Escape from Siberia

Unknown artist, Leon Trotsky, s/d


Presentation of Leo Trotsky's book


In August 2020, eighty years after the assassination of Leo Davídovitch Bronstein, Trotsky, at the hands of the Stalinist agent Ramón Mercader, I received a surprising number of interview requests, invitations to write articles and requests to participate in round tables on this topic. historical fact. At the same time, I received from different parts of the world, especially from Latin American countries, various informative materials dedicated to remembering and analyzing, with the perspective of time passed, the crime of August 20, 1940 in the house of the exiled prophet , in the Mexican administrative region of Coyoacán.

What historical curiosity, what claim to the present could have provoked that renewed and intense interest in the figure of Leo Trotsky almost a century after his death? In a globalized, digitalized world, polarized in the worst way, dominated by unbridled and triumphant liberalism and, to top it off, ravaged by a pandemic of biblical proportions that put (and still puts) the destiny of humanity into question, what would be the explanation for the expectation of rescuing the fate of a Soviet revolutionary from the last century who, certainly, was the loser in a political and personal dispute that was intended to end with his assassination?

What could the crime of 1940 and the figure of the victim of a furious coup ordered by the Soviet Kremlin tell us at this point – in these historical and social coordinates? Would Leo Trotsky and his thoughts still have the vigor, the ability to transmit something useful to our turbulent present, three decades after the end of the Soviet Union that he helped to found?

The observation that certain theories, politics and art of those times still feel called by the vital adventures and philosophical and political contributions of Leo Davidovitch Trotsky may have a first corollary (and many others). And this first elucidation perhaps affirms (at least I think) that, defeated in the political arena, the exile became a battered victor in the historical dispute projected for the future; from the latter, unlike his killers, he emerged as a symbol of resistance, coherence and, even, for his followers, as the incarnation of a possible realization of utopia.

And this peculiar process happened not only because of the way he was murdered, but certainly also for the same reasons that led Ióssif Stalin to physically liquidate him, and Stalinists around the world to erase him even from photos, historical studies and academic reports. A Stalin and some Stalinists who – it is always worth repeating – not only executed the person of Leo Trotsky and tried to do the same with his ideas, but also, with blows of socialist authoritarianism, took charge of liquidating the possibility of a more just society, democratic and free movement that, at a certain point, people like Leo Davidovitch set out to found.

The same Leo Davidovitch who, in 1905, as a young man who had just left the Menshevik party, went so far as to say: “for the proletariat, democracy is in all circumstances a political necessity; For the capitalist bourgeoisie, it is in certain circumstances a political inevitability”…1 key phrase that, put into practice, would perhaps have changed the destiny of humanity.


We are not surprised, then, that the rescue and publication of a text by Leo Davidovitch (or Leon Trotsky) provokes justified interest. After all, within the extensive bibliography of the man who even wrote a detailed autobiography (My life, published in 1930, a work that ends with the episode of his exile in the eastern Soviet Union, the beginning of his definitive exile), the pages of Escape from Siberia (in the original, Everything and thank you; i.e, Round trip) serve to give us the weapons of a young writer and revolutionary whose image, so well known, is further outlined with this curious work.

This because Escape from Siberia, published in 1907 under the pseudonym of N. Trotsky by the publisher Chipóvnik, is a book that, due to the proximity between the events narrated and its writing – due to the historical situation in which such events occur, the age and degree of political commitment of its author in the moment of living what he narrates and immediately deciding to record it – he offers us a young Leo Trotsky almost in his purest state. In all its facets: that of the politician, that of the writer, that of the man of culture and, above all, that of the human being.

Therefore, from now on, it seems necessary to warn me that the pages of Escape from Siberia narrate the personal and dramatic story of Davidovitch's second exile to the penal colonies of Siberia (his first deportation, between 1900 and 1902, was a period of political and philosophical growth from which he emerged stronger and even under the pseudonym of Trotsky, for which he would soon become known) and the tremendous adventures of his almost immediate escape, this time in the winter of 1907.

A whole adventure lived as a result of the so-called “Soviet Affair”, when the author, along with fourteen other deputies, was tried and sentenced to deportation for an indefinite period and the loss of civil rights2 as a result of the events that occurred in Saint Petersburg involving the creation and functioning of the Council, or Soviet, of Workers' Delegates, led by Trotsky himself during its weeks of existence, in the last months of the troubled year of 1905.

