Useful Notes: Leon Trotsky

The eternal revolutionary.

"You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you."
Leon Trotsky.

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, was a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist. Before the Revolution he mostly hung about in exile in Siberia, part of a political group known as the Mensheviks, who opposed Lenin and his theories that a revolution could be forced (this went against traditional Marxist ideology). After the February Revolution Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and became Lenin's second-in-command.

Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian 1917 October Revolution, head of the Military Revolutionary Committee and planned the strategic takeover of Petrograd. During the early days of the Soviet Union, he served first as People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs and later as the founder and commander of the Red Army and People's Commissar of War. He was a major figure in the Bolshevik victory in the 1917–1922 Russian Civil War and Kronstadt rebellion. He was also among the first members of the Politburo.

After leading a failed struggle of the Left Opposition against the policies and rise of Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and the increasing role of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Trotsky was successively removed from power, expelled from the Communist Party, exiled to Kazakhstan, deported from the Soviet Union and assassinated on Stalin's orders. An early advocate of Red Army intervention against European fascism, Trotsky also opposed Stalin's non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s.

As the head of the Fourth International, Trotsky continued in exile to oppose the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and was eventually assassinated in Mexico, by Ramón Mercader, a Soviet agent. Trotsky's ideas thus form the basis of Trotskyism, a major school of Marxist thought that is opposed to the theories of Stalinism. He was one of the few Soviet political figures who was never rehabilitated by the government of Mikhail Gorbachev (though the ban on his books was finally lifted in 1989).

He wrote many political and theoretical books, including an autobiography (My Life), a history of the Revolution, several anti-fascist pamphlets and a whole bunch of military writings.

Trotsky is a figure of great debate in the annals of history, who did both impressive and abhorrent things. Please practice the Rule of Cautious Editing Judgement.


