Open Essay

Raul Castro, Sitaram Yechury face a Trotskyan moment

A Damodaran is a faculty member at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
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Communists like Raul Castro and Sitaram Yechury face a Trotskyan moment today

COYOACÁN, An erstwhile suburban village of Mexico City, is not blessed with landmark monuments, heavenly parks or opera theatres. Over the past five decades, Coyoacán has been swallowed by the vast sprawl of Mexico City. Yet, the place retains the vestiges of its original rustic charm, with its elegant ‘old type classy houses’ that are interspersed with petty shops selling Aztec wood engravings and handwoven Chiapas shawls. To top all this are a few remnants from the recent past in this part of the world.

On a sultry afternoon this May, I take a taxi from downtown Mexico City and head for Coyoacán. After a painful zig-zag drive for 45 minutes, the car slows down in front of a red building along a street called Vienna. As I make my way towards its entrance, I notice a painting exhibition in the front hall. For a moment, I am confused. Was this the residence of Frida Kahlo, the avant garde painting legend of Mexico? Kahlo, whose art was described by the surrealist André Breton as a ‘ribbon around a bomb’ was married to Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist. Kahlo lived, flowered and died during the first half of the 20th century in Coyoacán. However, I was not looking for her house that day.

After a few moments of hesitation, I finally ask an English- speaking visitor at the exhibition hall for directions to ‘Trotsky House’. He gives me a surprised look and asks, “Did you not see the picture of the man outside?” He then gestures me to a small room by the side of the hall .

There I am—in front of a small reception box of the Trotsky Museum, called the ‘Museo Case De: The Institute of the Right to Asylum’. It takes me a while to realise that Trotsky’s house is behind the museum. In broken English, the lady at the reception takes me through the Museum’s history. As I gather, the Museo Case De is a recent creation. It came into existence only in 1990, the year that marked the 50th anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s death. I buy an entry ticket and enter a hall festooned with scores of black-and-white and brown-tinged photographs of the political outcast. There are pictures of his youth, his Petrograd days, his Red Army Campaign, his Moscow sojourn and finally his days in Mexico with Kahlo, Rivera and followers. After his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky was on the run, moving from Turkey to France and from France to Norway before travelling from Norway to Mexico in an oil tanker. It was through the efforts of the artist couple and the then Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas that Trotsky got asylum in Mexico. Trotsky stayed with the couple in their house in Coyoacán until 1939. After they fell out, he shifted to the place that is now the Museum. His grandson Esteban Volkov is part of the team that runs it.

I amble out of a narrow corridor and enter a breathlessly beautiful garden of cacti, creepers and tropical trees, of which Trotsky was an avid collector. There are a few empty rabbit cages by the side. The garden is in front of an ‘L’ shaped building (with a watch tower), once occupied by the martyr, his wife Natalia and grandson Esteban. I cross the rooms which housed the leader’s security men, enter the main living space and make my way to his famous study, where he was fatally attacked 75 years ago by Ramón Mercader, a Stalin agent. The clock had not ticked in the house after 20 August 1940. Trotsky’s study table is immaculately kept just as it was in 1940. The papers he was working on the day he was felled by Mercador’s ice axe are still there, yellowing with age. His walking stick lies transversally over a small cot by the side of the table. The last book he was reading, it appears, was on the Second Sino-Japan war of the 1930s. Despite his health problems, it is said that the ‘old man’ used to work for 10 hours a day until his end. After he left the grandeur of his office and party position in Moscow, Trotsky was reduced to an intellectual member of the proletariat. He had to earn to write and write to earn.

As I move to the bedroom, I see gaping bullet holes on the walls—signs of an earlier, abortive attempt on his life. A guide explains how, on that dreadful day, Natalia swiftly pushed him under their cot and shielded his body with hers to save him from the relentless machine gun. By sheer providence, Trotsky, Natalia and Esteban survived the assault.

I come out of the house, re-enter the garden and reach the tomb of Trotsky and Natalia. The outcast’s tomb has a small pillar with the hammer-and-sickle embossed on it. A Soviet flag is curled up at its apex. As I turn to the Museum’s Audio Visual Centre in front of the tomb, my eyes fall on a door panel that has Mercador’s name prominently inscribed on it!

