My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 24

In Petrograd

The journey from Halifax to Petrograd passed monotonously, like going through a tunnel — and it really was a tunnel into the revolution. Of my trip through Sweden, I remember nothing but bread-cards, the first I had ever seen. In Finland, I met Vandervelde and De Man on a train; they also were going to Petrograd.

“Do you recognize us?” De Man asked.

“I do — although people change a lot in time of war.” And our conversation ended with that not very courteous retort.

In his younger days, De Man had tried to be a Marxist, and had fought Vandervelde well. During the war he shed the innocent infatuations of his youth in politics; after the war he shed them in theory. He became an agent of his government, and nothing more. As for Vandervelde — he was the least important of the leading group of the International. He was elected chairman because neither a German nor a Frenchman could hold the post. As a theorist, he was simply a compiler; he maneuvered his way about among the various socialistic currents as his government did among the Great Powers. He never had any authority among Russian Marxists; as an orator he was never more than a brilliant mediocrity. When the war came along, he exchanged the chairmanship of the International for a post as royal minister. I fought Vandervelde implacably in my Paris paper; by way of answer, he appealed to the Russian revolutionaries to make peace with Czardom. Now he was going to Petrograd to invite the Russian revolution to take Czardom’s place in the ranks of the Allies. We had nothing to say to each other.

At Beloostrov, the station on the Finnish border, we were welcomed by a delegation of the United Internationalists and the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks. No one was there from the Mensheviks — not even from their “internationalist” wing (Martov, etc.). I embraced my old friend Uritzky, whom I had met in Siberia at the beginning of the century. He had been the permanent correspondent of the Paris Nashe Slovo for Scandinavia, and had acted as our connecting link with Russia during the war. A year after we met at Beloostrov, Uritzky was assassinated by a young Socialist-Revolutionist. 1 It was in the welcoming delegation that I first met Karakhan, who later became famous as a Soviet diplomatist. The Bolsheviks were represented by Fyodorov, a metal-worker who soon after became the chairman of the workers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet.

Even before we reached Beloostrov, I had learned from the Russian papers that Chernov, Tzereteli and Skobelev had joined the coalition Provisional government. The alignment of the political groups became perfectly clear at once. Looming ahead of us as something that must be launched promptly, was an implacable fight, allied with the Bolsheviks, against the Mensheviks and the Populists.

We were given a tremendous welcome at the Finnish terminal in Petrograd. Uritzky and Fyodorov made speeches, and I answered with a plea for the necessity of preparing a second revolution — our own. And when they suddenly lifted me into the air, I thought of Halifax, where I had had the same experience; but this time the arms were those of friends. There were many banners around us. I noticed my wife’s excited look, and the pale disturbed faces of my boys, who were not certain whether this was a good or a bad sign; they had already been deceived once by the revolution.

At the end of the platform, right behind me, I noticed De Man and Vandervelde. They kept back on purpose, apparently because they were afraid to mix with the crowd. The new Socialist ministers of Russia had not arranged any welcome for their Belgian colleague. Vandervelde’s rôle of the day before was still too fresh in every one’s memory.

Immediately after the welcome at the station, I found myself in a whirlpool in which men and events swept by me as swiftly as litter on a rushing stream. The most important events are now the least charged with personal memories, for thus does memory guard against burdening itself too heavily. I think that I went from the station straight to the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Soviet. Chiedze, who, at that time was invariably the chairman, greeted me rather dryly. The Bolsheviks moved that I be elected to the Executive Committee, on the strength of my having been chairman of the Soviet in 1905. This threw the committee into confusion. The Mensheviks and the Populists began whispering to one another. They had then an overwhelming majority in all the revolutionary institutions. Finally it was decided to include me in an advisory capacity. I was given my membership card and my glass of tea with black bread.

Even my wife and I shared a bit in the bewilderment of our boys in the streets of Petrograd at hearing Russian, and seeing the Russian signs on the shops. We had been away from the capital for ten years. When we left our oldest boy was only a little over a year old; the younger one had been born in Vienna.

The Petrograd garrison was enormous, but it was no longer solid in its allegiances. The soldiers sang revolutionary songs as they marched, and sported red ribbons on their tunics. It all seemed as incredible as a dream. The tram-cars were full of soldiers. Military training was still going on in the wider streets. Riflemen would squat to charge, run a distance in a line, and then squat again. War, the gigantic monster, was still standing behind the revolution, throwing its shadow upon it. But the masses no longer believed in the war, and it seemed as if the training were going on only because no one had thought of stopping it. The war had become impossible, but the liberals (Kadets) had not yet begun to understand that, nor had the leaders of the so-called “revolutionary democracy.” They were mortally afraid to let go of the skirts of the Entente.

