Leon Trotsky:

The Portrait of a Youth

Chapter VIII:
The Summons of Lenin

A SOCIAL-DEMOCRATIC party had been formed in Russia while Trotsky was fighting lice in the prison of Kherzon. But that party was little more than a constitution and manifesto. Practically all the delegates to the first convention had been arrested, as well as all the leading workers all over Russia. There remained merely the idea of a Marxian party, and widely scattered little groups of people, in jail, in exile, in hiding, ardently debating the problems of its tactics.

They were debating two questions in particular. One was whether the party should explicitly and immediately advocate a political struggle culminating in the overthrow of the czar, or whether it should confine its attention to the economic struggle of the workers, postponing the political issue or leaving it in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Upon this question Trotsky had already taken his stand in the Nikolaev days. He had no instinct for postponement. The revolution is political as well as economic, he said, and its first task is to overthrow the czar.

The other great question of debate among those Marxians was whether the party ought to be a centralized organization, commanded by its executive committee as an army is by its general staff, or whether it ought to be a very democratic federation of local groups with their own independent treasury and autonomous executive. Upon this question, in the Nikolaev days, Trotsky had taken the impractical view. His instincts were democratic, and as we have seen he was a rather Utopian conspirator.

But experience and reflection and his long study of Marxism had made him wiser. He argued against these diluters of the revolution now—the "Economists" as they were called—not only on the issue of political agitation, but also on the issue of centralization. When he visited Irkutsk in the spring of 1902 he made a speech before the Social-Democratic circle there which is still remembered as an impetuous assault upon the weak, disintegrating and counter-revolutionary tendencies of this prevailing group. Trotsky had not only mastered the science of Marxism and the art of writing during his four years of peace, but he had taken long steps toward becoming a practical engineer of history, A Bolshevik.

Trotsky brought back with him from Irkutsk some copies of the new journal, "Iskra," in which Lenin was annihilating "Economism" with his sledge-hammer of logic and fact and calling for the organization of an "all-Russian organization of professional revolutionarists." It was a journal founded in London upon the initiative of Lenin, but with the cooperation of five other revolutionary leaders—Plechanov, Martov, Axelrod, Potriesov and Vera Zassulitch.

The foundation of that journal was a momentous event in the history of human culture, and its creeping into the little far-off Siberian city, after a year and a half of secret traveling, was a momentous event in Trotsky's life. He was restless already. He had finished his education. His trip to Irkutsk had been the expression of an impatient impulse, a feeling for the path that should lead him back into his life's work. Lenin showed him the path. An all Russian organization of professional revolutionarists—that was where he belonged. And it was in order to go to Lenin and put himself at the service of that organization that he made his escape from Siberia.

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!

Trotsky and Alexandra Lvovna lived in a little two-story house in Verkholensk, and in the evenings after they had put the babies to bed downstairs they went up into the second story to read and study. They went up a ladder and through a trap-door in the ceiling, and they closed the door after them. Every evening at about ten o'clock, while they sat there reading, this door would slowly rise from the floor, and the big, red-whiskered face and watery blue eyes of their police inspector would peer silently around the room and then silently disappear again as the door descended into place. This event always made Trotsky mad, and one night he jumped off his chair and gave a lunge with his foot at that disappearing face.

"Don't ever show your face above this floor again!" he said.

It was a preposterous thing to say, a command delivered in circumstances where a bribe would have been more appropriate. But Trotsky has a peculiar genius, as we have already observed, which consists in the fact that his commands are obeyed. That face never appeared above the floor again, and five days later Trotsky's absence from the village was discovered accidentally by the chief of police. Trotsky had ridden away, buried under the straw in a peasant's wagon, and now he was in Irkutsk, disguised and supplied with a passport and buying a railroad ticket to Samara.

Trotsky's passport, supplied by the underground organization at Irkutsk, was a carelessly forged blank which he himself had to fill out. It was a vain thing for safety, but it gave him the opportunity, which a great many people might enjoy, of choosing his own name. He could never be Leon Bronstein again in Russia —and moreover in the existing circumstances he could not be a Jew. For Jews, except as convicts and condemned exiles, were legally debarred by the czar's government from Siberia. Trotsky borrowed his name from the head keeper of the prison where he had lived in Odessa, and he chose it not only because he liked it, but because from the standpoint of race it seemed noncommittal.

Samara was the Russian headquarters for the distribution of "Iskra," and Trotsky carried a letter from the circle in Irliutsk to Glyeb Krizhanovsky, the head of the Russian organization. He presented it in the summer of 1902. To Krizhanovsky thus fell the task of deciding what Trotsky should do—whether he should travel to London and serve as a writer, or whether he should stay in Russia as an organizer. As Trotsky is probably both the best writer and the best organizer that the Socialist movement ever produced, this decision could not have been an easy one for Krizhanovsky.

