My Life



The signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty divested my withdrawal from the conimissariat for foreign affairs of any political significance. Chicherin had meanwhile arrived from London to succeed me. I had known Chicherin for a long time. In the years of the first revolution, he gave up his position as a diplomatic official and went over to the Social Democracy. As a Menshevik, he engaged actively in the work of the party “groups of assistance” abroad. At the outbreak of the war, he assumed a stiffly patriotic stand and tried to defend it in his many letters from London. One or two of these letters fell to my lot. Very soon, however, he drew nearer to the internationalists and became an active correspondent for the Nashe Slovo, which I was editing in Paris. In the end, he got into an English prison. I demanded his release; the negotiations were dragging on. I threatened reprisals against Englishmen. “There is, after all, something in Trotsky’s argument,” Buchanan, the British ambassador, said in his diary, “that if we claim the right to arrest Russians for making a pacifist propaganda in a country bent on continuing the war, he has an equal right to arrest British subjects who are conducting a war propaganda in a country bent on peace.”

Chicherin was released. He arrived in Moscow at the most opportune moment, and with a sigh of relief I handed the diplomatic helm over to him. I was not appearing at the ministry at all then. On rare occasions, Chicherin would consult me by telephone. Not until March 13 was there a public announcement of my resignation from the commissariat of foreign affairs, coinciding with the announcement of my appointment as war commissary and as chairman of the Supreme War Council, formed only a little while before on my initiative.

Thus Lenin achieved his end after all. He used my offer to resign in connection with the Brest-Litovsk disagreements only to carry out his original idea, modified to meet changed circumstances. As the enemy within changed from plotting to the creating of armies and battle fronts, Lenin expressed the wish that I take charge of military operations. He had now won over Svyerdlov to his side. I tried to argue against it. “Whom else can we appoint? Name them,” Lenin pressed his attack. I thought it over for a moment, and consented.

Was I prepared to do military work? Of course not. I had not even had the benefit of service in the Czar’s army. My army-service years I had spent in prison, in exile, and abroad. In 1906, the court sentence deprived me of all civil and military rights. While spending a few months during the Balkan wars in Serbia, Bulgaria, and later in Roumania, I came closer to military affairs. But my approach to these questions was by nature still political rather than military. The World War brought every one – myself included – close to the questions of militarism. My every-day work on the Nashe Slovo and my writing for the Kievskaya Mysl gave me the needed stimulus to systematize my new knowledge and observations. But there the important thing was war as the continuation of politics, and the army as the instrument of the latter. The problems of military organization and technic were still in the background, as far as I was concerned. On the other hand, the psychology of an army, in its barracks, trenches, battles, hospitals, and the like, deeply stirred my interest. This was later very useful.

In parliamentary countries, war and navy ministries are often given over to lawyers and journalists who, like myself, see the army chiefly from the window of their editorial offices – although they are more comfortable than mine were. And yet there was an obvious difference. In capitalist countries the problem is that of maintaining the existing army – strictly speaking, of maintaining a political cover for a self-sustaining system of militarism. With us, the problem was to make a dean sweep of the remains of the old army, and in its place to build, under fire, a new army, whose plan was not to be discovered in any book. This explains sufficiently why I felt uncertain about my military work, and consented to take it over only because there was no one else to do it.

I did not think of myself as in any sense a strategist, and had little patience with the sort of strategist-dilettantism that flooded the party as a result of the revolution. It is true that on three occasions – in the war with Denikin, in the defense of Petrograd, and in the war with Pilsudski – I took an independent strategic position and defended it first against the high command, and again against the majority of the Central Committee. But in these cases my strategic position was determined by political and economic considerations, rather than by those relating to pure strategy. It may be pointed out, however, that questions of high strategy cannot be solved in any other way, after all.

The change in my work coincided with the change of the seat of the government. The transfer of the central government to Moscow was, of course, a blow to Petrograd. There was almost general opposition to the transfer, headed by Zinoviev, who by that time had become the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. He was supported by Lunacharsky, who had resigned from the government a few days after the revolution, on the ground that he did not wish to bear the responsibility for the destruction (imaginary) of St. Basil’s Church in Moscow. Now, back at his post, he was unwilling to part with the Smolny as “the symbol of the revolution.”

