Isaac Deutscher’s three volumes on the life of Trotsky were entitled The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Disarmed, and The Prophet Outcast. To Deutscher, whose last volume appeared thirty-three years ago, Trotsky was still a “prophet.” To Dmitri Volkogonov, his latest biographer, Trotsky was no prophet, and, in fact, Volkogonov suggests he was wrong more often than right. To most people, Trotsky has become an increasingly dim memory, and his prophecies, whatever they were, belong to a distant age.
Volkogonov, who died recently, is that strange Russian phenomenon, a general turned scholar. Having previously published books on Lenin and Stalin, Volkogonov could dare to go over the same ground as Deutscher and others because a huge archive was available to him and to no one else before him. As director of the Institute of Military History in Moscow from the mid-1980s to the spring of 1991 and head of the Russian Archive Declassifying Commission after August 1991, he was able to see documents whose declassification would have seemed out of the question a few years ago.
Whatever Trotsky’s ultimate historical status may be, Volkogonov has made a valiant effort to bring him back to living history. The essential story has not changed, and Volkogonov does not add anything vital or surprising to it, although he presents some new information from previously secret documents. The Russian Revolution is going to haunt us for a long time, and Trotsky’s place in it will always give him a claim on our attention. Yet those who are under the age of fifty have had little occasion for thinking about him.
Trotsky was born Leib (or Lev) Bronstein in 1879 to a Jewish family in the Ukraine. In later life, he used many pseudonyms, but one of them, Trotsky, which he took from one of the warders in a prison in Odessa, stuck to him.
His revolutionary career can best be told as having traversed three periods. The first began when he was arrested in 1898 as a member of a small social-democratic group. It lasted with various phases until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, during which he went over to the Bolshevik wing of the revolutionary movement. The next five or six years were his great period in the Revolution, when he was regarded as second only to Lenin among its leaders. By 1923, he was engaged in an increasingly ferocious struggle with Stalin, the Party’s general secretary. This period came to an end with Trotsky’s expulsion from Moscow and exile, first to Alma Ata in a faraway corner of the Soviet Union in January 1928 and then to Turkey in February 1929. The third period of exile lasted until the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in August 1940.
Of these three periods, the longest, of almost twenty years, came in Trotsky’s pre-Revolutionary years. By 1902, at the age of twenty-three, Trotsky was accepted as a regular contributor to the social-democratic newspaper Iskra, which was published …