Review: Trotsky: A Biography

The disastrous dilettante


By Robert Service
Macmillan, £25

In 1918, Leon Trotsky was “the most famous Jew on earth”, second only to Lenin in the new Soviet government. His meteoric career fascinated those who yearned for freedom and justice, while it terrified the defenders of property and the status quo. To millions of Jews, his success was both an inspiration and a curse.

Trotsky, born Leiba Bronstein in 1879, was the son of a hard-working and successful Jewish farm owner in the southern Ukraine. Although he learned Yiddish and Hebrew as well as Ukrainian --- the language of the workers on his father’s estate --- young Leiba was hardly integrated into Jewish life. The farm was remote from the nearest Jewish community and his parents were relaxed about Jewish observances.

Between the ages of nine and 16, he attended a Christian school in Odessa. While there, he boarded with relatives who ensured that he had some Jewish education. However, at his next school, the gymnasia in Nikolaev, he discovered his true religion: Marxism. He also soon found his vocation, that of professional revolutionary. In 1898, he was arrested for subversive activities. His mother and father visited him in prison, setting a pattern for their infrequent meetings with their wayward son.

Leiba was sentenced to exile in Siberia. Before his transportation eastwards, he was married by a rabbi to his Jewish girlfriend, Alexandra Sokolovskaya, so that they could go together. She was already pregnant with their first child. However, the obligations of a family did nothing to stop Bronstein pursuing the cause. In 1902, he abandoned his wife and two daughters and escaped across Russia to Vienna.

For the next 15 years, he followed the peripatetic, quarrelsome career typical of Russian revolutionaries. In between meetings and polemics, he started a relationship with Natalya Sedov who became his devoted partner until his assassination in 1940. They had two sons, Lev (the name Trotsky himself adopted at 23) and Sergei. When they were young, Trotsky enjoyed playing football with his boys in the park. This closeness did not persist.

One of the strengths of Robert Service’s superb biography is the way it effortlessly incorporates new material that sheds light on the private life of a public figure who was careful to shape his image in his autobiographical writings. Service shows that the mature Trotsky played down his origins as the son of a wealthy Jew. He reveals that although Trotsky cared nothing for Jews or Judaism, he was acutely aware of antisemitism. He repeatedly turned down high office for fear that he would bring anti-Jewish prejudice on to the Soviet regime. Indeed, he may have forfeited leadership of the USSR, when Lenin suggested he become head of the government, because of this complex.

In other respects, Trotsky “was too delighted with himself and his life to be troubled by embarrassment about his ancestry”. As this observation suggests, Service is scathing about Trotsky’s personality, which he depicts as the key to his ultimate political failure. Trotsky “lived life on his terms”. He made no effort to cultivate allies or guard against rivals. He expected others to agree with him, because he invariably believed he was right, and could not be bothered to explain his actions.

Trotsky was, above all, a litterateur and something of a dilettante. The biography never quite explains how he made the transition from a brilliant journalist, orator and agitator to the man who licked the Red Army into shape and presided over its victory during the civil war in 1919-20.

But Service leaves no doubt about his subject’s capacity for ruthlessness. He argues that Russia would have fared little better under Trotsky than under Stalin. Indeed, Stalin took many of Trotsky’s ideas for a centralised economy and forced industrialisation.

It was not merely a personal tragedy that Trotsky lost the struggle for power due to his dilettantish habits. Jews paid a terrible price for his achievements and his bloated reputation. In the USSR, they endured suppression and discrimination. Elsewhere, they were tarred with the brush of subversion and made targets for the far right, culminating in Hitler’s genocidal onslaught.

All this for a self-righteous, cold-hearted, egocentric who never quite grew up. An American officer serving in Russia in 1918 called Trotsky “the greatest Jew since Jesus Christ”. It might be truer to say that he was not the messiah but a very, very naughty boy.

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