natalia in red
Natalia Sedova Trotsky

Natalia Sedova Trotsky

How it Happened


Written:1940
First Published:1941 (English translation)
Source: Fourth International
Online Version: Natalia Sedova Internet Archive, December 2001
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Mike Bessler (original markup by ETOL)


(Tuesday, August 20, 1940; 7 o'clock in the morning)


"You know, I feel fine today, at all events, this morning; it's a long time since I felt so well... Last night I took a double dose of the sleeping drug. I noticed that it does me good."

"Yes. I recall that we observed this in Norway when you used to feel run-down much more often... But it isn't the drug itself that does you good, it's sound sleep, complete rest."

"Why yes, of course."

As he opened in the morning or closed at night the massive steel shutters built in our bedroom by our friends after the attack of May 24 on our home, L. D. would occasionally remark: "Well, now no Siqueiros can get at us." And upon awakening he would greet me and himself by saying, "You see, they didn't kill us last night after all, and yet you are still dissatisfied." I defended myself as best I could... Once, after such a "greeting," he added pensively: "Yes, Natasha, we received a reprieve."

As far back as 1928, when we were being exiled to Alma-Ata, where the unknown awaited us, we had a talk one night in the compartment of the train which was taking us into exile... We could not sleep, after the tumult of the last weeks, and especially the last days, in Moscow. In spite of our extreme fatigue, the nervous excitement persisted. I recall that Lev Davidovich said to me then: "it's better this way (exile). I am not in favor of dying in a bed in the Kremlin."

But this morning he was far from all such thoughts. Physical well-being made him look forward eagerly to a "really good" day's work. Vigorously he walked out into the patio to feed his rabbits, after performing swiftly his morning toilet and dressing just as quickly. When his health was poor, the feeding of the rabbits was a strain on him; but he couldn't give it up, as he pitied the little animals. It was difficult to do it as he wanted to, as was his custom--thoroughly. Besides, he had to be on guard; his strength had to be conserved for another, different kind of work--work at his desk. Taking care of the animals, cleaning their cages, etc., provided him, on the one band, with relaxation and a distraction, but, on the other hand, it fatigued him physically; and this, in turn, reflected on his general ability to work. He became completely absorbed in everything he did, regardless of the task.

I recall that in 1933 we departed from Prinkipo for France, where we lived in a lonely villa not far from Royan, by the shores of the Atlantic. Our son together with our friends had arranged for this villa which was called "Sea-Spray." The waves of the turbulent ocean came into our garden, and salt spray would fly in through the open windows. Surrounded by our friends, we lived under semi-legal conditions. We would have on occasion as many as twenty people. Eight or nine lived on the premises. In view of our position, it was out of the question to call in a housekeeper or someone to help in the kitchen. The whole burden fell on Jeanne, my son's wife, and on Vera Molinier, and I also helped. The young comrades washed the dishes. Lev Davidovich, too, wanted to help with the housework and began washing dishes. But our friends protested: "He should rest after dinner. We can manage ourselves." Besides, my son Leva told me: "Papa insists on using a scientific method of dish-washing, and this eats up too much of our time." In the end, L. D. had to retire from this occupation.

The middle way, the lackadaisical attitude, the semi-indifferent manner, these he knew not. That is why nothing tired him so much as casual or semi-indifferent conversations. But with what enthusiasm did he go to pick cacti with a view to transplanting them in our garden. He was in a frenzy, being the first on the job and the last to leave. Not one of the young people surrounding him on our walks into the country and working with him outdoors could keep pace with him; they tired more quickly, and fell behind one after the other. But he was indefatigable. Looking at him, I often marveled. Whence did he draw his energy, his physical endurance? Neither the unbearably hot sun, the mountains nor descents with cacti heavy as iron bothered him. He was hypnotized by the consummation of the task at hand. He found relaxation in changing his tasks. This also provided him with a respite from the blows which mercilessly fell upon him. The more crushing the blow the more ardently he forgot himself in work.

