Leon Trotsky was exiled to Alma-Ata with his wife and son in January 1928, and stayed there just over a year before being sent to Turkey. Most of the chapter of ‘My Life: an Attempt at an Autobiography’ about this time is concerned with political and intellectual developments: he says himself he mostly sat at home during this time, and sent out over 800 letters. The following excerpt is attributed to his wife. Here we see a unique, but not entirely detailed portrait of Alma Ata still a provincial town; before the connection of the Turksib railroad (May 1930) and the transfer of Kazakh SSR government (1929), two events that would lead to the explosion in population from just 45,400 in 1926 to 456,000 thirty years later. The town’s remoteness is evident in this quote of one of his political enemies, upon hearing about Trotsky being sent to Almaty.”Even if he dies there, we won’t hear of it soon.”
…And now we found ourselves in our long journey without a single book, pencil or piece of paper. Before we left Moscow, Seryozha ha got us Semyonov-Tyanshansky’s book on Turkestan, a scientific work, and we were planning to acquaint ourselves while on the train with our future place of residence, of which we had but a vague conception. But Semyonov-Tyanshansky remained in the travelling-bag along with the rest of the luggage in Moscow. We sat int he car empty-handed, as if we were driving from one part of the city to another.
We arrived at Frunze (Pishpek (now Bishkek)) early in the morning. It was the last railway station. There was a biting frost. The sun’s rays pouring on the clean white snow blinded us. We were given felt boots and sheepskins…The autobus moved slowly over the creaking snow packed down by vehicles: the wind lashed our faces. After making some 30 kilometres, we stopped. It was dark…At dawn we set off again. Before us lay the most difficult part of the journey. We crossed the Kurday mountain range. Bitter cold. The weight of the clothes was unbearable – it was as if a wall had fallen down on one…
In the third hour after midnight, the car stopped in utter darkness. We had arrived. But where? We learned that is was Gogol Street, in front of the “Hotel Dzhetsya” (note: Zhetisu) – a hostelry unquestionably dating from Gogol’s time…For the first few days, LD (Lev Davidovich Trotsky) and I never left our room. Later on we began to go on short walks in the evening. All our connections with the outside world were through our son.
A fine thing in Alma Ata was the snow, white, clean and dry. As there was very little walking or driving, it kept its freshness all winter long. In the spring, it yielded to red poppies. Such a lot of them – like gigantic carpets! The steppes glowed red for miles around. In the summer there were applies – the famous Alma Ata variety, huge and also red. The town had no central waterworks, no lights, and no paved roads. In the bazaar in the centre of town, the Kirghizes sat in the mud at the doorsteps of their shops, warming themselves in the sun and searching their bodies for vermin. Malaria was rampant. There was also pestilence , and during the summer months an extraordinary number of mad dogs. The newspapers reported many cases of leprosy in this region.
In spite of this, we spend a good summer. We rented a peasant house from a fruit-grower up on the hills with an open view of the snow-capped mountains, a spur of the Tyan-Shan range. With the owner and his family, we watched the fruit ripen and took an active part in gathering it. The orchard was a picture of change. First the white bloom; then the trees grew heavy, with bending branches held up by props. Then the fruit lay in a motley carpet under the trees on straw mats, and the trees, rid of their burden, straightened their branches again. The orchard was fragrant with the ripe apples and pears; bees and wasps were buzzing. We were making preserves.
Thus we spent a year in Alma-Ata, a town of earthquakes and floods, at the foot of the Tyan-Shan range on the borders of china, 250 kilometres from the railway and 4,000 from Moscow, a year spent with letters, books and nature. Although we came across secret friends at every step (it is still too early to say more of this), we were outwardly isolated from the surrounding population, for every one who tried to get in touch with us was punished, sometimes very severely.
(From the 2007 Dover English Edition of ‘My Life’ by Leon Trotsky)