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’