My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 23

In a Concentration Camp

On March 25 I called at the office of the Russian Consul-General in New York. By that time the portrait of Czar Nicholas had been removed from the wall, but the heavy atmosphere of a Russian police station under the old regime still hung about the place. After the usual delays and arguments, the Consul-General ordered that papers be issued to me for the passage to Russia. In the British consulate, as well, they told me, when I filled out the questionnaire, that the British authorities would put no obstacles in the way of my return to Russia. Everything was in good order.

I sailed with my family and a few other Russians on the Norwegian boat Christianiafjord on the twenty-seventh of March. We had been sent off in a deluge of flowers and speeches, for we were going to the country of the revolution. We had passports and visas. Revolution, flowers and visas were balm to our nomad souls. At Halifax the British naval authorities inspected the steamer, and police officers made a perfunctory examination of the papers of the American, Norwegian and Dutch passengers. They subjected the Russians, however, to a downright cross examination, asking us about our convictions, our political plans, and so forth. I absolutely refused to enter into a discussion of such matters with them. “You may have all the information you want as to my identity, but nothing else.” Russian politics were not yet under the control of the British naval police. But that did not prevent the detectives, Machen and Westwood, from making inquiries about me among the other passengers after the double attempt to cross-examine me had proved futile. They insisted that I was a dangerous socialist.

The whole business was so offensive, so clearly a discrimination against the Russian revolutionaries, in contrast to the treatment accorded other passengers not so unfortunate as to belong to a nation allied to England, that some of the Russians sent a violent protest to the British authorities. I did not join with them because I saw little use in complaining to Beelzebub about Satan. But at the time we did not foresee the future.

On April 3, British officers, accompanied by bluejackets, came aboard the Chrislianiafiord and demanded, in the name of the local admiral, that I, my family, and five other passengers leave the boat. We were assured that the whole incident would be cleared up in Halifax. We declared that the order was illegal and refused to obey, whereupon armed bluejackets pounced on us, and amid shouts of “shame” from a large part of the passengers, carried us bodily to a naval cutter, which delivered us in Halifax under the convoy of a cruiser. While a group of sailors were holding me fast, my older boy ran to help me and struck an officer with his little fist. “Shall I hit him again, papa?” he shouted. He was eleven then, and it was his first lesson in British democracy.

The police left my wife and children in Halifax; the rest of us were taken by train to Amherst, a camp for German prisoners. And there, in the office, we were put through an examination the like of which I had never before experienced, even in the Peter-Paul fortress. For in the Czar’s fortress the police stripped me and searched me in privacy, whereas here our democratic allies subjected us to this shameful humiliation before a dozen men. I can remember Sergeant Olsen, a Swedish-Canadian with a red head of the criminal-police type, who was the leader of the search. The canaille who had arranged all this from a distance knew well enough that we were irreproachable Russian revolutionaries returning to our country, liberated by the revolution.

Not until the next morning did the camp commander, Colonel Morris, in answer to our repeated demands and protests, tell us the official reason for the arrest. “You are dangerous to the present Russian government,” he said briefly. The colonel, obviously not a man of eloquence, had worn an air of rather suspicious excitement since early morning. “But the New York agents of the Russian government issued us passports into Russia,” we protested, “and after all the Russian government should be allowed to take care of itself.” Colonel Morris thought for a while, moving his jaws, then added, “You are dangerous to the Allies in general.”

No written orders for our arrest were ever produced. But, speaking for himself, the colonel explained that since we were political emigrants who obviously had left the country for good reason, we ought not to be surprised at what had happened. For him the Russian revolution simply did not exist. We tried to explain that the Czar’s ministers, who in their day had made us political emigrants, were themselves now in prison, excepting those who had escaped to other countries. But this was too complicated for the colonel, who had made his career in the British colonies and in the Boer war. I did not show proper respect when I spoke to him, which made him growl behind my back, “If I only had him on the South African coast!” That was his pet expression.