This, then has been the tragedy of Lev Davidovich Bronstein, who assumed the name of Leon Trotsky, by which he is known all over the world, the celebrated author of the magnum opus History of the Russian Revolution, the man who Churchill, Hitler and Stalin hated to the boot. Born in a village in Ukraine to Jewish parents, Trotsky was educated in the cosmopolitan port town of Odessa. In his life time, he wrestled, fought and debated dictators, fellow partymen, statesmen and intellectuals opposed to his faith. He was responsible for one of the biggest human mobilisation feats of history, the formation of the Red Army, which began as a motley crew of semi-trained workers and peasants, ex- armymen and party functionaries. In a span of a few months in 1918, the Red Army ranks swelled to one million. By the end of 1919, their numbers had tripled. It was Trotsky’s charisma, brilliant oratory and obsession with soiling his shoes that did the trick.

This rag-tag group was to rapidly morph into a well-equipped fighting force. It went on to win a bitterly contested civil war that had threatened to consume the Soviet Republic in its infancy. Trotsky’s innovative social engineering feat lay in converting the motley mass into a cadre, a militia that melded with the people for whose security the army were fighting. This was an unconventional approach and a deviation from the elitist approach to cadre formation advocated by Communist leaders of the time.

Earlier, as People’s Commissioner Foreign Affairs, Trotsky, with his argumentative style of negotiation, made his mark at Brest-Litovsk by out-manoeuvring Austria’s Count Czernin (who was in the classical Metternich mould) and Germany’s ace career diplomat Richard von Kühlmann. These tactics helped Trotsky stonewall a humiliating agreement being thrust on the newly formed Soviet state. Later, by the time the Germans rammed the deal down the throat of Lenin’s republic, it was too late for them. Within a few months of the treaty, faced with grave internal unrest (as Trotsky has anticipated), Germany conceded defeat in World War I. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918 was abrogated within eight months of its signing.

Interestingly, Trotsky met Lenin for the first time not in Russia, but in the UK. Lenin himself was widely travelled outside Russia as a political émigré. Though the founding father of Soviet Russia was in exile in Britain and Europe, he never crossed the Atlantic. Lenin was penniless and insufferably edgy then. During his last overseas stint in Zurich, he stayed in a worker’s house in insanitary conditions, suffering the stench from a nearby sausage factory. He drank coffee from a cup with a broken handle and literally starved the whole day while working at the Zurich public library. (It is said that the idea of the Bolshevik Revolution was born in the British Museum Library!)

Trotsky was equally penniless during his exile days. However, he clothed his poverty with wit. He was a dapper internationalist, not a hapless political refugee. He was more Europeanised than Russified. He had been to more countries than Lenin as a political refugee. When the Russia’s revolution broke out in 1917, Trotsky was an obscure Russian journalist in New York. His successful rival, Joseph Stalin, by contrast, rarely travelled outside Russia. Stalin was so rooted in his Kremlin headquarters that he refused to move out even when Hitler’s troops reached the gates of Moscow in October 1941. It is said that Stalin was too happy to skip the Big Power Summits in Casablanca and Cairo. He was paranoid about air travel. He had no choice but to be in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, since his absence would have cost him control over East Europe.

Trotsky’s dalliances added to his myth. By the time he was in his forties, he preferred to look older than his age and liked to be occasionally photographed with a walking stick. Richard Burton brilliantly portrayed some of these idiosyncracies in Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Leon Trotsky. Even at the turn of this century, Trotsky continued to be a big draw with Hollywood. His characterisation was that of ‘the other hero’ in the Salma Hayek-Geoffrey Rush starrer Frida.

Indeed, Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography was the ultimate tribute to the forgotten Bolshevik. Tony Blair considers it his all-time favourite. Accounts by Dmitri Volkogonov, Bertrand Patenaude and Robert Service were to follow.

Despite all his attributes, Trotsky was a political failure at home. He was outmanoeuvred by Stalin in the period after Lenin’s death. His economic theory, though analytically brilliant, was mis-timed. So was his Theory of Permanent Revolution, which waited almost endlessly for worker revolts to succeed in advanced countries. By comparison, Stalin’s policies were opportunistic, expedient and successful.

Nor was Trotsky rewarded for his ‘Bolshevik acts’. As a Soviet War Commissar, he was, as was the case with most of his Bolshevik colleagues, diabolic and hard- handed. The manner in which he brutally crushed the sailor rebellion of Kondrastadt in 1921 is held against him even today. Though Lenin was behind this act, Trotsky had to take the blame for the massacre. His party never cared to protect him. And there were some reasons for this.