Others brought forward more serious arguments. The majority feared chiefly the bad effect of the transfer on the Petrograd workers. Our enemies at that time were circulating the rumor that we had undertaken to hand Petrograd over to Kaiser Wilhelm. On the contrary, Lenin and I insisted that the transfer of the government to Moscow was to insure not only the safety of the government but of Petrograd itself. The temptation to seize the revolutionary capital and its government with it in one swift blow could not fail to appeal strongly to both Germany and the Allies. To seize a starving Petrograd without the government would be quite another matter. In the end, resistance broke down and the majority of the Central Committee voted for the transfer. The government actually left for Moscow on March 12, 1918. To soften the impression that we were demoting the October capital, I remained in Petrograd for another week or two. The railway administration detained me at the station for a few extra hours; the sabotage was diminishing, but it was still considerable. I arrived in Moscow the day after I was appointed war commissary.

With its medieval wall and its countless gilded cupolas, the Kremlin seemed an utter paradox as a fortress for the revolutionary dictatorship. To be sure, no more had the Smolny, formerly a private school for girls of the nobility, been intended for workers, soldiers, and peasants’ deputies. Until March, 1918, I had never been inside the Kremlin, nor did I know Moscow in general, with the exception of one solitary building, the Butyrsky transfer-prison, in the tower of which I had spent six months during the cold winter of 1898-1899. As a visitor, I might admiringly have contemplated the antiquities of the Kremlin, the palace of Ivan the Terrible, with its throne-room. But we had to settle down here for a long time. The close, day-by-day contact of those two historical poles, the two irreconcilable cultures, was at once bewildering and amusing. As I drove along the wood-paved road past the Nikolayevsky Palace, I often looked side ways at the Czar-gun and the Czar-bell. The heavy barbarism of Moscow stared from the breach in the bell and from the muzzle of the gun. Prince Hamlet would have repeated on this spot:

“The time is out of joint – O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” But there was nothing Hamletish about us. Even when the more important questions were being discussed, Lenin allowed the speakers only two minutes apiece. One could probably meditate on the contradictions in the development of a backward country for a minute or two when dashing off at a tangent to the Kremlin past, on the way from one meeting to another – but no longer than that.

The Kavalersky building, opposite the Potyeshny Palace, before the revolution was the living quarters of the officials of the Kremlin. The entire lower floor was occupied by the commanding officer. His apartment had now been made into several smaller ones. Lenin and I took quarters across the corridor, sharing the same dining-room. The food at the Kremlin was then very bad. Instead of fresh meat, they served corned beef. The flour and the barley had sand in them. Only the red Ket caviare was plentiful, because its export had ceased. This inevitable caviare colored the first years of the revolution, and not for me alone.

The musical clock on the Spassky tower was rebuilt. Now the old bells, instead of ringing out God Save the Czar, slowly and pensively rang out the International, at quarter-hour in tervals. The automobile entrance was under the Spassky tower, through an arched tunnel. Over the tunnel, there was an ancient ikon with a top of broken glass; in front of the ikon, was a lamp long since extinguished. Often when one came out of the Kremlin, one’s eyes would fasten on the ikon, while one’s ears would catch the peal of the International from overhead. And over the tower, with its bell, was a double-headed gilt eagle which rose just as before, except that its crown had been removed. I advised setting the hammer-and-sickle up above the eagle, so that the breach in the times might look down from the height of the Spassky tower. But for one reason or another it was never done.

Lenin and I met a dozen times a day in the corridor, and called on each other to talk things over. Sometimes these talks lasted as long as ten or even fifteen minutes – a long time for us. In that period, Lenin was rather talkative – judged, of course, by his own standard. There were so many new things, things utterly strange to us, to prepare for. We had to create ourselves and the others to fit in with the new conditions, and accordingly we felt the need of passing from the particular to the general and the other way about. The little cloud of the Brest-Litovsk disagreements 1 had dispersed, leaving never a trace. Lenin was very cordial and considerate both to me and to my family. He often stopped our boys in the corridor to play with them.