My wife was not formally a political emigrant because she had left Russia on a legal passport. But she was arrested just the same, with both our boys, respectively nine and eleven years old. I am not exaggerating when I say that the children were arrested. At first the Canadian authorities tried to separate them from their mother and put them in a children’s home. Overwhelmed by such a prospect, my wife declared that she would never allow them to separate her from her boys. And it was only because of her protest that the boys were placed with her in the house of an Anglo-Russian police agent. To prevent “illegal” despatch of letters and telegrams, this functionary allowed the children to go out only with an escort, even when they were not with their mother. It was not until eleven days later that my wife and the children were allowed to move to a hotel, on condition that they report each day at the police station.

The Amherst concentration camp was located in an old and very dilapidated iron-foundry that had been confiscated from its German owner. The sleeping bunks were arranged in three tiers, two deep, on each side of the hall. About eight hundred of us lived in these conditions. The air in this improvised dormitory at night can be imagined. Men hopelessly dogged the passages, elbowed their way through, lay down or got up, played cards or chess. Many of them practised crafts, some with extraordinary skill. I still have, stored in Moscow, some things made by Amherst prisoners. And yet, in spite of the heroic efforts of the prisoners to keep themselves physically and morally fit, five of them had gone insane. We had to eat and sleep in the same room with these madmen.

Of these eight hundred prisoners, in whose company I spent almost a month, perhaps five hundred were sailors from German boats sunk by the British; about two hundred were workers caught by the war in Canada, and a hundred more were officers and civilian prisoners of the bourgeois class. Our relations with the German prisoners became clearly defined according to their reaction to the fact that we had been arrested as revolutionary socialists. The officers and petty officers, whose quarters were behind a wooden partition, immediately set us down as enemies; the rank-and-file, on the other hand, surrounded us with an ever increasing friendliness.

The whole month I was there was like one continuous mass-meeting. I told the prisoners about the Russian revolution, about Liebknecht, about Lenin, and about the causes of the collapse of the old International, and the intervention of the United States in the war. Besides these speeches, we had constant group discussions. Our friendship grew warmer every day. By their attitudes, one could class the rank-and-file of the prisoners in two groups: those who said, “No more of that, we must end it once and for all” — they were the ones who had dreams of coming out into the streets and squares — and those others who said, “What have they to do with me? No, they won’t get me again.”

“How will you hide yourself from them?” others would ask them. The coal-miner, Babinsky, a tall, blue-eyed Silesian, would say, “I and my wife and children will set our home in a thick forest, and around us I will build traps, and I will never go out without a gun. Let no one dare to come near.”

“Won’t you let me in, Babinsky?”

“No, not even you. I don’t trust anybody.”

The sailors did everything they could to make my life easier, and it was only by constant protests that I kept my right to stand in line for dinner and to do my share of the compulsory work of sweeping floors, peeling potatoes, washing crockery, and cleaning the common lavatory.

The relations between the rank-and-file and the officers, some of whom, even in prison, were keeping a sort of conduct-book for their men, were hostile. The officers ended by complaining to the camp commander, Colonel Morris, about my anti-patriotic propaganda. The British colonel instantly sided with the Hohenzollern patriots and forbade me to make any more public speeches. But this did not happen until the last few days of our stay at the camp, and served only to cement my friendship with the sailors and workers, who responded to the colonel’s order by a written protest bearing five hundred and thirty signatures. A plebiscite like this, carried out in the very face of Sergeant Olsen’s heavy-handed supervision, was more than ample compensation for all the hardships of the Amherst imprisonment.

All the time we were confined in the camp, the authorities steadfastly refused us the right to communicate with the Russian government. Our telegrams to Petrograd were not forwarded. We made an attempt to cable Lloyd George, the British prime minister, protesting against this prohibition, but the cable was held up. Colonel Morris had become accustomed to a simplified form of “habeas corpus” in the colonies. The war gave him still more protection. He went so far as to stipulate that I refrain from trying to communicate through my wife with the Russian consul before he would let me meet her again. That may sound incredible, but it is true. On such a condition, I declined to meet my wife. Of course, the consul was in no hurry to help us, either. He was waiting for instructions, and the instructions, it seemed, were slow in coming.

