The subtitle of Bertrande Patenaude’s Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary may be a little misleading, since the focus is not on Trotsky’s fall from power in revolutionary Russia during the 1920’s but on the last period of his life in exile in Mexico. Still, by skillful use of frequent flashbacks, Patenaude manages to recount much of Trotsky’s eventful life, including his loss of power to vengeful Joseph Stalin, from the perspective of the revolutionary’s last days.
Leon (or in Russian, “Lev”) Trotsky was a fascinating figure on the stage of history. Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein to a prosperous secular Jewish family, he became a revolutionary while still in his teens. Although initially a populist, he soon converted to Marxism and became a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, a faction of which eventually became the Communist Party. He took the name “Trotsky” from one of his jailors under the czarist regime. Fiercely intelligent and formidably self-educated, Trotsky was known to his comrades as “The Pen” because of his skills as a writer. Trotsky was also probably the greatest orator among the Russian revolutionaries.
Although Trotsky worked closely with Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the two men came into conflict at the beginning of the twentieth century. Lenin wanted to centralize the activities of the Social Democrats and to place party activities in the hands of a vanguard of professional revolutionaries. Trotsky supported those who advocated broader representation within the party. Lenin was successful in achieving his form of organization, and the party split into the Bolsheviks (or “majoritarians”), who followed Lenin’s approach, and the Mensheviks (or “minoritarians”). By 1904, Trotsky had distanced himself from the Mensheviks, but he still played an ambiguous role between the two factions.
In the 1905 uprising against the czar’s government, Trotsky became first vice-chairman and then later chairman of the soviet (or“council”) of workers of St. Petersburg. His fiery speeches helped make him one of the radical leaders in the revolution of 1917, and he played a central part in the Bolshevik seizure of power. During the civil war that followed, Trotsky showed organizational genius when he shaped the Red Army into a force that could hold power for the Bolsheviks.
All these historical events were in the past at the time portrayed in the opening of Patenaude’s book, as a ship carried Trotsky from Norway to Mexico. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky had lost the struggle for power to Joseph Stalin. Exiled first to Soviet Central Asia, then to Turkey, then to France before reaching Norway, Trotsky was welcome almost nowhere thanks to Stalin’s anger. As leader of the communist world, Stalin had the power to make his enemy a pariah in almost any place. Still, even in exile Trotsky held a fascination, and explaining that fascination is one of Patenaude’s chief concerns. If being Stalin’s enemy made Trotsky an outcast, it also helped make Trotsky a figurehead for those who were attracted to communism but opposed to Stalin’s brutality. Trotsky’s brilliance and literary skills appealed to intellectuals. Trotsky has, in addition, drawn sympathy as a victim of Stalinist persecution who suffered intensely when all of his children were murdered by the Soviet Union or Stalin’s agents.
As Patenaude relates, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was one of those drawn to Trotsky. Rivera was never sophisticated in his political thinking, but he had troubles with the Mexican Communist Party, and he reacted by declaring himself a Trotskyist. The artist convinced Mexico’s leftist but independent president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to offer the beleaguered exile sanctuary, since Norway had given in to Russian pressure to expel Trotsky, who was in danger of being returned to Russia for lack of a place to which to flee. Much of Patenaude’s story deals with the complicated relationship of Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, with Rivera and Rivera’s artist wife, Frida Kahlo. The tangle of high-powered personalities became even more problematic when Kahlo and Trotsky had an affair. Rivera may or may not have learned of the affair, but it seems to have contributed greatly to Trotsky’s decision to end his period as a guest in Rivera’s home, a development that made him more vulnerable to Stalin’s agents abroad.
Much of Patenaude’s examination of Trotsky’s last years concerns the complicated interpersonal relations of the exiled revolutionary and those around him, especially Rivera and Kahlo. Trotsky emerges as a difficult and idiosyncratic...
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