Unless you regularly skipped classes in school, chances are you’re familiar with the names of Lenin and Stalin, and their role in the creation of the Soviet Union (USSR). Equally probable, you wouldn’t associate the name Trotsky with those two heavyweights champions of communism. But did you know that back in the days of the Russian Revolution, he was nearly as famous as Lenin himself, and instrumental in the triumph of the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War (1917-1923)? In fact, he was the founding father of the powerful Red Army, which was the ultimate responsible for beating the Nazis to a pulp in 1945, and for guaranteeing the USSR a status of one of the world’s two superpowers during the Cold War. Why and how? Keep scrolling:

1# Jewish origins and Communism

The man we know as Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, on October 26th 1879, near Kherson, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. Why the name Trotsky? It was common for revolutionaries back in the day to use pseudonyms, just like Lenin’s real name was Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov, and Stalin’s was Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili. Regardless, young Lev was the son of prosperous, Jewish landowners, and although Trotsky’s Jewish origins never were a fundamental part of his identity, antisemitism was rampant in those times, and often culminated in state-sanctioned pogroms. It’s little surprising that many revolutionaries who sought the abolition of Tsarism in Russia, were of Jewish stock.

When Lev turned eight, he moved to study in Odessa. Although a smart and laborious student, he was also rebellious and outspoken, characteristics which he kept throughout most of his life. In 1896, when he moved to Nikolayev to complete his studies, Lev turned towards Marxism and communism as the answer to his place in the world, as well as to the woes that plagued Russia, the Jews, and indeed to any other evil and injustice in the universe

A young Lev Bronstein in 1897. Unknown author. Source

2# Wives, exile and Lenin

Taking upon himself the task of writing political pamphlets to stir up reform and improvement for the working class, he inevitably attracted the attention of the Tsarist police in 1898 and was imprisoned. After two years, he was condemned to exile in Siberia where he married Alexandra Sokolovskaya, a fellow Marxist. Even though they had two daughters, Zinaida and Nina, Alexandra urged him to flee abroad. With the help of some friends, he was delivered abroad to meet the man with whom they would change the fate of Russia, Lenin. In the false passport he used to escape, Lev curiously chose to use the name of one of his jailors in Odessa: Trotsky.

Lev and his first wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya sometime before 1902. Unknown author. Source

While in exile, he met his second wife, Natalia Sedova, another Russian political exile, and with whom he produced two sons, Lev and Sergei Sedov. While staying in various capitals of Europe, Trotsky served as Lenin’s man, writing several articles for Iskra, the official newspaper for the Russian Social Democratic Party, of which Lenin was a member. But the happy union didn’t last, and just as the Marxist party split in Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over an issue of party membership, Trotsky gradually drifted away from Lenin and the Bolshevik faction he led, even comparing his old benefactor to Robespierre and criticising his authoritarian ways.

After the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution in Russia, Trotsky swiftly returned home. The massacre of peaceful protesters during Bloody Sunday triggered strikes and riots all over the country, which was already seething with discontentment over the disastrous war against Japan. Thirsty for reform, workers and soldiers elected their own councils, the Soviets, and the Tsar Nicholas II was forced to makle concessions in the October Manifesto, which granted civil rights and established an elected parliament, the Duma. Although the move satisfied the moderate opposition, it did nothing to dissuade the Soviet of St Petersburg to back down on their demands for further reform. Representing the Mensheviks, Trotsky was elected vice-chairman of the Soviet and later chairman, thanks to his public prominence and his skill with the pen.    

3# Second exile

The revolutionary enthusiasm pettered out and subsequent calls for further strike fell on deaf ears. By granting the Duma, Nicholas II and his prime minister, Count Witte, had successfully disarmed their opponents and gained precious time, time they successfully used by finally surrendering the Soviet assembly on December and by arresting Trotsky and the rest. He was sentenced yet again and exiled to Siberia, and yet again he fled abroad, to Vienna, then capital of Austro-Hungary. He spent most of those pre-war years by trying to mend the rift between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and by editing Pravda (truth), a newspaper so popular that Lenin would borrow the name for his own version, which in time would become the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Trotsky reading Pravda, circa 1910. Unknown author. Source

