My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 21

Through Spain

Two police inspectors were waiting for me in my home in the little rue Oudry. One of them was short and looked rather elderly; the other was enormous and bald, about forty-five and as swarthy as pitch. The plain clothes they wore hung awkwardly on them, and when they spoke they raised their hands as if in salute. While I was saying good-by to my friends and the family, the police, with excessive politeness, hid behind the doors. The older man, when he left, kept taking off his hat and saying, “Excusez, Madame!

One of the two detectives who had been pursuing me so tirelessly and vehemently during the past two months was waiting outside the door. In a friendly way, as if there were nothing at all between us, he arranged the rug and shut the door of the car. He reminded me of a hunter who was handing his game over to the buyer. We set off.

A fast train. A third-class compartment. The older inspector proved to be a geographer; Tomsk, Kasan, the Nijni-Novgorod fair he knew them all. He spoke Spanish and knew the country. The other, tall and dark, was silent for a long time, and sat sullenly a little distance away. But presently he unburdened himself. “The Latin race is marking time; the rest are leaving it behind,” he remarked suddenly, as he cut a piece of fat pork with a knife held in a hairy hand adorned with heavy rings. “What have you in literature? Decadence in everything. The same in philosophy. There has been no movement since Descartes and Pascal . . . The Latin race is marking time . . . ”

I waited, in astonishment, to see what would come next. But he lapsed into silence and began to chew the fat and a bun. “You had Tolstoy, not so long ago, but we understand Ibsen better than Tolstoy.” And he was silent again.

The old man, piqued by this sudden show of erudition, began to explain to me the importance of the Trans-Siberian railway. Then, at once supporting and softening the pessimistic conclusions of his colleague, he added: “Yes, we suffer from lack of initiative. Everybody wants to be a government official. It is sad, but one cannot deny it.” I listened to them both humbly and not without interest.

“Shadowing a person? To-day it is impossible. Shadowing is efficient when it isn’t noticed, isn’t it? I must say candidly the metro kills shadowing. People being watched should be ordered never to use the metro, only then would shadowing be possible.” And the dark one laughed grimly.

The older man added, to soften the effect, “We often watch, alas, without even knowing why.”

“We policemen are sceptics,” the dark one resumed abruptly, changing the subject. “You have your ideas. But we preserve the existing order. Take the Great Revolution. What a movement of ideas! Fourteen years after the revolution, the people were more miserable than ever before. Read Taine . . . We policemen are conservatives from the very nature of our duties. Scepticism is the only philosophy possible for our profession. After all, no one chooses his own path. There is no freedom of will. Everything is predetermined by the course of things.”

He began to drink wine with the air of a stoic, straight from the bottle. Then, corking the bottle: “Renan said that new ideas always come too early. And that is true.”

With this, he cast a suspicious glance at my hand, which I had placed casually on the door-knob. To reassure him, I hid my hand in my pocket. By that time the old man was again having his revenge: he was talking about the Basques, their language, women, head-dress, and so forth. We were approaching the station of Hendaye.

“This is where Déroulède, our national romantic, lived. He needed only to see the mountains of France. A Don Quixote in his Spanish abode.” The dark fellow smiled with a sort of solid condescension. “If you please, monsieur, follow me to the station commissariat.”

At Irun, a French gendarme addressed a question to me, but my guardian made a masonic sign to him and led me hurriedly through the station corridors.

C’est fait avec discrétion, n’est-ce pas?” the dark one asked me. “You can take a trolley-car from Irun to San Sebastian. You must try and look like a tourist so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Spanish police, who are very distrustful. And from now on, I don’t know you, do I?”

We parted coldly.

From San Sebastian, where I was delighted by the sea and appalled by the prices, I went to Madrid, and found myself in a city in which I knew no one, not a single soul, and no one knew me. And since I did not speak Spanish, I could not have been lonelier even in the Sahara or in the Peter Paul fortress! There remained only the language of art. The two years of war had made one forget that such a thing as art still existed. With the eagerness of a starved man, I viewed the priceless treasures of the Museum of Madrid and felt again the “eternal” element in this art. The Rembrandts, the Riberas. The paintings of Bosch were works of genius in their naïve joy of life. The old caretaker gave me a lens so that I might see the tiny figures of the peasants, little donkeys and dogs in the pictures of Miel. Here there was no feeling of war; everything was securely in its place. The colors had their own life, uncontrolled.