Our walks, which were really war-expeditions for cacti, became more and more rare because of "circumstances beyond our control." However, every now and then, having had his fill of the monotony of his daily routine, Lev Davidovich would say to me: "This week we ought to take a whole day off for a walk, don't you think so?"

"You mean a day for penal labor?" I would twit him.

"All right, let's go, to be sure."

"It would be best to get an early start. Shouldn't we leave around six in the morning?"

"Six is all right with me, but won't you get too tired?"

"No, it will only refresh me, and I promise not to overdo it."

Usually Lev Davidovich fed his fondly-watched rabbits and chickens, from a quarter past seven (sometimes 7:20) till nine o'clock in the morning. Sometimes he would interrupt this work to dictate into the dictaphone some order or some idea which occurred to him. That day he worked in the patio without interruption. After breakfast he assured me that he felt fine and spoke of his desire to begin dictating an article on conscription in the United States. And he actually did start to dictate.

At one o'clock Rigault, our attorney in the case of the May 24th attack, came to see us. After his departure, Lev Davidovich looked into my room to tell me, not without regret, that he would have to postpone work on the article and to resume preparing the material for the trial in connection with the attack upon us. He and his attorney had decided that it was necessary to answer El Popular in view of the fact that L. D. had been accused of defamation at a banquet given by that publication.

"And I will take the offensive and will charge them with brazen slander." he said defiantly.

"Too bad, you won't be able to write about conscription."

"Yes, it can't be helped. I have to postpone it for two or three days. I have already asked for all the available materials to be placed on my desk. After dinner, I shall start going over them. I feel fine," he once again assured me.

After a brief siesta, I saw him sitting at his desk, which was already covered with items relating to the El Popular case. He continued to be in good spirits. And it made me feel more cheerful. Lev Davidovich had of late been complaining of enervation to which he succumbed occasionally. He knew that it was a passing condition, but lately he seemed to be in greater doubt about it than ever before; today seemed to us to mark the beginning of improvement in his physical condition. He looked well too. Every now and then I opened the door to his room just a trifle, so as not to disturb him, and saw him in his usual position, bent over his desk, pen in hand. I recalled the line, "One more and final story and my scroll is at an end." Thus speaks the ancient monk-scribe Pimen in Pushkin's drama "Boris Godounov," as he recorded the evil deeds of Czar Boris.

Lev Davidovich led a life close in semblance to that of a prisoner or a hermit, with this difference that in his solitude he not only kept a chronological record of events but waged an indomitably passionate struggle against his ideological enemies.

Brief as that day was, Lev Davidovich had until five in the afternoon dictated into the dictaphone several fragments of his contemplated article on conscription in the United States and about fifty short pages of his exposure of El Popular, i.e. of Stalin's machinations. It was a day of physical and spiritual equanimity for him.

Jacson Appears

At five, the two of us had tea, as usual. At twenty minutes past five, perhaps at half past, I stepped out on the balcony and saw L. D. in the patio near an open rabbit hutch. He was feeding the animals. Beside him was an unfamiliar figure. Only when he removed his hat and started to approach the balcony did I recognize him. It was "Jacson."

"He's here again," it flashed through my mind. "Why has he begun to come so often?" I asked myself.

"I'm frightfully thirsty, may I have a glass of water?" he asked, upon greeting me.

"Perhaps you would like a cup of tea?"

"No no. I dined too late and feel that the food is up here," he answered, pointing at his throat. "it's choking me." The color of his face was gray-green. His general appearance was that of a very nervous man.

"Why are you wearing your hat and topcoat?" (His topcoat was hanging over his left arm, pressed against his body.) "It's so sunny today."

"Yes, but you know it won't last long, it might rain." I wanted to argue that "today it won't rain" and of his always boasting that he never wore a hat or coat, even in the wont weather, but somehow I became depressed and let the subject drop. Instead I asked:

"And how is Sylvia feeling?"

