During a period in my life that I refer to as my Second Lost Period (like most sequels, it was longer, more expensive, and less interesting that the sweet and almost romantic First Lost Period), I spent a few long nights-and-into-the-early-mornings reading Trotsky’s autobiography, which some helpful Communists had posted online in its entirety.
(As an aside, last year I accidentally dove down an Internet rabbit hole of conspiracy theories from the 1950s and 60s, and for the next two weeks the ads in my browser seemed tailored to a budding domestic terrorist, which was a bit frightening. My insomniac dabbling in Trotskyism was done in a comparatively more innocent time. But I digress.)
All these years later I can remember clearly lying on my bed and reading off the screen and thinking to myself, “Nobody will ever want to read a book on a computer screen,” but of the text itself I can only remember one very minor anecdote tucked away near the end of the book. More than any of his screeds against the oppressor or nostalgia for the excitement of birthing a new world order, this short aside struck me and stuck with me.
It seems that for a few months in 1917 Trotsky and his family lived in the Bronx, exiled from Europe and unsure of how to continue to revolution. His children took to New York almost instantly, especially excited by the telephone in their apartment, a “mysterious instrument” they had never used before. In just a few weeks they picked up enough English to join the schoolyard milieu, and Trotsky notes that they were so wrapped up in their new friendships that they barely noticed that their father was rarely home.
And then the February revolution came, and Russian revolutionaries around the world flocked home. The Trotskys were determined to catch the next steamer to Europe, but there were complications: visas, tickets, and a nine-year-old son with diphtheria. On their last day in New York, the doctor allowed to convalescent boy to rise from his bed for one last walk around the neighborhood, and the child immediately disappeared.
I find it difficult to picture New York in 1917 in anything but black and white. Ladies in big dresses, men in hats, trolleys and street urchins criss-crossing the streets, all jittery jaunty movements set to ragtime music. The city is seedy and dangerous but thrilling and alive. There were exciting events happening all over the world, of course, but it was here that the twentieth century was being forged, even if Europe and Asia didn’t know it yet.
The little boy, Sergei, lived up on 172nd Street (though Trotsky remembers it as 164th, for some reason), and couldn’t bear to leave New York without learning if there really was a First Street. (The nexus of the universe?)
Trotsky doesn’t say if he made it all the way downtown, or how little Seryozha travelled if he did. All he offers is that after a few frantic hours the Trotskys received a phone call from a faraway police station, and their son announced simply, “I”m here,” and Mama Trotsky1 set off to collect him.
The Russian Revolution is the most breathtaking and monumental epic of the twentieth century, a feverish panorama of intrigue, violence, courage, and tragedy, a great Russian novel brought to life. The series of shocks and crises that shattered a continent brought to light heroes and monsters. The stories of idealism and valor tempered by naivety, hypocrisy, betrayal, and failure are stirring and heartbreaking, and often just infuriating. Spanning more than halfway around the world and including everyone from Petersburg nobility to Turkmen nomads, this is history that demands to be writ large, spread across a canvas as large as the heavens.
And yet, not for nothing does Trotsky take the time to mention that at the moment that anger welled up into revolution in Petrograd and decades of dreams finally seemed within his reach, he and his wife were concerned about their little boy, wandering alone through this “city of prose and fantasy.” He doesn’t need to go into much detail, or any at all: they were revolutionaries, sure, but they were parents, too.
This is history that is infinitesimally small, a mote of dust swept up and away by currents beyond anyone’s control. Seryozha’s meanderings through New York did not set off the collapse of Russian empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the civil war and cold war and kids practicing how to hide under their desks at school. And yet this is the part of the story that stayed with me, an impossibly human moment lost amid the names and dates and battle lines and crumbled empires, perhaps because amid all the upheavals of the history, it is on these little motes of dust that we actually live, and no matter how much this cosmic broom sweeps it away, it is this dust that, in the end, matters.
Trotsky ends the chapter with a great shout-out to the city: “I only managed to catch the general life-rhythm of the monster known as New York. I was leaving for Europe, with the feeling of a man who has had only a peep into the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged. My only consolation was the thought that I might return. Even now I have not given up that hope.”
(You can read the chapter, or whole book, yourself–some Marxists still have it up online. Just remember that poking around in there might do some weird stuff to your Google ads.)
Her name wasn’t actually Mama Trotsky; she was Natalia Sedova, and the two boys took her last name. Trotsky, interestingly enough, also legally took her name, for the sake of convenience–easier to change one name than three–though he never actually used it publicly.↩