70 Following


Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary - Bertrand M. Patenaude ”Trotsky may have looked the part of the Red warlord, yet he had no military background. In fact as war commissar he rarely involved himself in questions of strategy or operations, leaving this to the experts. He reserved for himself the role of supreme agitator, and because he was as ruthless as he was ubiquitous, often resorting to bloodcurdling threats to achieve results, he acquired a reputation for brutality, most of all for his merciless treatment of deserters.”

photo YoungTrotsky_zpse1635070.jpg
Young Trotsky

Leon Trotsky born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein could have had the life of Joseph Stalin. He was a fiery, charismatic leader writing and giving many inspirational speeches before and after the “ten days that shook the world”. His mind was suited to figuring out vast global problems, but the details he had to leave to others. Unfortunately the details was what Joseph Stalin was really good at.

It really all started with the death of Lenin and a missed opportunity for Trotsky. He was out of Moscow when the funeral was to be held. ”In ten minutes he could have had a locomotive on the other end of the train and been on his way north to attend the funeral and make a funeral oration that might have crucial, and would certainly have been historic.” The crowd called out to every official that appeared in a great long coat. Trotsky is here. They were only expressing their hope because Trotsky never arrived. This situation was tailor made for him thousands of people assembled wanting to be inspired and we know that only Trotsky with his oratory ability could in the process of immortalize Lenin have the crowd resting in the palm of his hand. ”The smoke from the bonfires merged with the frozen breath of hundreds of thousands of people to produce an icy fog that hung over the square like a smoke sacrifice.”
It was a drama just waiting for the lead actor.

photo 4010356b-0cb3-44ee-b55c-b130f54f4906_zps4dd262f7.jpg
They wanted a Trotsky speech.

”’Stalin is our banner.’ Nikita Khrushchev cried. ‘Stalin is our will, Stalin is our victory.’”

Stalin had a way of tying men to him. It was not just through the use of threats. He was also very persuasive in one on one interactions. He methodically built the party around him one new ally at a time. While Trotsky was at his best when he was in front of crowds, the bigger the better. He was not at his best when dealing with people on a personal level. His family, though he loved them dearly, suffered through tantrums and coldness that left them shaken and feeling miserable. He could be very dismissive of friends and highly critical if they disagreed with him even on minor points. He was a man easy to love, but hard to like. ”In the time of revolutionary storm, he was the very concept of a hero, but in calmer times he could not bring two strong men to his side as friends and hold them there. He could no more build a party than a hen could build a house.”

Trotsky was deported in 1929. He was fortunate that Stalin did not feel comfortable having him killed. That would change.

photo Trotsky1937_zps2830094e.jpg
Frida Kahlo was there to greet Leon and Natalia when they arrived in Mexico

The story of this book really begins with the arrival of Trotsky in Mexico in 1937. Diego Rivera, a famous Mexican muralist, but rather cavalier communist, used his influence to give Trotsky a safe haven in Mexico. From that foreign shore Trotsky watched his family and friends be systematically killed by Stalin. He wasn’t alone. The Moscow show trials eliminated a generation of Bolsheviks and anyone that had ever been associated with them, but Trotsky was a special thorn in Stalin’s side. There was no way he could allow him to live because his pen and his voice were worth a thousand bombs

Alexandra Trotsky’s ex-wife was shot in 1938.
Both sons-in-laws shot in 1936
Olga Kameneva, his sister, shot in 1941
Her two sons, Trotsky’s nephews, shot in 1936
Alexander, his older brother, shot in 1938
Nina, his daughter, died from tuberculosis in 1928.
His grandchildren, in Russia, by his daughter Nina disappeared without a trace.
Lyova, his oldest son, died under mysterious circumstances in 1938
Zina, daughter, killed herself in 1933 after feeling rejected by her father.
Sergei, his youngest son, was shot in 1937.

He had to have many moments when he wondered if it was all really worth it.

photo FirdaKahlo_zps9a8d04a7.jpg
Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo married to Diego Rivera became very close with the Trotsky family, too close in fact because the result was an affair with Trotsky. ”It is no mystery why Trotsky was attracted to Frida Kahlo. The daughter of a German-Jewish immigrant father and a Mexican mother, at twenty-nine she was a striking and exotic beauty with black hair, audacious almond-shaped eyes beneath batwing eyebrows, and sensuous lips. She was even more attractive than contemporary photographs reveal, to judge by the testimony of the men who made her acquaintance in the late 1930s and were struck by her forceful personality, quick intelligence, and much more.” Despite having a polio withered leg and the what must have been chronic pain from an accident induced shattered pelvis, injured spine, and a crushed foot she was still sensual and sexy.

photo diegorivera_zps160a5f0a.jpg
Diego Rivera sometimes a jokester and sometimes just plain crazy.

