My Life, by Leon Trotsky

Chapter 7

My First Revolutionary Organization

In the autumn of 1896, I visited the country, after all; but the visit resulted only in a brief truce. Father wanted me to become an engineer, whereas I hesitated between pure mathematics, to which I was very strongly attracted, and Revolution, which little by little was taking possession of me. Every time this question arose there was an acute family crisis. Everybody looked depressed, and seemed to suffer intensely; my elder sister would weep furtively, and nobody knew what to do about it. One of my uncles, an engineer and owner of a plant in Odessa, who was staying in the country with us, persuaded me to come and visit him in the city. This was at least a temporary relief from the impasse.

I stayed with my uncle for a few weeks. We were constantly discussing profit and surplus value. My uncle was better at acquiring profits than explaining them. And meanwhile I did nothing about registering for the course in mathematics in the University. I stayed on in Odessa, still looking for something. What was I trying to find? Actually, it was myself. I made casual acquaintances among workers, obtained illegal literature, tutored some private pupils, gave surreptitious lectures to the older boys of the Trade School, and engaged in arguments with the Marxists, still trying to hold fast to my old views. With the last autumn steamer, I left for Nikolayev, and resumed my quarters with Shvigovsky in the garden.

And the same old business started in again. We discussed the latest numbers of the radical magazines and argued about Darwinism; we were vaguely preparing, and also waiting. What was it in particular that impelled us to start the revolutionary propaganda? It is difficult to say. The impulse originated within us. In the intellectual circles in which I moved, nobody did any actual revolutionary work. We realized that between our endless tea-table discussions and revolutionary organization there was a vast gulf. We knew that any contacts with workers demanded secret, highly “conspiratory” methods. And we pronounced the word solemnly, with a reverence that was almost mystic. We had no doubt that in the end we would go from the discussions at the tea-table to “conspiratia”; but nobody was definite as to how and when the change would take place. In excusing our delay, we usually told each other that we must prepare; and we weren’t so far wrong, after all.

But apparently there had been some change in the air which brought us abruptly onto the road of revolutionary propaganda. The change did not actually take place in Nikolayev alone, but throughout the country, especially in the capitals. In 1896, the famous weavers’ strikes broke out in St. Petersburg. This put new life into the intelligentsia. The students gained courage, sensing the awakening of the heavy reserves. In the summer, at Christmas, and at Easter, dozens of students came down to Nikolayev, bringing with them tales of the upheaval in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. Some of them had been expelled from universities boys just out of the gymnasium returning with the haloes of heroes. In February, 1897, a woman student, Vetrova, burned herself to death in the Peter-Paul fortress. This tragedy, which has never been fully explained, stirred every one deeply. Disturbances took place in the university cities; arrests and banishments became more frequent.

I started my revolutionary work to the accompaniment of the Vetrova demonstrations. It happened in this way: I was walking along the street with a younger member of our commune, Grigory Sokolovsky, a boy about my age. “It’s about time we started,” I said.

“Yes, it is about time,” he answered.

“But how?”

“That’s it, how?”

“We must find workers, not wait for anybody or ask anybody, but just find workers, and set to it.”

“I think we can find them,” said Sokolovsky. “I used to know a watchman who worked on the boulevard. He belonged to the Bible Sect. I think I’ll look him up.”

The same day Sokolovsky went to the boulevard to see the Biblist. He was no longer there. But he found there a woman who had a friend who also belonged to some religious sect.

Through this friend of the woman he didn’t know, Sokolovsky, on that very day, made the acquaintance of several workers, among them an electrician, Ivan Andreyevitch Mukhin, who soon became the most prominent figure in our organization. Sokolovsky returned from his search all on fire. “Such men! They are the real thing!”

Next day five or six of us were sitting in an inn. The deafening music of the automatic organ screened our conversation from the rest. Mukhin, a thin man with a pointed beard and a sort of shrewd, apprehensive look, watched me through a half-closed left eye, amiably scanning my still beardless face. In detail, with well-calculated pauses, he explained: “The Gospels for me, in this business, are just a peg. I begin with religion, and then switch off to life. The other day I explained the whole truth to the Stundists with navy-beans.”

“What do you mean, navy-beans?”

“It’s very simple. I put a bean on the table and say, ’This is the Czar.’ Around it, I place more beans. ’These are ministers, bishops, generals, and over there the gentry and merchants. And in this other heap, the plain people.’ Now, I ask, ’Where is the Czar?’ They point to the centre. ’Where are the ministers?’ They point to those around. Just as I have told them, they answer. Now, wait,” and at this point Mukhin completely closed his left eye and paused. “Then I scramble all the beans together,” he went on. “I say, ’Now tell me where is the Czar? the ministers?’ And they answer me, ‘Who can tell? You can’t spot them now.’ . . . ‘Just what I say. You can’t spot them now.’ And so I say, ‘All beans should be scrambled.’𔄭

I was so thrilled at this story that I was all in a sweat. This was the real thing, whereas we had only been guessing and waiting and subtilizing. The music of the automatic organ was the “conspiratia”; Mukhin’s navy-beans, destroying the mechanics of the class system, were the revolutionary propaganda.

