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Leon Trotsky Biography

Leon Trotsky, born 7 November 1879, died 21 August 1940, was one of the key figures of the Russian revolution, and of the early days of the Soviet Union.

He was renowned for his organisational abilities, and his ruthlessness, and is widely credited with developing an effective Red Army to consolidate the Bolshevik position in the Russian Civil War. A figure to the left of even Lenin, Trotsky was a political thinker as well as an organiser, and is known for the political theory named after him – Trotskyism – and his contributions to the theory of permanent revolution.

Trotsky was over time forced out of the Soviet leadership by Stalin, and eventually forced into exile. He remained a vocal critic of Stalin, who finally ordered his murder in 1940.

This article contains a brief Leon Trotsky biography.

Early Years of Lev Bronstein

Leon Trotsky / Lev Bronstein
Lev Bronstein (Leon Trotsky) aged 18
Trotsky was born on 7 November 1879 in Yanovka, a small village which today is a part of Ukraine. His given name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein (he only took the name Leon Trotsky later).

(Some people have argued that Trotsky was the great-grandson of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, but no serious evidence has been presented to support this theory.)

Revolutionary Years and change of name

The son of a prosperous farmer, the young Lev Bronstein was educated at a German school in Odessa before taking a degree in mathematics, and was exposed to revolutionary politics and revolutionary theory at a young age.

He was first arrested at the age of 19, and spent two years in prison before being tried and sentenced to exile in Siberia with his young wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya. They had two children during his period of internal exile.

After four years Bronstein escaped from Siberia and fled into exile abroad, in London. He changed his name to Leon Trotsky over time, and also used a number of other pen-names (including Lev Trotsky) while he worked on the Iskra paper with other exiled oppositionists, including Vladimir Lenin.

1905 Revolution

Trotsky returned to Russia in early 1905, and played a role in organising strikes that led to the 1905 Russian Revolution. As the leader of the Saint Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, he was instrumental in organising strikes in St Petersburg factories.

The revolution led to some political reforms in the Russian Empire, but Trotsky and many other revolutionary leaders were arrested. Trotsky was exiled to Siberia for a second time but again managed to escape, and flee to London.

Trotsky and the Russian Revolution

As soon as news of the February Russian Revolution which overthrew the Tsar Nicholas II and replaced him with a provisional government, Trotsky returned to Russia. By 8 October 1917, Trotsky had been elected as Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet.

Following the second, October, Revolution, Trotsky quickly established his position within the new Bolshevik hierarchy as Lenin’s second in command.

Trotsky’s first real role in the new government was as Commissar for Foreign Affairs. He led the Soviet negotiations for peace with Germany, culminating in the signing of the Brest-Litovsk treaty on 3rd March 1918. Although some in the revolutionary government believed that there could never be peace with an imperialist, capitalist country such as Germany, Trotsky was very much a pragmatist and recognised the need to secure a temporary peace at least, to allow the Soviets to consolidate their hold on power.

Trotsky, Red Army Leader

Trotsky was leader of the Red Army
Trotsky addresses Red Army soldiers
The Soviet government’s hastily formed Red Army had not proved as effective as hoped.

It had performed exceptionally poorly in combat with the German army before the peace deal was signed, and was not having success on the battlefield against White Russian groups in the nascent Russian Civil War. The army was demoralised, and riven by political disputes between those who thought only proven revolutionaries should fight, and those who wanted a somewhat professionalised military. Trotsky was very much in the latter camp, less than two weeks after concluding peace negotiations with Germany, was appointed People’s Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs on 13 March 1918.

Trotsky inherited an Army that was in a perilous position. The Czech Legion had just seized much of the territory along the trans-Siberian railway and, on other fronts, the Army was fighting against up to 16 other domestic and foreign armies in a chaotic Civil War. In less than a year, though, he had turned the Red Army from a demoralised force of less than 300,000 men, to an army of more than 3 million men that was beginning to taste success on the battlefield.

Early Soviet Years

Once victory in the Civil War had been assured, infighting within the Soviet ranks began anew, and the Trotsky Lenin relationship that had proved so critical to its earlier success suffered a rift. The Stalin Trotsky relationship also suffered fatal damage, as Stalin and Trotsky vied for power as Lenin’s right hand man.

One of the key debates was that of the role of trade unions within the Soviet state, and Trotsky took a different view to Lenin, arguing that greater involvement of the workers was necessary for the revolution to succeed; they could not just be told what to do from the top and expected to obey.

Trotsky’s faction was defeated, though, at the 10th Party Congress, which was held in March 1921. Although Trotsky retained his position and much of his influence within the Soviet leadership, many of his compatriots were quickly forced out. and the Trotsky Lenin relationship was damaged

During Lenin’s last years, and shortly after his death, it was clear that Trotsky was the most influential single person within the Soviet leadership. However, to prevent him from becoming Lenin’s heir, his opponents – Stalin, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev – formed an alliance known as the troika.

Although, in 1926, Zinoviev and Kamanev switched positions to ally themselves more closely with Trotsky, by then it was too late – Stalin’s position within the Soviet leadership was too powerful. Trotsky was expelled from the Central Committee in October 1927, and exiled to Kazakhstan on 31 January 1928.

Trotsky in Exile

Trotsky in Exile
Trotsky in Exile
Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in February 1929. He spent time in Turkey, France and Norway, but was never fully comfortable in any of these countries – and nor were any of these countries fully comfortable with hosting Trotsky. Eventually, Trotsky moved from Norway to Mexico.

Throughout his time in exile, Trotsky became an increasingly vocal critic of the Soviet regime, and of Stalin in particular. He and his supporters founded the Fourth International in 1938, as a direct challenge to the Soviet sponsored Third International (Comintern) movement.

Trotsky even agreed at one point to visit the United States to give evidence in front of the House of Representatives’ Dies Committee. He was only denied a visa when the Committee realised that he would use his appearance as an opportunity to argue in support of the American Communist Party (although how they didn’t realise this in the first place is somewhat of a mystery).

Trotsky Assassination

Trotsky was attached by Ramon Mercader, an undercover NKVD (the forerunner to the KGB) agent. Mercader attacked Trotsky with an icepick but instead of killing him with one blow merely wounded Trotsky and was forced to struggle with him. His bodyguards rushed in and overpowered Mercader, but Trotsky was mortally wounded, and died a day later of brain damage.

Leon Trotsky Books

Leon Trotsky’s reputation as one of the key socialist thinkers is well deserved, and it is possible to buy many of his books today. Some of his key books are included below, including the Leon Trotsky autobiography, and his history of the Russian Revolution.

There are also many books available about Trotsky’s life. I can particularly recommend Robert Service’s simply named biography ‘Trotsky’, which is among the books listed below.

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