Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary's Life

Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary's Life

by Joshua Rubenstein

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A clear-eyed exploration of the career of Leon Trotsky, the tragic hero who “dreamed of justice and then wreaked havoc,” by a leading expert on human rights and the former Soviet Union


A clear-eyed exploration of the career of Leon Trotsky, the tragic hero who “dreamed of justice and then wreaked havoc,” by a leading expert on human rights and the former Soviet Union

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As much a myth and a legend as a man, Leon Trotsky is an individual of deep contradictions. One of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky was a theorist and architect of the Communist system. Though he helped create the authoritarian structure of the Soviet hierarchy, he pushed for greater openness within the system and suffered irreparable rifts, first with Lenin, then with Stalin. A dedicated intellectual and scholar and by all accounts smarter than Stalin, Trotsky was continuously outmaneuvered by his rival, who eventually had him exiled and assassinated. Rubenstein, a historian of the Soviet Union, seeks neither to lionize nor to demonize his subject, and the complicated portrait that emerges is of a man with a keen curiosity for human nature, but prone to the most stubborn closed-mindedness, a brilliant strategist and tactician who repeatedly erred and miscalculated. The author is particularly interested in Trotsky’s engagement with his Jewish identity, which manifested mostly in the political sphere. Fast-paced and engaging, Rubenstein’s brief biography provides a solid introduction to the period and a detailed examination of a man much studied but little understood. (Oct.)
Jewish Advocate

"An exemplary biography... Rubenstein depicts Trotsky as a tragic hero, a complex man whose brilliance and fallibility were inseparable."—Judith Maas, Jewish Advocate

— Judith Maas


"Joshua Rubenstein’s succinct account of Leon Trotsky’s life rescues the Russian radical from a remoteness, positioning him at a useful distance for contemporary readers."—Harvey Blume, ArtsFuse

— Harvey Blume

The Forward

"In this new, concise biography, Rubenstein offers a more balanced view of Trotsky....There are many reasons to commend this work — among them, Rubenstein’s depoliticization of its subject and the book’s succinctness and readability."—Peter Ephross, The Forward

— Peter Ephross

South Florida Jewish Journal

"Joshua Rubenstein has told a fascinating story in this book. It is very well documented, with close attention to the sources in several languages, and yet it reads like a novel."—Rabbi Jack Riemer, South Florida Jewish Journal

— Rabbi Jack Riemer

Foreign Affairs

"The merit of this trim book is that it pulls together all the essentials of the life of Leon Trotsky and the revolution he so significantly shaped into a seamless, intelligent, and wonderfully accessible synopsis."—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

— Robert Legvold

Steven J. Zipperstein

"Joshua Rubenstein has produced a steadily intelligent, insightful biography of one the last century's most alluring intellectual-politicians, a man of astonishing brilliance and no less astonishing rigidities."—Steven J. Zipperstein, author of Imagining Russian Jewry: Memory, History, Identity

Jewish Advocate - Judith Maas

"An exemplary biography... Rubenstein depicts Trotsky as a tragic hero, a complex man whose brilliance and fallibility were inseparable."—Judith Maas, Jewish Advocate

ArtsFuse - Harvey Blume

"Joshua Rubenstein’s succinct account of Leon Trotsky’s life rescues the Russian radical from a remoteness, positioning him at a useful distance for contemporary readers."—Harvey Blume, ArtsFuse

The Forward - Peter Ephross

"In this new, concise biography, Rubenstein offers a more balanced view of Trotsky....There are many reasons to commend this work — among them, Rubenstein’s depoliticization of its subject and the book’s succinctness and readability."—Peter Ephross, The Forward

South Florida Jewish Journal - Rabbi Jack Riemer

"Joshua Rubenstein has told a fascinating story in this book. It is very well documented, with close attention to the sources in several languages, and yet it reads like a novel."—Rabbi Jack Riemer, South Florida Jewish Journal

Foreign Affairs - Robert Legvold

"This trim book . . . pulls together all the essentials of the life of Leon Trotsky and the revolution he so significantly shaped into a seamless, intelligent, and wonderfully accessible synopsis."—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

The Guardian - Sheila Fitzpatrick

“. . . this is both a good read and a balanced, plausible interpretation of the man in his times. Rubenstein sees things to admire and deplore, and achieves the mix of empathy and critical distance a good biographer needs.”—Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Guardian

Kirkus Reviews

Brilliant, charismatic, fatally idealistic and dogmatic—Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was all this and more, according to this fine biography, the latest in the publisher's Jewish Lives series.

