Why should you read Bernard Wolfe’s The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky? What is its project, and how does it go about fulfilling it?
Do not expect an accurate relation of Trotsky’s assassination. Wolfe informs us that “this work cannot be called history. It is, rather, a fiction based upon, derived from, dogged by, if you will—history.”
Whatever it is, it cannot be called great literature, either.
The Great Prince Died does in fact concern itself with the assassination of Trotsky, but V.R. Rostov—as Wolfe calls the protagonist in his novel—lacks three of Trotsky’s four children and one of his two wives, and even meets his death a year earlier than the historical Trotsky (who was killed in August 1940), so that Wolfe can haunt us with that cynical triumph, the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact: “Idea of agreement with Hitler a jolt. Had to introduce it in stages: first as plot. After that, no novelty or shock power to the idea . . . Rostov working with Hitler must be in Hitler’s pocket. Stalin working with Hitler must have Hitler in his pocket. All the badness in the idea pinned to Rostovites. Rostovites wiped out—idea remains, minus its badness.”
And here let me pause to temper my earlier criticism: When Wolfe writes in this telegraphic style, he can be quite effective. Moreover, some of his episodes achieve true narrative interest—for instance, the impulsive liaisons and ghastly memories of Rostov’s security guard Paul Teleki, the most fully realized character.
If you have read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, you will probably remember how the International Brigades of anarchists, Communists, socialists, do-gooders, and fellow travellers were systematically undermined by their supposed ally, J. V. Stalin. The circumstances of Teleki’s initiation into this truth are rather extreme. And just to make things neat—far neater than real life could be—his educators turn out to be some of Rostov’s future assassins.
The assassins, though they bear some similarity to their counterparts in our universe, have likewise been changed. Cándida Baeza de Riviera and Tomás are loosely modeled after Caridad Mercader and her son Ramon. I was sorry not to encounter the Stalinist painter Siqueiros, who led the first assassination attempt with a machine gun. Wolfe’s George Bass, who tortures his victims with lenses of his own manufacture, is a remarkable villain, but still perhaps less fascinating than the real article, Mark Zborowski, who after procuring the death of Trotsky’s son and of various members of the Trotsky circle, then became an anthropologist at two American Ivy League universities.
At any rate, Wolfe has strong feelings; he means to paint a certain picture, and to do so he will not hesitate to alter this or that—which is peculiar, since he informs us that he was Trotsky’s secretary in 1937, so that he must have known the facts pretty well; he could have served them up with a sauce of hyper-realistic local flavor. And yet the closer we look at his tale (or parable, I should better call it), the greater appear his alterations.
Consider the actual mood in Trotsky’s besieged fortress. In the final volume of his great biographical trilogy, Isaac Deutscher, who was not there, conveys a sad and increasingly ominous impression. Joseph Hansen, who was present, having been another Trotsky secretary not long after Wolfe, insists that “Deutscher’s picture of the years in Coyoacán is of virtually unrelieved gloom, life . . . being overcast by a hopeless battle against the Kremlin’s executioners. This is not the way it was.”—Well, then how was it? Trotsky had hopes and even successes; he sometimes achieved propaganda victories. For instance, regarding the third “great” Moscow show trial of 1938, “Trotsky, the chief defendant, succeeded in turning the tables on Stalin, becoming the chief accuser.” In The Great Prince Died, the picture is more like Deutscher’s than Hansen’s. “Certainly,” Wolfe admits, “the inner agitation, if it was there, did not come out as nakedly as I have suggested.” But in Wolfe’s re-envisioning, Rostov and the entourage are not merely hemmed in; they are waiting for death. And the subtext—distasteful, disturbing to be on Stalin’s side!—is that Rostov might even deserve killing—for we hear a certain name on everyone’s lips: Kronstadt.
The Kronstadt rebellion, an unsuccessful 1921 uprising against the Bolsheviks by sailors at a naval garrison in the Gulf of Finland, is the focus and locus of Wolfe’s fictional project. Rostov says the word with a guilty irritation; Paul Teleki continually needles him about it. Even the wide-eyed young American linguist overcomes his hero-worship enough to make accusations. It is difficult to imagine the real life Trotsky putting up with all this. As Robert Conquest remarked, Trotsky’s “ideas are notable for . . . a total lack of solicitude for the non-Communist victims of the regime: no sympathy whatever was expended, for example, on the dead of the collectivization famine.” Therefore, “the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion was as much his personal battle honor as the seizure of power had been.”