  • A Father to His Men - Subverted, and played straight. Despite his successful campaigns against the main enemies of the new Communist State (the Germans and the Whites...), and breaking a draw against their secondary ones (mainly the Western Allies), Trotsky reinstated and used the death penalty on deserters liberally, kidnapped troops and held the families of his commanding officers hostage. Played straight when he used his Cool Train to visit the battalions and distribute cigarettes, boots and chocolate to the troops.
  • Arch-Enemy - Lenin (who became a Friendly Enemy, then his ally) and of course, Josef Stalin.
    • Stalin and Trotsky were enemies almost from the very beginning. Indeed, the failure of the Red Army to take Warsaw in 1920 was largely due to Stalin's refusal to obey Trotsky's orders.
  • Badass Bookworm / Badass Jew - Even before his command of the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, Trotsky was elected as head of the Petrograd Soviet (arguably the largest and most important political body in Russia) at the age of 26, Russia being hostile to those of a Jewish background. He also planned the October Revolution and Lenin himself said the revolution would not have happened without Trotsky's help.
  • Badass Goatee: His distinguishing characteristic, along with his glasses.
  • Cassandra Truth - He was one of the very few politicians who openly attacked fascism and Nazism from the very beginning (very few people were critical of these ideologies at least until the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia). He basically saw them as "capitalism in decay" due to the fact that they were an ultimate expression of a country's crisis.
    • Likewise, he was the only one who predicted that, in a sea of capitalism and the failure to expand the revolution (mainly due to the bureaucrat's interference), the USSR would collapse and would return to a capitalist society.
    • While Trotsky often proved a prescient observer of world events, he was just as frequently dead wrong. Among other instances, he wrote a book in 1925 proclaiming a Communist revolution imminent in Britain, and later that Nazi Germany would never declare war on Britain and France. (That last one is technically true, since the UK and France declared war on Germany, but Hitler knew that war would come when he invaded Poland, so the difference is little.)
  • The Chessmaster - he planned the October Revolution.
  • Cool Train - given to him by Lenin to assist in the Civil War, it had (among other things) a printing press, library, rooms of cigarettes and a garage for his...
  • Cool Car - a vintage, armoured Rolls Royce. In newly Communist Russia...
  • Cunning Linguist - According to some he spoke fluent Russian, Ukranian, French and German. He also knew some Spanish, Hebrew, Italian and English. According to his biography he spoke most of these languages, but never fluently. He grew up in a household that spoke a mix of Ukrainian and Russian.
  • Day of the Jackboot : Instrumental in planning the original one with the overthrow of the Provisional Republic.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: With Ivar Smilga, another Bolshevik leader. Smilga opposed Trotsky's plans during the war with Poland. Smilga's plan failed, but Trotsky refused to use this opportunity against him. They became friends, which was unfortunate for Smilga, since Stalin had him executed him because of this during the Great Purge.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: He was a harsh disciplinarian towards his soldiers.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome / Defiant to the End- after avoiding Stalin's spies for many years (while they picked off his children one by one) he managed to raise the alarm and throw books at his assassin. Doesn't sound that impressive, but at this point he had an ice axe sticking out of the back of his head. He lived for 24 hours afterwards.
  • Enemy Mine - He convinced (he was quite charismatic and an excellent orator) and/or forced (usually by taking their families hostage) many tsarist officers to train and lead the newly formed Red Army. It worked.
  • Escape Artist - In tsarist Russia, he was arrested for revolutionary activity and sent to a Siberian prison - twice. He managed to escape both times (first time while after two and a half years, second time while en route). Arguably a subversion, though, as Siberian exile was a notorious Cardboard Prison under Tsarist rule (and a nightmarish hellhole under the Soviets, especially Stalin). Both Trostky and Lenin came to regard it as something like a holiday.
    • It depends: prisoners were treated differently based on who they were. Being rather high-profile dissidents, Lenin and Trotsky would have likely received preferential treatment. Others were not so lucky (see for example Peter Kropotkin's In Russian and French Prisons).
  • The Exile - After Stalin took power, Trotsky was exiled first to Kazakhstan (then part of the USSR), then to Turkey, France, Norway and finally Mexico.
  • Foreshadowing - "Lenin's method leads to this: the party organisation substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally a single 'Dictator' substitutes himself for the Central Committee." (no prizes for guessing who the "Dictator" is)
    • There's also this, written before WW2 and when Hitler was highly popular not just with fascists, but also many people in the West: "Hitler indicates only one way out of the over-population of Europe, primarily of Germany, and that is the East. (...) The Nazis are against assimilation but not against annexation. They prefer the extermination of the conquered “inferior” peoples to their Germanization. For the time being, fortunately, this is only a matter of hypothetical conquests."
  • Four-Star Badass: One of history's more surprising examples. He, an academic with zero military experience, led the Bolsheviks to victory over ten different countries at the same time.
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: As the man himself said: "Abusive language and swearing are a legacy of slavery, humiliation, and disrespect for human dignity, one’s own and that of other people."
  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: He's more popular in countries other than his native Ukraine / former USSR.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: His private troops were kitted out in matching red and black leather outfits during the Civil War.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Amongst some. Trotsky was no Gandhi; he was utterly ruthless when fighting for his cause, and didn't mind using mass violence to get his way.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Nobody in his household or amongst his associates trusted Ramon Mercader except for Mercader's girlfriend... and Trotsky himself, which is how he got close enough to kill him. Mercader wasn't an isolated case and Trotsky never appreciated just how deeply his organization was penetrated by the NKVD, including trusted allies of close family members (it is speculated one such mole may have killed one of his sons, though there would have been strategic reasons against it, despite much circumstantial evidence). A throwback, more or less, to his time as a revolutionary, when neither he nor the other socialist subversives realised how much their groups had been infiltrated by the Tsarist state, though Lenin was a bigger victim back then.
    • More generally, Trostky seriously underestimated Stalin and wrote him off as a boring, crude, dull bureaucrat and political nonentity who, he assumed, was a puppet of a conspiracy of much more capable and intelligent Bolshevik Rightists. He never for a moment understood Stalin as a brilliant, calculating, visionary megalomaniac with an insatiable bloodthirst and a pathological need to get even with his enemies, with Trotsky at the top of the list.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: from the commander of the Red Army to a lonely exile hunted across the globe by Stalin's agents (though he did end up living in a decent-sized villa in Mexico and garner a lot of admirers from all over the world).
  • Hypocrite: Was called out for this by Emma Goldman and others. Apparently brutal purges were fine so long as they weren't directed at him. His latter-day admirers have never really learned this lesson.
  • I Will Punish Your Friend for Your Failure / I Have Your Wife - Trotsky often had the families of the higher-ranked army members kidnapped and held hostage so they didn't disobey his orders. If they did, they were killed.
  • Knight Templar: Arguably.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: A brilliant writer and extraordinary thinker, Trotsky attracted a lot of admirers and followers who wanted to learn from the great man, particularly following his exile. He then proceeded to alienate or lose just as many of them within the span of a few years because he was also dogmatic, narrow minded, and insisted that all human knowledge could and should be understood on Marxist-Leninst-Trostkyist terms, causing him to misinterpret or dismiss any writer, philosopher, scholar or thinker that contradicted his beliefs. And even as a teenager, many associates and friends noted that he hated being proven wrong, and had a style of debating that involved a lot of underhanded and dishonest tactics, like attacking the character of his opponent instead of addressing the issues.
  • Large Ham
  • Nerd Glasses
  • Nice Hat - He sometimes wore a one of these. Unsurprisingly, they began to fall out of favor after he was exiled, and were last used in the Winter War.
  • Nom de Guerre - his real one was Lev Davidovich Bronstein.
  • Tempting Fate: (YMMV if this also doubles as Hilarious in Hindsight) Quoting J.P. Taylor - "When Victor Adler objected to Berchtold, foreign minister of Austria-Hungary, that war would provoke revolution in Russia, even if not in the Habsburg monarchy, he replied: 'And who will lead this revolution? Perhaps Mr. Bronstein [Trotsky] sitting over there at the Cafe Central?'"
  • The Political Officer - The ur-example.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilised
  • Rivals Team Up: Trotsky had a brief stay in Norway during his exile. He was soon thrown out, and headed for Mexico. Although the Norwegian government felt responsibility for him as an applicator for political asylum, they were pressured hard by the Soviet Union who just wanted him gone. This also applied to central members of the Labor Party, who held government at the time. And, of course, the Communist party, who sided with Stalin. To top it all, the Norwegian fascist movement signed on, making an unbelievable alliance between the communists, the labor party and the fascists, just to get rid of him. The only time in history those fractions agreed on anything.
  • Rousing Speech - He was known as a brilliant orator. This helped him a lot during the war, particularly when he rallied deserters during the defense of Petrograd.
  • Out-Gambitted - by Stalin, beginning with the late invite to Lenin's funeral.
  • We ARE Struggling Together - Most famously with Stalin, but this was a problem for the Bolsheviks and especially the Red Army loooooonnnng before the succession crisis came around.
  • We Have Reserves - Had his own crack troops fire on any Red Army soldiers (the majority of whom were conscripts, kidnapped from their villages) who tried to run from battle.
    • This is something of a case of Values Dissonance. Sadly, summary execution was used during World War One, and the vast majority of the soldiers were involved were conscripts, too. Of course, you could argue that it was rather hypocritical of Trotsky to use these methods when he also advocated "progressive" ideals, and rallied unceasingly against the first world war.
  • Un-Person - After his exile, Stalin had Trotsky written out of the USSR's history texts. When Trotsky couldn't be deleted completely, he was replaced with CHEKA founder Felix Dzerzhinsky or Stalin himself.
  • Unreliable Narrator - In his (otherwise rather well-written, if biased) history of the October revolution, he skips over some of the, erm, questionable stuff he did during the civil war. He also paints Stalin as a rather dim, crude and inconsequential bureaucrat. While it's tempting to say he did this only to belittle his rival, it's also quite likely that he really did grossly underestimate Stalin (see Hoist by His Own Petard, above).
  • Your Cheating Heart - Had an affair with painter Frida Kahlo while living at the home she shared with Diego Rivera in Coyoacán.

