Leon Trotsky read often

Portrait of a revolutionary

Bertrand M. Patenaude: "Trotsky"

Reviewed by Uwe Stolzmann

Leon Trotsky in Moscow, 1921 (AP Archives)

He organized the October Revolution of 1917 and created the Red Army: Leon Trotsky. Stanford historian Bertrand Patenaude has now presented a compelling portrait of the revolutionary.

Trotsky: "The fact that the proletariat first came to power in one of the most backward countries in Europe seems at first sight quite puzzling, but is nonetheless completely legal. The chain has been broken at its weakest link."

He was a colorful figure, one of the most prominent rebels of the 20th century: Lev Dawidowitsch Bronstein alias Leon Trotsky.

Trotsky: "The peasantry emerging from the Middle Ages cannot generalize its own anger politically. It is looking for the leader. The Russian peasantry has found this leader in the proletariat. That explains the riddle of the October Revolution."

Stalin ousted the rival. In 1929 he drove him out of the country. In the Soviet Union "Trotsky" was henceforth a synonym for evil, the enemy par excellence. With invented "Trotskyist" conspiracies, Stalin founded the terror of the 1930s and the show trials against Lenin's companions. Trotsky struggled.

Trotsky: "These trials have nothing to do with communism or socialism. That is Stalinism, that is, the irresponsible despotism of the bureaucracy over the people. The real criminals are the accusers."

Stalin's fiercest opponent has often been portrayed. Another biography is now appearing: "Trotsky. The Revolutionary Betrayed". Your author - Bertrand Patenaude, born 1956 - teaches history at Stanford University. What's new about his book? Patenaude focuses on Trotsky's final years, on the time in Mexico.

Trotsky: "When monsters threatened my family with absurd accusations, the Mexican government opened the doors to this wonderful country and told us: Here you can freely defend your rights and your honor."

Patenaude shows the obsessed revolutionary, bossy and vain, and the desperate emigrant. He describes the affair with Frida Kahlo, who called her lover "piochitas", goatee. He sketches the hermit, Trotsky, raising cacti and rabbits.

He draws the house in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, this fortress, guarded by bodyguards from the USA. The historian describes the ice ax attack of August 20, 1940 in great detail, with a lot of melodrama.

"Suddenly the afternoon's silence was broken by a terrible scream. Trotsky staggered out of his study. Blood ran down his face." Look what they did to me! "He groaned. There were large pools of blood on the floor. Ramón Mercader stood in the middle of the room gasping for breath, grimacing, arms hanging. Robins hit Mercader in the head with the grip of his revolver. The assassin fell to the floor. "

Cover: "Bertrand M. Patenaude: Trotsky" (Propylaea) For his book, Patenaude used newly developed sources: Trotsky's archive, which the "old man" sold to Harvard University in the year he died, diaries and letters, statements from bodyguards and secretaries as well KGB files. The author has condensed his findings into a large narrative, a kind of adventure film.

He writes so vividly as if he had been there. The reader sometimes has the feeling that he is looking over the shoulder of a tired revolutionary at his desk in Coyoacán. This book is also a secret service thriller, the chronicle of a dark time full of card games, intrigues, and contract killings.

What is bothering you while reading? Perhaps the voyeurism in some passages. The tearful theatrics towards the end. And the historian's ambivalent relationship to his figure. Of course: Patenaude names Trotsky's dark sides.

He characterizes him as brutal and unscrupulous. It shows Narcissus, "trying too hard to admire himself in the mirror of history". He also outlines the twisted worldview of this person who co-founded the first totalitarian state and who to the end extolled it as progressive.

On the other hand: Patenaude gets so close to his protagonist that he - and the reader - sympathize with the man. Poor Trotsky, hounded and murdered on behalf of a tyrant. We'd almost forget: the man was a tyrant himself. A terrorist. A self-proclaimed messiah. Turning to his Fourth International, that movement of elect, Trotsky said a few months before his death:

"Dear friends. We are not a party like other parties. Our goal is the full material and spiritual liberation of the exploited through the socialist revolution. Nobody will lead this revolution if not the Bolshevik-Leninists. Nobody else but us."


Bertrand M. Patenaude: Trotsky. The betrayed revolutionary
From the American by Stephan Gebauer. Propylaen Verlag, Berlin 2010. 430 pages, 24.95 euros