He began by sending Trotsky on a mission of persuasion to Kiev and Poltava. He was to find centers there for the distribution of "Iskra" and local correspondents for the paper, and he was to establish an underground connection between these two cities and Samara. In Poltava there was a group of workers wavering between Economism and the policies of "Iskra," and a part of Trotsky's task was to win them over. He was to persuade them to send delegates to the coming convention of the party, for which the "Iskra" group were acting as an organizing committee. Trotsky fulfilled all these tasks with adequate success and without having to display his dubious passport, and he returned to Samara for further orders.

Kriehanovsky had decided in the meantime that Trotsky was a writer and should go to headquarters—a decision which he revoked soon after, and wrote to headquarters asking that Trotsky should be sent back to Russia as an organizer. He christened Trotsky with the party nickname of "Piero"—the Russian word for pen—and supplied him with a railroad ticket to the Austrian border, and enough money to get him thence to Zurich, where lived Axelrod, the nearest of the six editors of "Iskra."

On account of the imperfections of his passport Trotsky arranged his departure from Samara with a good deal of care. A young student named Soloviev, whose apartment he had shared, took his bags to the station and got on the train with them. The plan was that Soloviev should sit there in the car until the very last moment, when Trotsky would rush in with just barely time to catch the train, and then Soloviev would withdraw. Trotsky would thus be on board with his baggage without having had to linger in the station or pass slowly through the gates which were so well watched by the czar's police.

This plan worked admirably up to the point when Trotsky was supposed to rush in at the last moment and catch the train. At that point Trotsky was off in the by-streets taking a walk, having been told at the station that the train would be an hour late. He heard the whistle and ran all the way to the station; but he arrived just in time to see the train moving off and his friend Soloviev sitting among his bags in the middle of the track. He was trying to explain to a large public, including all the police officers and detectives in the station, just why he had jumped up and tumbled off the train the moment it started, with passengers, who naturally thought he was a maniac, hanging on to his coat tails. Trotsky sneaked out of the station and went home in a hurry. And after another evening of hilarious laughter with his friends in Samara, he left town without any elaborate preparations.

His trip was uneventful until he reached the little village of Kamenets Podolsk on the Austrian border, where revolutionists and revolutionary writings were smuggled in and out of Russia, along with other merchandise, by the poor Jewish trading population. The price for passing over a "comrade" was fixed and well understood. It was eleven rubles. Trotsky knew that the price was eleven rubles; nevertheless he paid twenty-five-not out of philanthropic intentions, but just because he is an "easy mark."

Whether it is a survival in him of the conscience of his childhood, when he used to feel guilty of the wealth of his parents, or whether it is merely his natural generosity, it is a fact that Trotsky can never be trusted to carry the money. He can not get through any form of polite hold-up work from anybody who does anything for him, with a cent in his pocket.

He knew quite well that the young student who engineered his transfer, kept him waiting two days in his bedroom while a mysterious cargo of "literature" was being passed over, merely in order to impress him with the momentousness of the enterprise. He knew quite well that he was carried across the river in a deep place on a man's back and given a good soaking in order further to impress him with the services he was paying for. He saw a place where he could have crossed the river wading only up to his knees.

And he knew that the old Jewish peasant with a horse and sulky and a rooster tied by the legs, who drove him at midnight into an Austrian village, entertained him in hoarse whispers with tales of the danger they were running, the probability of being shot when they crossed certain bridges, with the same commercial purpose. Just before they reached one of these most dangerous bridges, the old man went astray in the dark, and his wheel slipped into a ditch. The sulky tipped over, and he and Trotsky and the rooster were all dumped out into a mud puddle. The rooster was pinned under the wheel, and screamed and cackled hysterically.

"Kill him! Can't you kill him?" Trotsky whispered fiercely.

"I can't find him!" whispered the old man, groping about in the dark. "Besides I can't kill him—he has to be killed by a schocket."

Trotsky smiled grimly and helped the old man to right the sulky. The rooster continued to advertise their arrival at intervals all the way into town, but there was no shooting. There were no questions asked. There was no sign of life anywhere. All these things Trotsky observed and understood and commented upon within his own ironical mind.

But when it came to paying the money, he had no power of resistance. He gave each of these experts twice as much as he was supposed to and got on the train for Vienna without a cent left of what Krizhanovsky had given him for the journey to Zurich.

Trotsky was hungry when he arrived in Vienna, but he was not worried. His arrival was that of a Russian revolutionary leader escaping from Siberia, and his only problem was to make this momentous fact known to the leaders of the Austrian Social Democracy—to Victor Adler, for instance. That was the state of his feelings. You will never know Trotsky if you do not know what it is to feel important and absolutely self-confident. He managed to get hold of a copy of Victor Adler's paper, the Arbeiter Zeitung, without paying for it, and he managed after some wandering to arrive at the address printed on it.

A sedate and severe intellectual with two pairs of glasses on was coming down the stairs. It was Austerlitz, the editor-in-chief.

"Excuse me," said Trotsky in very bad German, "but I must see Comrade Adler."

