Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter VII:
Condemned to Write

We have an idea that to be "sent to Siberia" is the last extreme of human torture, but our idea is based upon the experience of hard-labor convicts, not of administrative exiles. Trotsky's life in that chilly village to which he was condemned as an enemy of the state was far richer than that of most of the inhabitants condemned there by the accident of their birth. It was a simple and romantically tranquil life, the kind you think of and wish, for a moment, you might live when you see out of the car window some picturesque little thatched cabin with roses or a snowdrift at the window. He was a generous and laughter-loving husband and companion, the affectionate father of two baby daughters, skillful with a broom, a firmhanded dish-washer, an early wood-chopper, and expert in the art of keeping the cook sober until after dinner-time. The cook was a fellow exile, Miksha, a political-minded Polish shoemaker in real life, but in this drama of the revolution a traveler lost in the arctic snow with nothing left about him but charming good humor and a terrible thirst.

Ust-Kut was the name of the village to which Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna were exiled; but after a year there they secured permission to move southward to Nizhnie-Ilinsk, where a physician was available. And then after six months they moved again to the larger town of Verkholensk. But in all these places they lived the same tranquil life, the life of a Siberian peasant family, softened by the receipt of nineteen rubles a month from the government, enriched by the study of science and the world's literature and enlivened by the periodic arrival of mail and newspapers and the occasional passage of comrades and fellow-rebels, traveling north with resignation or traveling south with eagerness.

Among these passers-by Trotsky remembers seeing for the first time A. M. Uritsky, later the President of the Petrograd Soviet, who was murdered in the counter-revolution in 1918—"Uritsky with his unchanging, tranquil, kindly smile." Here too he first saw Dzerzhinsky, the man who was chosen because of the terrible strength and purity of his motives to be the head of the Extraordinary Revolutionary Committee —the Saint of Terror.

"At night around the fire," said Trotsky, "he read us his poem in the Polish language. I cannot remember the poem, but the face of that youth, so extraordinarily beautiful in its spirituality against a background of firelight, is still clear in my memory."

These were beautiful moments. But a more reliable excitement was the arrival of a three-horse sleigh which brought mail and newspapers from the capital. It came once or twice a week in good weather; when roads were bad, once a month, or once every month and a half. And the exiles dived into these newspapers like rabbits into a lettuce-patch, devouring them line by line in greedy silence. And if the sleigh did not arrive when it was due, or if it arrived too late in the evening for immediate distribution, then they trudged home and sat round the table, solemn and angry.

One evening when everybody else had given up and gone to bed Trotsky put on his big boots and overcoat and walked back to the post-office for a last look. The sleigh was there—and moreover when he entered the door he passed the police captain coming out with a letter in his hand. The letter crept under his uniform as he went by; but Trotsky saw it and rushed on up to the door he had come out of and demanded his mail. The postmaster looked him over and refused.

"It's too late," he said.

Trotsky is one of those unreasonable beings who never give up the idea that things are supposed to be just. He raised a storm around that post-office more like a nobleman than a convict, denouncing the illegality of the discrimination, calling all Russian law and history to witness against it, and so badly frightening the obdurate postmaster that he went into court subsequently and accused Trotsky of "obstructing him in the fulfillment of his official duties." The court found Trotsky guilty and fined him three rubles, but he got away from Siberia leaving it unpaid—"among my many other debts," as he says, to "czarism."

Trotsky's chief debt to czarism at this period of his life is the perfection of his literary style. He just needed to be snowed up in a little Siberian village with nothing but paper and ink to entertain him. He had the one indispensable gift—what the books of rhetoric call "sincerity," although the sincerest rarely possess it—the ability to be oneself with a pen.

But an artist has to train himself up to the level of himself. And that is what Trotsky did here in these idle years at the expense of the imperial government. He had not been three weeks in Ust-Kut before he began trying to make literature out of the life there. He sent his first effort to a newspaper in Irkutsk called the "Eastern Review," and it was printed. It looked beautiful!

