Delayed on the way to destiny: Trotsky in Halifax

Halifax ignored a truly bizarre anniversary earlier this year and it has nothing to do with Canada’s sesquicentennial.
One hundred years ago as the First World War raged, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, his wife Natalya and their young children Leyova and Sergei, spent a month detained in Nova Scotia. Bronstein would become better known as Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, People’s Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs of the Soviet Union.
When Czar Nicolas II abdicated and the Russians established a provisional government under Prime Minister Prince Lvov in March 1917, Trotsky was living in exile in New York, having worn out his welcome in numerous European capitals.
Deported from Spain on Christmas Day 1916, he arrived in the Bronx in January 1917. With the change in government, Trotsky made plans to return to Russia immediately. He got the necessary passports and visas at the Russian Consul General in New York City. The family departed aboard the Norwegian steamship Kristianfjord on March 27. Three days later they laid up in Bedford Basin to await the rest of their transatlantic convoy.
British intelligence was aware of Trotsky’s arrival. An intelligence source in New York City informed his handler that Trotsky had departed for St. Petersburg with $10,000 from American supporters. The Naval Intelligence Division ordered the Naval Control Officer in Halifax, Royal Navy Captain O.M. Makins, to detain Trotsky, his family and five other Russian socialists traveling with them.
The military authorities weren’t anxious for a leading communist revolutionary and committed opponent of the war to be active and organizing in the heart of their ally. They feared, correctly, that a future Bolshevik government might sign a separate peace with the Germans.
Claude Dansey, the British civilian intelligence officer in Halifax disagreed with the proposed intervention. He distrusted the informant and suspected he was an agent provocateur. He also questioned the legality of detaining Trotsky. However, his boss William Wiseman, New York station chief, insisted the informant was trustworthy and concurred with NID’s decision to take the Russians into custody. On Tuesday, April 3 authorities took Trotsky and the rest of his group from the SS Kristianfjord.
Authorities didn’t arrest them; they interned them. The distinction is important. They were never charged with an offence because they hadn’t committed one. They were citizens of Russia, an allied power, travelling on legitimate Russian passports with all their travel documents in order. The detention was illegal. Trotsky was furious.
“The whole business was so offensive, so clearly a discrimination against the Russian revolutionaries, in contrast to the treatment accorded to other passengers not so unfortunate as to belong to a nation allied to England,” he recalled in his autobiography.
Trotsky’s family was billeted with the Navy’s Russian translator, David Horowetz, and later in a Halifax Hotel. Trotsky and the other Russians went to the Amherst Internment Camp. His greeting there fuelled his anger. He compared it unfavourably to treatment in the Czar’s prisons.
“We were put through an examination the like of which I had never before experienced, even in the Peter and Paul fortress,” he recalled. “For in the Czar’s fortress the police stripped me and searched me in privacy, whereas here our democratic allies subjected us to this shameful humiliation before a dozen men.”
Trotsky would later describe the dilapidated camp in his autobiography. “The Amherst concentration camp was located in an old and very dilapidated iron foundry that had been confiscated from its German owner. The sleeping bunks were arranged in three tiers, two deep, on each side of the hall. About 800 of us lived in these conditions. The air in this improvised dormitory at night can be imagined.”
Of the camp’s prisoners, “500 were sailors from German boats sunk by the British; about 200 were workers caught by the war in Canada, and a hundred more were officers and civilian prisoners of the bourgeois class,” in Trotsky’s estimation.
An experienced revolutionary, familiar with prison, Trotsky immediately began organizing and “the whole month I was there was like one continuous mass meeting.” Trotsky arranged seminars, workshops, and discussion groups. He took to reading the only permitted material, a Halifax newspaper, aloud, simultaneously translating the stories into German or Russian for his fellow prisoners.
In a backhanded compliment, Amherst’s second in command, Captain F.C. Whitmore said, “he gave us a lot of trouble at the camp, and if he had stayed much longer…would have made communists of all the German prisoners.”
Colonel Arthur Henry Morris, the camp’s CO, eventually issued an order barring Trotsky from public speaking, and when it failed, put Trotsky in solitary confinement. Colonel Morris was relieved of his burden when the Russian government finally demanded his release.
Trotsky, his family, and his comrades resumed their journey to
St. Petersburg and history. He would be a central figure in the Russian Civil War and the new U.S.S.R. government. In the late 1920s, he had a falling-out with Stalin and party leadership, returning to international exile. In 1940, Soviet assassins murdered him in Mexico City.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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