rotsky’s tactical ruthlessness may have won the Bolsheviks Russia. But he almost missed the uprising in a Canadian jail
Tristin Hopper | July 11, 2014 | Last Updated: Jul 11 7:45 PM ET
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Over the next two months, more than five million foreigners will come to Canada on their summer vacation. For the rest of the summer, the National Post presents this series on the revolutionaries, luminaries and criminals who have taken time out from shaping world events to pay us a visit — and how that visit shaped them. Today, Tristin Hopper reports on how Canada made Leon Trotsky miss the opening months of the Russian Revolution.
The deadliest war in all Canadian history had just ended, but for 4,000 unlucky Canadian soldiers, another war was just beginning.
As Russia descended into civil war between Bolsheviks and a loose coalition of anti-Communists, Canada, along with its other Great War allies, had promised troops to help patch up what was left of Imperial Russia.
In Victoria, B.C., when French-Canadian conscripts were told they were being shipped to Siberia, they mutinied. Within full view of citizens in the quiet B.C. capital, volunteer soldiers were brought up to whip the Quebecers with belts and march them onto waiting ships at the point of a bayonet.
A ruthless tactician headed the armies these men were being sent to fight. He drove millions of peasants into his ranks by force, held families hostage to ensure a soldier’s loyalty and even revived the Ancient Roman practice of decimation. If a unit retreated without orders, every tenth man was ordered killed.
The idea that human life was sacred, he would say later, was nothing more than “vegetarian-Quaker prattle.”
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As the Canadian troops began their storm-battered sea voyage to Vladivostok, they could not have known the irony that this man, Leon Trotsky, had been safely locked away in Nova Scotia only a few months before.
In the spring of 1917, Trotsky was a Russian exile living in New York City when he first heard the news that a spontaneous revolution had toppled the 300-year reign of the Russian Tsar.
This was just the proletarian uprising he had been predicting for years, and the overjoyed dissident quickly secured papers at the Russian consulate and booked his family passage aboard a Norwegian steamer bound for the land “liberated by the revolution.”
“We had been sent off in a deluge of flowers and speeches, for we were going to the country of the revolution,” Trotsky wrote in his 1930 autobiography, My Life.
But British intelligence was already on the trail of the 37-year-old radical, and when the ship pulled in for a stop at Halifax, police stepped aboard to arrest Trotsky and a small group of other Russians as “dangerous socialists” set on overthrowing Russia’s fragile provisional government.
Worse still, the British suspected that Trotsky’s passage had been funded by the German enemy.
The Russians got “violent” when they saw the Canadian police, claimed a subsequent report.
Trotsky dropped to the floor and reportedly bit the “armed bluejackets” as they dragged him off the ship. His 11-year-old son then jumped into the melee by punching one of the officers. “It was his first lesson in British democracy,” Trotsky wrote later.
While Trotsky’s family was allowed to stay in Halifax, he and the other Russians aboard were hauled by train to Amherst Internment Camp.
Prison camps had sprung up all across Canada with the outbreak of the First World War, and were notorious for housing thousands of Ukrainian-born Canadians detained as “enemy aliens.”
Wikimedia commonsLeon Trotsky with troops. Troops that he might not have seen if he had stayed in Canada.
Amherst, though, was mostly filled with sailors from the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, a German ship sunk by the Royal Navy in the opening days of the war.
Imprisonment was nothing new to Trotsky. As a Marxist organizer in Imperial Russia, he had racked up plenty of time in jails, detention cells and Siberian exile. At one point, Trotsky had even quipped that he liked incarceration, since it gave him time to read and think without fear of arrest.
But Trotsky had zero patience for Amherst.
“Men hopelessly dogged the passages, elbowed their way through, lay down or got up, played cards or chess,” he wrote in My Life. Some inmates had gone insane, and “we had to eat and sleep in the same room with these madmen.”
And where the Tsar’s fortresses had at least strip-searched Trotsky in private, in Nova Scotia he bristled at having to be subjected “to this shameful humiliation before a dozen men.”
The camp was commanded by Col. Arthur Henry Morris, a hardened veteran of Britain’s pith-helmeted colonial wars.
Even among fellow revolutionaries, Trotsky would become legendary for his grating arrogance, and the trait clashed immediately with the rigid commander, who had directly addressed Trotsky as “dangerous to the Allies in general.”
In particular, Col. Morris objected to Trotsky’s penchant for firing up the German sailors with Marxist speeches.
He gave us a lot of trouble at the camp, and if he had stayed there any longer he would have made Communists of all the German prisoners
“He gave us a lot of trouble at the camp, and if he had stayed there any longer he would have made Communists of all the German prisoners,” Captain F. C. Whiteman, the camp’s second-in-command, told reporters soon after Trotsky’ death in 1940.
Trotsky was completely cut off from the outside world during his time in Nova Scotia, and at one point lamented that it would be futile to complain to the British about his Canadian internment, as it would be like “complaining to Beelzebub about Satan.”
The left-wing Russian press, however, was reportedly whipped into a frenzy by news that a prominent comrade was being held against his will by Canadians.
Amherst’s most difficult prisoner was fast becoming an international incident, and after only one month in Nova Scotia, the British ordered Trotsky freed after receiving an official request from Pavel Milyukov, the foreign minister of Russia’s democratically minded Provisional Government.
The amnesty would not turn out well for either of them. Within six months, Milyukov’s government would be violently overthrown in an operation largely credited to Trotsky.
A few months after that, Trotsky would sign a peace treaty with Germany, prompting a devastating renewal of violence along the Western Front.
For the rest of his life, Trotsky would never forgive Canada, and vowed upon his departure that once in Russia, he would take action regarding the “outrageous treatment of Russian citizens by the Anglo-Canadian police.”
And yet, for all the injustice Trotsky claimed to have suffered at the hands of Canada, it was not long before he was enthusiastically condemning thousands of Russians to his own network of overcrowded concentration camps.
As Trotsky wrote in an August 1918 message to one of his military commanders, “root out the counter-revolutionaries without mercy, lock up suspicious characters in concentration camps — this is a necessary condition of success.”