This is what I wrote in my notebook in the museum: “Between us and these old artists without in the least obscuring them or lessening their importance there grew up before the war a new art, more intimate, more individualistic, one with greater nuances, at once more subjective and more intense. The war, by its mass passions and suffering, will probably wash away this mood and this manner for a long time but that can never mean a simple return to the old form, however beautiful to the anatomic and botanic perfection, to the Rubens thighs (though thighs are apt to play a great role in the new post-war art, which will be so eager for life). It is difficult to prophesy, but out of the unprecedented experiences filling the lives of almost all civilized humans, surely a new art must be born.”

In my hotel, I read the Spanish papers with the aid of a dictionary, and waited for an answer to the letters I had sent to Switzerland and Italy. I was still hoping to get there. On the fourth day of my stay in Madrid, I received a letter from Paris giving me the address of a French Socialist, Gabier. He was the director of an insurance company, but in spite of his bourgeois social standing, I found him in firm opposition to the patriotic policy of his party. From Gabier I learned that the Spanish party was completely under the influence of the French patriotic socialism. There was serious opposition only in Barcelona, among the syndicalists. The secretary of the Socialist party, Anguillano, whom I intended to visit, was serving a prison sentence of fifteen days for a disrespectful reference to some Catholic saint. In bygone days Anguillano would simply have been burned in an auto da fé.

I was waiting for an answer from Switzerland, meanwhile memorizing Spanish words and visiting the Museum. On November 9, the maid at the small pension in which Gabier had placed me called me out into the corridor with a frightened air. There I found two young men of unmistakable appearance who invited me, in not very friendly fashion, to follow them. “Where to?” But of course, to the Madrid prefecture of police. Once there, they seated me in a corner.

“Am I under arrest, then?” I asked.

Si, para una hora, dos horas (for an hour or two).”

Without changing my position, I sat there in the prefecture for seven hours. At nine o’clock in the evening, I was taken upstairs. I found myself before a fairly well thronged Olympus.

“What is it that you have arrested me for, precisely?”

This simple question nonplussed the Olympians. They offered various hypotheses in turn. One of them referred to the passport difficulties that the Russian government raised for foreigners going to Russia.

“If you could only know the amount of money we spend in prosecuting our anarchists,” said another, appealing to my sympathy.

“But surely I cannot be held answerable at the same time for both the Russian police and the Spanish anarchists?”

“Of course, of course, that is only to give you an example.”

“What are your ideas?” the chief asked me at last, after deliberating for a while.

I stated my views in as popular language as I could.

“There, you see!” they said.

In the end, the chief informed me through the interpreter that I was invited to leave Spain at once, and until I left my freedom would be subjected to “certain limitations.” “Your ideas are too advanced for Spain,” he told me candidly, still through the interpreter.

At midnight a police agent took me to the prison in a cab. There was the inevitable examination of my belongings in the centre of the prison “star,” at the intersection of five wings, each of them four stories high. The staircases were of iron, and were suspended. The peculiar prison night-silence, saturated with heavy vapors and nightmarishness. Pale electric lights in the corridors. Everything familiar, everything the same. The rumbling of the iron-bound door when it opened; a large room, semi-darkness, heavy prison odors, a miserable and repulsive bed. Then the rumbling of the door as it was locked. How many imprisonments did this make? I opened the small aperture in the window behind the grating. A draft of cool air blew in. Without undressing, with my clothes all buttoned up, I lay down on the bed and covered myself with my overcoat. Only then did I begin to realize the full incongruity of what had happened. In a prison in Madrid! I had never dreamed of such a thing. Izvolsky had done his job well. In Madrid! I lay on the bed in the Madrid “model” prison and laughed with all my might, laughed until I fell asleep.

When I was taking my walk, the convicts explained to me that there were two kinds of cells in the prison the free cells and those for which one paid. A cell of the first class cost one and a half pesetas a day; one of the second class, 75 centimes. Every prisoner was entitled to occupy a paid cell, but he had no right to refuse a free one. My cell was a paid one, of the first class. I again laughed heartily. But after all, it was only logical. Why should there be equality in prison, in a society built entirely on inequality? I also learned that the occupants of paid cells walk out twice a day for an hour at a time, whereas the others have only a half-hour. Again, this was perfectly right. The lungs of a government thief who pays a franc and a half a day are entitled to a larger portion of air than the lungs of a striker who gets his breathing free of charge.

