first encounters: When Lenin met Trotsky

Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: F Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton

Saturday 02 December 1995 00:02

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, alias Lenin, was still asleep when Lev Davidovich Bronstein, alias Trotsky, plunked himself down on his doorstep.

It was October 1902; the place, London; the hour, dawn. Both men were in exile; both were had escaped from the czar's prisons in and out of Siberia; both were totally immersed in and dedicated to the Marxist revolutionary movement, of which Lenin, at 32, was the acknowledged head. His current command post was London. A number of his compatriot revolutionaries had congregated there, crowded into communes; Lenin, however, lived apart. So many people, he said, affected his nerves. He and his wife, Krupskaya, occupied a flat in one of the seedier neighbourhoods (not far from the shabby rooms where, nearly half-a-century before - surrounded by wife, mistress-servant, brood of children and horde of creditors - the apparently nerveless Karl Marx had produced Das Kapital).

Trotsky was 22 years old. Papa Bronstein, a barely literate Russian Jewish farmer, had educated him to become an engineer; my son the revolutionary was not what he had in mind. Nor had he expected the sojourns in the prisons of Odessa, the marriage to a Gentile woman ten years his senior, the two children born in the Siberian tundra. From Siberia, Trotsky wrote in secret the fiery tracts on Marxist theory that found their way to London, earning him the sobriquet "the Pen" and a summons from Lenin.

Trotsky arrived penniless. Despite the hour, he took a cab to the address jotted down on a scrap of paper. Krupskaya answered the prescribed triple knock in her nightclothes, which Trotsky hardly noticed, concerned only that she address him in Russian (he spoke no English) and pay for the taxi. Krupskaya explained that Lenin was asleep. He had trouble falling asleep nights, she said; he would lie in bed for hours reading French grammars to calm his nerves. But Trotsky was expected. She ushered him unceremoniously into the bedroom. "Vladimir Ilyich," she said, "the Pen has arrived."

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