Born Lev Bronshtein on 7 November 1879 in the village of Yanovka in the Ukraine, Leon Trotsky, the son of a prosperous Jewish farmer, became involved in politics from a young age. Arrested in 1898, Trotsky was exiled to Siberia where he married and had two daughters, both of whom predeceased him. In 1902, he escaped exile using a forged passport bearing the name Trotsky, the name, he later claimed, of a prison guard he had met in Odessa. He made his way to London where, for the first time, he met Vladimir Lenin and joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Following the split of the RSDLP, Trotsky’s loyalty floated between the two factions, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, often repudiating any party ties and holding a stance of non-allegiance. He opposed Lenin on many issues, a stance that was later held against him.
Following the outbreak of disturbances throughout Russia in 1905, Leon Trotsky arrived in St Petersburg and there joined its council of workers, or ‘Soviet’, becoming its chair until its forced break-up by tsarist troops in December. Trotsky, along with other leaders, was arrested and again sentenced to exile in Siberia. But en route, he escaped and made his way to London before settling in Vienna where he founded and wrote a newspaper for Russia’s workers, Pravda, ‘Truth’, earning the nickname, ‘the Pen’, for his writing. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Trotsky, as a Russian, was forced to leave Austria. He lived in Paris until, expelled for his anti-war writings, he emigrated to Spain and then New York, arriving in January 1917.
Trotsky returned to Russia and Petrograd (as St Petersburg was now known) in March 1917 and became, in effect, Lenin’s second-in-command as the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and set up a new socialist order. (Trotsky turned 38 the day of the October Revolution.)
In forming the Council of People’s Commissars, Russia’s new government, Lenin initially offered the post of chair, in effect head of state, to Leon Trotsky but Trotsky declined the offer, fearing being a Jew could cause difficulties in a country that was still strongly anti-Semitic. Instead, Trotsky was appointed the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.
Following Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War, Trotsky was appointed War Commissariat, responsible for strengthening and injecting much-needed discipline into the Red Army. His use of former officers of the tsar’s imperial army caused much disquiet within the party, Joseph Stalin being particularly critical, and was another tool later used against him.
‘The most capable man’
Trotsky seemed the natural successor to Lenin. In Lenin’s ‘Testament’, he was described as having ‘outstanding ability’ and ‘perhaps the most capable man in the present Central Committee’ but was prone, according to Lenin, of displaying ‘excessive self-assurance’. But Trotsky’s succession was blocked by a troika consisting of Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev. Trotsky greatly underestimated Stalin, once referring to him as ‘an excellent bit of mediocrity’.
Following Lenin’s death in January 1924, Stalin ensured he was centre place during the funeral arrangements and the funeral itself. Trotsky had been ill and was recovering in a resort in the Caucasus and Stalin’s telegram to him purposefully gave the wrong date for the funeral.
Trotsky was increasingly marginalised by the party to the point in January 1925, he was relieved of his ministry. Zinoviev and Kamenev, two-thirds of the troika, themselves fell out with Stalin and belatedly joined forces with Trotsky. In October 1927, Trotsky was expelled from the Central Committee and the following month from the Communist Party altogether.
In January 1928, Trotsky was exiled to Kazakhstan and finally banished from the Soviet Union altogether in February 1929. After four years in Turkey, two years in France and two in Norway, Trotsky settled in Mexico. For a while, he lived in the house of the artist Diego Rivera and, while there, had an affair with Rivera’s wife and fellow artist, Frida Kahlo. Meanwhile, Moscow hosted the first of the infamous Show Trials in which old Bolsheviks, such as Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, confessed to various anti-state conspiracies and having acted under the instructions of Trotsky. All were sentenced to death, including Trotsky who was found guilty in absentia.
In May 1940, Trotsky survived a raid on his house in Mexico, in which his 25-year-old assistant was murdered, but he was less fortunate three months later. On 20 August, he was attacked at home by an undercover Soviet agent, Ramón Mercader. Fatally wounded by a head wound caused by an ice pick, Leon Trotsky died in hospital the following day.
Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.
Also, gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century.