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Trotsky Biography

Trotsky Biography

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Published by: tuffstuff49 on Feb 10, 2010
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October 21, 2009
Trotsky at last
Finally, there is a biography of this dangerous genius written by a non-Trotskyist
Donald Rayfield
In an idyllic one-acre olive grove that slopes down to the sunset and the sea,
on Büyük Ada, the largest of the beautiful and well
-policed Prinkipo islands just a ferry ride fromthe centre of Istanbul, stands a villa that once belonged to Sultan Abdul Hamid II
s head of security. This was the sanctuary
that Atatürk assigned in 1929 to Leon Trotsky,
his second wife Natalya and his elder son Lyova. The pyromania of Trotsky
s daughter Zina and the ravages of time since he left Turkey in 1933 have left the villa a wreckwith neither floors nor roof. (Long the subject of a disputed inheritance, it has now come on to the market at an asking price of one million dollars: it would make an idealrest home for retired or reformed Trotskyists.) It is
regrettable that Trotsky left Büyük Ada for France, for the NKVD never succeeded in assassinating anyone in Atatürk’
sTurkey, and Trotsky could have lived there, writing his best books and catching fish, until he died of natural causes. But then, Bertrand M. Patenaude
s wonderful bookwould never have been written, had not Trotsky sought the limelight in France and then been corralled by Soviet pressure into his Mexican bolthole, where he was almost aseasy to kill as the partridges he himself had once hunted in the Caucasus.Patenaude focuses on the Mexican period of Trotsky
s exile, from January 1937 to August 1940, although the previous stages of his exile
 –
Kazakhstan in 1928, thenTurkey for four years, France for another three, followed by internment in Norway
 –
are dealt with in a series of flashbacks. In fact, the whole book is written as if Trotsky in
Coyoacán were recalling his past,
from his prosperous farmer
s boyhood to his underground militancy, his Civil War military brilliance and his blundering incompetence as aBolshevik power-broker. The danger that Patenaude flirts with, like all Trotsky biographers, is to let Trotsky
s charisma and undoubted genius charm him into overlooking hissubject
s indifference to the suffering and deaths of others, sometimes even of those close to him, as well as his overweening conceit. By dealing with the last phase of thetragedy, nemesis, Trotsky is seen to pay in fear, resignation and personal loss a price that may not have been commensurate with the destruction of life that he himselfcaused between 1918 and 1922, but that certainly contrasted with the relative impunity of Lenin and Stalin.Only Vladimir Nabokov might have written a more compelling account of Trotsky
s end (and its relationship to his beginnings). A dethroned Russian in exile, waiting for hiskiller to come from the homeland even while he is desperately trying to complete his biography of the killer (Stalin), is life imitating Pale Fire, Invitation to a Beheading orBend Sinister. Only Humbert Humbert's murder of Quilty can match the sheer incompetence of the first attempt to murder the Trotskys. A group of Stalinists led bySiqueiros, the rival mural painter to Diego Rivera, Trotsky
s protector, is let in by a young American traitor, rakes all the bedrooms with machine-gun fire but fails to see thatthe Trotskys, hiding under their bed, have survived unscathed. This is followed by clumsy success (almost requiring Trotsky
’s collusion) in which the NKVD agent Ramón
Mercader, posing as a French Canadian sympathizer, despite a dubious French accent, enters the study unchallenged, wearing a hat and a raincoat on a Mexicansummer
s day, and hits Trotsky on the head with the wrong side of an icepick. Patenaude
s narrative skill keeps a wry smile, rather than a wicked grin, on the reader
s face.Trotsky had qualities, however, which emerge in both these books. First, his passions were sexual as well as political. A man who can, when sick, tired and sixty, write alove letter to his wife in terms as obscenely primitive as Trotsky
s cannot fail to arouse admiration. Secondly, Trotsky was a genuine writer: when he set aside party doctrineor factionalism and wrote about his and others
lives, he wrote as vividly as the classics of Russian literature (whether or not he was lying). In both respects, he differssharply from both Lenin and Stalin. Thirdly, Trotsky was a tragic hero who even Christopher Marlowe would surely have felt had fully atoned. His siblings and his four childrenall died before him, some from Stalin
s bullets, most hurried to their death by oppression and despair; eight of his secretaries were murdered. Perhaps worse for him, he wasexpunged from Soviet history and, as the Second World War loomed and Trotskyism seemed an irrelevance everywhere, he became not just the
prophet outcast
(as IsaacDeutscher entitled the third volume of his biography), but a gramophone weakly echoing agreement with Stalin
s most monstrous actions: dividing Poland, invading Finland.Patenaude
s book is an ideal place to start on Trotsky, whose sixty years were packed with so many ideas and peripeteias that they are, like a labyrinth, best approachedfrom the end, rather than the beginning. It has only two faults: the title implies that Trotsky could have been
Stalin
s Nemesis
, whereas we soon realize, even more quicklyperhaps from Robert Service
s book, that Trotsky was never a threat to Stalin. His fatal flaw was to assume that the taciturn, half-educated Stalin was a less accomplishedpupil of Machiavelli than the eloquent polyglot Trotsky. The second fault is a lack of illustrations: we have the familiar pictures of Trotsky petting his rabbits (which seemstouching, until we are told that the rabbits were the basis of Natalya