Given the fact that her husband was instrumental in convincing Mexico to allow him entry this wasn’t the most prudent course of action. It drove his security team crazy not to mention the stress and strain it created for his loving and devoted wife Natalia. Diego Rivera was also prone to unexpected fits of jealousy which resulted in him waving a pistol and making wild claims about what he would do to the party that offended him. Diego would “embroider or invent out of whole cloth”. Frida frequently defended her husband saying his ”fabrications were products of his ‘tremendous imagination’’ She would also say: ”’I have never heard him tell a single lie that was stupid or banal.’” Well I do have to agree that intelligent, interesting lies are much more entertaining.

photo SiqueriosSelf-Portrait_zps393c8e94.jpg
Siqueiros Self-Portrait

The first attack on Trotsky in Mexico came from an unlikely source, a muralist painter named David Alfaro Siqueiros. He was considered one of the Big Three of the Mexican muralist movement along with Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. He was an ardent communist and a huge supporter of Stalin. Anita Brenner remarked of Siqueiros “that he did not distinguish between his artistic and his political endeavors, passing from one to another without noting a difference between a brush and a gun.” Luckily for Trotsky he proved to be a very inept assassin. Siqueiros along with a group of revolutionaries attacked the Trotsky compound shooting hundreds of bullets through the wooden structure, but hitting nothing. They left without insuring that Trotsky had been killed. This did set off a flurry of accusations that Trotsky had manufactured this attack to elicit sympathy. Given the circumstances and Trotsky’s grand standing personality I’m not surprised. This did encourage more funds from the Trotsky movement in the United States to be sent to strengthen his house and provide more security. Still security was lax because they used too many amateurs to provide protection, loyal communist followers rather than trained professionals, but also because Trotsky insisted that visitors not be subjected to body searches.

Ultimately it made it too easy.

photo RamonMercader_zpsf6f66d30.jpg
Ramon Mercader aka Jacques Morand aka Frank Jacson

I’m not going to go into how Roman Mercader, GPU (later called the KGB) assassin, wormed his way into the inner Trotsky circle because I don’t want to give away all of Bertrand Patenaude’s wonderful research. Even though I knew the result I was still holding my breathe when the critical moment happened. Mercader was able to hit Trotsky once with the ice pick/axe that he had concealed under his coat before Trotsky, a powerfully built individual, overpowered him and escaped from the room. Trotsky’s guards beat Mercader, but were stopped by Trotsky who wanted him interrogated. Trotsky lasted for more than a day, but the shock and the blood loss ultimately proved to be fatal.

This book concentrates on the Mexico years of Trotsky’s life, but to set the stage Patenaude does give us an overview of the revolution and Trotsky’s life leading up to exile. This proved very beneficial to me because I’m a bit underfed in regards to that era of Russian history. Patenaude also revealed to me Trotsky’s influence on the communist movement in the United States in which fractional disputes split the party into many fragments and by doing so made them fairly ineffective in American politics.

I have often thought that if Trotsky had been able to wrestle control from Stalin that the Russian people would have been better off. I’m not as sure now. I’m afraid that Trotsky might have been as paranoid as Stalin. One of his favorite things to say when he disagreed with someone was to inform them that they should be shot. Still we know how history evolved with Stalin it would be interesting to see where Russia would be today if Trotsky had provided the leadership instead of Stalin. Trotsky was a theoretician, with his head in the clouds most of the time imagining a future that had little resemblance to the present. I wonder just how long he could have hung on to power anyway.

photo LeonTrotsky_zpsa4efadde.jpg

”Trotsky could not disavow the USSR without also repudiating Red October, which would have meant renouncing his life’s work. Instead, as his prospects grew dim and as Stalin’s assassins closed in, he kept reaffirming his absolute faith in the dogma of Marxism and pointing toward a glorious Soviet future. ‘Optimism was all he really had.’”