All you need to know about… Leon Trotsky

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Who? The one next to Lenin?

Leon Trotsky (7 October 1879 – 21 August 1940)
Leon Trotsky (7 October 1879 – 21 August 1940)

Well, he was. Until Joseph Stalin had him erased from the photograph (below). But, despite Stalin’s questionable Photoshopping, Leon Trotsky did exist. He was a leading Russian military commander, revolutionary, and socialist thinker, who helped bring about Bolshevik success in Russia’s October Revolution in 1917. On Lenin’s death, Trotsky was poised to assume leadership of the Communist Party. But he was outmanoeuvred by Stalin in a struggle for ultimate authority, finally meeting his end in Mexico, at the hands of a Soviet assassin wielding an ice-pick.

Chilling. He was pretty bolshie, then?

Trotsky readily admitted to being a controversial figure. In his memoirs, he wrote, ‘It is no wonder that my military work created so many enemies for me. I did not look to the side, I elbowed away those who interfered with military success, or, in the haste of the work, trod on the toes of the unheeding and was too busy even to apologise.’


In fact, he was. Trotsky delivered innumerable rousing speeches promoting socialism. Even Stalin himself acknowledged Trotsky’s skill in coordinating the October Revolution, in which Bolshevik forces overthrew the Provisional Government established after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.

Praising Trotsky in The October Revolution (1934), Stalin wrote, ‘It can be stated with certainty that the Party is indebted primarily and principally to Comrade Trotsky for the rapid going over of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the efficient manner in which the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee was organised.’

Cunningly, Stalin made sure this comment was omitted from his Works (1949).

Lenin speaking to Russian soldiers in Moscow, 1920. Trotsky is standing to his left, beside the podium. Stalin had Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party for his rejection of Stalinism, and had him erased from this photo, among others.

So what else did Stalin try to hide?

In the wake of the revolution, Trotsky founded the Red Army. He instituted conscription, established military intelligence units, and capitalised on the experience of former Tsarist officers by instituting political commissars to ensure loyalty. Opposition to the Red Army from within its own ranks was often violently suppressed.

But Trotsky directed his troops to success in the Russian Civil War. He grew the army from 800,000 to 3,000,000, and saw it fight simultaneously on 16 fronts.

In October 1919, as the White Army approached Petrograd, Trotsky worked hard to raise the spirits of his increasingly demoralised soldiers, managing to fend off White forces by early November, for which he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

Compared with Lenin and Stalin, however, Trotsky’s name is often forgotten.

What’s in a name?

Rather a lot, it turns out. Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, but changed his name after a run-in with the Imperial Russian authorities in the late 1900s. After moving to Nikolayev to study mathematics in 1896, Trotsky began promoting socialism among his peers, and helped organise the South Russian Workers’ Union.

He was arrested in 1898 and, after a two-year imprisonment, was exiled to Siberia. Escaping in 1902, he adopted the name ‘Trotsky’, which he said he inscribed in a fake passport ‘at random’, unaware that it would become the name by which he would be known for the rest of his life.

This article was published in the January 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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