“Only how to scramble them, damn them, that’s the problem,” Mukhin said, in a different tone, and looked sternly at me with both eyes. “That’s not navy-beans, is it?” And this time he waited for my answer.

From that day we plunged headlong into the work. We had no older men to direct us. Our own experience was inadequate. But not once did we run into difficulties or get confused. One thing evolved from another as inevitably as in our conversation with Mukhin at the inn.

At the end of the last century the pivot of the economic development of Russia was shifting swiftly to the southeast. Great plants were being built one after another in the South, two in Nikolayev. In 1897, the number of workers in the Nikolayev plants amounted to 8,000, in addition to which there were 2,000 workers in various trades. The intellectual level of the workers was comparatively high, as were their earnings. The illiterates were few. The place that the revolutionary organizations came to hold later was then filled to some extent by the religious sects which engaged in successful warfare with the official religion. In the absence of political disorders, the secret police in Nikolayev were slumbering peacefully. They played into our hands admirably. If they had been awake, we would have been arrested during the very first weeks of our activity. But we were the pioneers and benefited by it. We shook up the police only after we had shaken up the workers.

When I made the acquaintance of Mukhin and his friends, I called myself by the name of Lvov. It was not easy for me to tell this first “conspiratory” lie; in fact, it was really painful to “deceive” people with whom one intended to be associated for such a great and noble cause. But the nickname of Lvov soon stuck to me, and I got used to it myself.

The workers streamed toward us as if they had been waiting for this. They all brought friends; some came with their wives, and a few older men joined the groups with their sons. We never sought them out; they looked for us. Young and inexperienced leaders that we were, we were soon overwhelmed by the movement we had started. Every word of ours met with a response. As many as twenty and twenty-five or more of the workers gathered at our secret readings and discussions, held in houses, in the woods, or on the river. The predominating element was composed of highly skilled workers who earned fairly good wages. They already had an eight-hour day at the Nikolayev shipbuilding yards; they were not interested in strikes; what they wanted was justice in social relations. They called themselves Baptists, or Stundists, or Evangelical Christians, but theirs was not a dogmatic sectarianism. The workers were simply breaking away from orthodoxy, and baptism became a temporary phase for them in their progress to ward revolution. During the first weeks of our conversations, some of them still used sectarian expressions, and often made comparisons with the period of the early Christians. But nearly all of them soon dropped this way of speaking when they found that they were only a laughing-stock for the younger men.

Even to this day the more striking figures among them seem alive to me. There was the cabinetmaker in his bowler, Korotkov, who had done with all mystics long ago, a jocular fellow and a rhymester who would say solemnly, “I am a rationlist,” meaning a rationalist. And when Taras Savelyevitch, an old evangelist and a grandfather, would begin, for the hundredth time, to talk about the early Christians, who like ourselves met secretly, Korotkov would cut him short with “A fig for your theology!” and toss his bowler indignantly up into the trees. He would wait for a while and then go into the woods in search of it. This all happened in the forest on the dunes.

Many of the workers were so infected by the new ideas that they began to compose verses. Korotkov wrote the Proletarian March which began this way: “We are the alphas and omegas, the beginnings and endings.” Nesterenko, a carpenter, who, like his son, was a member of the group of Alexandra Lvovna Sokolovskaya, composed a song about Karl Marx in Ukrainian, and we sang it in chorus. Nesterenko himself, however, ended very badly. He got in with the police and betrayed the whole organization.

A young laborer, Yefimov, a blond giant with blue eyes, who came of an officer’s family and was not only literate but really well read, lived in the slums of the town. I found him in an eating-place patronized by tramps. He worked in the harbor as a longshoreman; he neither smoked nor drank. He was reserved and well-mannered. But there must have been some thing mysterious about his life, despite the fact that he was only twenty-one, to account for his constant gloominess. He soon confided in me that he had been introduced to some members of the secret society of Narodovoltzi 1, and offered to put me in touch with them. Three of us, Mukhin, Yefimov and I, were sitting drinking tea in the noisy Russia inn, at the same time listening to the deafening music of the organ and waiting. At last, Yefimov indicated to us with his eyes the figure of a big, stout man with a small beard. “There he is.”

