Paul Hampton reviews Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Patenaude
In the early hours of 24 May 1940, twenty men in uniform led burst into the last refuge of Leon Trotsky. The muralist David Siqueiros and his Stalinist cohort riddled Trotsky’s Mexican sanctuary with over 300 shots.
Seventy three bullet holes were counted in the doors, walls, windows and mattresses. Trotsky survived because his partner Natalia had the presence of mind to slide out their bed and drag the Old Man into a corner. Trotsky’s grandson Vsevolod (Seva) Volkov scrambled under his bed and was grazed by a bullet shot through his mattress. Several unexploded bombs were found on the patio — intended to obliterate the Trotsky archives — testimony to the horrors of Stalinism.
The assault was the first attempt to carry out Operation Utka (Duck), the Stalinist secret service (NKVD) codename for Stalin’s order, issued in 1939, to liquidate Trotsky by whatever means necessary. The second attempt, by a lone assassin, would prove successful just three months later.
Bertrand Patenaude’s book has been widely reviewed and discussed in both the bourgeois press and on the left. His account has some of same breathless literary-journalistic intensity that characterises Isaac Deutscher’s trilogy on Trotsky. The book cannot be faulted for readability; despite the known ending, the author has composed a compelling narrative.
What do we learn from Patenaude that has not been known before? Politically almost nothing — for example on the Russian question, or on Trotsky’s assessment of Bonapartism in Mexico, or his discussions on the Transitional Programme. There is a little more about Trotsky as a person — particularly in the realm of his “sexual indiscretions”. However we learn rather more about the conduct of the assassination, particularly from the Russian side.
The personal tragedy of Trotsky’s last years is well brought out by Patenaude. Essentially Trotsky lost most of his family before his own death — including many at the hands of Stalin’s executioners. It is not surprising to learn of Trotsky’s ill-health, which was more than just the product of what he called “the sixties”. This included well-known and longstanding headaches, dizziness and high blood pressure, psychosomatic fevers as well as agitation, sweats and persistent insomnia. In February 1940, fearing he had advanced arteriosclerosis and would have a brain haemorrhage, Trotsky wrote his last will and testament.
Trotsky does not come out of the book as a terribly likable human being. He was famed for his explosive temper. Perhaps the harshest verdict came in a letter from Lyova to his mother, which he never sent. He wrote: “I think all Papa’s deficiencies have not diminished as he has grown older but under the influence of his isolation... have gotten worse. His lack of tolerance, hot temper, inconsistency, even rudeness, his desire to humiliate, offend and even destroy have increased.”
Patenaude’s account is probably the most extensive account to date of Trotsky love life. He describes in detail Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo. Trotsky was judged to be an “experienced philanderer”, though apparently the relationship with Kahlo was his first “romantic adventure” since he left Russia in 1929. The narrative does none of the characters any favours. It verges on voyeurism — though this is much in keeping with modern biographical writing.
The book is probably at its best in describing the assassination, particularly its use of Russian sources.
Trotsky arrived in Mexico on the Norwegian oil tanker Ruth on 1 January 1937. Time magazine printed a blunt assessment of the situation: “Today Trotsky is in Mexico — the ideal country for an assassination”. His first months were spent refuting the slanders of the Moscow Trials at the Dewey Commission. Dewey, then a world famous philosopher in his late seventies became convinced of Trotsky’s innocence. Apparently he told Trotsky, “If all Communists were like you, I would be a Communist”, to which Trotsky replied, “If all liberals were like you, I would be a liberal.” Dewey wrote to his former student (and Trotsky’s translator) Eastman that his experience of the Commission, “if it wasn’t exactly a ‘good time’, it was the most interesting single intellectual experience of my life”.
The Moscow trials were, in Lyova words, “a labyrinth of sheer madness”. They were also a precursor to the assassination. Lyova was betrayed by Étienne (Mark Zborowski), whose NKVD codenames were Mack and Tulip. In 1936 he was responsible for the theft of part of Trotsky’s archives in Paris, some 103 letters including his correspondence with Eastman, which ended up in the Kremlin. Zborowski also supplied his masters with a copy of The Revolution Betrayed before its publication and a copy of Lyova’s notebook, containing the addresses of Trotskyists living outside the USSR.
In March 1939 Pavel Sudoplatov, head of the Administration for Special Tasks, which included sabotage, abduction and assassination was taken by NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria to meet Stalin. He was told by Stalin: “Trotsky should be eliminated within a year.” Sudoplatov planned his operation from room 735 of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the NKVD in Moscow. He recruited Leonid Eitingon, the chief of intelligence in Spain. The details were finalised on 9 July 1939. Operation Duck envisioned an assortment of methods: “poisoning of food, of water, explosion in home, explosion of car using TNT, a direct strike — suffocation, dagger, blow to the head, gunshot. Possibly an armed assault by a group.” They requested a budget of $31,000 over six months. Stalin authorised the operation in the first days of August 1939.
