Of course, Ukraine had been a zone of permanent Jewish settlement for a long time prior. Statistics show that by the end of the 19th century, nearly two million Jews lived within the borders of Ukraine. Though there were loud complaints about the harsh anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Jews were successful in nearly all branches of the economy, from banking to trade. They led textile, sugar and even railroad enterprises. By 1900, Volyn, Berdychiv and Odessa were hubs not only of Jewish culture, but of the Ukrainian economy. In particular, Odessa was the heart of Ukraine’s banking system, and its influence extended even to Moscow.
Such extensive Jewish success in the business and economic sphere frightened the reactionary tsarist regime in Petersburg. The public attitude toward Jews, never very welcoming, had been especially antagonistic since 1881, when Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The government took official measures, introducing quotas on the number of Jews permitted into institutions of higher education. Only three percent of all students in Petersburg universities could be Jewish, and only 10 percent in the so-called Pale of Settlement. The Bronshteyn family was somewhat inured from this discrimination: first, they were wealthy, and second, they were quite assimilated. Historians state that Trotsky’s father spoke surzhyk (a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian), and that young Lev grew up speaking mostly Russian and Ukrainian, not Yiddish.
I was particularly curious to read about Trotsky’s childhood in Ukraine, so I picked up his two-volume memoir, ‘My Life,’ written by the cast-out Bolshevik in the 1930s. There he writes that his ethnicity did not play a major role in his childhood and youth; the tsar’s new restrictions prevented his father from buying any more land, but by unclear means he could rent it. “But that did not bother me much,” wrote Lev, “coming from a wealthy family I belonged to privileged circles rather than poor ones.” As a child, little Leyba wrote poetry. When his parents found out, they forced him to recite his work to guests. “I refused,” wrote Trotsky, “and at first they tried to convince me kindly, then strictly, then with threats…I often ran away, but finally would end up reading with tears in my eyes.” The modest, intellectual and romantic child would grow into a fanatical and cruel left-wing revolutionary.
University and Radicalism
Because of the quota, Trotsky was forced to delay his entry into college for one year. When he did enter Odessa college, he distinguished himself as one of the best students in all subjects. While studying, young Lev had many disagreements with his father, who wanted his son to become an engineer. In his own words, Trotsky hesitated between higher mathematics and revolutionary activity. He read progressive magazines, disputed Darwinian theory and talked about revolution while drinking tea with his friends. In fact many Jewish youth were attracted to the idea of revolution, a stance motivated in part by the tsarist government’s restrictions on the Jewish populace. Lenin himself was later to hold the Jewish effort in the revolution in high esteem, noting that the percentage of Jews in proletarian organisations was always higher than that of other nationalities. Jews were not only better represented in these groups, but generally attained a higher rank as well. On the other hand, many Jews supported Ukraine’s Tsentralna Rada in its fight for autonomy and independence. Jewish people suspected that a more independent Ukraine would be a much better place for them to live than under the Tsar or a Soviet Ukraine.
In the late 1890s, Trotsky became involved with revolutionary circles, and in Mykolaiv in 1898 he was arrested for distributing propaganda. While imprisoned, he became an adherent of Marxist ideology, read some of Lenin’s works, studied languages and married his revolutionary companion Alexandra Sokolova. While they were exiled in Siberia, the Bronshteyn family had two daughters. In the beginning of the 1900s, Lev escaped, leaving his wife and children behind. On his way abroad he forged a passport in a new name. Henceforth he would be known Lev Trotsky.
Trotsky and the Bolsheviks
He made his way to London in 1902, and went straight to Lenin’s apartment. His arrival early in the morning woke Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, who opened the door. Thus began his association with Lenin, a relationship full of arguments and ideological conflict. Even though he had difficulties with Lenin, after the Revolution Trotsky later occupied many important posts in the Soviet government, among them Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the Red Army. In the military, his techniques were particularly harsh, and he executed or imprisoned many soldiers to enforce discipline.
Trotsky was an early supporter of a Soviet Ukraine, too. At first, Lenin thought that an independent but friendly Ukraine would be better than a restless and uneasy Soviet republic. Trotsky, knowing the region better, disagreed. He wrote in 1918: “Ukraine has millions of people capable of work. It has metal, coal, bread. If we lose Ukraine, we’ll lose the basis for Soviet power.”
After Lenin’s death, a power struggle ensued among the ruling Bolsheviks. Stalin and Trotsky hated each other, and by the end of the 1920s, Trotsky had been dismissed from his post and exiled with his family from the Soviet UNI0N. He lived in Turkey, France, Norway and eventually Mexico, where he had his encounter with Kahlo. It was a period of furious activity for Trotsky, who penned some of his fundamental works, such as the ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ and the theoretical basis for the Fourth International. But Stalin never lost sight of his old nemesis. Soviet agents worked to find him. Their first attempt to assassinate him failed, but the second, in 1940, was successful: an NKVD agent hit Trotsky in the head using an axe, killing the famous revolutionary.
In his memoirs, Trotsky quotes the French anarchist and revolutionary Proudhoun: “The movement is no doubt irregular and crooked, but the tendency is constant. What every government does in turn in favour of revolution becomes inviolable; what is attempted against it passes over like a cloud: I enjoy watching this spectacle, in which I understand every single picture; I observe these changes in the life of the world as if I had received their explanation from above; what oppresses others, elevates me more and more, inspires and fortifies me.” To which the former Bolshevik adds: “Those are fine words. I subscribe to them.” Trotsky was romantic and arrogant, a prisoner, perhaps, of his ideas - and utterly ruthless in their pursuit.