He did not appear to understand me. I had upset him by my previous question about his topcoat and hat. And he was completely lost in his own thoughts, and very nervous. Finally, as if rousing himself from a deep sleep, he answered me: "Sylvia?... Sylvia?..." And catching himself, he added casually: "She's always well."

He began to retrace his steps towards Lev Davidovich and the rabbit hutches. I asked him as he walked away: "Is your article ready?"

"Yes, it's ready."

"Is it typed?"

With an awkward movement of his hand, while he continued to press against his body his topcoat in the lining of which were sewn in, as it was later revealed, a pickaxe and a dagger, he produced several typewritten pages to show me.

"It's good that your manuscript is not written by hand. Lev Davidovich dislikes illegible manuscripts."

Two days earlier he had called on us, also wearing a topcoat and a hat. I did not see him then as, unfortunately, I was not at home. But Lev Davidovich told me that "Jacson" had called and had somewhat surprised him by his conduct Lev Davidovich mentioned it in a way which indicated that he had no desire to elaborate upon the matter, but at the same time he felt that he had to mention it to me, sensing some new feature about the man.

"He brought an outline of his article, in reality a few phrases--muddled stuff. I made some suggestions to him. We shall see." And Lev Davidovich added, "Yesterday he did not resemble a Frenchman at all. Suddenly he sat down on my desk and kept his hat on all the while."

"Yes, it's strange" I said in wonderment. "He never wears a hat."

"This time he wore a hat," answered Lev Davidovich and pursued this subject no further. He spoke casually. But I was taken aback: it seemed to me that on this occasion he had perceived something new about "Jacson" but had not yet reached, or rather was in no hurry to draw conclusions. This brief conversation of ours occurred on the eve of the crime.

Wearing a hat.. topcoat on his arm... sat himself down on the table--wasn't this a rehearsal on his part? This was done so that he would be more certain and precise in his movements on the morrow.

Who could have suspected it then? It stirred us to embarrassment, nothing more. Who could have foretold that the day of August 20, so ordinary, would be so fateful? Nothing bespoke its ominousness. From dawn the sun was shining, as always here, the whole day brightly. Flowers were blooming, and grass seemed polished with lacquer... We went about our tasks each in his own way, all of us trying in whatever we did to facilitate Lev Davidovich's work. How many times in the course of that day did he mount the little steps of this same balcony, and walk into this, his room, and sit down on this very same chair beside the desk... All this used to hem ordinary and is now by its very ordinariness so terrible and tragic. No one, none among us, not he himself was able to sense the impending disaster. And in this inability a kind of abyss yawns. On the contrary, the whole day was one of the most tranquil. When L. D. stepped out at noon into the patio and I perceived him standing there bareheaded beneath the scorching sun, I hastened to bring him his white cap to protect his head against the merciless hot rays. To protect from the sun... but even at that very moment he was already threatened with a terrible death. At that hour we did not sense his doom, an outburst of despair did not convulse our hearts.

I recall that when the alarm system in the house, the garden and the patio was being installed by our friends and guard posts were being assigned, I drew L. D.'s attention to the fact that a guard should also be posted at his window. This seemed to me at the time so palpably indispensable. But L. D. objected that to do so it would be necessary to expand the guard, increase it to ten which was beyond our resources both in point of money and of available people at the disposal of our organization. A guard outside the window could not have saved him in this particular instance. But the absence of one worried me. L. D. was likewise very touched by a present given him by our American friends after the attack of May 24. It was a bullet proof vest, something like an ancient shirt of mail. As I examined it one day, I happened to remark that it would be good to get something for the head. L. D. insisted that the comrade assigned to the most responsible post wear the vest each time. After the failure suffered by our enemies in the May 24 attack, we were absolutely certain that Stalin would not halt, and we were making preparations. We also knew that a different form of attack would be used by the G.P.U. Nor did we exclude a blow on the part of a "solitary individual" sent secretly and paid by the G.P.U. But neither the bullet-proof vest nor a helmet could have served as safeguards. To apply these methods of defense from day to day was impossible. It was impossible to convert one's life solely into self-defense--for in that case life loses all its value.

