29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2010
Patenaude's last book, Big Show in Bololand: the American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, won the 2003 Marshall Shulman prize for outstanding work in Russian/Soviet history. His new book Trotsky, Downfall of a Revolutionary is equally well-written and carefully researched but, unlike Big Show in Bololand, is aimed at the informed general reader. It is a well-composed narrative of the former Lev Bronstein's exile and murder after being one of the most important players in the Russian Revolution. Despite Trotsky's brilliance and ability, he was easily out-maneuvered by Stalin in the politically charged atmosphere of 1920's Moscow and exiled. Stalin never forgave Trotsky for Trotsky's opposition and obsessed about destroying him because he symbolized all that Stalin despised. To be associated with Trotsky, even with the most tenuous or mythical ties, would eventually mean death. After one short chapter narrating this background, Patenaude directs the rest of the text on Trotsky's exile and Stalin's efforts to kill him. Patenaude bases his work primarily on the Trotsky archives at Harvard and at Patenaude's home institution of Stanford, as well as recent Russian and English language secondary material. Traditional footnotes are not used, rather, the reader must go to the endnotes for sourcing which are tied to the short but very strong bibliography. Many photographs are interspersed throughout the text to humanize a man portrayed by Stalin and his followers as the devil incarnate. Russian history is often a tough read, the long, ostensibly unpronounable words and unfamiliar places seemingly promise the wading into the topic will be real work. Patenaude, however, has proven himself to be such an extremely capable literary stylis that this work will be far, far more accessible to the non-academic reader while, at the same time, his first-rate research will satisfy the professional scholar. Patenaude is poorly served by the publisher whose text composition software sometimes runs words together so closely when justifying margins that the reader must re-read some sentences to understand the content. Nevertheless, despite this quibble, it is another estimable work by a top-flight historian performing at the pinnacle of his craft. I wish he would do a book on the NEP or the Ukrainain famine.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2010
I think this book deserves a wide readership. I'm not a scholar and I would like to preface the review by saying this book does not seem to have been written with the scholar in mind. I have no comment on the book's accuracy nor on Patenaude's conclusions as to the character of Trotsky, all I can say is that having read many biographical tome's on the topic of various famous men in history this one was a page turner. I found myself very interested in the people the author writes about, and he does it in a way that kept me wanting to read. He limited his book to a short period in Trotsky's life and that enabled him to go back and flesh out some of his history to give a better understanding to his character and to some of the quarrels Trotsky involved himself during the period covered without making the book overly long. Coincidentally I also read a novel called "Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver a good portion of the book covering the period of Trotsky's life when he lived in Mexico, the same period as Patenaude. The problem with Kingsolver's version of the events is that she fails to create an interesting character in her book. It seems odd that she a novelist could not present Trotsky as a real person. Admittedly Trotsky is not the protagonist but he is not a realized character, and to Patenaude's credit he brings to the reader a detailed portrait of Trotsky that is something besides the blandness that is achieved by Kingsolver. Kingsolver on the other hand has stated that she writes with a political purpose, and perhaps it fit her purpose to make Trotsky into a paternalistic fuzzy bear, even if she does admit that Trotsky was involved in an affair with Frieda Kahlo. Patenaude is not trying to make Trotsky into a cardboard hero or even a kindly old grandpa, he is trying to let his reader know who Trotsky was with all of his talents and all of his serious flaws. The true life tragedy of Trotsky's death is a great read, stylistically speaking. It flows well and the writing style, plotting arrangement, makes this a great story worth reading for the pure pleasure of reading.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2009
At the beginning of 1939,a man by the name of Pavel Sudoplatov was on his way to meet Stalin.The meeting between these two men sealed the fate of Trotsky, who was at that time living in Mexico.As Stalin put it then:"Trotsky should be eliminated within a year".
And so,the process towards the assassination of Stalin's arch-enemy has begun.
Trotsky was among many Jews who thought that Communism would deliver them and the world of all the social evils in the world.His real name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein and was born in the Ukraine in 1879.After his rise and quarrels in the Bolshevik party, he was exiled by Koba (aka Stalin )and was dispatched to Turkey, where he was doing all he could in order to get a visa which would enable him to live in another country.From Turkey he and his wife moved to Norway, where the much- awaited visa for Mexico has finally arrived.