Rubenstein (Tangled Loyalties: The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg, 1996, etc.) locates a key period in Trotsky's intellectual development in his time spent as a child and adolescent in Odessa, where he lived with relations, acquired cultural awareness and social graces and, most importantly, gained insight into the hardships faced by the working classes. It was in Odessa that he first encountered a systematic, officially sanctioned anti-Semitism that barred him from admittance to select schools. Yet Trotsky's self-awareness of his Jewish identity was ambivalent throughout his life and always took a backseat to his identity as a communist. Developing into a public voice for change, he was launched on to the international stage after an escape from Siberian exile (where he left his first wife and daughters) to Vienna, where he met Lenin for the first time. During this period, Trotsky traveled extensively throughout Europe, honing ideas and stirring his listeners. Through these experiences, he formulated his notion of a "permanent revolution" necessary to sweep through all of Europe, one of the pillars of his political theory that is, in hindsight, understood to be both deeply flawed and destructive. Afeter 1905, with the exception of a few years, he shuttled between Vienna, London, Finland, Paris, a brief stint in New York and Mexico, where Stalin's long arm finally reached him. Trotsky proves to be a fascinating subject, a deeply flawed man whose charisma occasionally shines through the many excerpts of his speeches and texts. In the central chapter, "The Revolution of 1917," Rubenstein not only details the chronological events that led to the Bolshevik party's consolidation of power, he also presents these in the larger context of Russian and German war strategy. The author explores the battle of personalities between Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, as well as the gamesmanship of succession, with particular attention to Trotsky's puzzling failure of political acumen in not recognizing or responding to Stalin's threat to his role as Lenin's successor.

An accessible scholarly account of a man whose life spanned continents, whose charisma was legendary and whose ideas sparked a revolution and its backlash.

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Leon Trotsky

A Revolutionary's Life


Copyright © 2011 Joshua Rubenstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13724-8

Chapter One

The Young Revolutionary

To the world he will always be known as Leon Trotsky, but he was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein on October 26, 1879, in southern Ukraine, near the city of Kherson. His parents, David and Anna Bronstein, had eight children. Lev was their fifth, the third-oldest of their surviving children; four others died in infancy of diphtheria and scarlet fever. The Bronsteins were not typical Russian Jews. Unlike the majority of the tsar's five million Jews who were compelled to reside in the Pale of Settlement, an area encompassing much of present-day Belarus and Ukraine, Lev's parents lived on a farm, near land that David's father had initially cultivated in the 1850s when he left Poltava to settle among a group of Jewish colonies established by Tsar Alexander I earlier in the century. Most Russian Jews lived in small towns, on the margins of Russian cultural and social life, their day-to-day existence constrained by myriad legal restrictions that reduced them to second-class citizens.

In 1879 Tsar Alexander II sat securely on the throne, but the year marked a dramatic turn in the fate of Russia's Jews and the struggle against the Romanov dynasty. Earlier in his reign, Alexander II had carried out many significant reforms following Russia's defeat in the Crimean War, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the introduction of laws in the 1850s and 1860s that eased some of the long-standing civil restrictions on Russia's Jews. He ended forced Jewish juvenile conscription; expanded the right of Jews to live closer to the borders of Poland and Bessarabia; broadened opportunities for prosperous Jewish merchants to live in major Russian cities; and, at least under law, permitted Jews with university degrees to pursue government service throughout the Russian Empire.

These changes were not enough to assuage radical opinion, and the Jews remained a vulnerable and persecuted minority. On August 26, 1879, the People's Will, an underground opposition dedicated to the violent overthrow of the monarchy, proclaimed its intention to kill the tsar. And in November, an attempt was made to blow up the royal train. A month later, on December 21, Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, who would adopt the name Stalin as a young revolutionary, came into the world in a remote corner of the Caucasus.