The Assassination

As "Jacson" and I approached Lev Davidovich the latter addressed me in Russian, "You know, he is expecting Sylvia to call on us. They are leaving tomorrow." It was a suggestion on his part that I should invite them to tea, if not supper.

"I didn't know that you intend leaving tomorrow and are expecting Sylvia here."

"Yes...yes... I forgot to mention it to you."

"It's too bad that I didn't know, I might have sent a few things to New York."

"I could call tomorrow at one."

"No, no, thank you. It would inconvenience both of us."

And turning to Lev Davidovich, I explained in Russian that I had already asked "Jacson" to tea but that he refused, complaining about not feeling well, being terribly thirsty and asked me only for a glass of water. Lev Davidovich glanced at him attentively, and said in a tone of light reproach, "Your health is poor again, you look ill... That's not good."

There was a pause. Lev Davidovich was loath to tear himself away from the rabbits and in no mood to listen to an article. However, he controlled himself and said, "Well, what do you say, shall we go over your article?"

He fastened the hutches methodically, and removed his working gloves. He took good care of his hands, or rather his fingers inasmuch as the slightest scratch irritated him, interfered with his writing. He always kept his pen like his fingers in order. He brushed off his blue blouse and slowly, silently started walking towards the house accompanied by "Jacson" and myself. I came with them to the door of Lev Davidovich's study; the door closed, and I walked into the adjoining room....

Not more than three or four minutes had elapsed when I heard a terrible, soul-shaking cry and without so much as realizing who it was that uttered this cry, I rushed in the direction from which it came. Between the dining room and the balcony, on the threshold, beside the door post and leaning against it stood... Lev Davidovich. His face was covered with blood, his eyes, without glasses, were sharp blue, his hands were hanging.

"What happened? What happened?"

I flung my arms about him, but he did not immediately answer. It flashed through my mind. Perhaps something had fallen from the ceiling--some repair work was being done there--but why was he here?

And he said to me calmly, without any indignation, bitterness or irritation, "Jacson." L.D. said it as if he wished to say, "It has happened." We took a few steps and Lev Davidovich, with my help, slumped to the floor on the little carpet there.

"Natasha, I love you.'" He said this so unexpectedly, so gravely, almost severely that, weak from inner shock, I swayed toward him.

"0...0... no one, no one must be allowed to see you without being searched."

Carefully placing a pillow under his broken head, I held a piece of ice to his wound and wiped the blood from his face with cotton...

"Seva must be taken away from all this..."

He spoke with difficulty, unclearly, but was--so it seemed to me--unaware of it.

"You know, in there--" his eyes moved towards the door of his room--"I sensed... understood what he wanted to do.... He wanted to strike me... once more... but I didn't let him," he spoke calmly, quietly, his voice breaking.

"But I didn't let him." There was a note of satisfaction in these words. At the same time Lev Davidovich turned to Joe, and spoke to him in English. Joe was kneeling on the floor as I was, on the other side, just opposite me. I strained to catch the words, but couldn't make them out. At that moment I saw Charlie, his face chalk-white, revolver in hand, rush into Lev Davidovich's room.

"What about that one" I asked Lev Davidovich. "They will kill him."

"No... impermissible to kill, he must be forced to talk," Lev Davidovich replied, still uttering the words with difficulty, slowly.

A kind of pathetic whining suddenly broke upon our ears. I glanced in a quandary at Lev Davidovich. With a barely noticeable movement of his eyes, he indicated the door of his room and said condescendingly, "It's he"... "Has the doctor arrived yet?"

"He'll be here any minute now... Charlie has gone in a car to fetch him."

The doctor arrived, examined the wound and agitatedly stated that it was "not dangerous." Lev Davidovich accepted this calmly, almost indifferently as though one could not expect any other pronouncement from a physician in such a situation. But, turning to Joe and indicating his heart, he said in English, "I feel it here... This time they have succeeded." He was sparing me.