The furniture in my room was Karelian birch. Over the fireplace a clock struck the hours in a thin, silver voice from beneath a Cupid and Psyche. Everything in the room was incompatible with work. The aroma of the idle life of the master class emanated from every chair. But I took even my apartment on the wing; this was all the more true because during those years I slept in it only on my brief visits to Moscow from the front.

I think it was the very first day of my arrival from Petrograd, while Lenin and I were having a chat in the midst of all that Karelian birch, that the Cupid and his Psyche interrupted us with their singing, silver bells. We looked at each other as if we had both caught ourselves thinking the same thing; we were being overheard by the past, lurking over there in the corner. Surrounded by it on all sides as we were, we treated it without respect, but without hostility either, rather with a touch of irony. It would be incorrect to imply that we got used to the surroundings in the Kremlin. Our lives were too dynamic for that; we had no time to get used to anything. We saw the surroundings out of the corners of our eyes, and said in imagination to the Cupids and Psyches, in a tone at once ironical and encouraging: “You did not expect us? Can’t be helped! Get used to us, now!” We were making our surroundings accustom themselves to us.

The lower ranks of the old staff were retained at their posts. They received us a little fearfully. The regime here had been a stern one, dating from the days of serfdom, and the service had passed from father to son. Among the countless flunkeys and other attendants at the Kremlin were many old men who had waited on several emperors in their time. One of them, Stupishin, a little, clean-shaven man, was a dutiful fellow who had been feared by all the attendants in his day. Now the younger ones looked at him with a respect that was mingled with a new challenge. He shuffled tirelessly along the corridors, putting chairs in their places, dusting them off, and generally keeping up the appearance of the old order. At dinner we were given thin vegetable soup and unpolished buckwheat, served on plates adorned with eagles. “What is he doing? Look!” whispered Seryozha to his mother. The old man was moving like a shadow behind the chairs and silently turning the plates this way or that. Seryozha was the first to guess it: the double-headed eagle on the rim of the plate must be right-side-up to face the guest.

“Did you notice old Stupishin?” I asked Lenin.

“How can you help noticing him?” he replied, in a tone of gentle irony.

Sometimes one felt sorry for these old men who had been pulled, root and branch, from their element. Stupishin was soon firmly attached to Lenin; when the latter moved to another building nearer to the Soviet of Commissaries, he transferred his devotion to my wife and me, observing that we appreciated order and valued his care.

The entire staff of attendants was soon dissolved. The young ones quickly adapted themselves to the new conditions. Stupishin did not want to be put on a pension, and so he was transferred to a great palace that had been changed into a museum. He would often call at the Kavalersky building to look us up. Afterward he was doorman in front of the Andreyevsky hall in the palace, during the congresses and conferences. Around him there was always order; he performed the same duties that he had at the receptions of the Czars and the Grand Dukes, except that now it was the Communist International. He was fated, like the clock-bells in the Spassky tower, to change his tune from the Czar’s hymn to the hymn of the revolution. In 1926, when the old man was dying a lingering death in a hospital, my wife sent him presents and he wept with gratitude.

Soviet Moscow received us chaotically. Moscow, it seemed, had its own Soviet of People’s Commissaries under the chairmanship of the historian Pokrovsky, the last man in the world to hold such a post. The authority of the Moscow Soviet extended all through the Moscow region, whose boundaries no one could define. In the north, it claimed the Archangel province; in the south, the province of Kursk. And so in Moscow we discovered a government that had authority, doubtful as it was, over the main section of the Soviet territory. The traditional antagonism between Moscow and Petrograd survived the October revolution. Once upon a time, Moscow had been a big village, and Petrograd a city. Moscow represented the landowners and merchants, Petrograd the military and the officials. Moscow was regarded as full-blooded Russian, Slavophile, hospitable – in other words, the very heart of Russia. Petrograd was European, impersonal, egotistic, the bureaucratic brains of the country. Moscow developed the textile industries, Petrograd those of metal-working. The antitheses represented literary exaggerations of actual differences. We felt them at once. The local patriotism extended even to the native Moscow Bolshevists. A special commission was set up, with me as chairman, to regulate relations with the Moscow Soviet of Commissaries. It was a curious sort of work. We dissected the regional commissariats patiently, and took for the central government what properly belonged to it. As we progressed with the work, it became quite evident that the second Moscow government was unnecessary. The Muscovites themselves realized the need of winding up their Soviet of Commissaries.