Lev was born into a Russia that continued to be roiled by the "Jewish Question." Seven months before his birth, Russia's Jews were shaken by an unexpected attack. On March 5, 1879, a group of Jews was brought to trial in the town of Kutaisi for the ritual murder of a young peasant girl in Georgia. She had disappeared on Passover Eve in April 1878 and had been found dead two days later. The coroner ruled that she had accidentally drowned, but the police, convinced that the date of her disappearance and unusual wounds on her body and hands were evidence of foul play, arrested nine Jews from a neighboring village. Their trial was the first ritual-murder trial ever held in the Russian Empire, and though the defendants were acquitted, the case provoked intense attention, including a concerted campaign in Russia's extreme right-wing press to lend credibility to the charge.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was famous for his sympathy for the downtrodden, nonetheless succumbed to the hysteria surrounding the Kutaisi affair; he was so obsessed with Jews and the "Jewish Question" that he introduced the idea of ritual murder into his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, which he completed in November 1880, a few months before his death. Dostoevsky had also engaged in attacks on Jews in Russia and in Europe generally. Dostoevsky held the Jews responsible for the abuses of capitalism and the menace of socialism, concluding that Russia should not harbor any forgiving sentimentality toward its Jewish minority.

David Bronstein did not allow either antisemitic episodes or the general suspicion about Jews to get in his way. He showed remarkable initiative, buying a farm named Yanovka after the previous owner, then expanding his holdings either by purchase or by indirectly leasing land when renewed restrictions on Jews' owning of land took hold in 1881. Yanovka was remote, fourteen miles from the nearest post office and twenty-two from the railroad station. At one point, Bronstein controlled almost three thousand acres. He owned herds of cattle and sheep, a windmill, and a threshing machine, and he attracted the business of peasants who relied on him to separate and grind their grain. He also owned a brick kiln; the bricks he produced carried an imprint of the family name, and even today buildings in the surrounding area can be found with the word "Bronstein" visible on the walls. Trotsky once ruefully recalled how hard his father worked to enrich himself. "By indefatigable, cruel toil that spared neither himself nor others, and by hoarding every penny, my father rose in the world." But the parents' focus on work took an emotional toll on their children. "The land, the cattle, the poultry, the mill, took all my parents' time; there was none left for us. The seasons succeeded one another, and waves of farm work swept over domestic affection. There was no display of tenderness in our family."

David was illiterate and, according to Trotsky's memoirs, his parents spoke a "broken mixture" of Russian and Ukrainian, leaving Lev at an initial disadvantage at school. And, according to Trotsky, they did not speak Yiddish at a time when 97 percent of Russia's Jews regarded Yiddish as their mother tongue.

This area of Ukraine was still far more Jewish than a casual observer might assume and more Jewish than Trotsky preferred to recall. In his memoirs, he estimated that there were forty Jewish colonies with approximately twenty-five thousand Jewish residents in all. According to Trotsky, his father liked to proclaim his atheism, even to scoff at religion. His mother, although not observant of traditional rituals, preferred to avoid sewing or other small tasks on the Sabbath, or riding into town where other Jews would see her. Trotsky does not say so, but there must have been a sufficiently dense Jewish presence on neighboring farms and in town for her to feel such inhibitions. When the children were young, David and Anna Bronstein marked holidays in a nearby synagogue. But as the family grew more prosperous and the children grew older, there was less and less observance.

When Lev was seven, his parents sent him to the nearby village of Gromokley where he lived with relatives—Uncle Abram and Aunt Rachel—in order to attend his first school, a Jewish heder. He studied arithmetic, learned to read Russian, and was expected to study the Bible in the original Hebrew, then translate passages into Yiddish. "I had no intimate friends among my classmates," he recalled, "as I did not speak Yiddish."

Seeing a bit of the broader world brought him into contact with a harsher reality than he had seen at home. Gromokley was located among a group of Jewish and German settlements. One day, Lev witnessed a young woman with a reputation for loose morals being driven out of a Jewish village by a mob berating her with curses. "This biblical scene was engraved on my memory forever," he later wrote. (His Uncle Abram married this same woman several years later.) Lev noticed that the Jewish homes were little more than dilapidated cabins with tattered roofs and scrawny cows in the gardens, while the nearby German settlements were clean and well appointed. The experiment with this school was a failure and Lev returned home within three months. Evidently, his parents' ambivalent Jewish attitudes undermined whatever religious allegiance Lev might have picked up at heder.

