How was Trotsky taught in Stalinist Russia

Lev Davidovich Trotsky went down in Soviet history as Stalin's greatest adversary, although in reality the paths of the two men rarely crossed. Trotsky had already outmaneuvered himself in the struggle for party leadership before the decisive phase in Stalin's rise to power even began. For decades Soviet citizens were taught that Trotsky was an incarnation of evil, and even after Stalin's death his political rehabilitation remained unthinkable. Even in the glasnost era, his person and his historical role remained very controversial. The following short biography describes his difficult life:

  • 1879: 7. November: Born Lew Dawidowitsch Bronstein in Janowka (Ukraine) as the 5th child of the Jewish farmer David Bronstein.
  • 1886 Attended the German-Jewish school (Cheder) in Gromokley
  • 1888 Attended the German-Lutheran school in Odessa
  • 1897 Abitur in Nikolayev and founding of the "South Russian Workers' Union"
  • 1898 Imprisoned in Odessa prison for disseminating banned political books
  • 1899 sentenced to 4 years' exile in Siberia and transfer to the Moscow prison, intensive preoccupation with Marxism
  • 1900 marriage to Alexandra Lvovna Sokoloskaja, birth of the first daughter
  • 1902 birth of the second daughter, escape to Irkutsk, later to London, acceptance of the name Trotsky
  • 1902 - 1905 collaboration with Lenin in London,
  • Marriage of his second wife, Natalia Sedova
  • 1905 After the Petersburg uprising: trip to St. Petersburg, chairman of the Soviet, in December: arrest of the Soviet government
  • 1906 sentenced to life in exile in Siberia, birth of the eldest son
  • 1907 escape to Germany, birth of the second son,
  • 1910 conflict with Lenin
  • 1914 Relocated to Switzerland due to the war
  • 1915 Constitution of the manifesto for the “International Socialist Conference”, reconciliation with Lenin
  • 1917 After the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, he returned to St. Petersburg and joined the Bolsheviks; October: Chairman of the Petersburg Soviets and organization of the Red Guard, after the Bolsheviks came to power, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, December: Peace negotiations with Germany in Brest-Litovsk
  • 1918 - 1920 War Commissioner and Chairman of the Supreme War Council, organization of the offensive against civil war on the fronts, establishment of workers' armies against counter-revolutionary forces
  • 1920 proclamation of the “national war” against Poland
  • 1921 Suppression of the sailors' revolt in Kronstadt
  • 1924 Lenin's death, Yossif Stalin isolates Trotsky within the party and publishes a campaign against him
  • 1925 resigned from the war commissioner - practical disempowerment
  • 1926 expulsion from the Politburo, resistance by the Trotskyist opposition
  • 1927 Exclusion from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (KpdSU)
  • 1928 exile with other Trotskyists to Central Asia (Alma-Ata), Stalin demands that Trotsky be expelled
  • 1929 expelled to Turkey, writing of autobiographical writings (“My Life”, “History of the Russian Revolution”), Stalin's sole rule
  • 1930 Trotskyist opposition in Russia collapses
  • 1933/34 Russian citizenship is withdrawn, persecution as an opponent of Stalinist autocracy by the Russian secret service, relocation to France
  • 1937 After two years in Norway, move to Tampico (Mexico)
  • 1939 Expansion of a house in Coyoacan into a fortress, work on biographies on Lenin and Stalin
  • 1940 constitution of the will, survival of a first attack by the Russian secret service; August 20: Jacson-Mercader hits Trotsky with an ice ax.
  • August 21st Trotsky dies and his body is cremated.

Trotsky's socio-political attitude

Before the founding of the "South Russian Workers' Union" Trotsky was mainly close to populist, liberal ideas. At that time his views were still far removed from Marxist ideas. He said about this after the October Revolution: "In 96 and early 97 I thought I was an opponent of Marx, but I did not read his books." For the most part he was indifferent to the theory of Marxism, only defending himself against oppression by the existing tsarist rule and against the aristocratic system. These unsettled, daring ideas changed abruptly during his first stay in prison (1898). There he dealt intensively with Marxist theory and adopted basic socialist attitudes. In the words of Ziv (a convict in the same case), Trotsky became at this time too "a just as determined and straightforward Marxist as he was previously an opponent of Marxism." This attitude was further deepened a short time later by Lenin. Working as a journalist in the service of Lenin in exile, he became acquainted with the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The view of this party superficially coincided with his own, so that he quickly took part in party conferences. When the RSDLP (Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party) split at its second congress into Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority), Trotsky initially joined the Bolsheviks. They were of the opinion that the party should act strictly centralistically underground. The Mensheviks, however, had the principle that the party should be a loose combination of all participating forces.

Over the years Trotsky kept changing sides, but kept trying to keep in touch with both parties. So Trotsky could not make a firm decision to build the party.