In Spain, Eitingon started a relationship with Caridad Mercader. As a result her son Ramón was recruited to the NKVD in February 1937. In late 1937 Eitingon sent him to Paris, with forged Belgian identity papers as Jacques Mornard. His NKVD codename was Raymond. He hitched up with Sylvia Ageloff, an American Trotskyist whose sister Ruth had served during the Dewey hearing. Leaving Europe on 1 September 1939, he became Frank Jacson, a Canadian born in Yugoslavia in order to enter the US. From there Eitingon and the Mercaders went to Mexico, setting up an operation codenamed “Mother”.
At the same time the NKVD had a larger network in Mexico City, around Siqueiros and codenamed after his flaring nostrils, Horse. Siqueiros had enlisted in the International Brigade in Spain, working with well-known Stalinists such as Vittorio Vidali, known as Carlos Contreras. The leading figure in the network was Iosif Grigulevich, codename Felipe, who had taken part in the suppression of socialists and anarchists in Barcelona in May 1937. In February 1940 Grigulevich and Eitingon met in Mexico City to coordinate their operations.
Patenaude argues that the NKVD had contacts in the Trotskyist movement. He states that Robert Sheldon Harte was recruited in New York, and known by his codename Amur. Harte took over as a guard in Coyoacán on 7 April 1940. He held clandestine meetings with Felipe, who told him the objective was the destruction of Trotsky’s archive, including his “slanderous” biography of Stalin, said to be based on forged documents supplied by Hitler.
It was Harte who, upon hearing Felipe’s voice, opened the heavy bolt on the door of Trotsky’s house on 24 May 1940 to let in the raiders. Harte left with the attackers, although it was not clear whether this was under duress. Local paper reports at the time said a picture of Stalin had been found in his room in New York, but his family denied this. More seriously, the police found a key to Room 37 of the Hotel Europa, where he had spent the night of 21 May 1940 with a prostitute. She told police he was carrying a large amount of money that night. He was further implicated as participants were caught. Only the manner of Harte’s death sustained his reputation. He was killed by the attackers in his sleep and buried in quicklime in the hills above Mexico City. Trotsky identified his remains at the morgue and continued to protest his innocence.
In the two and half months following the Siqueiros raid, the American SWP raised over $2,250 to improve Trotsky’s security. The sale of Trotsky’s archives raised an additional $6,000 — the precious cargo arriving at Harvard, as fate would have it, on 20 August 1940.
Ramón Mercader met Trotsky for the first time four days after the assault. He ingratiated himself with Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, and even drove Natalia back from Veracruz when she went to see off the Rosmers. On 17 August he visited Trotsky with an article he had written against Burnham and Shachtman. Trotsky told Natalia he didn’t like the man, while other guards had suspicions about his accent, the spelling of his name (Jacson) and his callous comments about Sylvia Ageloff. He came again about the article three days later, using the opportunity to bludgeon Trotsky with an ice-pick. Although Trotsky survived for a further day in hospital, he died on 21 August 1940, cut down by the Stalinists.
On 17 June 1941 Caridad Mercader and Leonid Eitingon were awarded the Order of Lenin at a ceremony in the Kremlin. After the war Iosif Grigulevich received the Order of the Red Star for his role. Ramón Mercader was imprisoned for 20 years. His real identity was revealed in 1950. Upon his release, he went to Cuba, Czechoslovakia and then the USSR. On 8 June 1961, Brezhnev awarded him the title Hero of the Soviet Union, and gave him the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star medal in a secret ceremony in the Kremlin. The award citation praised him for displaying “heroism and bravery’ in carrying out a ‘special task”. Mercader lived in the USSR and Cuba for the rest his days, dying in Havana in 1978. It was only in January 1989 that a Russian publication told its readers that the Kremlin had ordered Trotsky’s murder.
Patenaude’s book is an evocative description of Trotsky’s murder. But it is less good on why he was killed or its significance. At times his account appears to reduce the murder to a personal vendetta. He recounts the stormy scene in the Politburo on 25 October 1926, at which the opposition finally endorsed Lenin’s Testament, published in the US. After Stalin had railed against them, Trotsky declared: “The First Secretary poses his candidature to the post of gravedigger of the revolution”. Stalin turned pale and became flustered, then rushed out of the hall, slamming the door behind him.
But for all the undoubted desire of Stalin to “mark” his opponents (and even his allies), this explanation is insufficient. Stalin’s purge was the work of an ascendant bureaucratic ruling class sloughing off the last remnants of its distant origins. Stalin wanted to break all the living links with the great revolution of 1917 save his own, obliterate its actual leaders and annihilate its real tradition. Trotsky was the last and most powerful bond with that past.
The killing of Trotsky effectively meant the destruction of the classical Marxist tradition. What Trotsky embodied was the culture of Marxism, the accumulated wisdom of a century of working class self-emancipation, the congealed insights of countless battles on the economic, political and ideological fronts of the class struggle. With Trotsky’s death, the main living trunk that ran from Marx and Engels through the best of the second and third internationals was terminated, able to live on only in reified form spread among the branches of squabbling epigones.
Trotsky was killed, but Stalin did not succeed. It is Trotsky’s tradition, not Stalin’s that lives on. It is Trotsky’s line that represents the hope of the present and the harbinger of the socialist future. And it is Trotsky’s legacy that still provides vital signposts for our own struggles.
• A longer version of this review is at www.workersliberty.org/blogs/paulhampton/2009/09/18/leon-trotsky-and-annihilation-classical-marxism