Trotsky’s major weakness lay in his personality and worldview. His first basic problem was that he was unstable and uncomfortable in Moscow; he preferred the distant ‘Kazan’ instead. His discomfort with Russia’s capital and tendency to roam about undermined his visibility in Moscow. The other not-so-desirable facet of his personality was the sneer he reserved for his ‘non-intellectual’ party colleagues. Barring his hero Lenin and his party associate Nikolai Bukharin (whom he intensely disliked otherwise), he did not consider anyone else in the party worthy of his attention. He also did not make an effort to understand the modus operandi of palace intrigues as he thought it was beneath him to do so. He found most party meetings ‘ordinary’. It is said that he used to read French novels at Politbureau meetings.

Dominic Lieven, in his latest book Towards the Flame: Empire War and the End of Czarist Russia, suggests that the early part of the 20th century was an era that considered ‘interdependence as weakness’ and ‘internationalism as interdependence’. Trotsky was an internationalist in an era that respected large nation-states. This added to his vulnerability. A fallout of this approach was his impatience with Russia’s backwardness. As war commissioner, he pushed hard for the modernisation of the Red Army, and within two years created a miracle. The Allied forces that landed in North Russia in 1918 were surprised at the ‘state of art’ artillery and long-range guns wielded by the Red Army. This did not however win him plaudits from his party colleagues, though. On the contrary, he was lampooned by the party for contradictions in his thinking. Despite his protestations about big powers, Trotsky was notably effusive when it came to the US. He admired Woodrow Wilson and supported the Allied intervention in Murmansk in August 1918 as he felt that Allied presence in North Russia was more welcome than German or Finnish infiltration in the region. He openly favoured US investment to modernise Russia’s oil sector. All these positions went against the central tenets of Bolshevism. Stalin’s subsequent success in raising Russia’s status as a superpower with its own resources cast Trotsky’s stance on foreign capital in bad light.

However, history seems to have turned a full circle since Trotsky’s death. The virus of unresponsive bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, of which Trotsky had forewarned, was finally biting in. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was way behind its rivals, with Mikhail Gorbachev unsuccessfully trying to stem the rot in its dying days. He rehabilitated all senior Bolsheviks who fell victim to Stalin’s terror in the infamous Moscow trials of 1936-38. However, he did not have the moral courage to restore Trotsky to the pantheon of Russian Revolution greats.

Well into the second decade of this century, the Soviet collapse is now a receding story. Yet, ironically, the Trotsky spectre lurks in the background. It may sound absurd to say that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is under a Trotsky shadow. But then, this is the plain truth. While his annexation of Crimea is a Stalinist move, Putin’s stance on the Russian minority in Ukraine is closer to the notion of self-determination that Trotsky advocated for ethnic minorities.

More amusing is the tale of Cuba. In 1960, Mercador walked out of his Mexican prison after serving a 20-year sentence for Trotsky’s murder. He headed for Havana, where he was welcomed as a hero by Fidel Castro for killing the apostle of perfidy. Ironically, 55 years later, Fidel’s brother and successor Raul confronts a Trotskyan moment. He leans on Pope Francis to get the US to agree to talk to him. He is anxious to get US capital flowing into his country. Raul realises that he cannot achieve this by keeping the bureaucratic levers of the Cuban Communist Party and government intact. Yet, he is trying hard.

In India, the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury also faces a kind of Trotskyan moment. As with Raul Castro, Yechury is trying hard to reinvent his party’s profile and expand its mass base. Time will tell whether he will succeed. But one thing is for sure: by the time he starts moving, BJP President Amit Shah would be way ahead in ‘political mobilisation’, judging by the big numbers generated by the party’s mass membership drive.

Leon Trotsky’s mantle thus seems to be falling all over. Deutscher described him as a ‘Prophet’. By contrast, the historian John Wheeler Bennett characterised the fallen leader as ‘Mephistophelian, diabolically intelligent and diabolically scornful’. The truth appears to lie between the two characterisations. Trotsky’s spectre never had it better. His posthumous relevance is as inexplicable as his failure during his life time.

In hindsight, Leon Trotsky was the quintessential, un-narrated muse who displaced himself from the era he lived in by dreaming of a grand future. His dream appears to be partly unfolding now—seven-and-a-half decades after his life was brutally cut short.