Nonetheless, Lev was bright and eager to learn. Back at home, he took to reading whatever books lay about, copying passages into a notebook. He also helped his father with the account ledgers, displaying a talent for numbers that might have taken his life in a different direction from the one fate had in store for him. Spending his time around the farm, he came to know farmhands and peasants. One worker in particular, the mechanic Ivan Grebien, fascinated him. Grebien showed him tools and how the machinery worked. Grebien also had the respect of Lev's parents, who invited their mechanic to take lunch and dinner with the family. In his memoirs, Trotsky made a point of recalling Ivan Grebien as the principal figure of his early childhood. This may have been a sincere claim, but we cannot help but wonder whether it suited Trotsky to place a workingman at the center of his upbringing in a household that was otherwise marked by middle-class, bourgeois values and a father who Trotsky believed was capable of exploiting workers and peasants alike.

The direction of Lev's life changed in 1887 when an older cousin (his mother's nephew), Moisey Shpentzer, came to visit for the summer. Shpentzer was from Odessa. Although he had been barred from the university over a minor political offense, he made a modest living as a journalist and statistician. His wife, Fanny, had a career as headmistress of a secular school for Jewish girls. Lev and Shpentzer took to each other. Shpentzer must have been impressed by this precocious boy, who would not turn nine until October, because he offered to bring Lev to Odessa to continue his education there under his and his wife's protection. In the spring of 1888 Lev traveled two hundred miles by train and steamboat to Odessa.

The Shpentzers turned the unpolished boy into a refined and well-educated young man. Monya, as Lev called him, taught him "how to hold a glass, how to wash, how to pronounce ... words." Lev began to pay attention to his clothes, adopting a lifelong habit of dressing well. By then, he was assuming the striking physical appearance the world came to recognize: thick, wavy black hair over a high forehead, with pincenez over blue eyes. The Shpentzers worried that young Lev studied too hard; "I devoured books ravenously and had to be forced to go out for walks," Trotsky recalled of that time. He also enjoyed rocking their new baby girl. As she grew up, it was Lev who "detected her first smile, ... taught her to walk, and ... taught her to read." (This girl, under the name Vera Inber, became a well-known Moscow poet.) The New York radical journalist Max Eastman, who befriended Trotsky in the 1920s, met the Shpentzers and found them to be "kindly, quiet, poised, and intelligent."

Initially, the accommodations were modest; Lev slept behind a curtain in the dining room for four years. But the Shpentzers offered him a home imbued with a passion for literature in a cosmopolitan city that nurtured his curiosity and imagination. They tutored him in Russian, introduced him to classical European and Russian literature—he enjoyed reading Dickens in particular—and were not afraid to have forbidden books on the shelves, like Leo Tolstoy's play The Power of Darkness, which had just been banned by the tsar's censors; Lev heard them discussing the play and then read it on his own.

When it came to politics in the Shpentzers' home, however, "there was dissatisfaction [with the autocracy], but the regime was held to be unshakable. The boldest dreamed of a constitution as possible only after several decades." Shpentzer himself, in Trotsky's memory, held moderately liberal views, "lightly touched by vague socialist sympathies, tinged with Populist and Tolstoyan ideas." The adults remained cautious in front of Lev, avoiding talk of politics "because they were afraid that I might say something censurable at school, and get myself in trouble." For similar reasons, they would not permit him to read newspapers, hoping to shield him from radical ideas.

It was in Odessa that official antisemitism got in Lev's way. In 1887, as part of a broader set of restrictions directed against Jews in the wake of Alexander II's assassination, a new government decree had imposed harsh quotas on Jewish students in secondary school. Depending on the circumstances, Jews could be limited to 10 percent of all pupils. This restriction directly affected Lev. As a Jew, he had to take a competitive examination to enter Saint Paul's Realschule, the school picked out for him by the Shpentzers. But hampered by his age—he was a year younger than the other pupils in his grade level—and his lack of formal education, Lev failed the examination and had to spend a year in a special class to prepare for entry.

This incident may well have been the first time that Lev encountered prejudice because of his Jewish origins. But just as in his parents' home, he did not develop an emotional, let alone a spiritual or religious, attachment to being a Jew—Eastman observed that "it was not a thing that entered into his heart as a child"—so this episode of official anti-Jewish discrimination did not reinforce a residual loyalty based on being among the empire's most persecuted. Trotsky was sincere when he wrote in My Life: "This national inequality probably was one of the underlying causes of my dissatisfaction with the existing order, but it was lost among all the other phases of social injustice. It never played a leading part—not even a recognized one—in the lists of my grievances." Other Jewish socialists in his generation remembered their childhoods differently. Both Yuli Martov and Pavel Axelrod, who became close associates of Trotsky's when he first reached London, made a point of recalling the anti-Jewish hatred and discrimination that they faced; Martov, in particular, never forgot the terrible fear he experienced as a child during the Odessa pogrom of May 1881. For Lev, untoward references to his background were "merely another kind of rudeness." Eastman insisted, based on his friendship with Trotsky, that any such incidents "left no traces ... in his consciousness of himself." Early on, Trotsky came to regard his upbringing within a Jewish family as a simple accident of birth. Estranged from his parents, he distanced himself from their shared Jewish origins. There was no positive content to his Jewish identity.

