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Trotsky: A Biography Hardcover – October 19, 2009

2.9 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Having covered Lenin and Stalin, Oxford history professor Service completes his biographical trilogy with the life of Leon Trotsky. Thick and intensely researched but a pleasure to read, it should remain the definitive work for some time. Trotsky (1879–1940) flashed like a comet across the political sky, sharing credit with Lenin for winning the 1917 revolution but losing the battle to succeed him after his 1923 death. While this outline is well known, Service mines new and old sources to fill in the details. A brilliant writer and speaker but too arrogant to attract a following, Trotsky had no chance against the methodical Stalin, whom he repeatedly insulted. Stalin forced him into exile in 1929 and had him murdered in 1940. Before and during exile, Trotsky poured out histories, memoirs and journalism, heavily influencing our picture of the revolution and its major figures. Service emphasizes that he was no objective observer. Stalin was not as stupid as portrayed, and Trotsky had no objection to mass murder when it served his purposes. This is a thoughtful, rewarding and essential contribution to 20th-century history. 50 b&w photos. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

Following Lenin (2000) and Stalin (2005), this work continues Service’s series about leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution. Looming in his portrait of Trotsky, the Bolsheviks’ outstanding orator and commander of Communist forces in the Russian Civil War, is whether Trotsky could have prevailed in the post-Lenin power struggle. Service allows the possibility, but his commentary about Trotsky’s traits and habits militate against it. Developing Trotsky’s characteristics, Service detects in the young man a self-assured talent for Marxist polemics and a neglect of others’ sensitivities that eventually earned him enemies inside the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky excelled in verbal virtuosity (the “dustbin of history” is his coinage) but, as Service recounts, was a terrible listener. He disdained ideas other than his own, an arrogance palpable to and resented by the Bolshevik elite. Compounding Trotsky’s disadvantage, Service writes, was his clumsiness in the political maneuvering to succeed Lenin. Rounding out his depiction with Trotsky’s private life, which included an abandoned wife and children, Service solidly updates the hitherto definitive biography (hagiography, to critics) by Isaac Deutscher. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 648 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1 edition (November 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674036158
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674036154
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #953,281 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Leon Trotsky, once a household name, has recently fallen into eclipse. Scholarly research has also fallen off, apparently coincident with the demise of the USSR and the abject failure of Marxism as an historical/economic framework. Now, Professor Robert Service has resurrected Trotsky from premature oblivion and has written a widely publicized biography on the man and the myth. Knowing Service's perspectives and appreciating how they have shaped of the story, the Trotsky biography can be appreciated as a flawed, occasinally tedious, often-times derivative, sometimes insightful and relatively interesting book.

Service has done little to conceal his disdain for the Communist enterprise and its paladins, first displaying his ideological persuasions in a biography of Lenin, then one on his successor Stalin and now on the remaining figure in the Communist "Big Three", Leon Trotsky. Given the apparent depth of his opposition to the (Russian) implementation of Marxist economic "laws", Service actually appears restrained in his editorial commentary, but he emphasizes certain things and minimizes others in conformity with his prejudices. As expected, his attitude is largely condemnatory and sometimes (rarely) laudatory, as if the author was forced by circumstances to marvel at the intellectual powers of the ideological adversary. Probably because of Service's all-too-obvious bias, opinions on "Trotsky" have been sharply polarized. Some (such as David North, whose scathing review is available on World Socialist website) have painstakingly dissected from it an array of factual errors and misstatements. Others, less swayed by facts and more by myth, are incensed that the anti-fascist, anti-Stalinist idol has been loosened from its pedestal.
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Format: Hardcover
This biography, despite it detractors, offers a good introduction to the life and times of this influential twentieth century politician. It shows the events in his life that influenced him and motivated his behaviour and whilst the author claims he isn't Trotskyist this still manages to be relatively positive towards his subject. You see how Trotsky's political views developed, explore his time in exile in Siberia, see how he helped form and run the early USSR government and see his fall from grace, deportation and finally his assassination.

This book does point out his numerous flaws and overall this seems reasonably balanced. One thing I found highly frustrating was how the author refers to later events in Trotsky's life before they have yet to happen, as if the reader already has a knowledge of Trotsky's life and knows what he is talking about, and if this was the case I wouldn't have been reading the book in the first place! This ruined some passages for me, and some of the suspense was taken out of the narrative.

It has extensive maps at the beginning, three photo sections on the usual glossy pages and extensive notes at the back for those who are reading this for more academic reason. I haven't read the other books by the author about Stalin or Lenin and I would imagine there is a lot of cross over between them, but I can also imagine that if they are as well written as this they would provide an in-depth look at the main protagonists of the Russian revolution and USSR formation. This has lots of short chapters which help you progress through it at a reasonable rate and whilst I found some chapters relatively dry and uninspiring, this was in the main a fascinating and informative read. Worth considering.

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The photo of Trotsky on the book's jacket is one of the most arresting I've ever seen. The face -- young, intelligent, earnest and, unobscured by the beard, appealing -- explains much about this man's complex character. And the book is billed by The New Yorker as, "unlike much work about Trotsky...the work of a historian, not an ideologue," alluding presumably to Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky's Marxist biographer. So I was well-disposed towards this book.

There's obviously much an historian's work behind Robert Service's book, but alas, I can't see much of the historian's craft in it. I was a history major and attended Oxford, and my impression was that the historian's prime directive is rigor. I fail to see much of that here. Besides editorial sloppiness and uneven annotation, there's a lack of detachment. It belies an eagerness to announce, "See, see, I told you he was a bad guy!" which I find unseemly in an historian.


Service makes it clear early on that his mission is to serve as an antidote to what he regards as the hagiography surrounding Trotsky. What he comes up with is this rather mean-spirited effort to bring Trotsky down a notch or two, mainly by gratuitous and petty personal jabs, often following faint praise. While admitting to Trotsky's intellect, organizing acumen and faithfulness to his creed, Service apparently finds the revolutionary's narcissism a worthy counterweight.

Service relates Trotsky's scrupulous reading of a friend's book:

"[T]he exclamation marks in the margins testify to angry self-righteousness and intellectual self-regard."

I've done that before -- exclamation marks noting something interesting or that I agree with strongly. Was I being self-righteous or egotistical?
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