The Moscow period, for the second time in Russian history, became one of gathering the state together and of creating organs of administration. Lenin now was showing impatience, irony, and sometimes downright bitter mockery in brushing aside people who continued to answer all questions in terms of propagandist formulas. “Where do you think you are, my man? In the Smolny?” he would shoot at them, with a ferocity softened by his good humor. “The veriest Smolny,” he would interrupt a speaker who was not talking business. “Please wake up; we are not at the Smolny, we have gone ahead since then.” Lenin never spared vigorous words about the past, when it was necessary to prepare for the next day. We were arm in arm in this work. Lenin was very methodical; I was even pedantic. We waged a tireless fight against slovenliness and laxity of any sort. At my suggestion, strict rules against latecomers and the late opening of meetings were passed. Step by step, chaos yielded to order.

Before the sessions at which questions of principle or matters deriving importance from the conflicts between departments were to be discussed, Lenin would insist by telephone that I acquaint myself with the subject in advance. The current literature on the disagreements between Lenin and Trotsky is full of apocrypha. Of course there were sometimes disagreements. But far more often we came to the same conclusion after we had exchanged a few words by telephone, or else independently of each other. When it was obvious that we both had the same opinion about a certain matter, we knew that we would get the necessary decision adopted. But at times when Lenin was afraid that there might be serious opposition to one of his projects, he would remind me by telephone: “Don’t fail to come to the meeting! I’ll have you speak first.” I would talk for a few minutes, and Lenin would say “Right!” perhaps twice during my speech, and that would decide the vote. Not because the others were afraid to oppose us – at that time there was no sign of the present practice of keeping in line with your superiors and of the revolting fear of compromising yourself by an inappropriate word or vote – but because the less the bureaucratic subservience, the greater the authority of leadership.

When I disagreed with Lenin, a fevered discussion not only could but sometimes did develop. But when we agreed, the discussion was always brief. If, for some reason, we were unable to talk things over in advance, we would exchange notes during the meeting, and if these revealed some disagreement between us, Lenin would so guide discussion as to defer the issue. Some times in notes stating my disagreement with him, I would write in a humorous vein, and Lenin’s whole body would shake while he read them. He was very susceptible to laughter, especially when he was tired. It was one of his child-like traits; in that manliest of all men there were many child-like traits. I would watch him in delight as he struggled so hard to overcome a fit of laughter while trying to direct the meeting with the utmost seriousness. His cheek-bones then would bulge even more under the strain.

The war commissariat, where most of my work was done – not only my military work but party and literary work, or any other task there was for me – was situated outside of the Kremlin. I had only my living quarters in the Kavalersky building. No one came to see us there. People who came to see me on business came to the commissariat. As for social visits – no one ever thought of such a thing; we were much too busy for that. We returned home from work at about five o’clock. By seven I was back at the commissariat, for the evening sessions. When, much later, the revolution had settled down a little, I devoted my evenings to theoretical and literary work.

My wife joined the commissariat of education and was placed in charge of museums and ancient monuments. It was her duty to fight for the monuments of the past against the conditions of civil war. It was a difficult matter. Neither the White nor the Red troops were much inclined to look out for historical estates, provincial Kremlins, or ancient churches. This led to many arguments between the war commissariat and the department of museums. The guardians of the palaces and churches accused the troops of lack of respect for culture; the military commissaries accused the guardians of preferring dead objects to living people. Formally, it looked as if I were engaged in an endless departmental quarrel with my wife. Many jokes were made about us on this score.