The man sat at a table by himself and kept on drinking tea. Then he began to put on his coat, and with a mechanical move ment of his hand, crossed himself as he looked at the ikons. “What! Is he the ’Narodovoletz’?” Mukhin exclaimed in a hushed voice. The “Narodovoletz” avoided meeting us, giving Yefimov some vague excuse. The incident has always remained a mystery to me. Yefimov himself soon squared his accounts with life by asphyxiating himself with coal-gas. It is quite possible that the blue-eyed giant was a tool for some spy or conceivably something even worse.

Mukhin, who was an electrician by trade, installed a complicated system of signalling in his apartment for use in case of police raids. He was twenty-seven, but so full of practical wisdom and so rich in experience of life that he seemed almost old to me. A tubercular, he would cough blood. He remained a revolutionary throughout his life. After one exile and a prison term, he was exiled again. I met him again after twenty-three years at the conference of the Ukrainian Communist Party at Kharkoff. We sat raking up the past as we told each other of the fate that had overtaken many of the group with whom we had been associated at the dawn of the revolution. At the conference Mukhin was elected to the central control committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party. He had surely earned the honor. But soon after that he was laid low by illness. He never recovered.

Immediately after we had come to know each other, Mukhin introduced me to a friend of his, another sectarian, Babenko, who had a little house of his own with apple-trees in the courtyard. Babenko was lame; a slow man who was always sober. He taught me to drink tea with apple instead of lemon. He was arrested with others of our group and spent some time in prison before he returned to Nikolayev again. But Fate separated us. It was only in 1925 that I happened to read in some paper that a Babenko, a former member of the South Russian Labor Union, was living in the Province of Kuban. By then, his legs were completely paralyzed. Somehow I managed, at a time when things were already difficult for me, to have the old man transferred to Essentuki to take the cure. He regained the use of his legs. I visited him in the sanitarium. He didn’t even know that Trotsky and Lvov were one and the same man. Again we drank tea with apple and talked about the past. I can just imagine his surprise when he heard that Trotsky was a counter-revolutionary.

There were many other interesting figures, too many to enumerate. There was the fine younger generation that had been trained in the technical school of the shipyards, and was very cultured. A mere suggestion from the instructor was enough to enable them to grasp the whole trend of his thought. We found the workers more susceptible to revolutionary propaganda than we had ever in our wildest dreams imagined. The amazing effectiveness of our work fairly intoxicated us. From revolutionary tales, we knew that the workers won over by propaganda were usually to be counted in single numbers. A revolutionary who converted two or three men to socialism thought he had done a good piece of work, whereas, with us, the number of workers who joined or wanted to join the groups seemed practically unlimited. The only shortage was in the matter of instructors and in literature. The teachers had to snatch from each other in turn the single soiled copy of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels that had been transcribed by many hands in Odessa, with many gaps and mutilations of the text.

Soon we began to produce a literature of our own; this was, properly speaking, the beginning of my literary work, which almost coincided with the start of my revolutionary activities. I wrote proclamations and articles, and printed them all out in longhand for the hectograph. At that time we didn’t even know of the existence of typewriters. I printed the letters with the utmost care, considering it a point of honor to make them clear enough so that even the less literate could read our proclamations without any trouble. It took me about two hours to a page. Sometimes I didn’t even unbend my back for a week, cutting my work short only for meetings and study in the groups. But what a satisfied feeling I had when I received the information from mills and workshops that the workers read voraciously the mysterious sheets printed in purple ink, passing them about from hand to hand as they discussed them! They pictured the author as a strange and mighty person who in some mysterious way had penetrated into the mills and knew what was going on in the workshops, and twenty-four hours later passed his comments on events in newly printed handbills.

At first we made the hectograph and printed the proclamations in our rooms at night. One of us would stand guard in the courtyard. In the open stove we had kerosene and matches ready to burn the tell-tale things in case of danger. Every thing was very crude, but the police of Nikolayev were no more experienced than we were. Later on, we transferred the printing-press to the apartment of a middle-aged worker who had lost his sight through an accident in one of the shops. He placed his apartment at our disposal unhesitatingly. He would say with a low laugh, “Everywhere is prison for a blind man.” Gradually we got together at his place a large supply of glycerine, gelatine and paper. We worked at night. The slovenly room, with a ceiling that came low over our heads, had a poverty-stricken look about it. We cooked our revolutionary brew on his iron stove, pouring it out on a tin sheet. As he helped us, the blind man moved about the half-dark room with more assurance than we did. Two of the workers, a young boy and girl, would watch reverently as I pulled the freshly printed sheets off the hectograph, and then would exchange glances. If it had been possible for any one to look at all this with a “sober” eye, at this group of young people scurrying about in the half-darkness around a miserable hectograph, what a sorry, fantastic thing it would have seemed to imagine that they could, in this way, overthrow a mighty state that was centuries old! And yet this sorry fantasy became a reality within a single generation; and only eight years separated those nights from 1905, and not quite twenty from 1917.