I knew Tzereteli only slightly, Kerensky not at all, and Chiedze somewhat better. Skobelev was an old pupil of mine. With Chernov I had had many passages at arms in the debates abroad. Götz I now met for the first time. And this was the ruling group of the Soviet democracy.

Tzereteli was unquestionably head and shoulders above the others. I first met him at the London congress of 1907, when he represented the Social Democratic faction in the Second Duma. Even in those early days, he was a splendid speaker whose moral integrity made a strong appeal. His years of hard-labor in Siberia advanced his political authority. He returned to the revolutionary arena a mature man and immediately took a foremost place among his confrères and allies. He was the only one of my opponents to be taken seriously. But, as is often the case in history, it took a revolution to prove that Tzereteli was not a revolutionary. One had to approach the Russian revolution from the world point of view, rather than from that of Russia, to avoid getting lost in complexities. Yet Tzereteli approached it with the background of his experience in Georgia, supplemented by that in the Second Duma. His political outlook proved to be hopelessly narrow, his education superficially literary. He had a profound respect for liberalism; he viewed the irresistible dynamics of revolution with the eyes of a half-educated bourgeois, terrified for the safety of culture. The awakened masses seemed to him more and more like a mutinous mob. From his very first words, I realized that he was an enemy. Lenin called him a “dullard.” It was cruel, but apt — Tzereteli was a gifted and honest but limited man.

Lenin called Kerensky a “petty braggart.” Even now there is little one can add to that. Kerensky was and still is an adventitious figure, a ruling favorite of the historical moment. Every mighty wave of revolution, as it draws in the virgin masses not yet trained to discrimination, inevitably raises on its crest such heroes for a day, heroes who are instantly blinded by their own effulgence. Kerensky followed in the direct line of Father Gapon and Khrustalyov. He personified the accidental in an otherwise continuous causation. His best speeches were merely a sumptuous pounding of water in a mortar. In 1917, the water boiled and sent up steam, and the clouds of steam provided a halo.

Skobelev first entered politics under my guidance when he was a student in Vienna. He left the editorial staff of the Vienna Pravda to go home to the Caucasus to try to get elected to the Fourth Duma. In this he was successful. In the Duma he came under the influence of the Mensheviks, and entered the February revolution with them. Our connections had long ago been broken off. I found him in Petrograd as a newly created minister of labor. He came swaggering up to me in the Executive Committee and asked me what I thought of it all. I answered: “I think we shall get the better of you very soon.” It was not very long ago that Skobelev laughingly reminded me of this friendly forecast, which came true six months later. Soon after the October victory he declared himself a Bolshevik. Lenin and I were opposed to his admission to the party. At present, of course, he is a Stalinite — and in this, things are as they should be.

With my wife and children I found with great difficulty a room in the Kiev Hostelry. On our second day there, a resplendent young officer called to see us. “You don’t recognize me?” I did not. “I am Loghinov.” And as I looked at the debonair young officer, I remembered a young blacksmith of 1905, a member of a fighting unit, who had engaged in street fights with the police, and had attached himself to me with all the fervor of youth. I lost track of him after 1905. It was only now, in Petrograd, that I learned from him that he was not really the proletarian Loghinov, but a student at the technology institute, a man named Serebrovsky, who came of a wealthy family, but in his younger years had become affiliated with the workers. In the reactionary period, he became a qualified engineer and drew away from the revolution; during the war, he had been a government director of two of the biggest plants in Petrograd. The February revolution shook him up and made him remember his past. He had heard through the newspapers of my return, and now he was standing before me insisting that my family and I move to his apartment, and that without delay. After some hesitation, we consented.

Serebrovsky and his young wife occupied an enormous and luxurious apartment becoming to a director. They had no children; everything was waiting for us there. In a half-starved and dilapidated city, we felt as if we were in heaven. But things changed suddenly when we began to talk politics. Serebrovsky was a patriot; we found out afterward that he hated the Bolsheviks bitterly, and considered Lenin a German agent. At the outset he met with opposition from me, and he immediately became more circumspect. But it was impossible to live in the same house with him; so we left the home of these hospitable but, as far as we were concerned, alien people, and returned to our room in the Kiev Hostelry. Some time later, Serebrovsky once again got our boys to visit him at his house. He treated them to tea and preserves and the boys gratefully told him their impressions of Lenin’s speech at a public meeting, their faces flushed with pleasure over the chatter and the preserves.

