Stalin's vilified victim

May 3, 1996

Leon Trotsky's importance cannot be denied, no matter what hatred he arouses. His successes, and even his failures, were turning points in 20th-century history. His drama was not only one of political action but also of intellectual values: more, perhaps, than any other leading political figure in world history, he was also a major intellectual figure in his own right. The key political and cultural problem for Russians of this generation is to decide whether the heritage of the Bolshevik revolution should be rejected in toto or whether, in fact, there is something positive that needs to be retained. In this respect, not even Lenin and Stalin are harder figures than Trotsky for Russians to come to terms with. The revolution gave Russia a central and often decisive influence in 20th-century affairs, but taken as a whole, the Soviet era is plausibly judged as having exacted, in the name of insanely overvaulting social and internationalist ideals, a terrible and irreplaceable human toll from peoples of the former Russian Empire. Trotsky was the last man who can escape being blamed, because he was the chief organiser of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, had primary responsibility for securing the Bolsheviks' victory in the ensuing Russian civil war by his creation and leadership of the Red Army, and embodied more fully than anyone else the revolution's universalist ambitions and ideals. Even when politically defeated by Stalin, Trotsky's polemics had an important influence on contemporary opinions of crucial events like the abortive Chinese revolution of the 1920s, Hitler's drive to power in Germany, and the Spanish civil war. Shortly before his notorious assassination in Mexican exile by a Soviet agent, he was keenly debating such issues as the Mexican revolution and the racialism faced by African-Americans.

For Russian historians especially, the greatest single problem in evaluating Trotsky's activities and ideas is that they look at them across a chasm - not so much in time as in mental atmosphere. In the Stalin era the revolutionary ideology was truncated and distorted almost beyond recognition. Trotsky was depicted as the revolution's anti-Christ by a state-sponsored slander campaign of unequalled proportions. The Soviet people, hermetically isolated from the outside world, had virtually no possibility of getting at anything like the truth. Most leaders of the generation that had carried out the revolution were wiped out by Stalin and could not transmit to younger people an accurate sense of the ideals, events and heroes of the revolution's earlier phase. Everything has been calculated for demonology to flourish. No wonder Russian studies today of the revolutionary leaders tend to excel in hatred, execration, bewilderment, contradiction and, as Carlyle said of similar histories of the French revolution, darkness. Due to blanket hatred of revolutionary ideology, there is little imaginative attempt to understand how it arose. Thus, there is no historical sense about the outlook of Russia of that time.

The interest of Dmitry Volkogonov's book is threefold: it is the first full-scale biography of Trotsky from Russia; it is based on hitherto closed Soviet archives; and the author, who died a few months ago, was a prominent historian connected to Boris Yeltsin. In this context, the book's absence of any sustained rancour towards its subject is striking: one would not look to the Yeltsinites for an unembittered view of Trotsky. A professional soldier with the rank of colonel-general and former chief of the Soviet army's political education, and later director of the Institute of Military History in Moscow, Volkogonov early on transferred his allegiance to Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He became Yeltsin's defence adviser, and was given supervisory powers over the treasure trove of secret archives left behind by the defunct Soviet state.

Some remarks Volkogonov made to the press while writing his Trotsky biography on the basis of the new archival material did not foreshadow an objective assessment: he was reported as stating that this book would "increase hatred of Trotsky". Volkogonov published in English last year a biography of Lenin. It was extremely vituperative and one-sided. But this work on Trotsky is far more subtle. Although frequently inconsistent in its characterisations of Trotsky, positive attributes are showered on him. To cite only one instance: "Against the powerful intellect and brilliant personal characteristics of this creative individual stood the dull but mighty machine of the party organisation." The book sold a million copies in Russia, and should do something to de-demonise Trotsky's image there.

When exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, Trotsky took with him a large number of official Soviet documents which he eventually entrusted to Harvard University. It was on the basis of these that Isaac Deutscher wrote his renowned biography of Trotsky. Volkogonov has drawn on the Harvard papers as well as the new Soviet archives. Although not remotely as informative as Deutscher about Trotsky's thinking, Volkogonov contributes many fresh details concerning his career during the civil war and the struggle with Stalin for the supreme leadership after Lenin's death. More concretely than foreign studies and citing vivid new eyewitness accounts, Volkogonov describes the way Trotsky fulfilled his function as the chief inspirer of the Red soldiers, the organisation of the famous military train which took him from front to front and his relations with his staff. His presence in these years as the Soviet leader second only to Lenin, and by far the most dynamic one, emerges far better than in his autobiography where Trotsky underplayed his contribution. There is also fresh light on the process of his fall from power when illness forced Lenin to withdraw. It is well known that there was a conspiracy at this time between Stalin and two other Politburo members - Zinoviev and Kamenev - to oust Trotsky. Volkogonov shows that it was far more elaborately organised than generally realised. The extensive Soviet secret police surveillance of Trotsky in his last exile and the way in which his assassination was planned and carried out are shown for the first time from Soviet sources, including some of the people responsible.

