Trotsky’s return from exile: ‘Incredible as a dream’

After being imprisoned in Canada for a month on orders of British imperialism, revolutionary Leon Trotsky finally arrived in Petrograd on May 17 [May 4, old style], 1917.

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. 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.

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.

Trotsky arrives in Petrograd 1917
Trotsky speaks from the train after his arrival at the Finland Station.

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.

L.D. Trotsky, “In Petrograd,” My Life

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