In 1917, the Romanov era finally came to an end with the abdication of Nicholas II. The curtain of the February Revolution unsteadily rose upon a Provisional Government whose elements were various and antithetical: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, Social Revolutionaries, Tsarists, prospective White Guards—all biding their time under the mercurial leadership of Alexander Kerensky, who thought to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the bourgeoisie and the ultraleftists. According to Trotsky, one of these myriad indissoluble globules was “the independent Kronstadt republic,” the fortress where “the flame of rebellion never went out.”
“The February Revolution was relatively bloodless . . .,” writes the historian Richard Pipes. “Most of the deaths occurred at the naval bases in Kronshtadt and Helsinki, where anarchist sailors lynched officers, often on suspicion of ‘espionage’ because of their German-sounding surnames.” Or, as Trotsky more romantically tells it: “In Kronstadt the revolution was accompanied by an outbreak of bloody vengeance against the officers, who attempted, as if in horror at their own past, to conceal the revolution from the sailors.” (The Great Prince Died omits this episode entirely, for it is essential to Wolfe’s project to represent the sailors as heroic victims.)
In July 1917, as Kerensky’s coalition continued its inevitable disintegration, there presently arose, “spontaneously” again, the ultrarevolutionary demonstrations of the “July days,” when hordes demanded that Bolsheviks break with the Provisional Government and establish Red rule. Of course five or six thousand Kronstadt sailors took part, raising the banner “All Power to the Soviets.” Lenin, however, hesitated, believing the Bolsheviks too weak to seize power just yet.
Lenin’s caution proved correct, for the “July days” presently burned themselves out—except for one last manifestation: the Peter and Paul fortress remained under the control of Kronstadt sailors and other ultraradicals. Stalin and a Menshevik colleague (or, to hear our hero tell it, Trotsky) finally visited them to negotiate their surrender, which was accomplished without violence and led to no executions.
So it happened that emissaries of the Kronstadt Soviet found themselves able to travel all over Russia, urging peasants to pillage the aristocrats, persuading soldiers to desert from the frontline. Trotsky pays them this tribute: “The sailors far more deeply expressed the demands of historic evolution than the very intelligent professors.”
Later that year, the Bolsheviks finally did seize power in the October Revolution. Of course Kronstadt sailors were there.
Five years later, with the Soviet Union starved and exhausted by the Civil War, Kronstadt rose up against Bolshevik unilateralism, because, as Wolfe so accurately explains, “the trouble was: the best ingredient in a movement of social revolt was the young spirit of rebellion.” So the sailors demanded a “third revolution”—and with good reason, for the stern measures of “War Communism,” which Lenin, Trotsky & Co. had applied, had grown intolerable. In his autobiography Trotsky nearly admits this: “The question at issue was really one of daily bread, of fuel, of raw material for the industries . . . the thing that really mattered was the economic catastrophe hanging over the country. The uprisings at Kronstadt and in the province of Tambov broke into the discussion as the last warning.”
It was March 1921. A few weeks earlier the bread ration had been cut by 30 percent. Joined by soldiers, workers, even card-carrying Bolsheviks, the sailors once more established their own provisional revolutionary committee. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn gave them this epitaph: Kronstadt and Tambov marked the last time in forty-one years that the people would speak out.
What the people said in this final declaration was nothing that the new autocrats wished to hear. Let me quote from one Kronstadt manifesto: “The power of the police-gendarme monarchy has gone into the hands of the Communist-usurpers, who instead of freedom offer the toilers the constant fear of falling into the torture-chambers of the Cheka, which in their horrors surpass many times the gendarme administration of the tsarist regime.”
The Cheka were already on the case. They warned Lenin: “The Kronstadt revolutionary committee clearly expects a general uprising in Petrograd any day now.” Lenin advised the Tenth Congress: “Now as to Kronshtadt. The danger there lies in the fact that their slogans are not Socialistic-Revolutionary, but anarchistic. An All-Russian Congress of Producers—this is not a Marxist but a petty bourgeois idea.”
Not coincidentally, I suspect, in this same document Lenin goes on to say: “Trotsky wants to resign . . . But Trotsky is a temperamental man with military experience. He is in love with the organization, but as for politics, he hasn’t got a clue.” After all, he had loved the Kronstadt fighters. But fortunately for his personal equilibrium, he was practiced at breaking with former allies—and the rupture must have come easier to him when the other Bolsheviks rapidly made up their own steely minds to follow Lenin’s intimations.