After some days ,the couple has landed on the Mexican shores and it was there where they would spend the rest of their days, until the Spanish-born assassin Ramon Mercader had terminated the life of Trotsky.
In this biography, we get a panoramic description of Trotsky's final years in Mexico.Based on Trotsky's private correspondence and diaries as well as his archives and testimonies of his American bodyguards and many secretaries,Mt.Patenaude offers the reader a fascinating and thrilling story about Trotsky.
This is done in a series of flashbacks, in which Trotsky's various life episodes are brilliantly told and analyzed.The reader is informed about Trotsky the revolutionary, the lover, the husband and grandfather, the author and thinker,the paranoiac and the naive one.He had a brief affair with the painter Frida Kahlo, who was Diego Rivera's wife.Rivera, the mural painter, fell under the spell of Communism and both men had an admiration for each other until this came to an end for reasons the reader will find out when he/she finishes reading this book.
The author also discusses in detail the hearings of the Dewey Commission which set out to inquire the charges made against Leo Trotsky in the Moscow trials.
Another excellent aspect of this book is the way the thirties are described:the age of Stalinistic terror and the the Spanish Civil War.There were many parts to Trotsky:the intellectual, the military commander, the jealous and erotic husband, the ideologue and revolutionary.Besides Trotsky, there are other minor characters accompanying the hero of this study, and they are mainly artists and left-wing intellectuals of the thirties.Many of them belonged the bohemic world of those years.
Read this book and you will get a detective as well as a very serious historical tale and study of one of the most controversial and intriguing personalities that peopled this earth.All this in spite of the fact that the end of the story is well-known.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 2012
A better title for this book would have been Trotsky: the Exile Years or even more specifically, Trotsky: the Exile in Mexico. That is what this book is all about. For those seeking more, as I was, you'll be disappointed. There is little or nothing about Trotsky's development into a revolutionary during the rule of the czars, nor is there much about how Trotsky rose through the Bolshevik movement to the unofficial second highest position, behind Lenin. I also would have appreciated more (although there is some) about Trotsky's role in deveoping the Red Army. The exile years in Mexico are covered in great detail, more than I needed, while the development of the person, his successes and evolution of his beliefs as a young man, is sorely lacking.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 7, 2010
As I noted in a recent review of Professor Robert Service's biography, Trotsky,
the spirit of the great Russian Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, animates the political material reviewed in this space, and is some senses the way the materials are presented make no sense without acknowledging that hard truth. I have also noted, as well, that of all the biographies, sketches, memoirs, etc. concerning the life and times of this extraordinary revolutionary that Isaac Deutscher's three volume Prophet series done in the 1950s and 1960s still, to my mind, is the definitive such study of the man. As I also noted in the above-mentioned review after reading that Trotsky biography and this more specialized volume that centers on the last period of his life and his subsequent assassination by a Stalinist agent down in Mexico in 1940, both which have the benefit of the latest in archival, particularly Soviet archival, material I still hold to that opinion. However, the present book under review, by looking at Trotsky's life from the perspective of his last years in exile and projecting back to the highlights of his earlier career and deeds was an interesting quick read on Trotsky's life for those who need a fairly short primer on his life.
As I also stated in the Service review I admit to being somewhat surprised by Professor Patenaude`s book. Not, as might be expected, for its veiled liberal disdain for the Soviet experiment and for Bolshevism. That kind of expectation comes with wading into liberal academic territory. It is, moreover, old hat by now and gets one no closer to the core of Trotsky's place in world revolutionary history than most of the other Trotsky books written from that hardly exclusive perspective. What is surprising is that Professor Patenaude felt the need to write a biography of the fallen revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the year 2009 long after his ghost, and that of the Soviet Union, that he was instrumental in creating, especially its military structure, have left the scene. Furthermore, as with Professor Service's book, while I believe this book has a certain merit as a contemporary Trotsky primer it certainly has not revealed much new in the way of biographical material despite the opening up of the archives. That is the sense, or one of the senses, that I mean when I say I continue to stand in awe of Isaac Deutscher's exhaustive study.