The Last Hours

Through the roaring city, through its vain tumult and human din, through its garish evening lights, the emergency ambulance sped, weaving through traffic, passing cars, with the siren incessantly wailing, with the cordon of police motorcycles shrilly whistling. We were bearing the wounded man unbearable anguish in our hearts, and with an alarm that increased with every passing minute. He was conscious. One hand remained quietly extended along the body. It was paralyzed.

Dr. Dutren told me this after the examination at home, in the dining room, on the floor. For the other hand, the right, he couldn't find a place, describing circles with it all the time, touching me, as if seeking a comfortable place for it. He found it more and more difficult to talk. Bending very low I asked him how he felt.

"Better now," answered Lev Davidovich.

"Better now." This quickened the heart with keen hopes. The ear-splitting tumult, the whistles and the siren continued to wail but the heart pulsed with hope. "Better now."


The ambulance pulled up at the hospital. It stopped. A crowd milled around us. "There may be enemies," it flashed through my mind, as was always the case in similar situations. "Where are our friends? They must surround the stretcher..."

Now he was lying on the cot. Silently the doctors examined the wound. On their instructions, a "sister" began shaving his hair. I stood at the head of the cot. Smiling imperceptibly, Lev Davidovich said to me, "See, we found a barber too..."

He was still sparing me. That day we had talked about the necessity of calling a barber to give him a hair-cut, but did not get around to it. He was now reminding me of it. Lev Davidovich called Joe, who was standing right there, a few feet away from me and asked him, as I learned later, to jot down his farewell to life. When I inquired what Lev Davidovich had said to him, Joe replied, "He wanted me to make a note about French statistics." I was greatly surprised that it was something related to French statistics at such a time. It seemed strange. Unless perhaps his condition was beginning to improve...

I remained standing at the head of the cot, holding a piece of ice to the wound and listening attentively. They began to undress him. So as not to disturb him, his working blouse was cut with scissors; the doctor politely exchanged glances with the "sister" as if to encourage her; next came the knitted vest, then the shirt. The watch was unstrapped from his wrist. They then began to remove the remaining garments without cutting them, and he said to me then, "I don't want them to undress me... I want you to do it." He said this quite distinctly, only very sadly and gravely.

These were the last words he spoke to me. When I finished I bent over him and touched his lips with mine. He answered me. Again... And again he answered. And once again. It was our final farewell. But we were not aware of it.

The patient fell into a state of coma. The operation did not bring him out of this condition. Without removing my eyes, I watched over him all that night, waiting for the "awakening." The eyes were closed, but the breathing, now heavy, now even and calm, inspired hope. The following day passed the same way. By noon, according to the judgment of the doctors, there was an improvement. But toward the end of the day, a sharp change in the sick man's breathing suddenly took place. It became rapid, more and more rapid, instilling mortal fear. The physicians, the hospital staff surrounded the cot of the sick man. They were obviously agitated. Losing my self-control, I asked what this meant, but only one among them, a more cautious man answered. "it would pass," he said. The others remained silent. I understood how false was all consolation and how hopeless everything really was.

They lifted him up. His head slumped on one shoulder. The hands dangled like those in Titian's crucifixion: "The Removal from the Cross." Instead of a crown of thorns, the dying man wore a bandage. The features of his countenance retained their purity and pride. It seemed as if at any moment now he would straighten up and take charge himself. But the wound had penetrated the brain too deeply. The awakening so passionately awaited never came. His voice was also stilled. Everything was ended. He is no longer among the living.

Retribution will come to the vile murderers. Throughout his entire heroic and beautiful life, Lev Davidovich believed in the emancipated mankind of the future. During the last years of his life his faith did not falter, but on the contrary became only more mature, more firm than ever.

Future mankind, emancipated from all oppression will triumph over coercion of all sorts. He taught me to believe in this too.

November, 1940
Coyoacan, Mexico


 

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