Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky

Published in History Today

Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky
Bertrand M. Patenaude Faber & Faber 352pp £20

It is, alas, rare to find a book by a heavyweight American academic historian that zips along with the pace and drama of a first-rate political thrilller, but Bertrand Patenaude 's study of the fatal duel between the two terrible rival titans of Russia's revolution is just such a work.

In the days when Labour left-wingers were stiì] known as 'Trots', earnest debates were held as to why the monstrous Stalin, rather than the charismatic Trotsky, had inherited the mantle and power of Lenin. But Patenaude's book makes it clear that, for all his sparkling oratory, quickness of mind and mastery of Marxist theory and polemics, Trotsky was a babe in arms compared with the guileful Georgian.

The grudge between the two men went back a long way to before the First World War. Trotsky was everything that Stalin detested: a cosmopolitan café intellectual; a magnetic speaker and a (very! latecomer to orthodox Leninist Bolshevism. Trotsky, for his part, affected barely Io notice 'the grey blur' that was Stalin, as he became Lenin's loyal lieutenant and the star of the October revolution.

Stalin bided his time and hoarded his resentment of Trotsky like a muzhik counting his kopecks. But when Lenin was felled by a series of strokes, he struck with all the sudden venom of a coiled cobra. Having entrenched himself and his cohorts in the party apparatus, Stalin outmanoeuvred Trotsky ai every turn and swiftly had him isolated, marginalised, disgraced and finally exiled. And here Stalin made his only mistake. By !caving his rivaJ alive albeit pursued across three continents, scrambling from pillar to post in a series of precarious refuges - he created a rival beacon to Moscow and an alternative version of Communist orthodoxy thai still has its adherents today. Hc would not make that mistake twice.

Having sketched in the ideological and personal background to the t'eud, Patenaude. zooms in on the last and strangest phase ol Trotsky's resliess life: fris desperate final exile in a suburb of Mexico City, where, guarded by armed American Trotskyists, he awaited Stalin's inevitable vengeance like a fallen Mafia don. Having studied Stalinisrn in its fierce practice and already lost his children to the Gulag, the old Marxist was under no illusions as to his fate. After his bedroom was raked with machine gun fire in an unsuccessful first assassination attempt, his doom was spelled out in the bullet holes pocking the walls. A sub-plot to the main story of Stalin's agents homing in on their prey is the desperate affair that Trotsky conducted with the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in his last days.

Famously, the instrument that final Jy put paid to Trotsky, though not Trotskyism, was an icepick wielded by Ramon Mercader, the son of a prominent Catalan communist turned Soviet assassin. Gaining access to Trotsky's Fortified villa by bedding one of his secretaries. Mercader buried his pick in the old man's brain in August 1940. One would feel more sorry for the victim had Trotsky not himself killed thousands of innocents in his earlier career. Trotsky had all Stalin's ruthlessness, but lacked his supple seminarian's suspicious nature and his implacable malice. Of him it could be truly said that he who lives by the sword, dies by it. Or rather, by the icepick.

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