bring waves of anguish through his thoughts.

But his will was strung tight. There was no relaxation of its mettle. "For our sacred cause we are ready to lay down our lives."

A wonderful generation of men and women was born to fulfill this revolution in Russia. You may be traveling in any remote part of that country, and you will see some quiet, strong, eliquisite face in your omnibus or your railroad car—a middle-aged man with white, philosophic forehead and soft brown beard, or an elderly woman with sharply arching eyebrows and a stern motherliness about her mouth, or perhaps a middle-aged man, or a younger woman who is still sensuously beautiful, but carries herself as though she had walked up to a cannon—you will inquire, and you will find out that they are the "old party workers." Reared in the tradition of the Terrorist movement, a stern and sublime heritage of martyr-faith, taught in infancy to love mankind, and to think without sentimentality, and to be masters of themselves, and to admit death into their company, they learned in youth a new thing—to think practically; and they were tempered in the fires of jail and exile. They became almost a noble order, a selected stock of men and women who could be relied upon to be heroic, like a Knight of the Round Table or the Samurai, but with the patents of their nobility in the future, not the past.

Trotsky belonged to this noble order, and his years in jail were but a part of the appropriate experience. They made him a member of the oppressed classes whose cause he had championed. He would not be an "outside agitator" any longer. There would not be an excess of sympathy in his mood of revolt. He could hate the tyrant on his own account, and fight for his own right of liberty.

The verses which Trotsky made up show how revolutionary his mind was in this torture of solitude, and how unpoetic. He made up verses that he thought might help to overthrow the czar. If he had been a poet he would have overthrown the czar in verses. Only two of these verses survive. One of them is a soap-box ballad-lecture, written to the music of the "Komarinskaia." The other is called "My Little Machine" and may be described as the revised, or Marxian, version of a revolutionary folk-song belonging to the boatman of the Volga. In that song the Russian peasant tells the virtues of his "little oak club." He turns to it in all the major crises of life, and finally brings it down on the head of the czar:

Oh, Dubinushka, heave-ho!
Oh, the little green one
Lifts of itself.
Give her a twitch and—ho!

That is a free translation of the chorus, and Trotsky's revised version sings:

Oh, Machinushka, lightly!
Oh, the little steel one
Runs of itself.
Oil her, and let her go !

"My verses are very bad," Trotsky says. And his critical judgment, I will add, is very good. His poem is printed in the Bolshevik song books —but this for pedagogical, I imagine, rather than lyrical purposes. "You may sing about the peasant and his little oak club," says the Executive Committee; "but when you get through singing, read this, and don't forget that we are Marxian and by no means Socialist-Revolutionaries."

One morning toward the end of his three months in Kherson Trotsky's guard arrived, carrying a pillow and a blanket, tea, sugar and some good things to eat, and wearing an expression of Christian benevolence with a market value of ten gold rubles. These had been paid outside the prison walls by Trotsky's mother. With those elementary properties he was able to institute one or two little infinitesimal habits of life that gave some relief to the bare sitting and standing. And this kind of relief continued throughout the two years of his imprisonment.

About the first of May, three months after his arrest, Trotsky was again led forth between two policemen and loaded into a patrol wagon. And this time he found himself, upon dismounting, in his familiar sleeping-quarters on the deck of the night boat to Odessa. He was taken to the big modern prison in that city, and there he spent two very important years of his life.

I asked him in a letter to amplify some of the things that he told me about those years, and his answer, hastily dictated, is better than my story:

You ask me about the Odessa prison. It was radically different from the prisons of Nikolaev and Kherson. Those were old provincial prisons adapted chiefly for non-political criminals. The Odessa prison represented, as you might say, the last word in American technique. It is a solitary-confinement prison with four wings, containing several hundreds of single cells. Each wing has four stories, and along each story runs a metal gallery, and those galleries are joined together by a system of metal stairways. Brick and metal, metal and brick.

Steps, blows, movements clearly resound throughout the whole building. The beds attached to the walls fold up in the daytime, and are let down at night. You can hear distinctly when your neighbor closes up or lets down his bed. The prison guards signal to each other by striking with metal keys on the metal rails of the galleries. That sound you hear almost continually throughout the day. Steps on the metal galleries you hear also distinctly, as well as steps next door to you, and under you, and over you. You are surrounded by an uninterrupted noise and clangor of brick, cement and metal. And all the time you are absolutely isolated.

In spring the windows were opened, and the convicts, standing on their tables, would call across to each other. That was of course strictly forbidden, and at times the administration actually achieved "order." But there were periods of weakening, when conversations went at full swing.

I was brought to the Odessa prison in May, and when I first showed my head at the window they named me "May." (We each had our conventional prison designation, so that the guards, listening in on our conversations from the court, could not guess who was speaking with whom.) I, however, participated little in the conversations, since these shouts through a window give little and at the same time make you very nervous.

The politicals occupied one of the wings and were supervised not by a guard but a member of the police force. An old non-commissioned police officer, Usov, was our almost unlimited ruler. He was an intelligent and crafty man, poised, not lacking in good-will, and inclined to a bribe. His assistant was Miklin—a neurotic with a woman's face, eternally singing sacred hymns through his nose, pious to hysteria.

