Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Many Assassinations of Leon Trotsky


According to Google, some 160 books have been written on Trotsky’s assassination in Mexico on August 21, 1940. Assassins receive much less scholarly attention; very few books are dedicated to them. A recent exception is the investigative cum historic novel The Man Who Loved Dogs written in 2009 by Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura. The dog lover is Ramón Mercader del Rio[1] (1913-1978), Leon Trotsky’s icepick holding assassin.

ramonm             trotskyfrida

                         Hunter                                                   Prey: Portrait by Frida Kahlo

Friends had encouraged me to read the book, but it took me a while to open this brick of a book. I do not particularly like dogs, and with the demise of the Soviet Union, Trotsky’s wandering and assassination did not titillate my interest. My curiosity got piqued after seeing an exhibition on the life and art of Mexican surrealist artist Frida Kahlo. In 1936, Frida and her muralist husband, Diego Rivera welcomed Trotsky to their home in Coyoacán and eventually to her bed. My Spanish is small talk level and reading in the original Cuban-Spanish was unachievable. I spent the month of March reading the 700 plus-pages French translation. The English translation is only 576 pages long!

Padura’s novel reads like a multilayered thriller organized around the two main characters, Trotsky and Mercader. Trotsky, a modern wandering Jew forced into exile by his nemesis Stalin, had been Lenin’s comrade and founder of the Red Army. Mercader, a young Catalan Republican and Communism aficionado was recruited and trained by Stalin’s NKVD/GPU[2] goons. Prey and hunter were Communist reincarnations of Faust, whose lives no longer belonged to them, they were the living dead.

There is a third person, the fictitious Iván Cárdenas, a failed and despondent Cuban novelist whose inspiration was cut short by Fidel Castro’s censorship. Cárdenas’ fortuitous beach encounter with Mercader (under an alias) makes him the unwilling depository of the unfolding drama. His miserable life is particularly poignant and Padura sheds a fascinating light on Cuba’s tortuous and dehumanized brand of Communism. It is their love of dogs that connects Mercader to Cárdenas. Actually, the book’s title is misleading: According to Padura, all three main characters were dog lovers! Dogs have very often been the accessories of tyrants and blood thirsty dictators.

For me, the book’s main interest lies in its focus on the emotional and psychological traits rather than the historic dimension of both hunter and prey. However, Padura’s comprehensive research and access to previously secret files give a historical appeal to the storytelling. To remain politically relevant during his exile, Trotsky obsessively promoted his brand of international Marxism and tried to demonize Stalin’s ideological deviation. With the dwindling number of followers, his political legacy became his fundamental concern. His love of dogs apart, Trotsky comes across as a vain, self-centered and callous individual.

Trotsky received political asylum from several countries, France included. My curiosity was piqued when I found out that I might have walked by his former house in Saint Palais-sur-Mer near the seaside town of Royan. My mother who lived in Saint Palais for decades never mentioned its accidental but illustrious guest. Recently, a friend informed me that the Villa les Embruns (Sea Spray) had been demolished in 1945, possibly as a collateral damage of the Allies’ air raids against the Nazis’ stronghold of Royan.

trotskylyova        arrivalmexico

  Villa Sea Spray, father & son                    Ménage à trois: Natalia, Frida & Leon

On the other hand, when in Mexico City, I visited Diego and Frida’s Casa Azul, (Blue House). Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia were rent-free guests for nearly two years until Trotsky’s affair with Frida forced the couple to move out and set up their own home. I find the episode quietly ironical, for Frida extramarital sex was a liberation from bourgeois values, but for a true Marxist like Trotsky, adultery was a bourgeois sin. As a result, cuckooed Diego Rivera decided that he was no longer a Trotskyite. He nonetheless continued in his macho ways, enjoying extramarital flings, in particular with Frida’s sister. On the sly, Frida did the same with men and women. Mercader was once invited for dinner in her house.

Little is known about Mercader and his many aliases, he is a personage de l’ombre, (a shadow person). In the book, he is more a fictional than historical character. After the assassination, he was jailed for 20 years. In 1961, he was shipped to Moscow, where he spent another 20 years in Soviet comfort but without much freedom. The last two years of his life were spent in Cuba. Mercader comes across as a puppet driven by hate and fear, a willing and cynical executioner who sometimes looks almost robotic. It is amazing that he survived the convolutions and palace coups of the Soviet Union until 1978. His rapport with the other characters of the plot makes him psychologically interesting. Mercader displays a filial devotion to his wily NKVD handler, the operative Nahum Eitington (1899-1981), who cunningly morphed into the father figure he missed in his youth. In the book, and possibly in life, Mercader is surrounded by strong-willed women, and his rapport with them is complex, unfulfilled and strained. A fanatic Stalinist, his Spanish mother Caridad[3] del Rio was both Eitington’s mistress and partner in crime. Fully aware of the risk to her son’s life, she nonetheless convinced him to kill Trotsky. Mercader’s love hate relationship with his mother could have been Oedipal.

According to Padura, África de las Heras (1909-1988) was Mercader’s great and frustrated love. She was ideologically close to Caridad who recruited her on behalf of the NKVD. Caridad and África were involved in Trotsky’s murder. During WW II, África started a successful international career as a spy for the KGB.

And there is the unfortunate Sylvia Ageloff (1910-1995) a devoted American Trotskyist who accidentally provided Mercader access to her hero’s home. She had been selected by Eitington as the perfect cats’paw. Lonesome, plain looking with thick glasses, she was easily seduced by Mercader who treated her with derision and contempt. Unfairly, Paduro makes an unflattering portrait of Sylvia Ageloff. Is it for the sake of fiction or evidence of Cuban machismo?

Trotsky was assassinated again in 1972 by bad boy actor Alain Delon who impersonated Mercader in Joseph Losey’s odd ball film The Assassination of Trotsky. Richard Burton played Trotsky and Romy Schneider was Ageloff under the pseudonym of Gita, as the genuine one was still alive in New York City. The film bombed at the box office and can be seen on YouTube. Trotsky will be assassinated again in 2016, in a Mexican film still in production. Retrospectively, Trotsky achieved his goal of not being forgotten.

burtontrotsky            delonburton

     Richard Burton as Trotsky                          Delon and Burton: Murder scene

Mercader died in Havana, seemingly of cancer after a long illness. Padura hints that his own people may “have released radioactivity in his blood” to kill him slowly. A dry run for many more Soviet-styled executions. The Soviet Union no longer exists, but the signature executions go on.


[1] Also known as Jacques Monard, Frank Jacson & Ramon Ivanovich Lopez.

[2] NKVD: People’s Commissariat for Internal affairs. GPU: State Political Directorate.

[3] A misnomer as Caridad is Spanish for charity.