I must admit that even to-day the secret machinery of our arrest and our release is not clear to me. The British government must have put me on its blacklist when I was still active in France. It did everything it could to help the Czar’s government oust me from Europe, and it must have been on the strength of this blacklist, supported by reports of my anti-patriotic activities in America, that the British arrested me in Halifax. When the news of my arrest found its way into the revolutionary Russian press, the British embassy in Petrograd, which apparently was not expecting my early return, issued an official statement to the Petrograd press that the Russians who had been arrested in Canada were travelling “under a subsidy from the German embassy, to overthrow the Provisional Russian government.” This, at least, was plain speaking. The Pravda, which was published under Lenin’s direction, answered Buchanan on April 16, doubtless by Lenin’s own hand: “Can one even for a moment believe the trustworthiness of the statement that Trotsky, the chairman of the Soviet of Workers’ Delegates in St. Petersburg in 1905 — a revolutionary who has sacrificed years to a disinterested service of revolution — that this man had anything to do with a scheme subsidized by the German government? This is a patent, unheard-of, and malicious slander of a revolutionary. From whom did you get your information, Mr. Buchanan? Why don’t you disclose that? Six men dragged Comrade Trotsky away by his legs and arms, all in the name of friendship for the Provisional Russian government!“

The part played by the Provisional government in all this is less clear. One needs no proof to show that Miliukoff, then minister of foreign affairs, was heart and soul in favor of my arrest; as early as 1905 he was waging bitter war against “Trotskyism”; the very term is of his coining. But he was dependent on the Soviet, and had to be all the more circumspect because his social-patriotic allies had not yet begun the baiting of the Bolsheviks.

Buchanan in his memoirs says that “Trotsky and other Russian refugees were being detained at Halifax until the wishes of the Provisional government with regard to them had been ascertained.” According to the British ambassador, Miiukoff was immediately informed of our arrest. As early as April 8, the British ambassador claims he conveyed Miiukoff’s request for our release to his government. Two days later, however, the same Miiukoff withdrew his request and expressed the hope that our stay in Halifax would be prolonged. “It was the Provisional government, therefore,” concludes Buchanan, “that was responsible for their further detention.” This all sounds very much like the truth. The only thing that Buchanan forgot to explain in his memoirs is: What became of the German subsidy that I was supposed to have accepted to overthrow the Provisional government? And no wonder — for as soon as I arrived in Petrograd, Buchanan was forced to state in the press that he knew nothing at all about the subsidy. Never before did people lie as much as they did during the “great war for liberty.” If lies could explode, our planet would have been blown to dust long before the treaty of Versailles.

In the end, the Soviet stepped in and Miliukoff had to bow. On the twenty-ninth of April came the hour for our release from the concentration camp. But even in release we were subjected to violence. We were ordered to pack our things and proceed under convoy. When we demanded the why and wherefore, they refused to say anything. The prisoners became excited because they thought we were being taken to a fortress. We asked for the nearest Russian consul; they refused us again. We had reason enough for not trusting these highwaymen of the sea, and so we insisted that we would not go voluntarily until they told us where we were going. The commander ordered forcible measures. Soldiers of the convoy carried out our luggage, but we stayed stubbornly in our bunks. It was only when the convoy was faced with the task of carrying us out bodily, just as we had been taken off the steamer a month earlier, and of doing it in the midst of a crowd of excited sailors, that the commander relented and told us, in his characteristic Anglo-Colonial way, that we were to sail on a Danish boat for Russia. The colonel’s purple face twitched convulsively. He could not bear the thought that we were escaping him. If only it had been on the African coast! As we were being taken away from the camp, our fellow prisoners gave us a most impressive send-off. Although the officers shut themselves up in their compartment, and only a few poked their noses through the chinks, the sailors and workers lined the passage on both sides, an improvised band played the revolutionary march, and friendly hands were extended to us from every quarter. One of the prisoners delivered a short speech acclaiming the Russian revolution and cursing the German monarchy. Even now it makes me happy to remember that in the very midst of the war, we were fraternizing with German sailors in Amherst. In later years I received friendly letters from many of them, sent from Germany.

Machen, the British police officer who had brought about our arrest, was present at our departure. As a parting shot I warned him that my first business in the Constituent Assembly would be to question foreign minister Milyukoff about the outrageous treatment of Russian citizens by the Anglo-Canadian police. “I hope,” said Machen in quick retort, “that you will never get into the Constituent Assembly.”

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