The outbreak of the Great War in 1914 forced Trotsky to emigrate to Switzerland, for he still was a Russian citizen and to all effects and purposes he was unwelcome in Austro-Hungary. Trotsky served as war correspondent in France, and without ever forgetting his revolutionary nature, he invited the world’s entire proletariat to boycott the war which the capitalist, imperialist bourgeoise was using for their own enrichment. His outspoken opposition to the war gained him the enmity of the French authorities, who gave him the boot to Spain. There too his rethoric was perceived as a time bomb, and unwelcomed elsewhere in Europe, Trotsky was left with no choice but to embark the steamer Montserrat en route to the U.S., arriving there on January 13th, 1917.

Map of Alliances in 1914. The Russian Empire was part of the Triple Entente together with France and the British Empire. Author: historicair. Translated by: Fluteflute and User:Bibi Saint-Pol. Source

4# The February Revolution

He barely had had time to unpack his suitcase than the astonishing news of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, came through. War weariness, plummeting morale, and food shortages in the big cities like Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) had finally resulted in massive urban strikes. This time, units of Petrograd’s garrison joined their rebellious brethren instead of quashing them, and Tsar Nicholas finally relented to pressure to abdicate on March 15th. With a Provisional Government in place and an amnesty granted to all political exiles, Trotsky finally returned home on May 17th.

Trotsky adressing the masses from the train on Petrograd on his arrival. Author unknown. Source

The extinct Soviet of Petersburg had once more resurfaced as the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which quickly established itself as a serious contender to the Provisional Government for the control of the nation. The latter declared its intention to pursue the war to a victorious end, and while the Mensheviks supported them, Lenin, in his April Thesis, called for all power to the Soviet. The Bolsheviks opposed the Provisional Government, and Lenin demanded control of the state in order to reorganise it according to socialist principles. In essence, he called for the dictatorship of the proletariat. This time Trotsky virtually saw eye to eye with him, although for the time being he didn’t officially join the Bolsheviks.    

Albeit a minority, the Bolsheviks were regarded as a dangerous and destabilising foe, and in the context of the riots and demonstrations known as the July Days, Prime Minister Lvov and his War Minister, Alexander Kerensky (who would replace him as premier by the month’s end) led a crackdown against the Bolsheviks. Lenin avoided arrest by going into hiding but Trotsky was taken captive, falsely accused of being a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee. Although the protesters of the July Days shouted Bolshevik slogans and were sympathetic to their ideas, it is now doubtful that they acted under orders of Lenin, or Trotsky for that matter.        

5# Membership of the Party

Although the Provisional Government had loudly banged their fist on the table, their essential weaknesses remained. Just like the Tsar, they found themselves unable to reverse the collapsing military situation, and in a last of a series of desperate measures, Kerensky appointed General Lavr Kornilov as commander-in-chief of the army. Like many army officers, Kornilov longed for the return of discipline and obedience in the army, which had virtually evaporated in the file-and-rank ever since the Revolution started. In August, Kornilov went rogue and called for the overthrowing of the Provisional Government and advanced on Petrograd at the head of his troops. Kerensky desperately turned to his only choice for an ally, the Bolsheviks, and armed them to combat Kornilov.

Kornilov’s coup pettered out before shots were exchanged, but Kerensky’s reputation had been irreparably damaged over his appointment of Kornilov. Moreover, his arming the Bolsheviks to entrust them the defence of Petrograd, had involuntarily given them a great boost of popularity. Trotsky, who had been released, finally and officially entered into the ranks of the Bolshevik party and into their Central Committee. Overnight, the Bolsheviks held a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and Trotsky became once more its chairman as in 1905.

6# The October Revolution

In hiding since June, Lenin returned in October and on his insistence the Central Committee of the party held a vote over the decision of calling an armed seizure of power. They also elected its first Political Bureau (Politburo), which was to become the highest and most important decision-making of the embryonic Bolshevik-Communist Party. Its original members were Trotsky, Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin. By late October Trotsky, his star rising as the Provisional Government’s waned, had secured the friendship of most of Petrograd’s garrisons. A second and bigger revolution was on the air.

