An Overview:

It was early spring 1917, war was raging across Europe. The fight against Germany was made tougher by the fact the Russian government had just been overthrown. 300 years of Romanov rule suddenly ended with the abdication of the Tsar, Nicholas II.

An interim government tries to hold Russia together while maintaining the unpopular war effort against the Germans on the Eastern Front.

All over the world, exiled Russian activists of all stripes try to make their way back to Russia; back to participate in forming a new government; and for some, back to take Russia out of the war.

In Halifax, a steamer pulls into harbour for a short stop over from New York on it's way to Europe.

Acting on a tip, British naval officers board the steamer and scoop up a handful of Russians.

They were heading home to have a voice in the Russian revolution. This particular group was worrisome for the British. These were revolutionaries who would take Russia out of the war if given the chance.

The rumour was that one of them, Leon Trotsky, had been paid $10,000 by the Germans to head home and overthrow the Russian government.

Though it would take history to forge this tale, that April day Canada managed to intercept one of the Twentieth Century's most remarkable and least understood figures.

He didn't go easily, matter of fact he supposedly bit some of the soldiers as he was dragged by his hair off the ship. Trotsky had all the necessary papers needed to travel, it was the first, and perhaps only time, he would be arrested when he was on the right side of the law. His second wife Sedova and their two young sons, age 9 and 11, were also detained.

The men were hustled off the ship, loaded onto a train and sent to a Prisoner of War camp in Amherst, Nova Scotia.

The POW camp held over 850 prisoners. Some of them were innocent Ukrainians who had been working in Canada at the start of the war, but were now considered dangerous. The majority, however, were German sailors and their officers, captured at sea.

For the next month, Leon Trotsky would spend the days amongst the sailors, translating the local Halifax newspaper for them. At night, he shared a cramped building with 800 other prisoners of war.

Trotsky was outspoken about his conditions, he believed he didn't deserve to be in what he called a "concentration" camp. He complained at every opportunity.

Yet it wasn't all bad, the prisoners were confined, but they had some freedoms. Many of them worked on the railway, or cleared fields at the experimental farm. And the camp had a theatre troop, it offered people a chance to play in bands and there were tools for wood carving. In fact there are many wooden artifacts made by the POWS still scattered in homes throughout the Amherst area.

While Trotsky was in the Amherst camp, his wife Sedova and the two boys were in Halifax. At first they were sheltered in the home of the local police interpreter. Sedova was required to report daily to the police station. Eventually she was allowed to stay at a local hotel, but under the watch of the military.


Her time was spent writing letters to anyone she thought could pressure the British government to release her husband. She spared no venom in her words about the government and her hosts in Halifax.

Unfortunately for Sedova, the British weren't the only ones worried about Trotsky. When informed about his illegal arrest in Halifax, the Provisional Russian Government declined to request his release. They knew he would be trouble.

Leon was proving to be a handful for the POW camp guards too. He took every opportunity to lecture the sailors on politics and revolution.

He spoke in their own language and convinced many of them that even though their two countries were at war, actually they were allies in the larger class war. Their true enemies were the upper classes ... which included most officers. An excellent orator, Trotsky could easily turn the crowd with his rhetoric.

The German officers, worried that Trotsky was causing discipline to deteriorate, went to the camp commander, Colonel Arthur Henry Morris, and complained.

Colonel Morris, an Imperial Officer and veteran of the Boer War, ordered Trotsky to stop making any more speeches. This only served to enrage the sailors even more, and almost everyone of them signed a petition demanding Trotsky be allowed to speak.

Tensions grew and grew, until emotions boiled over.

In one heated meeting, the camp commander yelled at Trotsky and accused him of inciting a riot and not respecting authority. As tempers flared, Nova Scotia soldier Captain Carman Wightman, stepped in front of Trotsky, blocking a guard preparing to ram the Russian with a bayonet.

The argument with Colonel Morris earned Trotsky two weeks in the solid steel solitary confinement chamber.

By the end of April it seemed no one wanted Trotsky around any more. Not the people running the camp, and not the German officers. And the authorities in Halifax were just as weary of Sedova's relentless verbal assaults.

Finally the Provisional Russian Government bowed to growing pressure at home and unenthusiastically requested his release.

The two week sentence in solitary confinement only lasted two days, the fiery Russian walked out of his cell, out of the camp, and into the history books.

On April 29, the German sailors lined his path to the gates of the POW camp, to shake his hand and wish him well. Their band played the revolutionary anthem "Internationale"

The guards and officers were relieved to see him go.

The rumoured $10,000 Trotsky was supposed to be carrying was never found.

Trotsky was reunited with his family. He was put on another steamer bound for Europe. And set off on a journey which changed the face of Europe forever.

He arrived in Russia in time to help organize the October revolution, he was instrumental in establishing the communist government led by Lenin and almost single-handedly started the Red Army. He wasn't even 40 years old.

 


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