In one of those cruel strokes of fate, all of Leon Trotsky’s four children predeceased him, even if many would not feel any compassion for one of the fathers of totalitarian communism. When the Old Man (as he himself and those around him called him) was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940, he was only certain of the survival of one of his grandchildren, Seva Volkov, who was living with him and his second wife, Natalia, at the time.
As it transpired, however, another grandchild somehow managed to survive: Yulia Akselrod, the daughter of Trotsky’s son Seryozha, who was shot in 1937 during the Great Terror. Yulia’s mother herself was later arrested and sent for ten years to Kolyma, one of the most notorious gulag camps. Brought up by her maternal grandparents, that family too was arrested two years before Stalin’s death and exiled to Siberia. After half a lifetime of travails, Yulia, being Jewish, was finally allowed to emigrate in 1979.
She ended up in the United States, where she met and befriended one of her grandfather’s bodyguards, Harold Robins. Robins, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia became a Trotskyite union organiser in his youth and was sent by Trotsky’s political allies as part of an all-American protection detail that watched over the Old Man during the years of his Mexican exile. Robins, in fact, was the first to subdue Trotsky’s assassin after the Spanish-Cuban agent famously managed to strike out with a pick.
Yulia wrote of Robins:
I sometimes had to suppress the urge to kill the dear fellow. He was a true believer – a man who has never lost faith in Trotsky’s ideas and his dreams of a world revolution – and we never stopped arguing.
Robins insisted that if only Yulia read more Marx she too would understand and come back to the fold. Yulia, of course, having been brought up and educated in the Soviet Union, has had her fair share of Marx’s classics. The debates between Trotsky’s granddaughter and his bodyguard were a stalemate and there was no prospect that their minds, formed in such different environments, would ever meet. In Yulia’s words,
I had nothing but my experience to go on, after all, whereas he had a vision.
“I had nothing but my experience to go on, after all, whereas he had a vision.” Read it and repeat it a few times. Because this is the best one-sentence distillation of the difference between socialism experienced and socialism imagined – experienced by those who had to live, survive, under “the real and existing socialism”, whether in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, China or Ethiopia, and imagined by all the fans living in a relative comfort and safety of the democratic and developed West. Many have spoken and written about it, not least the generations of exiles, emigres and escapees from the workers’ paradises; I, too, have blogged about many a time, including in my most popular blog post in the short TDC history, “Dear Resistance, listen to my lived totalitarian experience – you have no effing idea what you’re talking about” – but if I could summarise the experience, the lessons, and the explanation for the near-unbridgeable chasm in perceptions of and attitudes towards Marxism it would be this: “We had nothing but our experience to go on, after all, whereas they had a vision.” We knew the practice, they had their theories. And the theories were beautiful, as only theories can be – immaculately conceived and inviolable by the reality. Whatever always ended up happening at the hands of flesh and blood people out there was never the real thing. Next time it would be different. But we knew that the next time kept being the same as every previous time; we were all “the next”, from the Soviet peoples of the 1920s to Cambodians of the 1970s.
Today, there are only a few examples of the reality still in existence, like Cuba and North Korea. But the vision; oh, the vision remains beautiful, unspoiled – and increasingly popular again.
Yulia Akselrod, by the way, is still alive today and lives in downtown Jerusalem. Her son and grandchildren are active in the Jewish settler movement.
Leon Trotsky’s ashes are buried in the patio of a Mexico City compound where he spent the final months of his life and where Stalin’s long head struck the deadly blow in 1940. The villa is now a museum.
In an article written a week after the Soviet Union, in accordance with the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, invaded eastern Poland, and as Wehrmacht and Red Army officers were shaking hands at Brest-Litovsk, Trotsky experienced an uncharacteristic flash of reality. He wrote that the war now unfolding, which he predicted would be long and bitter, would make or break socialism as he imagined and dreamed about. Unless the war led to a proletarian revolution in Western capitalist countries (like the Great War led to the revolution in Russia) and unless the victorious Western proletarians avoided the fatal mistake of their Russian brothers in letting the power slip from their grasp and into the hands of a professional party bureaucracy, “nothing else would remain but to recognise that the socialist programme based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society ended as a Utopia.” The future would be totalitarian.
There, finally, less than a year from death, Trotsky got it right. If only he had lived a few more years to see it.
(In writing this post I have drawn upon Bertrand Patenaude’s excellent 2009 book “Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky”, Daniel Estrin’s “Falling Far from the Family Tree” in the Forward magazine, and Yulia’s own reminiscences “Why My Grandfather Leon Trotsky Must Be Turning in His Grave” in Commentary magazine)
P.S. An interview with Seva Volkov, who coincidentally is still alive, still lives in Mexico and is a director of a museum devoted to his grandfather. As an adult, Seva studied chemistry and is perhaps most famous for developing an industrial method of producing contraceptive pills.