Book review: Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky

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Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky By Bertrand M. Patenaude Faber & Faber, 352pp, £20 Review by PAUL RIDDELL

ON 20 AUGUST 1940, LEV DAVIdovich Bronstein – better known as Leon Trotsky – was struck in the head at his home in Coyoacn, Mexico, with a pickaxe wielded by a Spanish-born NKVD agent named Ramn Mercader. Trotsky wasn't killed instantly, but his death in hospital the next day marked the dnouement of a power struggle with Joseph Stalin that had lasted since Lenin's death in 1924. It was the triumph of the genocidal dictator over the exiled intellectual.

Few students of history will be unaware of Trotsky's grisly end, but in this account Bertrand Patenaude, a fellow at the Hoover Institution who also lectures at Stanford University, displays a novelist's verve to match his deep knowledge of Russian history. His narrative agility – suspense, flashbacks and lots of seemingly incidental but all the time crucial bits of detail – will surely help to propel this fine book into the same league as Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin.

Trotsky and his wife Natalia, who had lived in Turkey, France and Norway after being exiled by Stalin, were invited to Mexico by the painter Diego Rivera in 1936 and lived at his expense at the Blue House in Coyoacn. Trotsky showed his gratitude by promptly having an affair with Rivera's wife and fellow artist Frida Kahlo. It did not last long, and the world-renowned Russian revolutionary soon returned to the writing he needed to do to defend his reputation.

His arrival in Mexico coincided with the start of the second of the famous Moscow show trials, in which 17 defendants were accused of being behind an anti-Soviet Trotskyite conspiracy. Each day of the trial Trotsky issued press releases pointing out the "contradictions, improbabilities, and absurdities of the accusations made against him".

The executions of former close colleagues affected Trotsky deeply. But it was the murder of his favoured son Lev by the NKVD in Paris that signalled the depth of Stalin's desire for vengeance. Security at the Blue House was tightened courtesy of funds and personnel from the Trotskyite movement in the United States. Yet in May 1940 Stalin's henchmen came very close to killing Trotsky. A group of them gained entry and fired several rounds into the walls of his and Natalia's bedroom. The Trotskys emerged unscathed.

Three months later, the man who had described Stalin as the "outstanding mediocrity" of the Communist Party and the "gravedigger of the revolution" was dead. Mercader, or Frank Jacson as he was known to Trotsky, had been recruited during the Spanish Civil War, described by Patenaude as "the NKVD's training ground for political terrorism", in which he had fought against Franco. After the war he was sent to Paris, where he met Sylvia Ageloff, a Brooklyn native whose father had emigrated from Russia. Trotsky was fond of Sylvia's sister Ruth, who was a typist, translator and researcher for him. Mercader used the link to inveigle his way into Trotsky's company, his final fateful visit – ostensibly to discuss his revisions to a paper on Trotskyism that he wished to publish.

The most memorable part of this book is the scene in the Kremlin in March 1939 when Stalin, having decided that Trotsky had outlived his usefulness as a bte noire for his regime, ordered the execution. The circumstances of the meeting, attended by the infamous head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, and Pavel Sudoplatov, head of an elite unit specialising in assassination, are strikingly ordinary even if the subject was of momentous historical importance. Stalin was wearing his grey party tunic and old baggy trousers. They sat at a long table covered with green baize cloth. Beria peered over his pince-nez.

After much discussion, Stalin instructed Sudoplatov to form a team of shock troops to carry out the "action" and simply stated: "Trotsky should be eliminated within a year."

Aside from the narrative, Patenaude is very strong on the intellectual trends that manifested themselves after Trotsky's exile, in particular the split between Trotsky himself and most of his followers in the US and Europe over the inevitability of socialism. Trotsky remained convinced of this even as many of his former comrades started to have their doubts.

In less skilful hands this chapter might have been a drag, but Patenaude draws the reader into the debate with a clear exposition of the concepts and manages to make them seem as important as life and death itself – which they were, of course, to Trotsky.