The Dustbunnies of History
Bertrand M. Patenade
Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky
Faber and Faber, 2009
On the night of the October Revolution of 1917, Russia’s moderate socialists stormed out of the Second Congress of Soviets in Petrograd to protest the radical Bolshevik coup d’état underway across the city. Before the moderates managed to leave the chamber, however, an agitated Bolshevik delegate with a moustache, beady eyes, and sparkling pince-nez rose to hammer a final, icy nail in their coffin. “You are pitiful, isolated individuals”, Leon Trotsky roared. “You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!”
Having joined the Bolshevik Party just a few months earlier, Trotsky, a former moderate, narrowly escaped the dustbin himself. As the October Revolution progressed into a full-blown civil war, he became the mastermind of the Red Army’s campaign, solidifying his place in history as Vladimir Lenin’s ruthless and obstreperous War Commissar. By 1922, the Bolsheviks had won the war, and when Lenin died two years later (the result of a stroke, syphilis, poisoning, or some combination of the three), the question of who would lead the world’s first avowedly socialist state became, for Trotsky, one of life and death.
Josef Stalin was determined to sweep Trotsky into the dustbin. Afflicted by perpetual fevers and poor health, a sickly Trotsky was on his way to the Black Sea in 1924 when he received news of Lenin’s death via telegram from Stalin. The telegram misstated the date of the funeral, making it seem impossible for Trotsky’s train to return to Moscow in time for the ceremony. When the country’s revolutionary heroes paraded onto the Kremlin balustrade at Lenin’s funeral, Trotsky was nowhere to be found.
After years of political infighting, the ruling Stalinist clique voted Trotsky out of the government in 1927. A year and a half later, they exiled him from the country for good. By banishing Trotsky and later orchestrating his murder in Mexico, Stalin removed the only other person with a compelling claim to Lenin’s mantle. But he did not stop there. Over the course of the 1930s, Stalin gradually invented, in the likeness of Trotsky, the Soviet folk devil par excellence. He whittled Trotsky into the ultimate traitor, excised his legacy from the history books, and executed thousands in the name of fabricated Trotskyite sympathies. Having morphed from revolutionary war hero to public enemy number one, Trotsky spent most of his days in exile trying to clear his name, writing books and press releases to set the historical record straight, and mourning friends and relatives executed by Stalin.
This sunset period of Trotsky’s life forms the basis of Bertrand M. Patenaude’s book, Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky. Despite its title, the book covers only Trotsky’s exile in Mexico, from 1937 to 1940, and largely overlooks the time he spent exiled in Turkey, France, and Norway beforehand. The reason is clear: it is Mexico where the spiciest titbits of Trotsky’s life took place—where the old man liaised with Frida Kahlo, and later met his death in the form of a pickaxe to the skull—and Patenaude has written a book concerned more with narrative spice than with staid, analytical savour.
An academic by training, Patenaude has forayed into the realm of popular history in the footsteps of Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose successful biographies of Stalin and Catherine the Great have presented Russian history in the style of a dramatic novel. But where Montefiore shines in his use of slick and speedy prose, Patenaude disappoints, striking an unbalanced tone that oscillates between sensational gossip and hurried historical analysis. This deficiency, combined with the book’s schizophrenic timeline and repetitiveness, causes Stalin’s Nemesis to fall short of the robust novelistic recreation it might have been.
Yet the book does not fail completely. Patenaude unwittingly reveals the chief merit of his book when describing Trotsky’s biography of Stalin: “Like all historical research”, he says, “Trotsky’s job was one of excavation.” This is clearly how Patenaude interprets the biographer’s brief, for despite its shortcomings, Stalin’s Nemesis succeeds at the task of excavation. Patenaude airs even the most obscure and irrelevant dustbunnies of history, combing through archival and secondary-source materials on Trotsky’s later life in a way that leaves no sensational stone unturned.
The dustbunnies that Patenaude brings to light range the gamut, from real bunnies—Trotsky kept them on his Mexican patio as pets and tended to them just before his murder—to oral sex, a frank discussion of which appears in a letter that Trotsky wrote to his wife Natalia during the liaison with Frida. Why Patenaude believes that readers want to know about Trotsky’s erections, or rather lack thereof, is anyone’s guess. But blinded by the temptations of salaciousness, Patenaude forges ahead into the biographical depths, right down to the revolutionary’s anus: apparently, certain species of Mexican bacteria aggravated Trotsky’s colon, which was already irritated by colitis.
