The Seeds of His Own Destruction

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The Seeds of His Own Destruction

By Richard Pipes

Published: March 24, 1996

Review of: TROTSKY The Eternal Revolutionary. By Dmitri Volkogonov. Edited and translated by Harold Shukman. Illustrated. 524 pp. New York: The Free Press. $32.50.

At the time of Lenin's death in 1924, Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), widely credited with managing the October 1917 coup and winning the civil war, was the best known of Lenin's associates, and hence he was presumed to be the deceased leader's heir. Insiders, however, knew that he stood no chance against Stalin. For one thing, Trotsky had joined the Bolsheviks late, in the summer of 1917; until then, he had relentlessly attacked them and made sport of their leader. This record disqualified him from membership in the Bolshevik "Old Guard," which distributed among itself the highest posts in the Soviet Government.

Against him also was a disagreeable personality. Inordinately vain, arrogant, often rude, he was constitutionally incapable of the kind of disciplined teamwork that the Bolshevik Party required of its members. He saw himself as the conscience of the Revolution, and never missed an opportunity to criticize his colleagues. Lenin ignored most of his recommendations, routinely relegating the wordy memorandums with which Trotsky bombarded the Central Committee to the archives. To be sure, Lenin valued Trotsky's brutality and contempt for mankind as well as his outstanding literary and rhetorical gifts. But of his political and administrative abilities he had a very low opinion. A recently declassified document reveals that in March 1921 he told a gathering of Communists that when it came to politics, Trotsky "didn't have a clue."

And, last but not least, Trotsky's Jewishness stood in the way. Trotsky insisted that his ethnic origins meant nothing to him, that he was not a Jew but an "internationalist." True to this self-image, he did not lift a finger to help the victims of pogroms in the Ukraine in 1919-20 in which a minimum of 50,000 Jews lost their lives. And yet he also recognized that whatever his own view of himself, he was perceived by the population as a Jew, and that this perception, given the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Semitism even in Communist ranks, barred him from heading the Soviet state.

For all these reasons, he was elbowed out by Stalin in the contest for Lenin's mantle. Documents from recently opened archives reveal that after 1920 Lenin increasingly consulted Stalin rather than Trotsky about matters of domestic and foreign policy. It was on his instructions that Stalin was appointed General Secretary in 1922. Trotsky held only one post in the party, namely membership in the Politburo, whereas Stalin belonged to all three organs of the Central Committee: the Politburo, the Secretariat and the Orgburo, which offered him unique opportunities for political patronage. He was Lenin's true disciple and legitimate successor.

Until the appearance of this biography, the authoritative treatment of Trotsky's life was an adulatory three-volume study by Isaac Deutscher, published between 1954 and 1963. That work was not only uncritical of its hero but careless in its use of sources, especially those in the Trotsky Archive at Harvard's Houghton Library, to which Deutscher was the first, and for a long time the only, person to gain access. For "Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary," Dmitri Volkogonov used not only the Houghton papers but also the rich materials in Russian archival depositories. The result is a far more realistic portrait of the man whom Deutscher extolled as an infallible "prophet." Although Volkogonov's book is not without shortcomings -- it is badly organized and overly reliant on archival sources -- it is indispensable for an understanding of Trotsky's spectacular rise and even more spectacular fall.

Volkogonov, who died last December at the age of 67 after a long bout with cancer, was a notable figure in his own right. He had lost both his parents to Stalin's terror in the late 1930's, when his father was shot and his mother deported to a concentration camp. Despite this background, he enjoyed a rapid rise in the Soviet Army as a specialist in charge of psychological and ideological warfare. Only a fully committed Communist could qualify for these posts, and he earned his credentials by grinding out propagandistic and agitational screeds.

In the mid-1980's, on being appointed director of the Military History Institute, Volkogonov, now a colonel general, turned his attention to the past. In no time, doubts arose in his mind: he began to express heretical ideas, which led Mikhail Gorbachev to dismiss him. His misgivings about Communism intensified after August 1991, when, following the abortive military putsch that resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin appointed Volkogonov as his military adviser. This position opened doors to all the Russian historical depositories, including the Presidential Archive, which remains to this day out of bounds to independent scholars. The fruits of his researches were biographies of Stalin (1991), Trotsky (1992) and Lenin (1994). (The volume on Trotsky is the last to be translated into English.) The more he studied the historical sources, the more his disillusionment grew: his unfailing loyalty to the Communist cause ultimately turned into passionate hatred. In his last years he acted like a man awakened from a long hypnotic sleep.