Trotsky was filled with excitement, and plunged headlong into the life of a literary artist. He read and studied the literature of the whole world, tasting its qualities in five different languages, copying out extracts, estimating, molding his own style as he wished to have it. All night long he would sit up at his table, writing, rewriting, rejecting, writing again, until he would have something in his hand at dawn that he could weigh and believe in.

He was not allured into thinking of himself as a great creative writer. He had perhaps too generous a gift of literary appreciation for that. He loved his heroes too well—loved Gogol too well. He thought of himself as a revolutionary journalist, as one whose art; would be pamphleteering, and his style a fighting style. But he was doing something, and he had to do it well, and so his penal rears in Siberia became years of the most refined and fervent growth.

You would have a hard time finding in Trotsky's "column" in the "Eastern Review" the fierce and rabid trouble-hunter that you perhaps believe him to be. What you find is a genial and humane essayist of the smilingly discursive type of Charles Lamb—or perhaps it would be better to say of the type of Heywood Broun. For Trotsky seems to have been one of the founders of that modern art of being a complete human being upon the editorial page of a newspaper.

"The reader will not complain against me," he says, "if in our future conversations I mix together in one all journalistic-literary forms and kinds; if the general 'guiding thought' subsisting ordinarily under control of the watchful eye of the editorial writer is illustrated with private facts, the publication of which constitutes the task of the correspondent; if personal observations upon the life of this or that rural corner are brought into relation with the authoritative printed opinions."

After some little explanation in this kind Trotsky proceeds to establish himself in that newspaper as the friend of its readers. He is a literary critic, a dramatic critic—if one can dramatically criticize a lantern-show in the town hall—a philosopher of domestic relations, of education, of art, poetry, feminism, morals and international politics—kindly, keen and humorous and not unpoetic, loving justice, loving truth, loving all kinds of excellence and not finding any topic either too momentous or too trivial for his acute judicial attention.

He tells you about the perplexities of a neighbor whose child got bit by a mad dog, and he tells you why Nietzsche found it necessary to transvaluate values. He commiserates the fate of lunatics in the country, and adds that doctors themselves are not much better off for company; suggests a county medical congress and enumerates its uses. He describes with boisterous irony a stereopticon lecture on the career of a great Russian general, meditates upon the uses of history and suggests that it would go better if they would raise the screen.

He surveys the feminist movement with sympathy, declares that its goal is to "break the icy rind of dull reserve surrounding women of the middle class and the timid distrust even of the most 'emancipated' male," and shows that he himself is only an emancipated male by declaring that it has already achieved that goal. He explains the failings of Gogol as a moral philosopher and pays an infinitely loving tribute to his truth-telling art. He finds Max Nordau "more broad-talking than deep, minutely envious and not stingy with energetic phrases." And Nietzsche, he says, is too cloudy and contradictory to be explained except by examining the social soil that produced him; he examines that soil and finds it "rotten, malignant and infected." Gorky he sets aside somewhat reluctantly—just as Gorky has now set himself aside—as a rebel and not a revolutionist. Gorky represents the revolt against society—says Trotsky in 1900 —not the revolt of the proletariat within it. His characters are down, not because they fell vanquished in the contemporary social struggle, but because they held themselves superior to all contemporary society and withdrew from it. They are in fact "supermen," and Gorky is akin to Nietzsche in his irrelevance to the social problem.

That perception—or that prophecy—will show to what extent Trotsky had mastered here at the age of twenty-two the intellectual and emotional technique of the coming revolution. He had found his equilibrium. You sometimes feel in reading these essays that they are a little too literary, a little bit "high-brow." But you never feel any of the overstrain of a youth who is trying to convince himself of something, or to vanquish his opponents with an inadequate weapon. He is very confident of his opinions—as behooves those who are learning to write—but he shows a mature and surprisingly gentle explicitness in expressing them.

