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Trotsky in Amherst (Canadian Geographic , 1988)

British officers and armed bluejackets boarded the Christianiafjord and in the name of the officer commanding the port called upon me, my wife, my two boys and five other passengers to leave the steamer. The reasons, they told me, would be given to me at Halifax. We answered that the demand was illegal and that we would refuse to comply. Thereupon the armed sailors, amid shouts of “shame” from a considerable number of passengers, bodily carried us aboard a naval cutter, which took us to Halifax under escort of a cruiser. A dozen of the sailors were busy with my struggling person when my elder boy ran to my assistance and planted his tiny fist in the officer’s face, crying, “Shall I hit him again, father?”


He was eleven years old: it was his first contact with British democracy.

The ironic voice belongs to Leon Trotsky: height 5′ 8 1/2″; weight 170 lb.; eyes and hair black; moustache and beard black; complexion dark; age 37; captured at Halifax April 3, 1917; citizenship Russian; profession, journalist.

The details were recorded by Col. Arthur Henry Morris, officer commanding Internment Camp Amherst, Nova Scotia. Trotsky, whose adult life had been divided between prisons and exile, had reached Nova Scotia from New York, where he had lived since mid-January, writing for the Russian-language newspaper Novyi Mir (New World), giving speeches to exile groups, and preparing for the revolution he felt sure was imminent.

He was right. On March 15, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and a Provisional Government under Prince Lvov took office. Trotsky hurried to the Russian embassy and obtained visas. On March 27, with his petite wife Natalya, his sons Sergei, 9, and Lyova, 11, and five other revolutionaries, Trotsky sailed aboard the Norwegian-American liner SS Kristianiafjord. Three days later, the ship arrived in Halifax.

As Hugh MacLennan notes, Halifax thrives in wartime: it is the Canadian navy’s chief Atlantic base, and the closest to Europe of all mainland North American ports. In both World Wars, it has been the major point of departure for troops and war materiel, and enemy submarines have harried the harbour approaches because Halifax was the assembly point for trans-Atlantic convoys. It was thus a geographical as well as an historical accident that brought Trotsky’s ship to Nova Scotia, where it was to unload cargo and await its convoy.

But a British secret agent had notified London of Trotsky’s plans. Russia was allied to Britain, but British authorities were concerned about the unstable situation in Russia and its impact on the Russian war effort. The day after the Christianiafjord arrived in Halifax, a message flashed from the Admiralty to the Naval Control Officer in Halifax, Capt. O.M. Makins, RN, bidding him remove the little band of Russians and hold them “pending instructions.” These, said the cable,

are Russian socialists leaving [the United States] for the purpose of starting revolution against present Russian Government for which Trotsky is reported to have 10,000 dollars subscribed by socialists and Germans.

Makins’ men boarded the ship and questioned the Russians vigorously. In his report, Makins onfirmed that “they are all avowed Socialists, and though professing a desire to help the new Russian Govt. might well be in league with German socialists in America, and quite likely a hindrance to the Government in Russia just at present.

“It is therefore proposed to remove them … on Tuesday morning…”

Trotsky, of course, remembered the interrogation more vividly: the Russian travellers were not given “the treatment accorded other passengers not so unfortunate as to belong to a nation allied to England”

but instead were submitted to a thorough cross-examination as to their political convictions and affiliations. I declined to enter into a political debate of this sort, and declared that while I was ready to answer any questions or submit any evidence as to my identity, I would do no more: Russia’s internal politics were not yet under the control of the British Naval police.

Though the other Russians wrote a protest, Trotsky did not deign to sign: “I saw little use,” he noted acidly, “in complaining to Beelzebub about Satan.”

Trotsky’s wife and son were held in Halifax, first at the Market Street home of the port’s official Russian translator, Dave Horowetz, and later in a nearby hotel. Trotsky and his comrades were shunted off to Amherst by train, where that evening they were duly inducted into the camp by Colonel Morris.