The English version of Volkogonov's biography of Trotsky, in an able translation by Harold Shukman, is about three-fourths the length of the original, but it omits nothing of importance. The book consists of two roughly equal parts. The first chronicles Trotsky's youth, pre-1917 revolutionary career and accomplishments as one of Soviet Russia's leaders; the second, his remarkably swift fall from power followed by years of wanderings as an exile and Stalin's relentlessly hunted quarry.

The early part of the book contributes little that is new, although one should note that the author, a professional soldier, plays down Trotsky's contribution to the Red victory in the civil war, calling him a "dilettante" in military matters. Trotsky's contribution lay not in defeating the White Russian generals (credit for which belongs to the ex-czarist officers in Soviet service) but in inspiring the demoralized Red Army to fight with his fiery rhetoric and in preventing its disintegration by introducing an unparalleled regime of military terror. Curiously, Volkogonov does not deal with Trotsky's role in the defense of Petrograd in 1919, the one occasion when he personally took part in combat, saving the city from likely capture by White forces. He also fails fully to discuss Trotsky's sordid role in suppressing the Kronstadt anti-Soviet uprising of 1921.

The core of the book lies in the second half, which is both original and fascinating to read. Trotsky's version of his struggle with Stalin has long been known. Volkogonov is the first historian to shed light on the Soviet side of the conflict. Citing Stalin's orders to the secret police and their reports to him, he provides a comprehensive picture of the contest that ended in Trotsky's murder.

Trotsky and Lev Sedov, his son and closest aide, frequently said and wrote that Stalin's regime had to be overthrown and Stalin himself assassinated. These were absurdly irresponsible claims, given that Trotsky and his faction numbered but a few thousand migrs and foreign sympathizers, their ranks thoroughly infiltrated by Stalin's agents, and that his followers inside the Soviet Union were being systematically killed off. And yet it turns out from the documents cited by Volkogonov that these empty threats, quickly communicated to the Kremlin, struck terror into the heart of the paranoid tyrant. Stalin became consumed by the idea of getting rid of his rival: his orders to "liquidate" Trotsky, first issued in the mid-1930's, were not, as previously believed, primarily motivated by a yearning for revenge, but rather by the desire to save himself and his regime. The obsessive charges of "Trotskyism" levied against the defendants in the show trials of 1936-38 and the bloodbath of 1937, it now emerges, were inspired by an irrational yet genuine fear of internal subversion. To have demonstrated this is a major contribution of Volkogonov. Only thanks to tireless vigilance and good luck did Trotsky manage for several years to escape the various attempts on his life. In the end he fell victim in 1940 to a murderer who, owing to a temporary lapse of watchfulness, had managed to penetrate Trotsky's fortress in Coyoacn, Mexico.

Trotsky remained to the last day of his life a committed revolutionary, convinced, even after the Stalin-Hitler Pact and the fall of France, that the collapse of capitalism and world revolution were inevitable and even imminent. Volkogonov treats this quixotic faith as the folly of a fanatic and at the same time half admires it. (He appears here not to have shed entirely his earlier beliefs.) He voices outrage at the barbarities perpetrated by the Communists, and stresses that Trotsky fell victim to a police regime that he himself had helped put in place. And still, like so many Russians, he cannot quite rid himself of sympathy for Communist ideals. While he condemns Communism as a "70-year experiment that failed by almost any reckoning," he muses:

"Although the great Soviet prophet and his prophecies have been repudiated in theory, logic and reality, it does not follow that Communism cannot exist as a variant of Utopian theory. The search for a system in which the people exercise real power and where humanism and justice prevail does not have to end because it failed universally in its 20th-century Communist guise."

When one closes this book one cannot quite escape the feeling that Trotsky's implacable commitment to the mirage of world revolution served him as psychological compensation for his dismal political failure. It made him face the inevitable death at Stalin's hands confident of his place in history and glorying in the conviction that he was the last genuine "Bolshevik-Leninist."

Richard Pipes teaches history at Harvard. His mostrecent book is "A Concise History of the Russian Revolution."

Name: ________________________

Trotsky & Historiography
Based on the information presented in the article, take notes relevant to historiography for each author:

Isaac Deutscher

Richard Pipes

Dmitri Volkogonov

  1. What is the significance of “documents from recently opened archives”?

  1. Why is Richard Pipes critical of Isaac Deutcher’s work on Trotsky?

  1. Why does Richard Pipes praise Dmitri Volkognov’s work on Trotsky?

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