Trotsky’s last days

December 9, 2010

Joe Allen reviews a new book about Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

ON AUGUST 20, 1940, Ramón Mercader, an agent of Joseph Stalin's secret service, the NKVD, mortally wounded Leon Trotsky in his home just outside Mexico City. Trotsky died a day later.

Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, was the last of the Bolsheviks who tried to maintain a genuine revolutionary Marxist opposition to Joseph Stalin's monstrous dictatorship that arose as a counterrevolution to the 1917 establishment of a workers state.

For those interested in Trotsky's life and revolutionary activities, the three years leading up to his death in Mexico have never been fully documented until now. Bertrand Patenaude's Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is an extremely well researched and colorful history of Trotsky's final years.

It is a testament to Patenaude's skill as a writer that, even though we know the ending, his book has the feel of a tense political thriller that never loses the reader's interest--you keep turning the page hoping against hope that the inevitable doesn't happen.

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

Patenaude's Downfall opens with the failed assassination attempt on Trotsky's life on May 24, 1940, when a large group of Mexican Stalinists dressed as policemen and led by muralist David Siqueiros attacked Trotsky's home with machine guns and bombs.

Trotsky was in a deep sleep at 4 a.m. when he was awakened by what he thought were the sounds of firecrackers. "The explosions were too close, right here within the room, next to me to me and overhead," Trotsky recalled. "The odor of gunpowder became more acrid, more penetrating. Clearly, what we had always expected was now happening: we were under attack."

Hundreds of bullet holes filled the walls of Trotsky's bedroom. It was truly a miracle that anyone survived the attack.

The assassins were nearly successful because they had a man on the inside--Robert Harte, a 25-year-old art student from the U.S. He had infiltrated Trotsky's inner circle and let the attackers inside the compound. Harte was later found dead, murdered by his friends who wanted to leave no living witness to their crime. This wasn't the last time someone would infiltrate Trotsky's household with murderous plans.

PATENAUDE MOVES on to a broad overview of Trotsky's life, from commander of the Red Army to his fall from power to his forced exile from the Soviet Union. From there, things only got worse as Trotsky was subjected to an international slander campaign, which claimed that he was an agent of Hitler trying to destroy the Soviet Union. Stalin's foreign service and the local communist parties hounded him from one country to another.

Mexico became his temporary refuge largely through the efforts of the world famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who had recently resigned from the Mexican Communist Party. Lázaro Cárdenas, president of Mexico, granted asylum to Trotsky not only out of admiration for Trotsky as a revolutionary leader, but a cold political calculation to show the independence of his government from the Soviet Union and the local Communist Party.

Cárdenas also granted refuge to thousands of people who were forced to flee Spain after the defeat of Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Hundreds of these refugees were recruited to the NKVD for clandestine operations (murder, torture and intimidation) of revolutionary competitors to the Spanish Communist Party.

Among those recruited to the NKVD in Spain was a 23-year-old native of Barcelona--Ramón Mercader. Mercader successfully infiltrated Trotsky's household by becoming lovers with Sylvia Ageloff, a member of the Trotskyist movement from New York whom he met in Paris.

Trotsky was desperately vulnerable in the summer of 1940, as fewer people on his staff were experienced with the methods of NKVD. Ageloff was aware that Mercarder had used pseudonyms and had lied about his past to her friends, but she kept it to herself--all to the detriment of Trotsky.

There are a many great things about Patenaude's book that political sympathizers of Trotsky and history buffs of the period can get out of it. There is also a lot of original research in the book. As Patenaude told an interviewer last year:

The most fascinating collections I worked with were the papers of Trotsky's American secretaries and guards in Mexico. These collections, located at the Hoover Archives at Stanford, had never been researched for any previous books about Trotsky.

They allowed me to get up close to Trotsky the man--or the "Old Man," as his acolytes affectionately referred to him--and to present the aging revolutionary as a vulnerable human being, a not unsympathetic figure, however difficult and demanding he was with his family and staff.

Patenaude is a lecturer at Stanford University and a research fellow at the world famous conservative Hoover Institution. He taught for eight years in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and regularly reviews books in the Wall Street Journal.

Despite his institutional affiliations, he has something of an admiration of Trotsky, at the very least as a writer, historian and commentator. Patenaude describes Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution as "dazzling," and Literature and Revolution as "sparkling." But this is as far as Patenaude's sympathy for Trotsky goes.

Peppered though out the book are references to the Bolshevik Revolution as a "coup." In the interview referred to above, he declares, "Trotsky's own actions in creating and shaping the early Soviet regime helped paved the way for Stalin's totalitarian dictatorship." In a nutshell, Patenaude believes that the very machine that Trotsky created killed him.

While it isn't possible to debate the fate of the Bolshevik Revolution in this review, I think it worth saying that Trotsky and all of the leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin, understood that the fate of the Russian Revolution was intimately tied up with the spread of the workers' revolution to other advanced industrial countries. When that didn't occur, the nascent workers government degenerated into a new class society.

What murdered Trotsky wasn't a machine he created but a new class society that wanted to erase the last principled, living connection to the 1917 Revolution.

In the 70 years since his death, Trotsky's legacy has certainly faired better than that of Stalin, or the Western acolytes of the capitalist system. In spite of his political sympathies, Patenaude's Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is an important contribution to understanding the last years of the life of the great revolutionary.

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