A reviewer of Robert Fothergill’s recent play about this episode, Detaining Mr. Trotsky, describes Trotsky as “a devotional figure of the left wing because he was an idealist, and because he died before he could betray his idealism.” Not exactly: Trotsky was shuffled out of power by Stalin soon after the revolution, and he was 60 when the KGB assassinated him in Mexico. But he retains a special magnetism. He was a remarkable human being: energetic, eloquent, devoted, impassioned, a citizen of the world graced with a delightful sense of humour.

By 1917, Trotsky was a seasoned revolutionary, a veteran not only of prison and in exile, but also the former leader of the Petrograd Soviet during the brief revolution of 1905. When that rebellion was put down, soldiers surrounded the building in which the Soviet executive committee was meeting, and a police officer barged in to read the warrant.

“Please do not interfere with the speaker,” said Trotsky, the chairman. “If you wish to take the floor, you must give your name, and I shall ask the meeting whether it wishes to hear you.”

Thunderstruck, the officer waited. Trotsky then invited him to read the warrant “for the sake of information,” after which he suggested that the meeting acknowledge the statement and pass to the next item on the agenda.

The policeman protested.

“Please do not interfere,” Trotsky scolded him. “You have had the floor, you have made your statement, we have acknowledged it. Does the meeting wish to have any further dealings with the policeman?”

“No!” cried the other committee members.

“Then, please, leave the hall,” said Trotsky — and the policeman left. He soon returned, however, and Trotsky was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. He was not unduly perturbed.

“I feel splendid,” he told another prisoner. “I sit and work and feel perfectly sure that I can’t be arrested. You will agree that under the conditions in Tsarist Russia, this is rather an unusual sensation.”

Trotsky took the same approach in Amherst — even in prison, he had work to do — but he considered that Colonel Morris treated him distinctly worse than the minions of the Tsar.

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.

Nor did the camp itself impress him: “The Amherst concentration camp,” he notes in his autobiography,

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 clogged 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.

At the time of Trotsky’s arrival, the former buildings of the Canadian Car and Foundry Company Contained 851 German prisoners of war. Of these, said Trotsky, about 500 were captured sailors and another 200 were “workers caught by the war in Canada,” while 100 or so were German officers and “civilian prisoners of the bourgeois class.”


The officers and the bourgeois considered the Russian revolutionaries to be enemies — but not the sailors and workers. At the time, Germany had the largest communist party in the world, and Trotsky was a genuine internationalist, who believed that the Russian example would spark a worldwide revolution, ushering in a new era of liberation for people everywhere. A brilliant linguist and a happy traveller, he made himself at home wherever he found himself — even in a prison camp.

“The whole month I was there was like one continuous mass meeting,” Trotsky later recalled. “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.” In addition to the public speeches, there were “constant discussions in smaller groups.” In effect, Trotsky seems to have turned the camp into an improvised college of socialist studies.

The prisoners had been isolated from the war, and from other news, for several years, and Trotsky was happy to bring them up to date in his own style. The revolutionary proletariat, Trotsky told the prisoners, would not only end Tsarism, but would also put an end to the war. The Russian revolutionaries would seek a quick peace, and German socialists were organizing the workers to overthrow Kaiser Wilhelm and end the war. The only newspaper the prisoners were permitted was the Halifax Chronicle; laying it out before him on a table, Trotsky would read it aloud, translating it on the fly into German and Russian.

He was a great speaker and organizer — Lenin later marvelled at his ability to conjure whole armies out of thin air — and he was eloquent on behalf of the prisoners, and vigorous in his complaints about the defects of the camp administration. This led Col. Morris, who had served in the British Colonial Service and was a veteran of the Boer War, to mutter, “If only I had him on the South African coast!” This, Trotsky recalled, “was his pet expression.”

Within days, Trotsky had become a hero to the prisoners — to the extent that he had some difficulty persuading them that he should take his own turn in the food line-ups and do his share of such chores as sweeping floors, washing dishes, peeling potatoes and cleaning the lavatories.

Trotsky was not permitted to communicate with his wife unless he agreed not to attempt to send messages through her to the Russian consulate. He angrily refused. In Halifax, Natalya Sedova was also angry. She spoke French, German and Russian, but her English consisted of just one sentence: “Speek you French?” A devoted revolutionary herself, she had been cheerful throughout the years of exile, not even complaining when in Vienna her household effects had to be pawned to finance the publication of a revolutionary newspaper. In Halifax, she lost no opportunity to discuss socialist themes with anyone with whom she shared a language; her acquaintances were impressed by her knowledge of the French socialist movement and the International Workers of the World in the United States.