In fiction

  • The Assassination of Trotsky, directed by Joseph Losey and starring Richard Burton as Trotsky
  • Appears in some of the works of Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist
  • The idealistic pig Snowball from Animal Farm is based on Trotsky, as is Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984.
  • The Trotsky
  • Appears briefly in an animated scene in the 2011 documentary film Marx Reloaded
  • The 2002 film Frida about the life of Frida Kahlo features Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky.
  • All in the Timing, a collection of one-act plays by David Ives, includes a play called Variations on the Death of Trotsky showing different ways that Trotsky's last day could have played out. He spends the entire play with an axe sticking out of his head. note 
  • Robert Bolt's play State of Revolution (1977) has Trotsky as the Deuteragonist to Lenin. He's portrayed as a brilliant leader but cripplingly arrogant, causing the other Bolshevik leaders to turn away from him.
  • Played by Ryan Cox in Nicholas And Alexandra.
  • Appears in Ivan Passer's TV movie Stalin, played by Daniel Massey.
  • Gets mentioned briefly in Damiano Damiani's Lenin: The Train.
  • Catch 22's Permanent Revolution is a Concept Album about his life.
  • He's mentioned in Mission to Moscow. In line with the Soviet propaganda of the time, he's portrayed as the mastermind behind a plot to sell out the Soviet Union to Hitler.
  • Mentioned by an elderly Lenin in Warlord of the Air as having abandoned the revolution and become a businessman.