The book’s effusive details, some fascinating and others wholly unnecessary, hardly end there. For example, we learn that Trotsky briefly lived in the Bronx before returning to launch the revolution in 1917; the surrealist André Breton offended Trotsky by stealing Mexican figurines from a church the two visited together; the writer Saul Bellow sat in the hospital waiting room as Trotsky died; and the artist Diego Rivera—Frida’s husband and the guarantor of the old man’s asylum in Mexico—first appeared on Trotsky’s radar when he inserted Lenin’s face into a mural he painted at Radio City Music Hall. Ramon Mercader, the Spanish-born NKVD agent who infiltrated Trotsky’s inner circle and killed him, apparently worked as a chef at the Ritz in Barcelona.
Mercader played the lead role in “Operation Duck”, the intricate plot to murder Trotsky, which comprises a large part of the book. Patenaude describes how the NKVD recruited Mercader during the Spanish Civil War and planned for him to infiltrate Trotsky’s circle by romancing Sylvia Ageloff, a Brooklyn social worker who had become involved in the American Trotskyist movement. Using Ageloff as a conduit, Mercader ingratiated himself to the members of Trotsky’s domestic staff in Mexico and eventually met his target. On 20 August 1940, the day he bludgeoned Trotsky in the head, Mercader entered the Mexican home straight through the front door, greeted by a cordial welcome from the guards. After 20 years in jail, Mercader was released and awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for his service to the USSR.
While Patenaude treats the story surrounding Trotsky’s murder with particular rigour and care, the second-most memorable moment of Trotsky’s Mexican exile, his liaison with the painter Frida Kahlo, receives relatively scant attention, a mere ten pages in total. This is partly because the documents are few: Trotsky reportedly asked Frida to return the letters they exchanged out of fear that Stalinist agents would find them, and after Frida complied, the letters were destroyed.
The book gives very little sense of Frida’s personal rapport with Trotsky, aside from the detail that Frida apparently called him piochitas, or “little goatee”. Again, Patenaude concentrates on the dustbunnies: on the sexual symbolism of a monkey in one of Frida’s self-portraits, on Frida’s former Japanese-American lover and Rivera’s violent tendencies. These details come at the expense of a deeper look into the substance of the pair’s relationship. Moreover, the book’s depiction of Frida desperately lacks nuance, not least because it manages to render a feminist cult icon as something of a promiscuous flirt. According to Trotsky’s secretary, Frida described her life philosophy as “make love, take a bath, make love again”—a problematic portrayal of the painter, which Patenaude unflinchingly reproduces and reifies. To make matters worse, the book floats three possible reasons behind Frida’s decision to enter the affair: promiscuity, revenge for Rivera’s infidelities (he slept with her sister), and infatuation with a great man. One has the sneaking suspicion that women can be something other than wanton, jealous, or obsessed.
Some 60 years after the end of Operation Duck, it is worth asking whether Trotsky, and more notably the communist project he envisioned, in fact escaped the dustbin of history. In a speech to the British Parliament in 1982, Ronald Reagan turned Trotsky’s dramatic words against him, declaring that the march of freedom and democracy would leave Marxism-Leninism on the “ash heap of history”.
Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric presaged an era when communism would no longer define the world, and when the once-famous Leon Trotsky would be remembered primarily for his lover or for his nemesis. Patenaude could have corrected this by making a case for interpreting Trotsky’s legacy in some other way. Instead, he mistakes the forest for the trees, the dustbin for the dustbunnies, magnifying the minutiae of a sensational story rather than advancing a more complex argument about Trotsky’s historical bequest.
The mere publication of Patenaude’s book confirms readers’ continued interest in the life of Leon Trotsky. Yet the book’s title suggests a legacy in demise, a personage who now needs the name of his more famous enemy to enjoy historical significance in the popular eye. Trotsky, it seems, has yet to be relegated to history’s dustbin, but nonetheless has been consigned to its subtitle.
Paul Sonne is reading for an MPhil in Russian and East European Studies at New College, Oxford. He is a senior editor of the Oxonian Review.