Saturday, July 23, 2011

Trotsky in Mexico

I recently finished reading Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary by Bertrand M. Patenaude. The book is about Trotsky's final years in exile. Patenaude concentrates mainly on Trotsky's time in Mexico from January 1937 until his assassination in August of 1940.


Leon Trosky's assassination with an ice axe by NKVD agent Ramon Mercader is one of the most famous in history. We've all heard the jokes about Trotsky in Mexico and his death by "ice pick", but I for one never knew the whole story. Like, what was he doing in Mexico in the first place.? So when I saw Patenaude's "Trotsky" at the bookstore I felt compelled to read it. It describes his life in exile after being kicked out of the Soviet Union by Josef Stalin in 1929, his subsequent life on the run from Turkey to France to Norway and finally to Mexico, the only country left that would accept the man whom Winston Churchill once called "the ogre of international subversion".


"Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary" is packed with almost every detail of Trotsky and his wife Natalia's stay in Coyoacan, at the time a small town on the outskirts of Mexico City, now one of the capital's 16 boroughs. But what could have been a boring tome crammed full of trivial minutia only academics and fanatics would be interested in is instead a fascinating book that reads like a spy novel. Trotsky and his retinue of bodyguards and secretaries must be ever vigilant against Stalin's agents. The once revered leader of the October Revolution is a marked man. He survives a raid on his home that leaves 70 bullet holes in he and his wife's bedroom and has to be wary of things like poisoned food, and even exploding potted plants and exploding boxes of chocolates.


But Trotsky doesn't just try to stay alive. He spends every waking hour trying to defend his name and his reputation against people who don't just want to kill him but to vilify him and erase him from history. He is the star defendant in absentia of the Moscow show trials, which accuse him and others of terrorism and sabotage, and which Stalin uses to blame all of the young Soviet Union's many problems on Trotskyist subversion. Trotsky writes and writes and with the help of Trotskyists in New York and Paris continues to publish his "Bulletin of the Opposition", which he uses to defend himself, pointing out the many lies and inconsistencies in the insanity of the show trials and to stoke the flames of the real international revolution he is sure will come.


So what the hell has this got to do with art? Surprisingly, a lot. Most people have heard about Trotsky's affair with Frida Kahlo. It was her husband, the legendary muralist Diego Rivera, who begged President Cardenas to grant the embattled revolutionary asylum. Frida went to meet Trotsky and Natalia when their ship arrived in Tampico from Norway and rode with them on the train to Mexico City.



Natalia, Frida and Leon


Here is a rare video of Trotsky giving his thanks to President Cardenas and the Mexican people soon after he arrived.




"Before the cock crows twice Stalin will have disowned him three times"




Anyway, I was on the subject of Trotsky's brushes with famous artists during his time in Mexico. Besides Frida Kahlo, with whom he had a very brief affair and Diego Rivera, who arranged for his asylum in Mexico and even gave him a house to live in, it was David Alfaro Siqueiros, another famous muralist, who along with a gang of thugs sprayed Trotsky's bedroom with machine gun fire. And when surrealist writer/poet Andre Breton came to Mexico to visit Frida and Diego it was Trotsky that helped Breton write the "Surrealist Manifesto".



"Between the Curtains", a painting Frida dedicated to Trotsky, and which hung over his desk during his stay at the "Casa Azul"



Trotsky featured along with Engels and Marx in one of Diego's murals



Siqueiros' "Portrait of the Bourgeoisie"



some more of Siqueiros' fine work



Rivera, Trotsky and Breton


By 1939 the last of the Moscow show trials was over, and so was Trotsky's usefulness as a scapegoat for the Soviet Union's problems. Stalin was done playing games, and he instructed Sudoplatov, the deputy head of foreign intelligence, to begin operation "Duck". Sudoplatov was to arrange a special task force for the "liquidation of duck".



"Duck" deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico


During the late 1930's Mexico was flooded with veterans of the Spanish Civil war, many of who were loyal to Stalin and had been recruited by the NKVD while in Spain. It wasn't long before Spanish Civil war veteran Ramon Mercader joined "Operation Duck" and after seducing a young American Trotskyist named Sylvia Ageloff, whose sister had been one of Trotsky's secretaries, became its most valuable asset. Mercader used Ageloff's connection to gain access to Trotsky's compound, and eventually he gained the "Old Man's" trust enough to be left alone with him. And the rest, as they say, is history.


You can see the author of "Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary" speak in a lecture about the book and the myths of Trotsky's time in Mexico below.






And finally here is Frida Kahlo's portrait of Leon Trotsky. He is painted in front of his beloved cactus garden.



Frida Kahlo's portrait of Leon Trotsky

"Frida Kahlo's Portrait of Leon Trotsky", 2011


20" x 16", oil on canvas


Who do you sell a painting like this to these days? Christopher Hitchens?




2 comments:

  1. Hi Chet, I have started a Facebook page in honour of Bertrand M. Patenaude's book, which I also loved.

    Your blog is excellent - your writing is good and the links are great. I have posted a link to your blog on my Facebook page. Check it out here:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Stalins-Nemesis-The-Exile-and-Murder-of-Leon-Trotsky/216987198325827

    All the best, Will

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  2. Thanks Will. I wanted to clarify something people seem to be confused about, mainly because I made it confusing. The portrait of Trotsky was done by me. I was trying to be cute for search engines when I described it the way I did. I did try to paint it in Frida Kahlo's style and Trotsky was fond of the little cactus garden he planted in his home in Coyoacan. But Frida never painted a portrait of her lover, "El Piochito", which actually surprised me a little. She did however, do a giant portrait of herself with Stalin just before she died in 1954, which made some people suspicious of her earlier relationship to Trotsky.

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