The text, then, takes us back to a time when the political and philosophical life of its author was at the center of the debates that would define the directions along which, later, his revolutionary thought and action would move, exalted by the dizzying experience of the first Soviet in history, in 1905, matured in the fruitful exile that he would live from 1907 onwards and materialized in the October Revolution of 1917, during which he would again be a protagonist. And from this trajectory he emerges as one of the central figures in the political process that led to the founding of the Soviet Union and the always controversial establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Leo Davidovitch of these moments is the impulsive, wild-haired revolutionary who, according to his renowned biographer Isaac Deutscher, “[…] symbolized the highest degree of “maturity” hitherto achieved by the [revolutionary] movement in its broader aspirations: to formulating the objectives of the revolution, Trotsky went further than Martov or Lenin and was therefore better prepared for an active role in the uprising. An infallible political instinct led him, at the appropriate moments, to the sensitive points and focus of the revolution […].”3

At this point, we also see the thinker who immediately writes Balance and prospects, his main work of the period, in which he presents the fundamental statements of future Trotskyism, including the theory of Permanent Revolution.4 In these pages, Leo Trotsky himself warns, with the political lucidity that often (not always) accompanies him: “In the time of its dictatorship, [...] [the working class] will have to cleanse its mind of false theories and bourgeois experience and purge its ranks of political sound bites and backward-looking revolutionaries. […] But this complicated task cannot be resolved by placing a few chosen people above the proletariat […] or a person invested with the power to liquidate and degrade.”5

the pages of Escape from Siberia, however, do not become a political speech, nor a work of propaganda or reflection: they report, above all, the personal and dramatic story (compiled very succinctly in My life) that offers us an observant, profound, human, sometimes ironic Trotsky, who examines his surroundings and expresses a mood or takes a photograph of an environment that, without a doubt, reveals itself to be extreme, exotic, almost inhuman.


Conceived in two clearly distinct parts (“Ide” and “Return”), the testimony of these experiences follows the entire process of displacement until the exile of Leo Trotsky and the other fourteen people condemned for their leading role in the 1905 Revolution. covers from leaving the prison of the Peter and Paul Fortress, in Saint Petersburg, on January 3, 1907 (where he dedicated himself to writing throughout the year 1906), until his arrival in the village of Beriózov, on January 12 February 1907, the penultimate stop on a journey that was to end there, where the sentence would be carried out, in the remote town of Obdorsk,6 site situated several degrees north of the Circle

Polar Arctic, more than 1.500 versts from the nearest railway station and 800 versts from a telegraph station, according to the writer himself.

Then, and with a visible change in style and narrative conception, the book tells, always in the first person, the chronicle of Trotsky's escape from Beriózov (where he manages to remain, pretending to be ill, while his companions move on). With your smart7 guide, from there he continues in a southwest direction, in search of the first railway station in the Ural mining zone, to complete his return to Saint Petersburg, from where he leaves for exile where, a few months later, he would have his first meeting – the one that perhaps he decided his destiny from the first moment – ​​with the former seminarian Ióssif Stalin.

The first element that singularizes the conception of Escape from Siberia lies in the fact that the first half is organized based on the letters that Trotsky wrote to his wife, Natália Sedova, over forty exhausting days, while he made the journey to exile with his companions. This epistolary strategy, almost like a travel diary written in real time, defines the style and meaning of the text, as what is narrated reflects a recently experienced reality in which there is no possible knowledge about the future, as would have happened with the writing evocative of what is already known.

The report, which begins with a letter dated January 3, 1907, when Trotsky and his fellow prisoners were transferred to the provisional prison in Saint Petersburg, extends to the letter of February 12, written in Beriózov, where, On the advice of a doctor, the author fakes an attack of sciatica to stay there and try to escape.

During all this time and journey, which begins by train (at the end of January, in the town of Tyumen) and continues on horse-drawn sleighs, Leo Trotsky and the other condemned men are unaware of both the destination assigned to them and when they will reach it, This is why an expectation close to suspense is created. As expected when dealing with correspondence that could be searched, at no point does the author reveal his escape plans, even though he talks about the predictable escapes of convicts, which occurred with great frequency. “To get an idea of ​​the percentage of escape, one must take into account that, of the 450 exiles from a certain part of the province of Tobolsk, only about 100 remained. Only the lazy do not flee”, he comments in one passage. However, Leo Trotsky does not fail to point out the levels of surveillance that the departure of prisoners was subject to, with a ratio that could reach three guards per inmate, which made any escape attempt almost impossible.

The epistolary style of the text's entire plot is peppered with descriptions, reflections, evocations, but it fundamentally constitutes a summary of facts and notes of the exhaustive and slow progress, which the writer defines as a daily descent of “one more step towards the kingdom of cold and savagery”, by regions of the tundra or Siberian taiga where it is considered that “the cold is not intense” at “−20 c, −25 c, −30 c. About three weeks ago it reached −52 c”.