On the third day I was called up for anthropometric measurements, and was told to paint my fingers with printer’s ink and impress their marks on cards. I refused. Then “force” was resorted to, but with a studied politeness. I looked out the window while the guard courteously painted my hand, finger after finger, and pressed it about ten times on various cards and sheets, first the right hand, then the left. Next I was invited to sit down and take off my boots. I refused. The feet proved more difficult to manage, and the administration presently was walking about me in confusion. In the end, I was unexpectedly allowed to go and talk to Gabier and Anguillano, who had come to see me. Anguiliano had been released from prison another one the day before. They told me that all the agencies to bring about my release had been set in motion. In the corridor I met the prison chaplain, who expressed his Catholic sympathies with my pacificism and added consolingly: “Paciencia, paciencia.” There was nothing else possible for me, anyway.

On the morning of the twelfth, the police agent informed me that I was to leave for Cadiz that same evening, and asked if I wanted to pay for my railway ticket. But I had no desire to go to Cadiz and I firmly refused to pay for the ticket. It was enough that one had to pay for accommodation in the “model” prison.

And so, in the evening, we left Madrid for Cadiz. The travelling costs were at the expense of the Spanish king. But why Cadiz? Again I looked at the map. Cadiz is the farthest extremity of the southwestern peninsula of Europe; from Berezov by deer via the Urals and St. Petersburg, thence by a circular route to Austria, from Austria through Switzerland to France, from France to Spain, and finally across the entire Iberian peninsula to Cadiz, the general direction being from Northeast to Southwest. There the continent ends and the ocean begins. Paciencia!

The police agents who accompanied me did not make the slightest attempt to invest the journey with mystery. On the contrary, they told my story in complete detail to every one interested, giving me, at the same time, the best of characters: not a counterfeiter of money but a caballero, unfortunately one who held unsuitable views. Everybody consoled me with the prospect of a very fine climate in Cadiz.

“How did you get to me?” I asked the agents.

“Very easily. By telegram from Paris.”

Just as I had thought. The Madrid police had received a telegram from the Paris prefecture: “A dangerous anarchist, so-and-so, crossed the frontier at San Sebastian. Intends to settle down in Madrid.” So the Madrid police had been waiting for me, had looked everywhere for me, and were upset because they could not find me for a whole week. The French policemen had politely escorted me across the frontier; the admirer of Montaigne and Renan had even asked me: “C’est fait avec discrétion, n’est-ce pas?” and then the same police had telegraphed to Madrid that a dangerous “anarchist” had passed through Irun to San Sebastian!

In all this the chief of the so-called juridical police, Bidet-“Fauxpas,” played an important part. He was the heart and soul of my shadowing and expulsion; he was distinguishable from his colleagues only by his exceptional rudeness and malice. He tried to speak to me in a tone that even the Czar’s officers of the secret police never allowed themselves to assume. My conversations with him always ended in explosions. As I was leaving him, I would feel a look of hate behind my back. At the prison meeting with Gabier, I expressed my conviction that my arrest had been pre-arranged by Bidet-“Fauxpas,” and the name, started by my lucky stroke, circulated through the Spanish press.

Less than two years later, the fates willed me an entirely unexpected satisfaction at M. Bidet’s expense. In the summer of 1918, a telephone call to the War Commissariat informed me that Bidet the Thunderer, Bidet was under arrest in one of the Soviet prisons. I could not believe my ears. But it seemed that the French government had put him on the staff of the military mission to engage in spying and conspiracy in the Soviet republic, and he had been so careless as to get caught. One could hardly ask for a greater satisfaction from Nemesis, especially if one adds the fact that Malvy, the French Minister of the Interior who signed the order for my expulsion, was himself soon after expelled from France by the Clémenceau government on a charge of pacifist intrigues. What a concurrence of circumstances, as if intended for a film plot!

When Bidet was brought to me at the Commissariat, I could not recognize him at first. The Thunderer had become transformed into an ordinary mortal, and a seedy one at that. I looked at him in amazement.

Mais oui, monsieur,” he said as he bowed his head, “c’est moi.” Yes, it was Bidet. But how had it happened? I was genuinely astonished. Bidet spread out his hands philosophically, and with the assurance of a police stoic, remarked, “C’est la marche des évènements.” Exactly a magnificent formula! There floated before my eyes the figure of the dark fatalist who had conducted me to San Sebastian: “There is no freedom of choice; everything is predetermined.”

