Sunday, October 4, 2009

The End of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Patenaude

Up on the roof, inside the blockhouse, Joe Hansen was labeling the switches connecting the alarm system to the rooms of the individual guards. Suddenly a terrible cry pierced the afternoon quiet- "prolonged and agonized" is how Hansen registered it, "half scream, half sob. It dragged me to my feet, chilled to the bone." He scrambled out of the blockhouse and onto the roof, searching for its source. Melquiades was aiming his rifle at the window to the study, where there were sounds of a violent struggle. For a brief moment Trotsky's blue jacket became visible as he grappled with someone. "Don't shoot" Hanson shouted. "You might hit the Old Man!".

As Hansen entered the dining room Trotsky stumbled out of his study, blood streaming down his face. "See what they have done to me!" he moaned. Robins entered through the far door of the the dining room with Natalia close behind. She rushed over to her husband, his face now covered in blood. He had lost his glasses. His arms were hanging limp. "What happened? What happened" she asked, flinging her arms frantically around him and walking him out onto the porch.

Hansen and Robins entered the study, which was a shambles. Chairs were overturned and broken, papers and books scattered all about, the Dictaphone had been smashed. There were large pools of blood on the floor and blood spattered on the desk, the books, the papers. The assassin stood in the middle of the room, gasping, his face contorted, his arms hanging limp, a pistol dangling in his hand. Robins struck him on the head with the butt of his revolver, sending him to the floor.

Later, under questioning from police, the assailant began to spin a web of tangled lies about his background, his contacts in Mexico City and his movements before the attack. "It was a veritable maze", said Colonel Salazar. Yet Mercader's account of the the details of the crime had the ring of authenticity. He said he closed his eyes before striking the blow. "The man cried out in a way that I shall never forget as long as I lived. "His cry was 'aaaaaah...' very long. Infinitely long. And it appears to me still in these moments that this cry penetrates my brain."

Trotsky rose up like a madman, Mercader said, threw himself on him and bit his hand. Mercader pushed him away and he fell to the floor but managed to get up and leave the room. "I remained like one demented, without knowing what to do. At this time people entered and beat me". He begged Trotsky's guards to kill him, he said, but they refused. "I want to die."

The sirens died away as the ambulance pulled into the entrance of the Green Cross Emergency Hospital, where a crowd had gathered. Inside they laid Trotsky on a narrow cot. Silently the doctors examined the wound, as Natalia stood alongside her husband. On their instructions a nurse began to shave his head. With a hint of a smile, he said to Natalia, "Look, we found a barber."

Trotsky looked over at Hansen and gestured weakly with his right hand. "Joe, you...have...a notebook?" Hansen leaned against the cot and with the hand he had broken hitting Trotsky's assassin repeatedly in the face, recorded the Hero of Red October's official last words:

I am close to death from the blow of a political assassin, who struck me down in my room. I struggled with him. He entered the room to talk French statistics. He struck me. Please say to our friends that I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International. Go Forward!"

They began to undress the patient. Using scissors they cut away his blue jacket, then his knitted vest, then his shirt, and then they unstrapped his wristwatch. As they began to remove his pants, Trotsky said to Natalia, "I don't want them to undress me...I want you to do it." These words, spoken in a grave and sorrowful voice, were the last he ever spoke to Natalia. When she had finished, she bent over him and kissed his lips. He kissed her back. Again she kissed him, and again he responded. And then one final time.

Trotsky underwent surgery that evening. The doctors trepanned an area of the right parietal bone. Blood and gray matter spilled out from a wound three-quarters of an inch wide and two and three-quarters inches deep. The weapon itself had resembled a prospector's pick: one end was pointed, like an ice pick, the other was flat and wide; the handle about a foot long, had been cut down for concealment. The direction of the attack was from top to bottom, front to back, and right to left. Thus it turned out that his attacker had not struck Trotsky from behind, as was initially believed, which might explain why the victim was able too prevent his assailant from striking him a second time.

Early in the evening of August 21 Trotsky's breathing became alarmingly rapid. Natalia, losing her composure, asked the doctors what it meant. For the next twenty minutes they worked to save the patient, but at 7:25 Trotsky's last struggle ended.

When it was over, Natalia knelt down and pressed her face against the soles of her husband's feet. Until the very end she had waited for him to awaken and decide matters for himself. She would see this happen, though only seven months later, in a dream. She had moved out of their bedroom, and into an adjacent room that had once belonged to their grandson Seva. Trotsky came out of his study, passed through their bedroom and entered her room. He appeared vibrant and was immaculately dressed. His white hair thick and full. His eyes were a piercing blue. He walked over to her, stood there a moment, then said calmly, "Everything is finished".