The editor-in-chief paused and examined him through his glasses.

"The Herr Doktor?" he corrected.


"Impossible!" he exploded. "Impossible!"

"But let me explain who I am," said Trotsky. "I am a Russian revolutionist escaped from Siberia, and I am on my way——"

"It wouldn't make any difference if you came to announce that you had assassinated the czar, you can not see the Herr Doktor on Sunday!"

Trotsky managed to extract from Austerlitz the Herr Doktor's home address, however, and he presented himself there, subdued but not conquered. The doctor himself came to the door, and Trotsky recognized him from his pictures. He too was severe, and when Trotsky began to apologize for arriving uninvited on Sunday, he interrupted with an impatient:

"Ja Weiter, weiter!"

But there was kindness in his eyes, and while Trotsky was trying to find some German words to explain his situation, the doctor turned and called into the house:


A young Russian girl appeared in answer to his call, and the doctor said:

"Now it will go better!"

It did go better. It went so well that Trotsky stayed some days in the house of Victor Adler, receiving quite as warm a welcome as his self-confidence had predicted and being supplied on his departure with twenty-five crowns for the rest of his journey to Zurich.

It was an ample sum. But again there were porters, there were conductors, waiters. There were panhandlers. There were bookstalls. And Trotsky arrived in Zurich once more without a cent in his pocket. He arrived in the middle of the night. ...

I remember the first impression I had of Trotsky's character. I got it from an American journalist, who told me that Trotsky was a "queer irresponsible sort of a guy," so very "communistic" that when he arrived in a strange town, he would go and knock at the door of the first house he saw and order the people to pay for his taxi and put him up! Trotsky is so entirely opposite to that, so punctilious about money matters, and with such a very keen sense of privacy too, that I wondered what was the source of the story.... I found it here. He took a taxicab that night in Zurich straight to Axelrod's house, routed him up at two o'clock in the morning and said:

"Please pay for the cab, and afterward I will explain to you what it is about."

There is something almost ludicrous in Trotsky's self-confidence. Those who do not like him call it self-importance. But that is not right, for it is an instinctive attitude, not a result of reflection. Trotsky has, to be sure, that sense of self and its rights and dignities that proud people have—a trait that goes better in a feudal than a proletarian society—but this does not mean that he thinks about his own importance. My opinion is that Trotsky thinks about himself very little. He does not like to think about himself. He tried to read a page of this book once and shoved it away in disgust.

"It makes me uncomfortable," he said.

In conversation with him my continual difficulty has been to get him to relate his own experiences and not tell me the life-stories of all his friends. I doubt if there are many famous people who, in the same circumstances, would reveal the same weakness.

Axelrod gave Trotsky some more money and started him on his way to London by way of Paris. It took Trotsky two months to get from Paris to London, and as we are describing him as a young man upon a pilgrimage of consecration it is necessary to pause a moment and explain this fact. There was always a colony of Russian revolutionary exiles in Paris, and in this colony, as elsewhere, "Iskra" had its own group.

This group had a kind of unofficial committee of welcome for new emigrants and exiles from Russia, and the head of this committee for the moment was Natalia Ivanovna Siedova. She was a strong-hearted, quiet girl with high cheekbones and eyes a little sad—a girl of noble birth, who had been a rebel since childhood. From a young ladies' boarding-school in Kharkov, where she had persuaded her whole class to refuse to attend prayers and to read Chernishevsky instead of the Bible, she had gone to Moscow University and from there to Geneva, seeking knowledge and revolutionary companionship. And in the circle surrounding Plechanov in Geneva she had found them both. She had become a member of the organization of "Iskra," and had already made one trip into Russia, carrying illegal literature, when Trotsky met her in Paris.

Her task of welcoming emigrants consisted chiefly of finding them cheap rooms to live in and leading them to the cheapest restaurants. And the room she had found for Trotsky was little more than a cupboard opening on an air-shaft. She had been arranging it for him, and was coming down the stairs when he met her. ...

I imagine there were enough romances in Trotsky's life at this period to occupy a really conscientious biographer for several chapters. He had lost all that diffidence concealed by roughness which characterized his boyish relations with girls—or he had retained just enough of it to make his charms most fatal. And he belonged, to judge by the fame which he retains in the minds of those who knew him then, to the school of Engels, and not of Marx, in this important matter. Therefore it is not a very significant fact that he fell in love with Natalia Ivanovna when he met her on the stairs coming down from his room on the air-shaft. But it is significant that he formed with her a friendship so deep and understanding that they have lived together all their lives, and that he loves her now.

Natalia Ivanovna is not Trotsky's wife, if you have a perfectly legal American mind, for Trotsky was never divorced from Alexandra Lvovna, who still uses the name of Bronstein. Natalia Ivanovna is Trotsky's best and dearest friend, his daily companion. She is the mother of his sons. ... And to sum up a number of things that are not the business of a contemporary biographer — Alexandra Lvovna is also his friend.