Usov brought me books from the prison library. Sometimes they would be works of polite literature, oftener historical journals—the "Historic Messenger," and especially in great quantities the "Orthodox Review" and the "Pilgrim." After three months without a single printed line I threw myself ferociously upon books. Theological journals I read weekly with the same ardor as the "Historic Messenger" or the works of Korolenko. The polemics of the learned orthodox writers against Voltaire, Kant and Darwin led me into a world of theological thoughts, which I had never touched before, and I had never even distantly imagined in what fantastic, pedantic, droll forms these thoughts pour out.

Those books contained an odd history of the prison, for the convicts have a habit of relating there, by means of little dots under the letters, the facts about themselves—who they are, when arrested, and for what cause. A considerable time must have passed before I began to receive books from the outside. At any rate I managed to read the files of the "Orthodox Review" for a long series of years.

I had known the prison tapping alphabet before my arrest, but none of my neighbors knew it. I was not especially sorry, for books swallowed me completely. After some weeks of my stay in the Odessa prison my neighbor on the right began insistently tapping to me. The tap was not in the prison alphabet, but monotone, even unintelligible and tiresome. I judged that some illiterate convict was tapping on the wall from sadness, and did not answer. On the next day and the day after it continued. Then it came into my head that my neighbor did not know the prison alphabet, and was tapping each letter according to its place in the alphabet. As an experiment I cried out. My neighbor tapped with redoubled energy. The first letter was S—nineteen blows on the wall. I thought to myself, half-joking:

"What if it should be Sokolofsky!"

The second was 0, the third K, and so on. It was Sokolofsky ! I soon taught him a better method of tapping, and he told me that he had been about two months in Kherson, whence he had been transferred like me to Odessa.

After about two weeks or more we found out that there was a secret communication between our rooms. The prison toilet had a drain which entered the wall from two sides—that is, from the two neighboring rooms it went into the same wall, and more than that into the same ventilator shaft. The lower part of that ventilator shaft was walled with only one brick. The convicts in almost all the cells had knocked out that brick and established a connection with one of the neighboring rooms.

Sokolofsky and I could even see each other, could pass notes, shake hands and exchange unbound books; for this it was only necessary to remove the table and toilet from the wall.

Usov noticed our illegal communication, but shut his eyes to it. After a month or two some new police officer took charge of us, and then I was moved to another cell.

By that time I was already receiving books from the outside. I had the New Testament in five languages (Russian, German, English, French, Italian) for the study of foreign languages. I studied the Italian language with special diligence at that period, learning Italian poetry by heart. The New Testament I learned admirably, could recite accurately the separate chapters and separate verses in them.

During my promenade I used to tease the pious officer Miklin, demonstrating to him that he played the same role toward us as the Roman soldiers toward the Christian saints. In answer he informed me that the heretic, Arius, had exploded alive because he called the Mother of God simply the Mother of Christ—and Miklin left me to conclude what fate awaited me in view of my arbitrary operations upon the text of the Holy Scripture.

The inquiry into the Nikolaev affair took place in the prison ten or eleven months after I was arrested. The Nikolaev police lieutenant, Dremliuga, put the questions. He had in his hands at that time all the material which I left in the country at Svigofsky's... and it was amply sufficient to convict us. I presented a written explanation with the purpose of proving that Svigofsky had no connection with the affair. At that period it war not yet accepted as a general rule in the ranks of the revolution to abstain from all testimony. Dremliuga questioned me not more than twice.

After my removal to the new ceil I found myself next door to Zif. He too was a welcome neighbor, although less interesting than Sokolofsky, with whom I was bound by common literary interests.

I read in prison: Darwin, a complete collection of the works of Michaelovsky, Plechanov—"Toward the Development of the Monistic View of History"; Antonio Labriola on Historic Materialism, and many books on the history of freemasonry, and in connection with these upon the history of guilds in the Middle Ages and social conditions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

From the first day that I received paper and ink I began to formulate for myself the theory of historic materialism upon the foundation of what materials I had at my disposal.

When it seemed to me that I had made the matter clear to myself in the abstract, I decided to make an experiment in the application of the method to some more or less complicated ideological question. The choice, rather accidentally, fell upon freemasonry; I hit upon that subject while reading a historical work by Pipin—-the title of the book I have forgotten. Since it was necessary to return the books in order to have the right to receive new ones, I made enormous summaries in my note-book, sometimes running to ten pages in the most minute handwriting. By the end of my stay in the Odessa prison I had filled with these summaries a fat note-book of several hundred pages. This note-book, along with all my work on freemasonry, got lost later in Switzerland.

I remember telling you that in the first days of my confinement in prison I acknowledged to myself that had become a Marxist. Darwin destroyed the last of my ideological prejudices. Marx himself I could not secure in the prison. Beltov and Labriola I received later. In the essence of the matter I was already a Marxist outside, but through obstinacy I still defended, against the Marxian epidemic that was spreading among the intelligentsia, my "individuality," a sufficiently ignorant one.

