(Belknap/Harvard, 648 pages, $35)
Western historians have been in thrall to the mythic aura Leon Trotsky created for himself—“until now,” said Michael J. Bonafield in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In his “iconoclastic yet rigorously balanced” new portrait of the fiery intellectual, Robert Service tears apart the romantic notion that Russia’s communist revolution might have had a happier outcome had Trotsky not been outmaneuvered, and ultimately assassinated, by his rival Josef Stalin. Tapping party correspondence and family letters, Service proves that Trotsky, while leader of the Red Army and a Politburo member, exceeded even Stalin as a “champion of state terror.”
Service’s portrait is hardly three-dimensional, said Michael Kazin in TheDailyBeast.com. An “indictment,” no matter how thorough, is “not a biography.” If Trotsky was a monster, how did he become one? Service never even explains why “the son of prosperous landowners became a revolutionary in the first place.” Nor does he illuminate precisely how Trotsky managed to attract “a brigade of brilliant admirers” that included many leading Western intellectuals. From start to finish, Service simply fails to acknowledge that Trotsky’s urge to improve humanity’s condition might have been genuine, and commendable.
Let’s not try to imagine Trotsky as a cozier fellow than he was, said Robert Harris in the London Sunday Times. The coldness he exhibited in ordering executions of army deserters and political dissidents was the same trait that sealed his demise after Lenin was slowed by a stroke. “Service makes it clear that Trotsky could have been Lenin’s heir if he had shown even the most basic ability to make alliances in the Politburo.” Instead, Trotsky cut colleagues down with sarcasm and showcased his disdain by reading French novels when forced to sit through their speeches. He never even bothered to visit the ailing Lenin. Service’s book shows us all of that: “Never has the pathology of the revolutionary type been more mercilessly exposed than in this exemplary biography.”