Although Saint Paul's Realschule had been founded by German Lutherans, it was nonsectarian and accepted a diverse student body. "There was no open baiting of nationalities," Trotsky recalled, and the children were given religious instruction according to the faith of their families. "A good-natured man named Ziegelman instructed the Jewish boys in the Bible and the history of the Jewish people," Trotsky wrote. But "these lessons, conducted in Russian, were never taken seriously by the boys." Lev's father still wanted him to study the Hebrew Bible, "this being one of the marks of his parental vanity." Lev was tutored by a learned, older Jewish man, but the lessons, as Trotsky recalled, over the course of several months "did little to confirm [him] in the ancestral faith." In spite of David Bronstein's avowed atheism, this instruction was probably meant to prepare Lev for his Bar Mitzvah at the age of thirteen, a point Trotsky failed to specify in his memoirs; the ceremony never took place.

Odessa, with its prominent harbor on the Black Sea, was a distinctly cosmopolitan city. Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Italians, and French lived there, along with more exotic communities of Turks, Tatars, Persians, and Syrians. By the 1830s the city had become famous enough that the character of Père Goriot in Honoré de Balzac's novel declares on his deathbed his dream of going to Odessa. For Dostoevsky, Odessa verged on being too cosmopolitan. It was not only "the center of our rampant socialism," as he claimed in a letter in 1878, but "the city of the Yids," as well. As a center for the export of Russian grain, Odessa thrived on commercial relations with Europe, Asia, and the United States.

For Jews, life in Odessa offered entry points into Russian society and culture; the city was probably the most modern place where they could live within the confines of the Pale of Settlement. Here again, as in his years in Yanovka, Lev was living among many Jews. Jewish residents numbered well over 100,000 and made up more than a third of the city's population. Shpentzer's wife directed a secular high school for Jewish girls, while major Yiddish and Hebrew literary figures, like Hayim Nachman Bialik, Saul Tchernikhovsky, Ahad Ha'am, and Simon Dubnow, lived in the city in the final decades of the nineteenth century. None of this touched Lev.

He thrived instead within the broader secular culture of Odessa. Lev discovered opera and the theater and began to write poems and stories. Moisey Shpentzer opened a liberal publishing business, and soon writers and journalists were stopping by the house, thrilling Lev by their presence and their passion for literature. In his eyes, "authors, journalists, and artists always stood for a world which was more attractive than any other, one open only to the elect."

Admitted to Saint Paul's, Lev was quickly recognized as the best student in his class. Moisey Shpentzer eagerly recalled, "No one had to take charge of his training, no one had to worry about his lessons. He always did more than was expected of him." But school had its difficult moments. Lev could be outspoken and in a candid moment once recalled about himself that he was "ambitious, quick-tempered, and probably a hard person to get along with," traits that never left him. He edited a school magazine, but knew enough to stop when a friendly teacher pointed out that such ventures had been expressly forbidden by the Ministry of Education. Another time, in the second grade, Lev joined classmates in booing and hissing an unpopular French teacher. Lev was singled out by cowardly classmates, and the targeted teacher, happy to confirm the identity of the chief miscreant, had Lev expelled for the remainder of the year.

Trotsky drew a telling lesson from this incident. He understood that the school was divided among certain groups of moral categories: "The tale-bearers and the envious at one pole, the frank, courageous boys at the other, and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. These three groups," Trotsky wrote in 1929, "never quite disappeared even during the years that followed." The Shpentzers were emotionally supportive, but Lev was anxious about his father's reaction and was relieved—and more than a little surprised—when David Bronstein proved to be understanding and even took pleasure in hearing Lev's impudent whistling, the obnoxious behavior that had so upset the teacher.


Excerpted from Leon Trotsky by JOSHUA RUBENSTEIN Copyright © 2011 by Joshua Rubenstein. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Joshua Rubenstein was a staff member of Amnesty International USA from 1975 to 2012 and is a longtime associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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