The Bolshevik intentions were of public domain, and on October 24th Kerensky pre-emptively striked by ordering the closure of several pro-Bolshevik newspapers. Trotsky sent detachments of Red Guards (paramilitary volunteers) to protect the printing offices, and the volatile atmosphere quickly escalated. Trotsky didn’t waver. His detachments took over all bridges, post and telegraph offices, railroad stations, and other key buildings in the capital. With the storming of the Winter Palace on that same day (where Kerensky’s Provisional Government met), the October Revolution was completed, and Lenin’s Bolshevik party was finally in charge, thanks in no small part to Trotsky.

7# The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk   

Simoultaneously, the Bolsheviks swept aside all remnants of socialist-Marxist opposition in the Congress of the Soviets, effectively turning Russia into a one-party ruled state. Lenin and Trotsky saw no need for compromise and in their eyes, the means justified the end of establishing communism. With Lenin at the rudder of the state, Trotsky accepted the post of Comissar of Foreign Affairs. To step up repression and censorship, the new masters of the country created the Cheka, the political police that became the ancestor of the NKVD that conducted the purges under Stalin, and the equally infamous KGB. The tone was set. In Trotsky’s own words: “…the guillotine awaits our enemies”. He was good to his word. The Soviet state became one of the most repressive police-states in modern history.

Determined to end of the war in order to first secure their precarious grip on power, Lenin empowered Trotsky to negotiate peace with the German Empire at Brest-Litovsk. For Trotsky and Lenin, the eventual lost of territory was a temporary setback, for they whole-heartedly believed a world revolution was at hand. Their hopes were eventually dashed. The need to crush internal opposition and the rapid advance of German troops in Latvia and Ukraine, forced a reluctant Lenin and Trotsky to give in to a humiliating armistice.

Territories ceded by Russia to Germany during the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Author: Department of History, United States Military Academy. Source

8# The Father of the Red Army

With peace under the arm, Lenin and Trotsky turned their attention to within their own borders. Former Tsarist officers like Kornilov, were at the head of multiple pro-monarchical and anti-Bolshevik troops, known to history as the Whites, as opposed to the Reds, as the Bolsheviks were known. Further muddling this civil war, were Cossack insurrections and the intervention of foreign powers who saw the Bolsheviks as a threat. There was also the Czechoslovak Legion, Chzeck and Slovaks POWs who had fought on Russia’s side against the Austro-Hungarian Empire in an attempt to secure the independence of their homelands from the latter. Their offensives managed to push the Bolsheviks against the ropes, and even temporarily managed to unify the White forces in Eastern Russia under Admiral Kolchak, the so-called Provisional All-Russian Government.

This is when Trotsky stepped in as the new Comissar of War. Without any previous military experience, Trotsky refashioned the battered and poorly-led army and Red Guard Units into the Red Army that one day would become the killing machine responsible for defeating Hitler. He brought ex-tsarist officers in (by holding their families as hostages), and established a dual system of command, by assigning Bolshevik commissars to ensure the political loyalty of such officers. He also reinstated military discipline and ordered mass conscription.

Trotsky adresses soldiers of the Red Army during the Civil War. His talents as an organizer proved more than a match for his talent as an orator. Author unknown. Source

On board of his famous armoured train, he toured the diverse locations of the front, ordering summary executions whenever he thought cowardice threatened to infect morale. Like the punishment of decimatio that the Romans had inflicted on their legions, the idea was that the soldiers would fear their generals more than they feared the enemy. Although the hostilities dragged until 1923, Trotsky’s draconian measures managed to turn the tide of the war.

9# Trotsky and Stalin. The struggle for power

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was established on 28th December 1922, with the Russian Soviet Republic as its most powerful component and core. Lenin was duly elected as its first chairman of the government but by then his health was in steep decline and a potential struggle loomed on the horizon. Trotsky seemed the obvious successor but despite the fact that the Bolsheviks were indebted to him, many in the party disliked him for a myriad of reasons: his Jewish origins, his use of Tsarist officers in the army, or his split with Lenin in the past. Others, like Stalin, simply resented his immense popularity.