He is cruel to those who are without mercy, and without mercy to those who are cynical. But the weak, the sentimental, the professorial, the trivial, he is content to understand. And he understands without dogma. He does not feel compelled, as do so many believers in a cause, to deny in the interest of his belief the fundamental variety of life's problems. Repressed by the censor and robbed of the possibility to write revolution, he is able to write of other things with force and enthusiasm.

"Reader," he cries in one place, "we must raise the banner of revolt!" But it is only the continual appearance of abominable translations that evokes this note of violence.

It is one of the strange dispensations of our pecuniary gods that so long as the editorial column expresses their interest with orthodox stupidity the book-reviews may be slightly intelligent. And Trotsky, like many another obscure clover of truth, availed himself of this circumstance in order to "put across" occasionally a fundamental political idea. His ideas were popular, and he was soon recognized and rewarded by the "Eastern Review" with three kopeks a line—a sum which made life a little easier on the banks of the Lena than the imperial government had ever intended it to be. He received, moreover, at the expense of his newspaper, contemporary journals and reviews from St. Petersburg, and was thus able to keep in lively touch with the events of the world.

In 1902 he had a meeting with his editor and received an offer of sixty rubles a month as a regular contributor of feuilletons. He came back to Verkholensk amused and triumphant and prepared to enjoy to the full his extraordinary genius for being swindled by kind friends. But the joy was short. He had that great fortune only long enough to start spending it. In the place of his first pay-envelope came the news that the imperial censor at St. Petersburg had written to the editor stating that the contributions signed by "Antid-Otto" would no longer be received for consideration. The editor was regretfully compelled to withdraw his offer, and Trotsky's first literary career came to an end.

In one of his contributions he described the domestic life which he encountered in his first home in Siberia. It will give you an impression of his style as a novice in literature.


Province of Irkutsk; Department of Polynsk;
Village Urgutsk.
Male population .. 279
Female population. 290
Domiciles ....... 91

Such is the location of our village, and its "poll capacity" as our assistant town-clerk expresses it on wooden boards attached to posts at the two ends of the town.

Urgutsk is to a certain degree an administrative center, and thus the "ruling classes" are fairly well represented—the justice of the peace, a college man, still young, with very slender mustaches and perfumed pocket-handkerchief ; the commissioner of agriculture; the police captain; the revenue officer, a small, fine-edged man of the type that is portrayed on boxes of shoe-polish...

Upon the spiritual side: Our pastor, a bustling Siberian priest who devotes much of his energy to horsetrading and other forms of commerce and is in general addicted to this world and its vanities; the deacon, who teaches the children in our parochial school and expresses himself concerning our local correspondent—alas, we have one—as follows: "And that pest has been scribbling again!" finally the psalm-reader, a sentimental and given to telling his lady friends how he "hit it up with the boys" on the road from Chiliabinsk: "Didn't we hit it up though!" he says, smacking his lips. "Simply delightful! I got so gay that— But you must pardon my frankness!"

In the absence of the priest this psalm-reader once summoned "the world" with the sound of the church bell in order to raffle off his share of the clerical meadow-grass.

The son-in-law and chief assistant of the county clerk, who formerly fulfilled two positions, and that of psalm-reader among them, reported this incident at the county seat (Deacon asserts that "the pest" reported it) and the ecclesiastical superintendent issued an ungracious paper: "In consideration of this misapplication of the sacred reverberations——"

I live with a well-to-do moujik who, they say, made his money dishonestly. I do not know whether that is true or not, but I like him better than the other moujiks of Urgutsk. He is not so greedy, is unusually hospitable, carries himself with a certain dignity and is no fool. His wife is of like character. But they both drink to a degree unusual even in drunken Siberia.