“But Lenin is a German spy,” said their host.

What was that? Could any one have said those words? The boys relinquished their tea and preserves and jumped to their feet. “Well, that is certainly a dirty thing to say,” declared the elder of the two, as he searched his meagre vocabulary for an appropriate word. It was the host’s turn to feel offended, and with this their acquaintance came to an end. After our victory in October, I induced Serebrovsky to join in the Soviet work. The Soviet service brought him, as it did so many others, into the Communist party. At present, he is a member of Stalin’s Central Committee of the party, and one of the mainstays of the régime. If he could pass for a proletarian in 1905, it is even easier for him to pass for a Bolshevik now.

After the July days, of which I will say more later, the streets of the capital teemed with slander against the Bolsheviks. I was arrested by Kerensky’s government and, two months after my return from exile, found myself once again in the familiar Kresty prison. Colonel Morris of Amherst must have read the news in his morning paper with great satisfaction, and he was not the only one who felt that way about it. But the boys were disgruntled. What sort of a revolution was this, they asked their mother reproachfully, if Dad could first be put in a concentration camp and then in prison? Their mother assured them that this was not yet the real revolution. But the bitterness of scepticism had crept into their souls.

After my release from the prison of the “revolutionary democracy,” we settled down in a little apartment, rented from the widow of a liberal journalist, in a big bourgeois house. Preparations for the October revolution were in full swing. I was made the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. The press attacked me in every conceivable way. At home we were surrounded by a wall of growing enmity and hatred. Our cook, Anna Osipovna, had to endure the attacks of the housewives whenever she went to the House committee for our ration of bread. My son was hounded at school, and dubbed “chairman,” after his father. When my wife came home from her work at the Wood-Workers’ Trade Union, the head janitor watched her go by, with eyes full of hatred. It was torture to walk up the stairs. Our landlady kept asking us over the telephone whether her furniture was safe. We wanted to leave the house — but where could we go? There were no apartments available in the entire city.

The situation was growing more and more intolerable, but one fine day the house blockade ceased as abruptly as if somebody had lifted it with an all-powerful hand. When the head janitor met my wife he would make a bow such as only the most important tenants were privileged to receive. At the House committee, the bread was issued without delays or threats. No one banged doors in our faces now. Who had achieved this change — what magician? It was Nikolay Markin. I must give an account of him, because through him, or rather through a collective Markin, the October revolution was victorious.

Markin was a sailor in the Baltic navy, a gunner and a Bolshevik. At the outset, we did not know of his existence — it was not his way to push himself forward. Markin was not a speaker; words came to him with difficulty. Moreover, he was shy and sullen, with the sullenness of a force driven in deep. He was cut all of one piece, and of the purest dye. I did not even know that he existed when he undertook to care for my family. He got to know our boys, treated them to tea and sandwiches at the canteen of the Smolny, and, in general, provided them with the little pleasures that were so hard to get in that grim period. Without ever showing himself, he would drop in to inquire if everything was all right. I did not even suspect his existence. From the boys and from Anna Osipovna, he learned that we were living in the camp of the enemy. Markin called on the head janitor and the House committee, not alone, I think, but with a group of sailors. He must have used some very persuasive words, for suddenly everything about us was changed. And thus, even before the October revolution, there was a dictatorship of the proletariat in our house. Not until much later did we learn that the sailor, our children’s friend, was responsible for all this.

As soon as the Soviet turned Bolshevik, the Central Executive Committee opposed to the Bolsheviks used the support of the owners of the printing-works to deprive the Soviet of its paper. We needed a new organ. I consulted Markin. He vanished into the abyss, made the necessary calls, had his say with the printers, and in a few days we had a newspaper. We called it The Worker and the Soldier. Markin spent day and night in the office arranging things. During the October days, his solid figure, with its dark and sullen head, was a ways turning up in the most dangerous places at the most crucial moment. He called to see me only to say that everything was all right and ask if I needed anything. He had widened his sphere — he was establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat in Petrograd.

