Trotsky, Leon

(1879–1940)
   Born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, Trotsky adopted the name of one of his prison guards and had a distinguished career as a revolutionary before the 1917 Revolution. As a Menshevik, he took part in the Revolution of 1905 in St. Petersburg. Following arrest and trial, he escaped and went into exile. Trotsky often argued with Vladimir Lenin, but behind the infighting there was mutual respect and admiration. Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks in 1917 and became first commissar of foreign affairs and later commissar of war in the Bolshevik government. His repeated successes on the battlefield in the civil war guaranteed the survival of the Bolshevik state.
   Following Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin built a series of alliances in the Communist Party to isolate Trotsky from his base in the party and the armed forces. Stalin also used his contacts with Cheka leaders Feliks Dzerzhinsky and Vyacheslav Menzhinsky to harass and detain Trotsky’s followers. After Trotsky’s deportation, the security service continued to keep him under constant surveillance in his foreign sanctuaries, while arresting his supporters in the Soviet Union. By the mid-1930s Stalin identified Trotsky as his most implacable and dangerous enemy, despite Trotsky’s woefully weak support in the Soviet Union and abroad. The Moscow Trials sought to identify Trotsky as an ally of Adolf Hitler, a charge that was widely accepted by communists in the Soviet Union and abroad. In 1936–1938, his few supporters were shot in jails and camps where they had been confined for years, and the NKVD began a complex plot to kill Trotsky. In the late 1930s, the NKVD would murder one of his sons inside the Soviet Union and another in Paris.
   Two NKVD specialists in assassination and chornaya rabota (black work), Pavel Sudoplatov and Leonid Eitingon, were personally directed by Stalin to organize Trotsky’s murder in his Mexican exile. A number of agents were recruited in Trotsky’s entourage, and one of them, Ramon Mercader, was assigned the job of killing Trotsky. On 20 August 1940, Mercader asked to meet Trotsky alone to discuss a magazine article he was writing. When Trotsky’s back was turned, Mercader struck him with a mountaineer’s ax, mortally wounding him.
   Trotsky’s death was celebrated by Stalin publicly and privately. Sudoplatov and Eitingon were rewarded, and Stalin wrote an editorial for Pravda titled “Death of an International Spy.” Vengeance was Stalin’s. But Trotsky never was a threat to Stalin in exile: in the words of his most prominent biographer, he was the “prophet unarmed.”

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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