Feature

Trotsky: A Biography by Robert Service

Service's "exemplary" biography of Leon Trotsky tears apart the romantic notion that Russia’s communist revolution might have had a happier outcome had Trotsky not been outmaneuvered by Josef Stalin.

(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.”

Recommended

Embattled South African president will not resign, says political party will decide fate
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Scandalous

Embattled South African president will not resign, says political party will decide fate

Rogue wave strikes cruise ship, killing 1 and injuring 4 more
The Viking Polaris is seen after being damaged by a rogue wave.
A Freak Occurrence

Rogue wave strikes cruise ship, killing 1 and injuring 4 more

Iran dismisses claims morality police have been disbanded
A protest sign against the Iranian government.
A Major Milestone, Maybe?

Iran dismisses claims morality police have been disbanded

10 things you need to know today: December 4, 2022
Oil fields being tapped in Russia.
Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: December 4, 2022

Most Popular

Once-a-decade critics' poll names greatest film ever
Movie theater
we come to this place for magic

Once-a-decade critics' poll names greatest film ever

Home of Iranian climber who competed without hijab reportedly destroyed
Rekabi in interview
Iran protests

Home of Iranian climber who competed without hijab reportedly destroyed

Houston police arrest 2 in connection with killing of Migos rapper Takeoff
Migos rapper Takeoff memorial billboard
'an innocent bystander'

Houston police arrest 2 in connection with killing of Migos rapper Takeoff