Most of Trotsky's relatives were wiped out by Stalin. Volkogonov has managed to trace the very few survivors in Russia, and establish the fates of some of those who were killed. In one particularly chilling paragraph, he notes soberly that while Trotsky in 1940 thought tens of thousands of party members had perished at Stalin's hands, the true figure derived from Soviet documents is well over one million.

It was the destruction of democracy within the party itself in the 1920s which made Stalin's absolutism possible. This destruction Trotsky from early on opposed, as Volkogonov fully acknowledges. He has no truck with the odd thesis favoured by some Russian and western historians that blames Trotsky for Stalin's rise on the grounds that to avoid Trotsky's ultra-radical programme many Bolsheviks felt compelled to give Stalin the crucial help he needed to consolidate power. All the same, Volkogonov's main theme is another theory making Trotsky largely culpable for Stalin's crimes, despite his unyielding opposition to them. At the most general level this is because Trotsky, like most Bolsheviks, endorsed the banning of all political parties apart from the Bolshevik party.

So far, so good. But Volkogonov goes on to argue that two of the most devastating of Stalin's policies were originally put forward and popularised by Trotsky: state-led industrialisation and collectivisation of agriculture. It is true that Trotsky himself liked to think that he influenced Stalin's decision not to appease capitalism. But there is good reason to believe that Trotsky's influence has been seriously exaggerated. High-speed, state-driven industrialisation was a natural course of action for the uncontrolled bureaucracy Stalin headed.

In any case Trotsky's views on industrial problems were far more balanced and realistic than Volkogonov would have us believe. If a distorted idea of Trotsky's views became current, this was due to the abrogation of sensible debate within the party. At the beginning of the 1930s industrialisation campaign, Stalin himself, in a famous speech, and with obvious sincerity, invoked as his inspirer Peter the Great. Also, there is no excuse for confusing, as Volkogonov does, Trotsky's advocacy of voluntary agricultural collectivisation with Stalin's later wholesale dragooning of the peasantry. Above all, it is absurd to assume, as Volkogonov and countless other historians so often do, that policies Trotsky expected to be implemented in conditions of free inner-party debate are the same as grossly distorted forms of them enforced by a totalitarian order of which he was a deadly foe.

Volkogonov is on much firmer ground when he excoriates Trotsky for endorsing the Bolsheviks' single-party monopoly. Yet could a Russian democracy in the 1920s, even one of socialist parties, have avoided opening the door to a counter-revolution involving the rise of an ultra-rightwing dictatorship? Did the Soviet regime have a sufficiently powerful social basis to dispense with some form of political coercion? We shall never know, precisely because the Bolshevik party's internal democracy was killed.

Was not a revolution which led to such tragic conundrums simply a disaster? Volkogonov has no doubt it was. He underlines Trotsky's denunciations of liberals, Russian and other, as a manifestation of the destructive "Jacobinism" which he had a large role in inculcating into the Russian revolutionary movement. Here lack of historical sense shows. To read Volkogonov, you would think the liberals in question were as amiable as Paddy Ashdown. Yet those same Russian liberals took for granted the Russian imperialist aims which helped to bring about the first world war. Much historical progress had to happen before Trotsky's liberals began to behave like Paddy Ashdown's; and the Russian revolution was a vital contributor to the process, not least by its removal of reactionary German militarism as a force in world politics.

Volkogonov's capriciousness is quite remarkable. He records many episodes showing Trotsky's fearlessness, yet also quotes without rebuttal a former assistant of the man as saying that he was "something of a coward" because he had several bodyguards on his military train. The battle with Stalin in the 1920s is described as a praiseworthy attempt by Trotsky to stem the tide of totalitarianism, but is also called a politician's scramble for position. Trotsky, claims Volkogonov, had no real attachment to Russia, as witnessed by the almost complete absence of longing for it in his writings in exile. That is a strange view, coming from someone who values Trotsky's books as highly as Volkogonov does. Trotsky, after all, produced one of the finest Russian autobiographies, praised for its magical Tolstoy-like ability to recreate the world of a Russian childhood, and his books abound in unforgettable portraits of Russian personalities, from the tsar and major writers down to the humblest peasant.

Nonetheless, this book is welcome sign that Russians are beginning to overcome bitterness and Stalinist demonology when assessing the revolutionary leaders. Volkogonov has taken a brave step towards filling the gap in Russia's historical consciousness and recognising that, like the French revolution, the Bolshevik upheaval was creative as well as destructive.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary

Author - Dmitry Volkogonov
ISBN - 0 00 2552 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £14.99
Pages - 524
Translator - Harold Shukman

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