However, his opinion on the bearers of a possible revolution was very clear: while the Mensheviks supported the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia, the Bolsheviks remained on the side of the workers and peasants. Trotsky thought Bolsheviks on this point: he was convinced that only the workers and peasants can achieve democratic goals and rights. However, he concentrated more on the workforce. He justifies this by the fact that the peasants do not represent a single class like the workers; parts of the bourgeoisie and others can belong to the proletariat. Therefore only the united workers can really make a revolution.

Shortly afterwards he assumed that this revolution could only take place on a socialist basis, that is, in a destructive manner, and not on a bourgeois basis. A capitalist Russia with workers' rule could not survive in the world market.
After the successful October Revolution, there were many grievances and a communism of poverty in Russia. This was followed by an increasing bureaucratization of the newly founded CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). This bureaucratization gave some representatives of the ruling class extreme privileges. Trotsky and Lenin resisted this resolutely and formed a left opposition. One of the main points of this opposition was the theory of "permanent revolution". Trotsky believed that the Soviet Union could not exist as the only socialist state in the capitalist world. He therefore demanded the transition of the socialist revolution first to the neighboring states, then to the world. This idea differed significantly from that of Stalin, who wanted to secure "socialism in one's own country" and only expand it there.

Trotsky - the founder of Trotskyism - was famous for seeing social developments in a country from an international perspective. In this way, he was not only able to analyze the events, but also develop perspectives and instructions for action as a way out. He was the first to recognize the real threat posed by Stalinism and German National Socialism and to appeal against this development in numerous writings. For example, he was of the opinion that only a short-term planned attack could prevent Hitler and the National Socialists from coming to power. Long-term projects would attack the threat too late and would lead to the smashing of communism. However, politically powerful people, such as Stalin, did not take this warning seriously or allied with Hitler. It is obvious that Trotsky was always only in the warning position, but too seldom had political power to really act.

The Jew Trotsky

Trotsky's Jewish origins, a circumstance that caused insurmountable difficulties for many in Tsarist Russia, did not initially have a negative effect on Trotsky. The father never tried to lock his children into the little world of the shtetl. On the other hand, the Bronstein family was outwardly very pious, they regularly drove miles to visit the synagogue on high holidays. There was no work on the Sabbath, and even one refused to take one's sick child to the doctor. In this family it was just natural to believe in God.
Based on this understanding of religion, Trotsky was soon given at least the principles of a Jewish education. He started school in a cheder in Janowka, where he was taught Russian, arithmetic and Bible-Hebrew.
After attending grammar school, Trotsky viewed his family only as hypocritical. The father gave up early on trying to keep up appearances that he believed in God. The mother did not do any external work on the Sabbath. The young Jew only recognized this pseudo-piety after a long stay in the port city of Odessa, where he was assimilated to the local bourgeoisie. This was mainly due to the preoccupation with secular topics such as politics and economics. From then on he began to see his religion from a different point of view. He turned away from the orthodox Judaism of the shtetl and advocated a cosmopolitan, assimilated Judaism.

This attitude was reinforced when he began to study the theories of socialism. Of course, he mainly referred to the Jewish workers in his views. In an interview with the American newspaper "Class Struggle" in February 1934, his opinion on Judaism is best illustrated.

First of all, he shows that the Jews - especially the workers - are also affected by the socialist revolution and must change to a particular degree in order to make this revolution possible: They should be more open to the problems of the other workers in the country and next to theirs Yiddish language also adopt the respective national language. In this way they could participate significantly in the success of the revolution and effectively support it with its large-scale distribution across the world. Seen in this way, Leon Trotsky is an "assimilator" and stands up for enlightened Judaism.
He shows himself to be an extreme opponent of Jewish self-isolation. He is against the small, isolated world of the shtetl and against the extreme variant of Zionism.

He also shows that the Jewish question (existence of Judaism as an autarkic nation) cannot be resolved under capitalism. Judaism can therefore only be redeemed under socialism. Therefore he calls on the Jews to participate in the socialist revolution in order to preserve and redeem their religion.
One recognizes in this interview that in his later years Leon Trotsky only sees his religion from a political point of view and seems to have lost the relation to religiosity itself. However, he remained a Jew until the end of his life. And although his opponents, like Stalin, saw the fact of his religion as a reason for persecution and exile, he remained true to his religion.

written by: Julius E.
Elective basic course “Jewish History and Culture” 2001/2002


Carmicheal, Joel: "Trotsky - The revolution eats up its fathers", Heyne-Verlag
Trotsky, Leo: "Stalin's Crimes", Dietz Verlag Berlin
Trotsky, Leo: "My Life"
"Non-persons - Who were they really?", Dietz Verlag Berlin