Cover of the biography Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky by Bertrand Patenaude

Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky
By Bertrand Patenaude
Faber £20, 352 pages
FT Bookshop price £16

Leon Trotsky spent the last four years of his life as an exile in Mexico, under verbal assault from newspapers and adversaries around the world and the constant threat of assassination. This Mexican sojourn proved fatal when Stalin finally decided to rid himself of his great rival. In this gripping account of these years, Stanford University historian Bertrand Patenaude has created both a compelling biography of the revolutionary leader and a thrilling account of the violent world of international socialist politics in the 1930s.

The narrative of the book is set around the eventful years 1937-40 in which Trotsky and his wife Natalia lived as virtual prisoners in a suburb of Mexico City, surrounded by bodyguards and political schemers.

Patenaude weaves in telling anecdotes about their past, adding seams of motive and incident in order to explain how this disparate group came to be at the villa in the closing stages of Trotsky’s life. We meet the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, surrealist poet André Breton, ruthless Soviet agents, and numerous young American Trotskyites who served as guards and secretaries. Stalin himself makes a brief but powerful, appearance, though his looming presence is felt throughout.

Patenaude’s Trotsky is a sympathetic figure, with extraordinary capacities as an orator and for motivating his followers. He also, however, amply exposes Trotsky’s flaws, which makes the book an engaging character study of a failed leader. Through absorbing reconstructions of Trotsky’s interactions with those around him, the author presents a man capable of inspiring the young but incapable of conducting a relationship with an equal. Although Trotsky had the character and inspirational power to drive the Red Army to success during the civil war in Russia, he lacked the political sense to thrive in the cut and thrust of the Kremlin, and made enemies too easily. One gets the feeling that Trotsky was a natural exile – too erratic and irascible to live at the centre of things for long.

Besides this penetrating study of the man himself, a strength of the book is the fascinating insights it provides into the strange world that Trotsky inhabited. We learn of the surprisingly active socialist underground in the US in the 1930s, riven with splits between shifting alliances of Trotskyists, Stalinists and various other factions. We also learn of the deeply political and often violent figures at the centre of the art world in Mexico: not only Rivera and Kahlo but also Jose Orozco and David Siqueiros – especially notable as the leader of a commando raid on the Trotsky villa in May 1940. A world of bickering splinter groups and endless rivalries emerges, from Russia to Mexico via Paris, New York and elsewhere. While he inspired many with his forceful fluency, Trotsky also engendered discord and division wherever he went.

The most damning indictment that Patenaude levels against Trotsky is his intellectual dishonesty: to avoid repudiating his own achievement in the Revolution, Trotsky defended the idea of the USSR as a workers’ paradise, even as it had become a totalitarian nightmare led by a man set on having him killed. At the end of his life he continued to insist that his vision of utopian revolution would be realised, even in the face of powerful evidence to the contrary. Such delusion could also blind Trotsky to disloyalty among his followers – he refused to believe anything that undermined his own idea of himself and his place in history.

While he offers trenchant psychological understanding and perceptive historical observations, Patenaude has a light touch. Stalin’s Nemesis at times reads like a thriller. It is a captivating book that captures a complex and contradictory character and the world he had created around him.

Paddy Docherty is author of ‘The Khyber Pass’ (Faber)

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