The argumentative and stylistic turn observed in the narrative since the letter written by Beriózov is 180 degrees: from the epistle we move to the report, from the present recorded in the form of a chronicle we move to the narrated or described past, from uncertainty and suspense it moves towards expectation and remembrance of what has already been experienced, from there it goes on to return with an outcome known to the reader: the success of the escape.

The narrative of the first part, choppy, punctuated, as if distant or simply more objective, becomes from that point onwards tense and intense, detained and dramatic, while an escape unfolds that can always be interrupted by a pursuer, which adds another touch of suspense to the story. Leo Trotsky appears more observant, detailed, sometimes even ironic and very interested in what he sees throughout a journey full of adventures. However, the fugitive placed his fate in the hands of a truly pantagruelic character: the Russified Zyrian Nikifor Ivanovitch, as drunk as most of the inhabitants of this region of Siberia.

In the description of the eleven days during which they advance hundreds of kilometers through the tundra, Leo Trotsky gives an account of his impressions regarding the natural and human landscape he encounters along the way, each of them extreme in their behavior and nature.

If the simple presentation of the landscapes of the taiga, an area of ​​unbearable temperatures, is revealing, more interesting is the review he gives of the types and customs observed, of the members of Ziriaan, Ostiac or Mansi villages, among whom not only alcoholism and epidemics, but also a social and civil alienation that makes them victims of circumstances – including geography and their historical time – and even indicates the possibility of their extinction as independent ancestral cultures.

In this memory, Trotsky notes in passing paragraphs like this: “The Ostiacians are terribly lazy, all the work is done by the women. And that’s not just when it comes to household chores: it’s not uncommon to find an ostiac going out armed to hunt squirrels and sables.”

He also records discoveries like this: “I talk to them through Nikifor, who speaks Russian, Zyrian and two Osthian dialects with the same fluency: “high” and “low”, almost completely different from each other. The Ostiacs here don't speak a word of Russian. However, Russian swear words have completely entered the Ostian language and, together with vodka, constitute the most indisputable contribution to the state culture of Russification. Amid the obscure sounds of the Ostian language, in a place where the Russian word is not known zdrávstvui [hello], a familiar obscenity suddenly flashes like a bright meteor, pronounced without the slightest accent, perfectly clear.”

And he makes notes like this: “I noticed that, in general, Ostia children are graceful. But why, then, are adults so ugly?”

At the same time, it draws attention to the character of other important characters in these parts: the reindeer. The discreet and resistant reindeer that pull the sleds, giving them back their freedom. “Reindeer are incredible creatures: they don’t feel hungry or tired. They didn't eat anything for a day until our departure, and soon it will be another day without eating. According to Nikífor's explanation, they have just “picked up the pace”. They regularly run about eight or ten versts an hour, without getting tired. Every ten or fifteen versts, a stop is made for two or three minutes so that the reindeer can recover; then they continue. This stage is called the “reindeer race”, and, as no one here counts versts, the distance is measured in terms of runs. Five races they are equivalent to about sixty, seventy versts.”

These fascinating reindeer, together with the uncontrollable Zyrian Nikifor and other drunken Ostiacs and Mansis, allow Leo Davidovitch to reach the mining zone of the Urals safely, from there escape to Saint Petersburg and then go into exile. The return took place, with surprises and annoyances, but with success in its objectives.

Escape from Siberia emerges as an unexpected crack that allows us to probe the intimate personality of the full-time political and revolutionary man and his relationships with the human condition. It constitutes, moreover, a sample of his literary abilities (it was not for nothing that at one time he was nicknamed “The Pen”) and, to conclude, its publication could constitute a tribute to the memory of a thinker, writer and fighter murdered more than eighty years ago. years that, in today's unbelieving world, still make some think that utopia is possible. Or, at least, necessary.

* Leonardo Padura is a Cuban writer. Author, among other books, of The romance of my life (Boitempo). []


Leo Trotsky. Escape from Siberia. Translation: Letícia Mei. São Paulo, Ubu, 2023, 160 pages. []


[1] Apud Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky: The armed prophet (1879-1921), trans. Waltensir Dutra. Rio de Janeiro: Brazilian Civilization, 1968, p. 134.

[2] Two or three years earlier, the additional punishment of 45 lashes had been removed.

[3] I. Deutscher, Trotsky, op. cit., p. 132; trans. modify.

[4] Ibid., p. 166.

[5] Apud ibid., p. 105.

[6] Current Salekhard, capital of the Iamalo-Nenetsie autonomous district, in Tyumen. [No. T.]

[7] Adjective derived from the noun in Spanish “grotesque”: “grotesque or extravagant person, thing or situation”; Royal Spanish Academy, Spanish dictionary (online). [No. T.]

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