s cuisine
 –
at least Stalin never ate the squirrels he so assiduously cared for at his dacha), but we haveno picture of the killers,
not even of Ramón Mercader (whom Service includes in his illustrations). The
organizers of the assassination, Iosif Grigulevich and Leonid (Naum)Eitingon, as well as Mercader
s mother Caridad, who offered up her son for the job, all have striking, even frightening faces, but the reader will have to seek them on Google.Patenaude
s research is thorough, but he has failed, like other researchers, to get Eitingon
s descendants (of whom a number, by various wives, are still alive) to talk of theirnotorious father
s exploits, and the Trotsky files in the NKVD and GRU (military intelligence) archives remain out of reach.Robert Service
s Trotsky is, as the author points out, the first full biography to be written by a non-Trotskyist. Trotsky
s My Life is by far the most readable, but it is self-serving, to say the least. Deutscher
s three volumes, The Prophet Armed (1954), The Prophet Unarmed (1959) and The Prophet Outcast (1963), are such a sympathetic,well-written and politically literate monument that they have hitherto inhibited other Western historians from superseding them. But despite the 1,600 pages of his magnumopus and his encyclopedic knowledge, Deutscher himself was infected with Trotskyism and underplayed the sheer murderousness of the man. There is no reason tosuppose that, had Trotsky outwitted Stalin and managed to seize power, he would have murdered fewer peasants or bourgeois. Given his belief in exporting revolution,Trotsky might well have plunged Eastern Europe and China into war a decade before Hitler. Service never lets his reader forget Trotsky
s callousness, and rightly so: on thefew occasions that Trotsky worked in conjunction with Stalin
 –
suppressing the Orthodox Church, deporting dissident intellectuals
 –
he equalled or even exceeded theGeorgian in ruthlessness. Some of the worst aspects of the Soviet system, such as the use of military force to exterminate rebellious starving peasants, or the exploitationof concentration camp inmates for hard labour, were devised by Trotsky. Like Lenin, but unlike Stalin, Trotsky did refrain from killing people he was on intimate terms with,but since he used the intimate form of the verb with very few persons indeed, this barely mitigates his crimes.Trotsky is surprisingly easy to read, given the twists and turns of revolutionary socialism in the twenty years it took Trotsky and his comrades to move from theory topractice. Service
s secret is to use more full stops than any other leading historian, and the book has clearly been written with attention-deficient undergraduates in mind.While Patenaude can be read in a sitting, Service can be read in sizeable but digestible chunks. If Service
s prose lacks Deutscher
s brilliance, it has a no-nonsense clarity,even jocularity about it. For Service, as for Dmitri Volkogonov before him, Trotsky is the final part of a triptych, and you can sense the author
s enjoyment as he completeshis heroic task.Service and Patenaude have availed themselves of the records of hundreds of encounters in many languages with Trotsky. Some Westerners, such as the philosopher JohnDewey, who oversaw Trotsky
s public response to Stalin
s charges, saw deeply into Trotsky
s mind:
He was tragic . . . . To see such brilliant native intelligence locked up inabsolutes
. Service, in particular, has had access to rather more material than was available to Deutscher. Some sources, like letters from Stalin
s minions to friends in theCaucasus, show that Trotsky, without knowing it, lost the battle to Stalin even before Lenin died. His hypochondria (nobody has given a convincing diagnosis of his faintingfits) and his love of hunting made it only too easy for Stalin to inveigle him into a holiday in the Caucasus just when the comrades in Moscow were dividing up the spoils ofpower. His lack of interest in reading others
minds led him to make the fatal mistake (one not weighed by either biographer) of being offhand to both Dzerzhinsky andMenzhinsky, the heads of the secret police, who then swung their men (fighters and killers naturally sympathetic to Trotsky) behind Stalin, as the leader who wouldguarantee the secret police years of work exterminating enemies. It was unbelievable to the Trotskyists of the 1920s that their man should not triumph as Lenin
ssuccessor. Six foot tall and with a superb sense of style, Trotsky had gifts as a public speaker and political writer that put every other Bolshevik in the shade. His eloquenceand bravery under fire, it seemed, had turned the Tsar
s mob of deserters into a Red Army that eventually swept away all the forces that rose up against it. If Stalin was thechief whip of the revolution, Trotsky was its voice. Even in languages he knew imperfectly, such as English, his intonations and phrasing grip the listener. (A few recordingsof Trotsky
s speeches, some with film, can be found on YouTube.) Stalinism survives in Zimbabwe or North Korea
 –
wherever a ruler follows its basic premisses
 –
but Stalinsplintered Trotskyism even more effectively than he did Trotsky
s skull. Despite Trotsky
s appeal as a proto-Che Guevara, and the influence of Trotskyists in trade-unionbranches from the London Ambulance Service to the British Library, faction has generated faction over questions of the socialist nature of the USSR, Cuba and so on. Thenadir was probably signalled in 1985 by the great schism in the British Workers
Revolutionary Party, when the scandal over the late Gerry Healy
s antics with new femalemembers caused a split into two factions known to party members themselves as the
fuckers
and the
wankers
.
FromThe Times Literary Supplement

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