For those not familiar with Trotsky's life the good professor sketchily projects back to his Ukrainian Jewish childhood, his early pre-revolutionary academic activities, and his emersion into the Russian revolutionary milieu in Russia and in exile at the turn of the 20th century. He notes Trotsky's very public leadership of the Russian revolution of 1905 as chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet and after its defeat its political defense, the pre-World War I free agent journalist period during which he attempted to bring the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions together and earned the scorn of both sides, and the struggle against World War I and the betrayal of internationalism by the Second International. Time is spent on the 1917 February and October revolutions in Russia where Trotsky linked his fate with the Bolsheviks and became a central leader of that party and of the Soviet state, the subsequent civil war to defend that October revolution, and Trotsky's key role in creating the Red Army and the Communist International. He also details the post-Lenin inner-Bolshevik Party struggle where Trotsky's star started to fate, and in the aftermath his internal and then eternal exiles, highlighted by the Mexican exile, after his defeats at the hands of Stalin, and his fight to create the stillborn Fourth International to replace the Communist International in the fight for world socialist revolution. And, of course, he goes in great depth about the set-up of his assassination at the hands of a Stalinist agent in 1940. Along the way he also gives scope to Trotsky's wide ranging literary and intellectual interests that permitted him to continue to make his mark on the political world after his exile, to make a living, and to fund his various political projects.
In one sense it is hard for a biographer, any biographer, to say something new about such an open book political man as Leon Trotsky. Both because he wrote much, including his memoirs, about his political life and his positions from early on well before the Russian Revolution of 1905 and because the events that he was associated with left little room for not previously making it onto the pages of history. So what is left for a biographer? Well, since no one has scoured the newly opened archives and found that Trotsky really did take German gold during World War I. Or that he really, as charged in the Moscow trials, was an agent of the Mikado, British imperialism or Hitlerite Germany then what is left is speculation, now apparently endless speculation, about his personal character flaws.
This is actually the ground that makes this book, like Professor Service's, interesting as he, like others before him detail Trotsky's prickly personality, his failure to suffer fools gladly (or at all) either close political associates or distant foes, his aloofness and haughtiness that made him less than the perfect choice for leadership of political factions in the struggle for power. Those, in the end, were a key to Trotsky's political undoing. Professor Patenaude also details more extensively than I have seen elsewhere some of Trotsky private moments like his late life affair with the Mexican surrealist/naturalist artist, Frida Kahlo (and wife of muralist Diego Rivera), his bumpy road passion for his long suffering wife and companion, Natalia, his myriad health issues and his strained relationships with most of his kin folk.
For those who have not read a previous Trotsky biography and who understand that Professor Patenaude's work is a mere sketch of the vast number of issues and events that Trotsky's life represented then there is much that can be gleaned from his work. But, I always come back to when dealing with the life of the much maligned, besmirched, and denigrated revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, warts and all, comes as close as any historic figure that has come out of bourgeois society to being the proto-type for the new communist man that humankind has produced thus far. In that sense Leon Trotsky is in need of no certificate of revolutionary good conduct from the good professor, ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, this writer or the reader. Enough said.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2010
Trotsky's career & personality have important lessons for anyone who operates in an leadership role. An idealogue who eventually lost all perspective in reality, his career demonstrates how arrogance and a self-created righteouness with an over-ambudance of self-confidence can destroy an otherwise promising career. Trotsky went from the heights of power and respect of his party to total disrepute.
This book chronicles all of his foibles and his tragic downfall. By the time you finish, you feel you know him very well. You understand he is a tragic figure like in the classical myths, except he was never a hero really. You don't hate him really, you don't feel sorry for him, but you do understand his hubris and how it did him in as his career spiraled downward. The author brings the Trotsky "heritage" beyond his death; and some will find the author's final judgment rather amusing, if not correct.
Unfortunately, the book overlooks Trotsky's Jewish background and how his repudiation of that background contributed to his self-destruction and policies which destroyed the lives of millions of Russians.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Leon Trotsky: revolutionary, Red Army commissar, dreamer, exile, assassination victim. There are few people who have lived the life of Trotsky. He was certainty at the vanguard of 20th century history.
Bertrand Patenaude has written a biography of Trotsky that covers his time in Mexico after fleeing Europe and seeking sanctuary in a more distant third country. And sanctuary was key. Trotsky was forever and increasingly in the sights of Joseph Stalin. Trotsky was everything that Stalin was not. He was bold, daring and spellbinding while Stalin was cautious, plodding and cruel.