"Everybody is at work in the harvest," says the little old lady—something in the nature of a twice-removed aunt, who is living out her life with our landlord—"but our folks are drinking and cannot stop." The old lady is already over eighty, but exactly how much over eighty she does not know; maybe it is five, maybe it is fifteen, years. She is small-sized, all shriveled up, with fingers half-clenched over a cane, a real grandmother of the kind that you see in pictures. Grandmother fully retains her sound sense, however, and does not keep telling us about "the good old days."

"In our time it was bad—terrible!" she says, looking past you and nodding her wrinkled head. "Look at them ! Look at these hands, what they are from work! For fifteen kopeks a day what didn't I do?—Terrible! Now it is better; life is easier. A little free money in the house. But they drink and drink. They ought to hold each other back. But they've lost the way; they drink all the time. Terrible !"

And then, leaning toward you, she continues in a kind of aggrieved whisper:

"And it's all her fault ! He drinks and sleeps it off, but he finds her drunk—nothing is warm in the house, nothing is cooked, nothing swept—he gets drunk again. Then she comes to, and he is sprawling drunk—and she goes and drinks again. So they can't stop."

Although from her words it is evident that the two of them figure in exactly identical roles, nevertheless the old lady always concludes that she is to blame.

"Quit it!" she says to the landlord. "Stop, I tell you ! You brought that hay worth a hundred rubles-three hundred versts you brought it, and there it lies out in the rain on the boats. The boss is drunk, and the workers just fool around. Everything is going to smash."

Then, changing her tone to one of compassion, the old lady continues:

"I know it is bitter for you! She drinks all the time; she is no housekeeper-good-for-nothing !"

And here the landlord himself, a tall moujik with twisty, dirty hair hanging over his face, sitting solemnly on a bench and only half sobered up, begins in a repentant, broken, whimpering voice:

"Yes, you might say that, gra'mother ... to drink that way. ... That hay now.... Well, you take a look at it, gra'mother.... Everlastingly drinking. I should think that would burn up the heart....You can't eat or drink.... Why, the gentleman himself had to fetch water from the river. ... I was jigged out of four twenty-five ruble notes.... Such things never happen. ... What shall we do with her, gra'mother? There the mere lies, dead drunk. How long, Maria, will you keep on drinking?" He turns suddenly on his wife. "I ask you !"

Here begins an ugly scene. The landlord drags his wife out of the cottage, and the old lady follows, slowly bringing forward one foot after the other, bending over, stretching out her left hand for equilibrium and feeling her way with a long, thin staff in her right hand. The landlord beats his wife ferociously, pronouncing a string of meaningless imprecations. His wife, still completely drunk, grabs with one hand at the old lady, who slowly falls.

I hear a senile cry:

"Oh, they are killing me! The brigands are killing me!"

I run out there and lift up the old lady, who steadily continues to assert that they are killing her. My presence embarrasses the landlord. He stands tall and disheveled with hands spread out helplessly, and after I have set the old lady on the bench begins to repeat:

"We dropped gra'mother.... Mister, lift gra'mother up....Please, mister, lift up....We dropped the old lady. You, please, mister, lift her up!"

After that the landlord disappears, to come back in about an hour completely drunk again. His wife employs this intermediate time by running to me in my room, putting in my hand a twenty-five ruble note—probably one of those stolen from the landlord. Intoxicated, bruised, her shirt torn and her breast naked, she begins to beseech me in a wailing, tearful-drunken voice:

"Be my own father! Go out, for the love of God, and buy me a little bottle."

All Urgutsk seems to me at this moment a drunken pit without exit, a prison surrounded with that stockade of jungle trees. ..

Trotsky's pen is alive in these writings. They tempt you to say that the world lost in him a literary artist. The world found in him one genuinely creative man who could not be tempted away from action.

I am yours, my friends, I will be yours,
Ready for labor and the sword,
So in our union there begin
A living deed and not a word.

He quotes this from the poetry of Dobroliubov, and it tells his real thoughts better than anything else in these censored articles.