“But, Monsieur Bidet, you were not very polite to me in Paris.”

“Alas, I must admit it, Mr. People’s Commissary, sorry as I am. I have thought often of it as I sat in my cell. It does a man good sometimes,” he added significantly, “to get acquainted with prison from the inside. But I still hope that my Paris behaviour will not have any unpleasant consequences for me.”

I reassured him.

“When I return to France, I will change my occupation.”

“Will you, Monsieur Bidet? On revient toujours á ses premiers amours.” (I have described this scene to my friends so often that I remember our dialogue as if it took place yesterday.) Later Bidet was allowed to go back to France as one of the exchange prisoners. I have no information as to his subsequent fate.

But we must go back from the War Commissariat to Cadiz.

After consulting the governor, the Cadiz prefect informed me that at eight o’clock the following morning I would be sent to Havana, for which, by happy chance, a steamer was sailing that day.


“To Havana.”



“I won’t go voluntarily.”

“Then we shall be compelled to place you in the hold of the vessel.”

The secretary of the German consul, a friend of the prefect’s who was present at the conversation as an interpreter, advised me to “accept realities” (sich mit den Realitäten abrufinden). Paciencia, paciencia! But this was a little too much. I told them again that it wouldn’t do. Accompanied by detectives, I rushed to the telegraph office through the streets of an enchanting town, noticing it but little, and sent telegrams “urgente” to Gabier, to Anguillano, to the chief of the secret police, the Minister of the Interior, Premier Romanones, the liberal papers, to the republican deputies, mobilising all the arguments that one could find room for in a telegram. After this I wrote letters in every possible direction. “Just imagine, dear friend,” I wrote to the Italian deputy, Serrati, “that you are at the moment in Tver under the supervision of the Russian police, and that you are about to be expelled to Tokio, to a place that you have never had any intention of going such is approximately my position in Cadiz on the eve of a forced journey to Havana.” Then I dashed back with the detectives to the prefecture. At my insistence and my expense, the latter telegraphed to Madrid that, rather than go to Havana, I preferred to stay in the Cadiz prison until the New York boat arrived. I did not want to surrender. It was an exciting day.

In the meantime the republican deputy Castrovido interrogated the government in the Cortes regarding my arrest and deportation. A controversy began in the papers. The left attacked the police, but, as francophiles, condemned my pacifism. The right sympathised with my “germanophilism” (had I not been expelled from France?), but they were afraid of my anarchism. In this confusion, nobody could understand anything. Still, I was permitted to stay in Cadiz until the next boat arrived for New York. This was a considerable victory.

For a few weeks after this I was under the observation of the Cadiz police. But this was a perfectly peaceful, paternal sort of observation, quite unlike the one in Paris. There, during the last two months of my stay, I had spent a great deal of energy trying to dodge the sleuths. I would drive away in a solitary taxi, go into a dark cinema theatre, jump into a metro train at the very last moment, jump out of it just as suddenly, and so on. The detectives were on the alert, too, and kept up the chase in every possible fashion. They would snatch taxis under my nose, keep watch at the entrance of the cinema, and would bolt out like a rocket from a trolley-car or from the metro, to the great indignation of passengers and conductor. Properly speaking, it was on my part a case of art for art’s sake. My political activity lay open to the eyes of the police, but the pursuit by the detectives irritated me and roused my sporting instincts.

In Cadiz, on the other hand, the detective informed me that he would return at a certain hour, and I had to wait patiently for him in the hotel. He, for his part, firmly protected my interests, helped me in my purchases, drew my attention to all the hollows in the sidewalks. When the peddler of boiled shrimps demanded two reals a dozen for them, my spy swore at the man in a rage, shook his fists threateningly at him, and even ran out of the café after him and kicked up such a rumpus under the windows that a crowd gathered about them.

I tried not to waste my time; I worked in the library on the history of Spain, memorised Spanish conjugations, and renewed my stock of English words in preparation for going to America. The days passed almost imperceptibly, and often, toward evening, I would note sadly that the day for my departure was drawing nearer, while I was making very little headway in my studies. I was always alone in the library not counting the bookworms that had eaten away many an eighteenth-century volume; sometimes it took a great deal of effort to decipher a name or a number.