The looting of the rich wine stores of the capital by the rabble of the streets was beginning. Behind this dangerous movement was some one who was trying to consume the revolution in the flames of alcohol. Markin instantly sensed the danger, and went to fight it. He guarded the wine stores; when it was impossible to guard them, he destroyed them. In high boots, he would wade to his knees in precious wines full of broken bottles. The wine flowed down the open street sewers into the Neva and stained the snow; tipplers lapped it up from the gutters. With revolver in hand, Markin fought for a sober October. Soaked to the skin, exuding the fragrance of the choicest wines, he would return home, where our two boys were waiting breathlessly for him. Markin beat off the alcoholic attack of the counter-revolution.

When I was instrusted with the ministry of foreign affairs, it seemed quite impossible to start anything. The entire staff, from the assistant minister to the typist, were practising sabotage against us. The cases were locked and the keys were missing. I called in Markin, who knew the secret of direct action. Two or three diplomats spent twenty-four hours in locked rooms, and the next day Markin brought me the keys and invited me to the ministry. But I was still busy at the Smolny with the general work of the revolution, and so, for a time, Markin became an unofficial minister of foreign affairs. He learned the mechanism of the commissariat quickly, carried on the weeding-out of the high-born and thieving diplomats with a firm hand, reorganized the office, confiscated for the benefit of the homeless the contraband which was still coming through from abroad in the valises of diplomats, extracted the more instructive secret documents from the archives, and published them on his own responsibility and with his own commentaries, in separate pamphlets. Markin had no academic degree, and his writing was not free from grammatical errors. His comments were sometimes quite unexpected. But, on the whole, he drove the diplomatic nails in firmly, and at the very points where they were most needed. Baron von Kühlmann and Count Czernin read Markin’s yellow pamphlets at Brest-Litovsk eagerly.

Then the civil war began. Markin filled many breaches. Now he was establishing the dictatorship far to the east, commanding a flotilla on the Volga, and driving the enemy before him. Whenever I heard that the man at the danger-point was Markin, I felt relieved and heartened. But his hour had struck. On the Kama, an enemy’s bullet overtook Nikolay Georgiyevich Markin and knocked him off his strong seaman’s feet. When the telegram telling of his death reached me, I felt as if a column of granite had come crashing down in front of me. His photograph stood on the children’s table, in a sailor cap with ribbons.

“Boys, boys, Markin is dead!”

Two pale faces were twisted with sudden pain before me. They had been on an equal footing with the sullen Nikolay. He had initiated them into his plans and into the secrets of his life. With tears in his eyes, he had told the nine-year-old Seryozha that the woman he had loved so dearly and so long had deserted him, and that was why there was often darkness and sullenness in his soul. In a frightened whisper, and with tears in his eyes, Seryozha had confided this secret to his mother. This tender friend, who had opened his soul to the boys as if they had been his equals, was at the same time an old sea-wolf and revolutionary, a true hero, like those of the most marvellous fairy-tales. Could it really be true that the Markin who, in the basement of the ministry, had taught them how to use revolver and gun was now dead? In the silence of the night, two little bodies shook under their blankets after the black news came. Only their mother heard their disconsolate sobs.

Life was a whirl of mass meetings. When I arrived in Petrograd, I found all the revolutionary orators either hoarse or voiceless. The revolution of 1905 had taught me to guard my voice with care, and thanks to this, I was hardly ever out of the ranks. Meetings were held in plants, schools, and colleges, in theatres, circuses, streets, and squares. I usually reached home exhausted after midnight; half-asleep I would discover the best arguments against my opponents, and about seven in the morning, or sometimes even earlier, I would be pulled painfully from my bed by the hateful, intolerable knocking on the door, calling me to a meeting in Peterhof, or to go to Kronstadt on a tug sent for me by the navy boys there. Each time it would seem to me as if I could never get through this new meeting, but some hidden reserve of nervous energy would come to the surface, and I would speak for an hour, sometimes two, while delegations from other plants or districts, surrounding me in a close ring, would tell me that thousands of workers in three or perhaps five different places had been waiting for me for hours on end. How patiently that awakening mass was waiting for the new word in those days!

The mass meetings in the Modern Circus were for me quite special. My opponents likewise considered them so, but in a different light. They regarded the circus as my particular fortress, and never even attempted to speak in it. But whenever I attacked the conciliationists in the Soviet, I was interrupted by bitter shouts: “This is not your Modern Circus.” It became quite a refrain.

