For our latest “Eminent Biography” installment, Joshua Rubenstein reflects on his writing of the tumultuous political career of Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, the latest in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. Often remembered as persecutor turned persecuted, Leon Trotsky was a central figure in the global political drama between Western democracies and the emerging Soviet state. In his research, Rubenstein found clues that recreate a vivid picture of this frequently misunderstood or mischaracterized man, notably addressing Trotsky’s political rhetoric and Jewishness, to depict how his religion set him apart from both friends and enemies in facing the dual threats of Soviet persecution and Hitler’s rising Third Reich.
Until I was invited to write this biography of Leon Trotsky, I cannot say I had thought much about him or his legacy. I had a good sense of his life and career, the trajectory of an idealistic young man who joined a revolutionary movement, made his name as a writer, organizer, and orator, and then found himself on two occasions riding the crest of revolution. In 1905, he returned to Saint Petersburg in the initial months of an upheaval, and within months became the leader of the Saint Petersburg Soviet, the leading voice of defiance against Tsar Nicholas II. And then in May 1917, he returned again, this time in the aftermath of the same tsar’s abdication. By October alongside Lenin, he led the Bolsheviks as they took control of Russia. For four more years, his prestige and influence increased because of his role as the founder of the Red Army. But inexplicably, as soon as the Civil War was over, Trotsky’s star began to wane. By the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, Stalin was firmly on the road to dominating Soviet Russia. By 1928, Trotsky was sent into internal exile in Siberia, then in early 1929 exiled altogether to Turkey. He spent the next decade writing furiously, trying to rouse support among other Marxists who shared his beliefs and opposition to Stalin. But his efforts led nowhere. Compelled to leave Europe by the close of 1936, he spent the next three and a half years in Mexico until an assassin dispatched by the Kremlin murdered him in August 1940.
As I read many of Trotsky’s works and large portions of his archive which is held at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, I found myself on several occasions coming across something he wrote or was written about him that helped me organize my thinking and animate my narrative.
There was a letter Trotsky wrote to Philip Rahv, one of the editors of Partisan Review. Trotsky was in Mexico following debates in the U.S. press about the “Moscow show trials” and trying, in vain, to secure permission to come to America. In one letter to Rahv in 1938, Trotsky expressed his impatience with American liberals and radicals who, in his view, were too reform-minded and not sufficiently committed to revolution. As he observed to Rahv, “Nothing great has been accomplished in history without fanaticism.” George Orwell understood this quality of Trotsky’s. Orwell never succumbed to a fascination with Stalin, but this did not blind him to Trotsky’s role in the revolution. Orwell wrote of Trotsky in 1939: “He is probably as much responsible for [the Russian Revolution] as any man now living, and there is no certainty that as a dictator he would be preferable to Stalin, though undoubtedly he has a much more interesting mind. The essential act,” Orwell concluded, “is the rejection of democracy—that is, of the underlying values of democracy; once you have decided upon that, Stalin—or at any rate someone like Stalin—is already on the way.” Trotsky’s proud assertion of his own fanaticism and Orwell’s pointed understanding of Trotsky’s role alongside Lenin in 1917 helped me to focus on his responsibility for the dictatorship that Stalin ultimately commandeered.
Then there was a reference to Trotsky by Milovan Djilas, the famous Yugoslav dissident Marxist. Djilas spent time with Stalin during World War II and so had an intimate idea of how crude Stalin and his entourage could be. But this did not leave him with any illusions about Trotsky. Looking back on Trotsky’s career, Djilas recognized his fundamental weakness as a politician: “Trotsky, an excellent speaker, brilliant stylist and skilled polemicist, a man cultured and of excellent intelligence, was deficient in only one quality: a sense of reality.” Trotsky’s blindness to what was unfolding around him–during the “struggle for power” with Stalin in the 1920’s and later during his years of exile–contained an element of self-deception and contributed to his downfall.
Finally, Trotsky was a highly assimilated Jew who at times acted as if he could resign from the Jewish people. On more than one occasion, he was known to comment that he “was not a Jew, but a Marxist revolutionary.” Nonetheless, examining his behavior and writings in the 1900s when the tsarist regime relied on violent pogroms to punish the country’s Jewish minority, and later when he visited Jewish communities in Romania and Bulgaria during the Balkan Wars that preceded the outbreak of World War I, I kept coming across evidence of his hatred of anti-Semitism, his outspoken denunciations of any and all physical attacks against Jews because of their origins. These denunciations distinguished Trotsky from many of his colleagues, Jews and non-Jews alike, who were leading the Social Democratic ranks against the tsarist autocracy. Trotsky also followed the “blood libel” trial of Mendel Beilis, the Jewish worker in Kiev who was falsely accused of murdering a Christian boy in 1911 for the purpose of using his victim’s blood for the preparation of Passover Matzoh. Even though I was aware of how strongly Trotsky reacted to the trial in 1913, I was still surprised, perhaps a little stunned when he recalled the persecution of Beilis many years later. In 1939, the last year of his life, after Stalin had orchestrated the Great Terror and as Hitler’s bellicose intentions became increasingly clear, Trotsky invoked the image of Mendel Beilis. “Retrospectively, in the light of civilization’s latest achievements, especially in Germany and the U.S.S.R., [the Beilis] trial today seems almost a humanitarian experiment.” With Europe on the verge of a monstrous calamity, Trotsky could think of no better way to personify the continent’s suffering than to invoke the image of a poor, lonely Jew falsely accused of killing a Christian child. Trotsky, I had to conclude, remained a Jew in spite of himself.
Joshua Rubenstein is the Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International USA and a longtime associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He is the author of Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg and is co-editor of The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov and Stalin’s Secret Pogrom, both published by Yale University Press. Stalin’s Secret Pogrom received a National Jewish Book Award.