In my note-book for that time I find the following entry: “A historian of the Spanish revolution tells of politicians who branded it as crime and madness five minutes before the victory of the popular movement, but afterward pushed themselves to the front. These clever gentlemen, the old historian tells us, appeared in all the subsequent revolutions and out shouted the others. The Spaniards call these smart fellows ‘panzistas’ from the word ’belly.’ As is well known, the name of our old friend Sancho Panza derives from the same word. The name is hard to translate, but the difficulty is linguistic rather than political. The type itself is quite international.” Since 1917 I have had many occasions to find that out.

It is remarkable that the Cadiz paper carried no information about the war, just as if it did not exist. When I drew my companions’ attention to the utter absence of military reports in the most popular paper, El Diario de Cadiz, they answered in surprise, “Is that so? Really? Why, yes, it’s true!” Before then they had not even noticed it themselves. After all, the fighting was going on somewhere beyond the Pyrenees. Even I began to forget the war.

The boat for New York sailed from Barcelona. I managed to wrest permission to go there to meet my family. In Barcelona there were new difficulties with the prefecture, new protests and telegrams, and new detectives. My family arrived — they too had had difficulties in Paris. But now everything was all right. We went sightseeing in Barcelona, accompanied by detectives. The boys approved of the sea and the fruit. We had all become reconciled to the idea of going over to America. My attempts to secure permission to go to Switzerland by way of Italy brought no result. It is true the permission was finally granted under the pressure of Italian and Swiss socialists, but it came only after my family and I had already embarked on the Spanish boat that was to sail from Barcelona on December 25. The delay was intentional, of course. In this detail, Izvolsky arranged things very well.

The doors of Europe shut behind me in Barcelona. The police put me and my family on board the Spanish Transatlantic Company’s steamer Monserrat, which delivered its live and dead cargo at New York after seventeen days. Seventeen days! The time would have seemed tempting in the days of Christopher Columbus, whose monument towers over the harbour at Barcelona. But the sea was very rough at this time of the year, and our boat did everything to remind us of the frailty of human life. The Monserrat was an old tub little suited for ocean voyages. But during the war the neutral Spanish flag lessened the chances of being sunk. The Spanish company charged high fares, and provided bad accommodations and even worse food.

The population of the steamer is multicolored, and not very attractive in its variety. There are quite a few deserters from different countries, for the most part men of fairly high standing. An artist is carrying away his paintings, his talent, his family and his property under the chaperonage of his old father, in order to get as far away as possible from the firing-line. A boxer, who is also a novelist and a cousin of Oscar Wilde, confesses openly that he prefers crashing Yankee jaws in a noble sport to letting some German stab him in the midriff. A billiard champion, an immaculate gentleman, waxes indignant about extending conscription to men of his age. And all for what? For this senseless butchery! And he expresses his sympathy with the ideas of Zimmerwald. The others are of much the same sort: deserters, adventurers, speculators, or simply “undesirables” thrown out of Europe. Who would ever dream of crossing the Atlantic at this time of year on a wretched little Spanish boat from choice?

It is more difficult to make out the third-class passengers. They lie close together, move about very little, say very little for they have not much to eat and are very sullen as they sail from a poverty that is bitter and hateful to another that for the moment is shrouded in uncertainty. America works for fighting Europe, and needs new labour, but it must be labour without trachoma, without anarchism and other diseases of the sort.

The boat opens to the boys an endless field for observation. They are always discovering something new.

“Do you know, the fireman is very nice? He is a ‘republicker’.” Thanks to their constant moving about, from one country to an other, they speak a peculiar language of their own.

“A republican? How could you understand him?”

“Oh, he explains everything fine. He said, ‘Alfonso I’ and then went ‘Piff-piff.’”

“Oh, then he is certainly a republican,” I agree. The boys take the fireman some dried Malaga grapes and other delicacies. We are introduced to each other. The republican is about twenty, and he seems to have most definite views about the monarchy.

January 1, 1917: Every one on the boat congratulates every one else on the New Year. Two New Years of the war I have spent in France, the third is spent on the ocean. What has 1917 in store for us?

Sunday, January 13: We are nearing New York. At three o’clock in the morning, everybody wakes up. We have stopped. It is dark. Cold. Wind. Rain. On land, a wet mountain of buildings. The New World!

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05