  1. Looking back on Trotsky and Trotskyism from the perspective of August 1991, as history turned the corner, Albert Glotzer could not overcome a profound sense of waste. "Many things we wrote and said in the Thirties were simply bullshit," he wrote to novelist Saul Bellow. Bellow was a student Trotskyist in Chicago in the 1930s. He and a former classmate had an appointment to meet Trotsky in August 1940. They were in Taxco when they heard about the attack and rushed to Mexico City and to Green Cross Hospital. Passing themselves off as reporters, the two young men were led into a room where, as Bellow described the scene, "Trotsky was lying dead with a bloody turban of bandages, and a face streaked with iridescent iodine."

    Bellow was never as ideologically invested as the party cadres like Glotzer, and his Troskyism died at the same time as Trotsky did. A half-century later, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, he learned for the first time by reading Glotzer's own memoir of Trotsky how the man he once revered had been an outsider to Bolshevism until 1917, how his actions as a Bolshevik leader turned him into the prisoner of the myth of October as a worker's revolution, and how in his last exile he made his disciples its prisoners as well.

    "The Soviet Union will live and develop as a new social basis created by the October Revolution." Trotsky had declared after arriving in Mexico in 1937, when he predicted that the birthplace of socialism "will produce a regime of true democracy and will become the greatest factor for peace and for the social emancipation of humanity". Although doubts crept into his later writings, through the Kremlin's purges and the Nazi-Soviet pact and its bloody aftermath he refused to surrender this utopian vision. The fact is, as Glotzer elucidated for Bellow, Trotsky could not disavow the USSR without repudiating Red October, which would have meant renouncing his life's work, Instead, as his prospects grew dim and as Stalin's assassins closed in, he kept reaffirming his absolute faith in the dogma of Marxism and pointing towards a glorious Soviet future. "Optimism was all he had".

  2. "Life was a whirl of mass meetings." Trotsky wrote in his autobiography about his return from exile to the Russian Capital in May 1917, ten weeks after the fall of the Romanovs. "Meetings were held in factories, schools, colleges, in theaters, circuses, streets , and squares." Expand this list to include the Baltic shipyards and various army barracks, and one begins to understand why even the anti-Bolshevik accounts of 1917 give the impression of Trotsky as a man of perpetual motion. An eyewitness who belonged to one of the political parties vanquished by the Bolsheviks testified that Trotsky "seemed to be speaking simultaneously in all places. Every Petrograd worker and soldier knew him and heard him personally. His influence, both on the masses and at headquarters. was overwhelming...

    Trotsky's favorite venue was the Cirque Moderne, across the Neva from the Winter Palace, a dingy hall that became known to his allies and enemies alike as his "fortress" In 'Ten Days That Shook the World", John Reed recounts how every night this "bare , gloomy amphitheater, lit by five tiny lights hanging from a thin wire, was packed from the ring up the steep sweep of grimy benches to the very roof- soldiers, sailors, workmen, women, all listening as if their lives depended upon it."

    Trotsky's other great accomplishment was to organize the Red Army, which he did with exceptional energy and ruthlessness in the face of every possible catastrophe, when even Lenin himself lost hope.

  3. When it came to painting, Trotsky confessed he was never more than a dilettante. In the field of literature, however, he could claim to be an authority. He wrote extensively about literary fiction, beginning during his first exile to Siberia at the turn of the century. The young radical stood up for literary tradition... "The novel is our daily bread", he once remarked. In "Literature and Revolution, published in 1923, he wrote that "We Marxists have always lived in tradition and we have not ceased to be revolutionaries because of it." The notion that the art and literature of past epochs merely reflected the economic interests of vanquished social classes he considered vulgar. Great art, he declared, was timeless and classless. The belief that the dictatorship of the proletariat should extend its reach into the domain of culture he regarded as misguided. The proletariat's rule would be brief and transitory, Trotsky advised, giving away to a classless socialist society and with it the first universal culture. In any event, the Russian worker of his time was a cultural pauper. His immediate challenge was not to break with literary tradition, but raher to absorb and assimilate it, starting with the classics. "What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis," he said, "the worker will become richer".

    "Literature and Revolution" is available online:

    "Trotsky; Downfall of A Revolutionary" by Bertrand M. Patenaude; HarperCollins, N.Y. 2009