The Great Prince Died alludes to what happened next: “Pyramids of Teotihuacán. Pointed tops: rooms of sacrifice there. Where men used to face charges. Charged with being wanted by the boss, the sun god, without delay; hearts pulled out and dropped, still pumping, on fires.” And again, more blatantly (this somewhat recalls the doctrine of the High, the Middle, and the Low in Orwell’s 1984): “Those who rise to the apex can’t see the base . . . the base will rise up one day, not seen until the last minute, and destroy the apex.” On the subject of Kronstadt, Rostov explains: “We had to stop their premature attack on the pyramid—in the interest of abolishing pyramids altogether.”
So the Cheka arrested two thousand worker sympathizers, after which the military assault on Kronstadt began. “Thousands of people” were killed in the taking of the fortress. This was not enough for the vanguardists at the apex. We read that 2,103 prisoners received capital sentences, and 6,459 were imprisoned. (Considerable numbers of the latter would soon be tied to stones and drowned in the Dvina River.) In 1923, 2,154 civilians were deported from Kronstadt to Siberia, “merely on the grounds that they had stayed in the town through the events.” Meanwhile, as many as possible of the besieged who had escaped into Finnish internment were lured back and likewise dispatched to the Gulag.
“Trotsky,” says Wolfe, “did not participate personally in the military operation against Kronstadt . . . He and Lenin, however, drew up the ultimatums issued to the sailors.” In The Great Prince Died, Rostov leads the attack, and on “the night it was finally over at Kronstadt,” his fifteen-year-old only son, whom Stalin will eventually assassinate, upbraids him: “They were your best friends . . . Mine, too . . . Uncle Anastas let me climb all over the battleships . . .”
After the rebellion had been crushed, Lenin went easier on the general population while tightening the screws within the Party: from here on, even the most loyal and reasoned disagreement increasingly became labeled as “factionalism,” and received appropriate punishment. In My Life, published in 1930, the freshly exiled Trotsky justifies the practice: “As a rule, solutions had to be found on the spur of the moment, and mistakes were followed by immediate retribution . . . If we had had more time for discussion, we should probably have made a great deal more mistakes.” But by 1937, with Stalin’s assassins closing in, he writes in The Revolution Betrayed: “This forbidding of factions was again regarded as an exceptional measure to be abandoned at the first serious improvement in the situation . . . However,” this “proved perfectly suited to the taste of the bureaucracy.”
Accordingly, in the novel we find Paul Teleki worrying that “it,” meaning both bureaucratic centralism and Rostov’s death wish, might have started after Kronstadt.
The Great Prince Died stands or falls by its invocation of Kronstadt. I say it stands. In essence, the novel is a Socratic dialogue with more or less colorful interruptions. If it tends to heavyhandedness, well, so do the conversations in Plato. Wolfe’s own position is clear. He argues first with Trotsky, then with Bolshevism, and eventually with authority itself. As the book progresses, the metaphor of Kronstadt grows and grows, until it stands in for any time and place in which someone employs power upon the weak in the service of a stated good.
Do the ends justify the means? This is one of the great questions of any time. We should consider it deeply and provisionally answer it for ourselves. To help us do so, Wolfe has simplified real life into a parable in order to present us with the following question: If the Kronstadt mutineers were “innocent,” “virtuous” and somehow “correct” in their political line, and if Trotsky were responsible for their suppression, which not only was (“necessary” or not) an atrocity, but also furthered the cause of bureaucratic centralism through which millions, including Trotsky, were liquidated, then how valid would Trotsky’s justifications be?
Paradox: If Trotsky was correct at Kronstadt, then his own murder could also be construed as right. If his murder stinks (as I most certainly believe), then he was wrong at Kronstadt, in which case his murder again becomes justified so long as he supports Kronstadt-like actions. Like most paradoxes, this one ultimately fails to hold together—but only in the “real world.” Rostov is a reduction of a far more interesting and ambiguous man. But the protagonists of parables must be types, emblems, tropes. Rostov represents not who Trotsky was, but a certain principle that Trotsky stood for. If we feel willing to generalize and simplify, then this parable with its paradox does have something to tell us—for the events that haunted Bernard Wolfe reincarnate themselves endlessly.
“Then it amounts to this,” says a Mexican official to the dying Rostov’s wife. “Those who use all means will win, those who reject some means will lose. There is no remedy . . .” Can it be so? Trotsky believed it. Sometimes, so do I. (That is why I prefer to lose.) Exactly here we come face to face with Wolfe’s defective, unlikely greatness. His formulation must never be forgotten.
Adapted from William T. Vollmann’s afterword to the new University of Chicago Press edition of Bernard Wolfe’s 1959 novel The Great Prince Died: A Novel About the Assassination of Trotsky, which will be published this week.