I usually spoke in the Circus in the evening, sometimes quite late at night. My audience was composed of workers, soldiers, hard-working mothers, street urchins — the oppressed under-dogs of the capital. Every square inch was filled, every human body compressed to its limit. Young boys sat on their fathers’ shoulders; infants were at their mothers’ breasts. No one smoked. The balconies threatened to fall under the excessive weight of human bodies. I made my way to the platform through a narrow human trench, sometimes I was borne overhead. The air, intense with breathing and waiting, fairly exploded with shouts and with the passionate yells peculiar to the Modern Circus. Above and around me was a press of elbows, chests, and heads. I spoke from out of a warm cavern of human bodies; whenever I stretched out my hands I would touch some one, and a grateful movement in response would give me to understand that I was not to worry about it, not to break off my speech, but keep on. No speaker, no matter how exhausted, could resist the electric tension of that impassioned human throng. They wanted to know, to understand, to find their way. At times it seemed as if I felt, with my lips, the stern inquisitiveness of this crowd that had become merged into a single whole. Then all the arguments and words thought out in advance would break and recede under the imperative pressure of sympathy, and other words, other arguments, utterly unexpected by the orator but needed by these people, would emerge in full array from my subconsciousness. On such occasions I felt as if I were listening to the speaker from the outside, trying to keep pace with his ideas, afraid that, like a somnambulist, he might fall off the edge of the roof at the sound of my conscious reasoning.

Such was the Modern Circus. It had its own contours, fiery, tender, and frenzied. The infants were peacefully sucking the breasts from which approving or threatening shouts were coming. The whole crowd was like that, like infants clinging with their dry lips to the nipples of the revolution. But this infant matured quickly.

Leaving the Modern Circus was even more difficult than entering it. The crowd was unwilling to break up its new-found unity; it would refuse to disperse. In a semi-consciousness of exhaustion, I had to float on countless arms above the heads of the people, to reach the exit. Sometimes I would recognize among them the faces of my two daughters, who lived near by with their mother. The elder was sixteen, the younger fifteen. I would barely manage to beckon to them, in answer to their excited glances, or to press their warm hands on the way out, before the crowd would separate us again. When I found myself outside the gate, the Circus followed me. The street became alive with shouts and the tramping of feet. Then some gate would open, suck me in, and close after me. This would be the doing of my friends, who pushed me into the palace of the dancer Kseshinskaya, a palace built for her by Czar Nicholas. There the general staff of the Bolsheviks had firmly intrenched itself, and men in gray soldiers’ coats sat on the silk-upholstered furniture or tramped the long-unpolished floors in their heavy boots. One could wait there until the crowd cleared away, and then go out again.

Walking in the dark along the deserted streets after the meeting, I caught the sound of footsteps behind me. The same thing had happened the night before, and as it now seemed, the night before that. With my hand on my Browning, I turned sharply and walked back a few steps.

“What do you want?” I ask sternly. I saw a young, devoted face before me.

“Allow me to protect you. Some of those who come to the Circus are enemies.” It was the student Poznansky. From then on he was always with me. Through all the years of the revolution, he was attached to me for special missions, of varying sorts but always involving great responsibility. He guarded my personal safety, organized secretarial help during military campaigns, sought out forgotten war stores, got the necessary books, built fighting squadrons out of nothing, fought at the front him self, and later on in the ranks of the opposition. He is now in exile. I hope that the future will bring us together again.

On December 3, when I was speaking before the audience of the Modern Circus, I made a report on the work of the Soviet government. I explained the significance of our publishing the diplomatic correspondence of Czarism and Kerensky. I told my faithful listeners how, in reply to my assertion that the people cannot shed their blood for agreements which they do not conclude, do not read, and do not see, the conciliationists in the Soviet had cried out to me: “Don’t speak to us in this language. This is not your Modern Circus.” And I repeated my answer to the conciliationists: “I know only one tongue, one revolutionary language. I speak it to the people at their meetings, and I shall speak it to the Allies and the Germans.” The newspaper report of this speech records prolonged applause at this point. My connection with the Modern Circus ended only in February, when I went to Moscow.

1. The Socialist-Revolutionist Party represented the left wing of the Populist movement. It differed from the Social-Democrats and the Marxists in general in its insistence on the identity of the interests of the proletariat and the peasantry, and in its use of terrorist methods against the Czarist government. — Trans.

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