Natalya agreed that she and her husband were (in Trotsky’s words) “irreproachable Russian revolutionaries returning to our country, liberated by the revolution.” They had committed no crime, and as allied citizens travelling on legitimate passports, they presumed they were being victimized by agents of the Tsar. One day she went shopping with Fanny Horowetz, the translator’s daughter, looking for a notepad. At connolly’s Book and Stationery Store on Barrington Street, she was offered a pad decorated on the cover with the flags of the Allies.

“I want none of them,” cried Natalya (in Russian). “I have no use for any flags but the flag of real freedom!”

“If I ever get back to my own country,” she said on another occasion, “I will talk, I will write, I will let my country’s people know that Canada is not free, that the United States is not free…”

Throughout April, messages flew back and forth across the Atlantic, and across Europe. Many British and some Canadian officials wanted a pretext to continue the internment, recognizing the danger that a new Russian government influenced by Trotsky might well sue for peace, leaving Germany free to concentrate her forces against the European allies on the Western Front. The longer Trotsky could be kept in Amherst, the better.

Trotsky himself had been prevented in his attempts to cable Prime Minister Lloyd George in London and the Provisional Government in Petrograd. “The Tsar’s gendarmes never acted so arbitrarily,” he grumbled. The British Foreign Office had notified the Russian government of the arrest, and must have been disappointed when on April 8 the Foreign Minister, Miliukov requested that the party be released. But Miliukov was no friend to Trotsky — he coined the term “Trotskyism” as early as 1905 — and two days later he asked the British Ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, to cancel the request pending “further information.” Buchanan thus blamed the Russian government “for their further detention until April 21.”

In Amherst, meanwhile, Trotsky’s micro-revolution was coming along very nicely. “He was a man who when he looked at you seemed to hypnotize you,” remembered Capt. F.C. Whitmore. “He gave us a lot of trouble at the camp, and if he had stayed there any longer… would have made communists of all the German prisoners.”

Alarmed by Trotsky’s success, the German officers protested to Col. Morris. “The British colonel instantly sided with the Hohenzollern patriots,” Trotsky scornfully commented, “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.” Morris eventually put Trotsky in solitary confinement; meanwhile, the prisoners responded with a petition bearing 530 signatures — a sign of success which Trotsky considered “more than ample compensation for all the hardships of the Amherst imprisonment.”

On the telegraph cables, the diplomatic flurry continued. As early as April 6, the Russian Consul General in Montreal had protested to the Imperial military authorities in Canada. Canadian concern increased when the story was published in Novyi Mir on April 10. The editors attempted to cable Trotsky; receiving no response, they cabled Alexander Kerensky, then Minister of Justice in the Provisional Government. Protests took place in New York, Pittsburgh and Petrograd.

Canadian officials such as Deputy Postmaster-General R.M. Coulter had been discreetly voicing their objections to the arbitrary actions of the Imperial military authorities, and they were perceptibly relieved when, on April 20, the Admiralty cabled that the “Russian Socialists should be allowed to proceed.” A Foreign Office file notes regretfully that “we must permit, but need not expedite, their journey.”

We were ordered to pack our things and proceed… 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… 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…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. If only it had been on the African coast!

And so Trotsky left Amherst — his route lined by hundreds of cheering German sailors, while an improvised band played The Internationale. With his family and his comrades, he sailed for Russia on May 3.

A few months later, Trotsky was Russia’s Foreign Minister, negotiating peace with Germany. A German diplomat noted Trotsky’s “burning hatred of the English” stemming from his imprisonment in Canada. By 1918, Trotsky was leading the Red Army in the infant Soviet Union’s successful defence against both internal insurgency and invading armies from the United States, Japan, Czechoslovakia — and Britain.

He had vowed vengeance on the English-speaking nations. Did he feel a certain grim glee as he defeated their armies on Russian soil? He had certainly evened the score for Amherst.