Word-of-mouth propaganda never gave me the same satisfaction as the printed bills did at that time. My knowledge was inadequate, and I didn’t know how to present it effectively. We made no real speeches in the full sense of the word. Only once, in the woods on Mayday, did I have to make one, and it embarrassed me greatly. Every word I uttered seemed horribly false. On the other hand, when I talked to the groups it wasn’t so bad. As a rule, however, the revolutionary work went on at full speed. I established and developed contacts with Odessa. Evenings I would go to the pier, pay a rouble for a third-class ticket, and lie down on the deck of the steamer near the funnel, with my jacket under my head and my over coat to cover me; in the morning I would wake up in Odessa and seek out the people I knew there. Then I would return the next night, so as never to waste any time in travelling. My contacts in Odessa suddenly increased in number. At the entrance of the Public Library, I met a spectacled worker. We looked at each other closely and understood. He was Albert Polyak, a compositor, who later organized the famous central printing-press of the party. My acquaintance with him marked an epoch in the life of our organization. Within a few days after I met him, I brought back with me to Nikolayev a travelling-bag full of “illegal” literature from abroad; new propaganda pamphlets in gaily colored covers. We kept opening the bag to look admiringly at our treasure. The pamphlets were circulated in no time, and increased our authority in labor circles.

From Polyak I accidentally learned in conversation that the mechanic Shrentsel, who had been posing as a full-fledged engineer and had been trying to wedge his way into our group, was an informer of long standing. This Shrentsel was a stupid and importunate fellow who always wore a uniform cap with a badge. Instinctively we never trusted him. But he did learn something about a few of us. I invited him to Mukhin’s apartment, and told his life-story in detail, omitting his name. He became utterly frantic. We threatened to give him short shrift if he betrayed us. Apparently it had its effect, because he left us alone for three months after that. But when we were arrested, as if to get even with us Shrentsel piled horror on horror in his evidence against us.

We called our organization the South Russian Workers’ Union, intending to include workers from other towns. I drafted our constitution along Social Democratic lines. The mill authorities tried to offset our influence through speakers of their own. We would answer them the next day with new proclamations. This duel of words aroused not only the workers but a great many of the citizens as well. The whole town was alive with talk about revolutionaries who were flooding the mills with their handbills. Our names were on every tongue. Still the police delayed. They refused to believe that “those young brats from the garden” were capable of carrying on any such campaign. They suspected that there were more experienced leaders behind us, probably old exiles. This gave us two or three additional months in which to work. Finally our movements were so closely watched that the police couldn’t help but discover one group after another. So we decided to leave Nikolayev for a few weeks, to put the police off our track. I was supposed to go to my family in the country; Sokolovskaya, with her brother, to Ekaterinoslav, and so on. At the same time, we firmly resolved not to hide in case of wholesale arrests, but to let ourselves be taken, so that the police could not say to the workers: “Your leaders have deserted you.”

Some time before I was supposed to leave, Nesterenko insisted that I should hand over a bundle of proclamations to him in person. He fixed as the meeting-place behind the cemetery, late at night. There was deep snow on the ground; the moon was shining. Beyond the cemetery you could see a wide desert like expanse. I found him at the appointed spot. Just as I was handing him a packet that I took out from under my coat, some one detached himself from the cemetery wall and walked past us, touching Nesterenko with his elbow.

“Who is that?” I asked, in surprise.

“I don’t know,” answered Nesterenko as he watched the other man walk off. At that time he was already working with the police, but it never entered my mind to suspect him.

On the twenty-eighth of January, 1898, there were mass arrests. Altogether, over two hundred people were taken. The police applied the scourge. One of those arrested, a soldier named Sokolov, was driven to throw himself from the second floor of the prison; he was merely badly bruised. Another, Levandovsky, went insane. There were still other victims.

Among those arrested, there were many who got there by accident. A few of those on whom we were relying deserted us, and even in some instances betrayed us. On the other hand, some who bad been quite inconspicuous in our ranks showed great strength of character. For instance, there was a turner, a German named August Dorn, a man about fifty years old, who for some unknown reason was detained in prison for a long time, although he had only visited our group a few times. He behaved magnificently, and kept singing gay and, one must admit, not always puritanical German songs at the top of his voice. He made jokes in pigeon-Russian, and kept up the spirits of the young. In the Moscow transfer prison where we were detained, all of us in the same cell, Dorn would address the samovar mockingly, ask it to come over, and then retort, “You won’t? Well, then Dorn will come to you.” Although this was repeated every day, we always good-naturedly laughed at it.

The Nikolayev organization was hard hit, but it did not dis appear. Others soon replaced us. Both the revolutionaries and the police were growing in experience.

1. Members of the Terrorist Narodnaya Volya (The People’ Will). — Trans.

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