In his new position of General Secretary of the Party, Joseph Stalin was amassing a lot of power and influence. Trotsky failed to take him seriously, and on Lenin’s death on January 1924, it was Stalin who took advantage of Trotsky’s poor standing within the party to sideline him, depicting himself as Lenin’s true heir.

One of the few extant pictures of Stalin and Trotsky together, carrying the coffin of Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1926. Author unknown. Source

Either out of arrogance or integrity, Trotsky didn’t stoop to campaigning for power, and repeatedly failed to openly confront Stalin, even while Lenin was alive and urging him and the party leadership, to remove Stalin. Trotsky dithered even with Lenin’s will on hand―which despite finding fault with other Politburo members―was particularly outspoken against Stalin, recommending the party to oust him from his position as General Secretary. Stalin on the other hand, had no qualms in using Trotsky’s Jewish origins, as well as his previous disagreements with Lenin to undermine him. He even changed the narrative of the October Revolution, by downplaying Trotsky’s critical role and aggrandizing his trifling participation.

10# Final exile and assassination

Gradually, Trotsky lost his portfolio as War Comissar, followed by his Politburo seat in 1926, and his party membership in 1927. On year later he was deported to Alma Ata, capital of the Soviet Republic of Kazhastan, and on 1929 he had been expelled from the country altogether. He settled first in Turkey with his wife Natalia and their eldest son, Lev. Trotsky kept his mind and hands busy by writing his memoirs and other books like My Life, and History of the Russian Revolution, in which he defended his place in history and justified his controversial and violent measures during the Revolution. With Lev, they also wrote and edited a newspaper, the Bulletin of the Opposition, with which to criticise Stalin.

Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova in Mexico, 1937. Author unknown. Source

In subsequent years, Trotsky took shelter in France and Norway, however, the rise of Hitler and subsequent increased pressure from both Germany and the Soviet Union, meant he was persona non grata in most of Western Europe. He accepted an invitation from his friends, the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, to move to Mexico in January 1937. There he resided in Mexico City until August 20th 1940, when Ramón Mercader, a Spanish agent in the NKVD’s payroll, succeded in plunging an ice axe on his skull. Trotsky survived the immediate attack and fought back but succumbed to his wound on the following day.  

11# Rehabilitation and self-justification

Trotsky’s assassination was the culmination of the brutal revenge that Stalin had exacted on his nemesis and his family. Nina had died of tuberculosis in the late 20’s while Zinaida had been exiled and commited suicide as a result of depression. Trotsky and Natalia Sedova’s second son Sergei, had been arrested and shot, so had been Trotsky’s first wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya. His eldest son, Lev, died of complications after an appendectomy in 1938 although rumours of NKVD involvement were never entirely dispelled. The rest of the family was relentlessly hunted down by the NKVD. Trotsky’s older brother and younger sister, a niece, three nephews and three sons-in-law, were shot during the Stalinist Purges. Other nephews and nieces endured imprisonment or exile, while the fate of the grandchildren by Nina and a grandson by Lev are unknown, although in all likelihood they too were dispatched by a bullet on the back of the head.

Trotsky’s memory fared no better, and hasn’t certainly ingratiated him with the critics of Lenin and particularly, Stalin’s excesses. Vilified as a traitor to the Revolution for most of the Soviet Union’s lifespan, in Russia his memory was only rehabilitated in 2001, almost ten years after the dissolution of the former. The Marxist dream for which he had sacrificed everything and everyone, and which had turned its back to him, had proved incapable of forgiveness. The pardon had, ironically, fallen to the new and capitalist Russian Federation.

Trotsky probably wouldn’t have cared for such rehabilitations. In 1938, even after everything he had lost, he remained staunchly loyal to his beliefs. He never recanted in his defence of the maxim that the means always justifies the end, specially if that end was the fulfilment of communism. He never showed regret over the millions of lives he had uprooted or the hundreds of thousands killed as a result of his crusade, and remained convinced that the dictatorship of the proletariat was the only way. He deluded himself into the belief that the civil war’s killing and repression would have eventually subsided, but that Stalin’s dictatorship on the other hand, was self-serving and corrupt.

Were Trotsky and Stalin really different? Perhaps Trotsky was truly the lesser of two evils. One thing is for certain though, the Revolution always ends by devouring its own children.

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