I found Patenaude's book to be quite compelling. I knew little of the details of Trotsky's time in Mexico and it was fascinating for them to be brought to life. Patenaude is a good writer who has mastered his brief. He also clearly showed that Trotsky for all his boldness and daring could be spectacularly naïve. Nowhere was this more the case than with his assassination. How could a man who had survived previous attempts on his life be so trusting of people? How could a man smuggle an ice pick into Trotsky's house underneath a raincoat on a hot day?
I recommend this book to readers of general history. Trotsky was with little doubt one of the more influential figures of the 20th century. Ignore his politics. Here he had both admirers and detractors. Indeed, he still does. However, his impact was significant. Read this book to understand a small portion of the enigma that was Leon Trotsky.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2013
“Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary” is an interesting account of Trotsky’s last few years of life while in exile in Mexico. This book offers a good combination of all the ingredients that make a good biography; it offers glimpses into Trotsky’s daily life, his character, a deeper discussion of his political philosophy and a bigger picture overview to provide context. Since I am not very familiar with Trotsky’s life, perhaps this wasn’t the best choice for me, because this biography chiefly focuses on the last few years of his life. Nevertheless, I did learn quite a bit in spite of my unfamiliarity with the subject.
11 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2009
I was delighted to see this book appear, because I've always wanted to know more about the last several years of Trotsky's life, when he had been exiled to Mexico, the last country on earth that would give him asylum, and was holed up with his wife, grandson, and bodyguards in a house owned by the artist Frida Kahlo.
Trotsky owed his safe haven to the direct intervention of Kahlo's husband, the great muralist and revolutionary firebrand, Diego Rivera.
Of course, Stalin's GPU was on the hunt, and it was only a question of time before the assassins closed in, and Trotsky knew it. I don't think I'm giving much away by saying that Trotsky was brutally assassinated with an icepick blow to the head by a GPU operative who had insinuated himself into the confidence of the Trotsky household.
Patenaude has done a superb job with this material. His sensitive, insightful, and well-written account is so replete with irony, pathos, and tragedy that there really isn't much point to adding more to this review except to say that Trotsky has found the biographer he deserves in Patenaude.
on February 17, 2014
Patenaude's book is primarily about Trotsky's years in Mexico, from January 1937 until his assassination in August of 1940 (his "flashbacks" to earlier events are not as well researched, and contain a number of errors). That's the only reason I read it, since Mexico is the weakest part of the definitive Isaac Deutscher trilogy, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921,The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 and the The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940, being given only one chapter in the last of these, a book that covers Trotsky's life from 1929-40.
The author's thesis is that Trotsky was in decline, creating unnecessary battles with his followers. No one ever said that Trotsky was easy to get along with, but anyone with an understanding of Marxism knows that clarification takes place amidst the clash of ideas. Patenaude makes a big deal about what wasn't important, like the disagreements in the Socialist Workers Party in Trotsky accepting to invitation to testify before the Dies Committee (which became the House Committee on Un-American Activities. There were always some in the party at that time who wanted to present themselves as more "revolutionary" than Trotsky. Had Trotsky testified, it would have given him an opportunity to speak more directly to the American working class, and he would not have said anything different than what he said anywhere else. But apparently Dies understood this, and probably only invited him thinking he would refuse. When he accepted, Dies rapidly cancelled the invitation, giving Trotsky the moral high ground.
The split with the Shachtman group was a big deal, but Patenaude totally fails to understand what it was about. He blames Trotsky for precipitating the split, which he views as totally unnecessary. He quotes a member of the Shachtman group as saying "The war broke out and we did nothing." While the debate covered many important questions fundamental to Marxism, it was, above all, a debate about what position to take in World War II, the majority defending the point of view that Trotsky had always held, that of defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism, despite the Stalinist degeneration.
This struggle took almost half the membership, but it left the party in a stronger position to fight against the war, and the persecution of the party under the Smith Act (see Teamster Bureaucracy,Socialism on Trial and The Socialist Workers Party in World War II: Writings and Speeches, 1940-43 (James P. Cannon writings & speeches)) precisely for representing an important antiwar current within the labor movement.
To fully understand the split with the Shachtmanites, one must read and understand In Defense of Marxism: The Social and Political Contradictions of the Soviet Union and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.
The best part of the book is the use of important material from the archives of Joseph Hansen, secretary to Trotsky in Mexico, and life-long leader of the Socialist Workers Party. I also suggest reading the Pathfinder edition of My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography, which has an introduction by Hansen entitled "With Trotsky in Coyoacán."