I communicated the news of my conversion to Svigofsky, being confident that he had gone through a similar process. To my enormous surprise he received my announcement very coldly, and had not the slightest inclination toward Marxism. After that Sokolofsky declared himself a Marxist, as I had. Zif already counted himself a Marxist before the imprisonment.

In the Odessa prison I felt something like hard scientific ground under my feet. Facts began to establish themselves in a certain system. The idea of evolution and determinism—that is, the idea of a gradual development conditioned by the character of the material world—took possession of me completely.

Darwin stood for me like a mighty doorkeeper at the entrance to the temple of the universe. I was intoxicated with his minute, precise, conscientious, and at the same time powerful, thought. I was the more astonished when I read in one of the books of Darwin, his autobiography, I think, that he had preserved his belief in God. I absolutely declined to understand how a theory of the origin of species by way of natural and sexual selection, and a belief in God, could find room in one and the same head.

There, that is the most that I can tell you about my stay in the Odessa prison.

Trotsky's crime was sufficient, if he were formally tried and condemned in court, to earn him twenty gears at hard labor in the mines. But the publicity of formal trials was not always convenient to the czar's government. In wholesale quantities political rebels were simply shipped off to the northern villages of Siberia by administrative order, and there set at liberty under police surveillance. As there was but one way out of these villages, along the river valley, they had the character of stockades or big prison-yards. Trotsky and his principal co-workers were sentenced to four years in one of these stockades.

It was a late autumn of 1899, almost two years after his arrest, when Trotsky was finally led out of his solitary cell and down into the office of the prison, where he joined his old friends of the garden. Alexandra Lvovna was there, and her sister and brothers, and Svigofsky, and Zif, and Mukhin—all the best friends that he had in the world—and they were shipped away together in a comparatively jolly company.

They spent the winter in the "transfer prison" in Moscow, and there Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna were married. That marriage had been planned long before in the prison in Odessa, but Trotsky's father had stopped it by means of a telegram to the Minister of Justice at Petrograd. He put all the blame now upon Alexandra Lvovna, and believed that by stopping this marriage he might still rescue his son and get him to build sugar-mills on the Bronstein estate. I doubt if he ever fully relinquished that purpose until a detachment of his son's army marched in and took the estate away from him. But here in Moscow they were beyond his observation, and their union was legally sealed and sanctified by a rabbi-chaplain with an old ring borrowed from one of the prison guards. This was not because Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna needed the blessings of a church or of the laws upon their love. It was in order that, as man and wife, they might be exiled to the same village. That was the "marriage problem" for Russian revolutionists. They were often married when they were not lovers, as well as when they were.

Trotsky and I visited together the prison in Moscow where he was confined so many years ago. He showed me the dim semi-circular cement room in the Pugatchevsky Tower where he and his friends slept on board blinks radiating from the curved wall. He showed me the little courtyard where they played lapta, a kind of Russian cricket, and where one day Trotsky got thrown on his back and dragged out to the lock-up by the prison guards. The superintendent in those days was a big German-Russian bureaucrat, a pompous and brass-buttoned official, who gave orders that when he appeared in the court the prisoners should remove their hats. He appeared in the middle of a game and Trotsky who was standing nearest to the gate he came through, paid no attention to him at all. He advanced with a loud roar, commanding Trotsky to take off his hat.

"Don't yell at me—I'm not your soldier!" Trotsky said.

The man called for the alarm whistle, and amid that appalling din ten or twelve guards rushed in, leaped upon Trotsky and dragged him off to another tower to live on bread and water for his sins. But Trotsky's sins are always organized. Every one of the political prisoners followed his example—they all had to be dragged off in the same way—and the job of punishment was too heavy. It resolved itself into a general change of residence, which was not unwelcome to them; for the new cells, although smaller, were not so crowded, and the question of saluting their pompous ruler was allowed to lapse.

Trotsky's home-coming to this prison after twenty-two years was a simple one. The power has changed hands, but the pomp has disappeared. There are no brass buttons in Russia. As the terrible gates swing open at the approach of Trotsky's car a good-natured, fat-faced, teacher-like character in a workman's coat runs forward, jumps on the running-board and shakes hands as we drive in. He is excited by Trotsky's visit to his prison—as excited as though Trotsky were the Czar of Russia—but his excitement shows itself in an amiable, comradely eagerness rather than in any access of dignity. Bolshevik prisons are informal and easy-going in comparison with American prisons. They are a little bit more like schools, and it is easier to graduate from them. They make you feel glad that the power has changed hands.

It was spring again before Trotsky an companions started eastward from Moscow, and they were on the road all summer, stopping for long months in the prisons of Irkutsk and Alexandrovsk. At the end of August, 1900, he and Alexandra Lvovna were placed on a big river barge with a crowd of criminal prisoners and shaptzi—a sect of fanatic men and women who castrate themselves in order to become altogether hideous and egotistical for the glory of God—and with this company they floated down the river Lena toward their home under the Arctic Circle.