I now communicated with Lenin chiefly by telephone. His calls to me and mine to him were very frequent, and referred to an infinite number of things. The departments often bothered him with complaints against the Red army; Lenin would immediately call me. Five minutes later he would want to know if I could meet a new candidate for the people’s commissary of agriculture or inspection, and tell him what I thought of him. An hour later, he was interested to know if I had watched the theoretical discussion on proletarian culture, and whether I intended to make a counter-attack on Bukharin. Then the question would be: Could the war department on the southern front allot motor-trucks for the transport of food-supplies to the stations? Another half-hour would bring Lenin’s inquiry whether I was following the disagreements in the Swedish communist party. And that was the way it went every day that I was in Moscow.

From the moment of the German advance, the behavior of the French – at least the more sensible of them – changed suddenly; they had realized the stupidity of the talk about our secret deal with the Hohenzollerns. It was just as clear to them that we could not engage in a war. Some of the French officers even insisted on our signing the peace in order to gain time. This idea was defended with special energy by a French intelligence officer, an aristocrat and royalist with an artificial eye, who offered me his services for the most dangerous commissions.

General Lavergne, who had replaced Niessel, gave me frequent advice in a cautious and rather soft-spoken manner – advice of little value but in appearance well meant. According to him, the French government now accepted the conclusion of the peace of Brest-Litovsk, and was anxious only to lend us its disinterested help in the building up of the army. He offered to place at my disposal the officers of the many French missions returning from Roumania. Two of them, a colonel and a captain, took quarters opposite the building of the war commissariat, so that I might always have them close at hand. I must confess that I suspected them of being more competent in military espionage than in military administration. They submitted written reports to me which, in the confusion of those days, I had not even time to look over.

One of the episodes of that brief “truce” was the presentation to me of the military missions of the Allies. There were many of them, and each was composed of a number of men. About twenty of their representatives came into my tiny room. Lavergne made the presentations. Some of them uttered little pleasantries. A soft-looking Italian general distinguished him self by congratulating me on our success in ridding Moscow of bandits. “Now,” he said with a charming smile, “one can live in Moscow as safely as in any other capital.” I remarked that this was rather an exaggeration. After this, we literally did not know what to say to each other. The visitors could not brace themselves to get up and leave, and I did not know how to get rid of them. Finally, General Lavergne rescued us from this difficult situation by asking if I would object if the military representatives were to take no more of my time. I answered that, although I was loath to part with so select a company, I would not dare to object. Every one has had scenes in his life that he can recall only with a somewhat embarrassed laugh. My meeting with the military missions of the Allies was that sort.

Gradually military affairs absorbed most of my time, the more so because I had myself to start with the ABC’s. In the techinical sphere and in that of operations, I saw my task chiefly as a matter of putting the right man in the right place, and then letting him exercise his abilities. My political and organization work in creating the army merged completely with the work of the party. Success would never have been possible in any other way.

Among the party workers at the war commissariat I found the army doctor Sklyansky. In spite of his youth (in 1918 he was barely 26) he was conspicuous for his businesslike methods, his industry, and his talent for appraising people and circumstances – in other words, for the qualities that make an administrator. After consulting Svyerdlov, who was invaluable in such matters, I chose Sklyansky as my deputy. I never had any occasion to regret it afterward. The duty of deputizing for me involved great responsibility because I was at the front most of the time. In my absence, Sklyansky presided over the Revolutionary War Council, directed all the current work of the commissariat, which consisted chiefly of attending to the needs of the front, and finally represented the war commissariat on the Council of Defense, of which Lenin was chairman.

If any one could be compared with Lazare Carnot of the French Revolution, it is Sklyansky. He was always exact, indefatigable, alert, and well-informed. Most of the orders from the war commissariat were issued over his signature. And since these orders were published in the central organs and local publications, Sklyansky’s name became widely known. Like every serious and rigorous administrator, he had many enemies. His youthful abilities irritated not a few mediocre worthies; Stalin stirred them up behind the scenes. Attacks against Sklyansky were made surreptitiously, and especially when I was away. Lenin knew Sklyansky well, through the Council of Defense, and always defended him with great zeal. “A splendid worker,” he would invariably say, “a remarkable worker.” Skiyansky kept away from all these intrigues and worked; he listened to the reports of the quartermasters, gathered information from the industries, kept count of cartridges, of which there was always a shortage. Smoking endlessly, he spoke by direct wire, called on the telephone the chief officers, and prepared data for the Council of Defense. One could call him at two or three in the morning, and find him still at his desk in the commissariat. “When do you sleep?” I would ask him. He would reply with a jest.

