Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was the co-leader of the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, the organizer and commander of the Red Army, and an opponent of the rule of Joseph Stalin over the USSR. He spent most of his adult life in exile, first banished by the tsarist government and later expelled from the Soviet state that he had helped create.
Following his expulsion from the Communist Party in 1927, Trotsky started to polemicize against the Stalinist regime. In the 1930s he tried to build a new international socialist movement, the Fourth International, which won relatively few adherents compared to the Communist parties that took their orders from the Kremlin.
Stalin had Trotsky condemned to death in a show trial organized in Moscow in 1936. After that it was only a matter of time before a Soviet assassin would strike the fatal blow.
Born to a prosperous peasant family in present-day Ukraine, Lev Davidovich Bronstein (Trotsky was a nom de guerre adopted later in life) was a gifted student and seemed all set for a respectable professional career. But the Russian Empire in the late-1800s was in a state of social and political upheaval. The country was run by an autocratic regime headed by Tsar Nicholas II - but many people believed that Russia had to modernize and become more like the European democracies of the West.
Millions of peasants had moved from the countryside to the cities of the Empire to find work in huge new factories and textile mills. In these new industrial areas, socialist activists successfully rallied workers to demand better wages and more rights, and a strong socialist movement grew in Russia. Radicals were also active in the countryisde, trying to organize the peasantry against the worst excesses of feudal landlordism. Meanwhile many middle class students aspired to build a new and enlightened society ... and even agitated for the downfall of the Romanov royal family.
As a teenager, Trotsky was caught up in the rebellious spirit of the times. He became a Marxist and a highly effective organizer of industrial workers in St Petersburg. There, in 1905, Trotsky led a revolutionary movement that came close to toppling the tsarist regime; however, Nicholas was able to maintain his rule. The monarch brutally repressed protesters, but he also - very reluctantly - granted a few democratic concessions to his people.
Trotsky and many other revolutionaries were arrested in late-1905. He spent over a year in prison before being exiled to Siberia. But Trotsky was able to escape, leaving Russia and eventually settling in New York City. He returned to Russia following the February Revolution of 1917, in which Tsar Nicholas II was deposed. Trotsky joined with Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and they spent the summer of 1917 campaigning for an end to Russia's involvement in the First World War - a popular demand among the workers, soldiers and sailors in St Petersburg, who were exhausted by the war and all the privations for ordinary people that came with it.
Trotsky helped to organize the October Revolution that established Soviet rule. Though he had had political differences with Lenin and the Bolsheviks prior to 1917, Trotsky became an integral part of the new regime. Indeed, he proved to be, after Lenin, the most brilliant and well regarded figure in Soviet society.
The new "dictatorship of the proletariat" was beset by enemies within, including royalists and liberals, as well as other left-wing groups who opposed the form of socialism advocated by the new Bolshevik government. Trotsky organized a new fighting force - the Red Army - from the remnants of the old tsarist army and an influx of devoted socialist revolutionaries. Despite his lack of military experience, Trotsky proved to be an effective wartime leader. After a terrible civil war, which included fighting foreign armies and their local proxies, the Red Army and the Bolshevik government emerged victorious. The country was in ruins, though.
Lenin was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union in its early years. Following a series of strokes, a badly debilitated Lenin died in 1924. The power vacuum that followed saw various formations of collective leadership come and go, as alliances were formed and broken and reformed between the leading figures of the Bolshevik movement. Eventually, Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, emerged as the supreme leader. Trotsky was sidelined, then exiled to a remote area of the USSR, and finally forced out of the country in 1929.
In a bid to guarantee his absolute power over the country, in the 1930s Stalin launched a murderous purge of the Communist Party, the military, and the state bureaucracy. Senior figures, including men who had been longterm comrades of Lenin and Stalin, were condemned and sentenced to death based on trumped up charges during a series of show trials. Trotsky was found guilty of planning a "fascist" conspiracy to wreck the Soviet Union, and sentenced to death in absentia.
Trotsky vehemently denied the charges and took part in a Commission of Inquiry organized by the American academic John Dewey. The inquiry found that the charges leveled against Trotsky were fabricated and politically motived. But Trotsky's fate had, effectively, been sealed - and he knew that it was only a matter of time before one of Stalin's henchmen would fulfill the execution order that had been handed down at the Moscow show trial.
After years on the run, Trotsky was granted asylum in Mexico in 1937. Though still living under the constant threat of assassination, it was in Mexico that Trotsky, with his wife Natalia and their grandson Seva, enjoyed a degree of normality as a family. Their home in Coyoacan was an oasis, with a lovely garden where chickens and rabbits were raised. It provided, for the first time in many years, a stable base from which Trotsky could work as a writer and try to build support for his international socialist movement to oppose Stalinism. Many sympathizers visited Trotsky during his time in Mexico, including local artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (with whom Trotsky had a brief affair).
But their home life in Coyoacan was far from idyllic. The house was heavily guarded by Trotsky's supporters (mostly drawn from the United States) and there were constant threats against his life. One assassination attempt in May 1940 saw a team of assailants enter the compound and burst into the house, where they fired bullets into Trotsky's bedroom. Trotsky and Natalia were lucky to survive - but even a subsequent increase in security at the house would not prevent the agents of Stalin from striking again.
Trotsky was murdered by a Communist agent, Ramon Mercader, in August 1940. Mercader had ingratiated his way into the household by forming a relationship with one of Trotsky's secretaries and posing as a political sympathizer. He used his access to the house to enter Trotsky's study and strike his target in the head with an ice pick. Trotsky died from the wound the following day.
Mercader was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Following his release he split his time between Cuba and Moscow, where he was hailed by the Communist regime as a "Hero of the Soviet Union" for the murder.
Attribution for music used in this episode:
Assassinations Podcast Theme Music (Intro, Outro, and Transitions) written and performed by Graeme Ronald