It makes me happy to remember that the war department was almost free from the personal cliques and squabbles that affected the other departments so gravely. The strenuous nature of the work, the authority of leadership, the correct choice of workers (without nepotism or leniency) – the spirit of exacting loyalty – it was these that insured uninterrupted work from a mechanism that was cumbersome, not very well balanced, and very heterogeneous in its composition. Much of the credit for this is due to Sklyansky.

The civil war kept me away from the work in the Soviet of Commissaries. I lived now in a railway-carriage or in an automobile. After weeks and months of such travelling, I got so completely out of touch with the current government business that I could not pick up the threads again in my brief visits to Moscow. The most important questions, however, were decided at the Politbureau. 2 Sometimes I would return specially for the meeting of the Politbureau, in answer to Lenin’s summons. Or sometimes, through Svyerdlov, I would call an extraordinary meeting of the Politbureau to discuss important questions that I had brought with me from the front. During these years my correspondence with Lenin was largely confined to matters relating to the civil war; there were short notes or long telegrams either to supplement previous conversations or to lay the ground work for future ones. In spite of their businesslike brevity, these documents show, better than anything else, the actual relations within the leading group of the Bolsheviks. I will publish this extensive correspondence in the near future, with the necessary commentaries. It will appear as a deadly rebuttal of the work of the historians of the Stalin school.

When Wilson was planning – among his other anemic professorial utopias – a conciliation conference of all the governments of Russia, Lenin on January 24, 1919, sent a coded telegram to me on the southern front: “Wilson proposes truce and invites all the governments of Russia to a conference ... It will be you who will probably have to go to Wilson.” The difference at the time of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations did not prevent Lenin from turning to me again when an important diplomatic task had to be met, although at that time I was completely absorbed in my military work. As everybody knows, nothing came of Wilson’s peacemaking efforts, and so I had no occasion to go to the conference.

Aside from the hundreds of testimonials by Lenin himself, there is a vivid account by Maxim Gorky of his attitude toward my war work: “Striking the table with his hand, he [Lenin] said: ‘Could any one point out to me another man who could organize an almost model army in a year and even win the respect of military experts? We have such a man! We have everything. And there will be miracles.’”

According to Gorky, Lenin said to him in the same conversation: “Yes, yes. I know. Some lies are being told about my relations to him. Too many lies are being told, and especially about me and Trotsky.” What would Lenin have said to-day, when the lying about our mutual relations, despite facts, documents and logic, has become a state cult?

When I was declining the commissariat of home affairs on the second day after the revolution, I brought up, among other things, the question of race. It would seem that in war business this consideration should have involved even greater complications than in civil administration. But Lenin proved to be right. In the years of the revolutionary ascendancy, this question never had the slightest importance. Of course, the Whites tried to develop anti-Semitic motifs in their propaganda in the Red army, but they failed signally. There are many testimonials to this, even in the White press. In Archives of the Russian Revolution, published in Berlin, a White Guard writer relates the following striking episode: “A Cossack who came to see us was hurt by someone’s taunt that he not only served under, but fought under the command of a Jew – Trotsky – and retorted with warm conviction: ‘Nothing of the sort. Trotsky is not a Jew. Trotsky is a fighter. He’s ours ... Russian! ... It is Lenin who is a communist, a Jew, but Trotsky is ours ... a fighter ... Russian ... our own!’”

The same motif will be found in The Horse Army, by Babel, the most talented of our younger writers. The question of my Jewish origin acquired importance only after I had become a subject for political baiting. Anti-Semitism raised its head with that of anti-Trotskyism. They both derived from the same source – the petty bourgeois reaction against October.


1. [Explained in the ensuing chapters]

2. [The Politbureau (an abbreviation of the “Political Bureau”) is an organization within the Central Committee of the Communist Party which controls the policy.]


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