natalia in red
Natalia Sedova Trotsky

Natalia Sedova Trotsky

Father and Son

Written: 1940.
Source: Fourth International, Vol. II No. 7, August 1941, pp. 196–200.
Online Version: Natalia Sedova Internet Archive, December 2001.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Mike Bessler.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (July 2015).

“I can therefore say that I live on this earth not in accordance with the rule but as on exception to the rule.” – June 8, 1940 – Trotsky

Night. Darkness. I awaken. Pale patches of light flicker and then disappear. I raise myself ... The sound of shots breaks upon my ears. They are shooting here, in our room. I have always been a light sleeper, and on awakening can quickly orient myself as to what is happening.

* * *

Lev Davidovich was a sound sleeper in his younger years. Insomnia beset him for the first time when attacks against the Opposition began in the USSR, when the pages of Pravda began to overflow with black slander, unimaginable, fantastic slander which overwhelmed and dumbfounded the reader. To defend and justify themselves the slanderers used lies: they had no other weapon at their disposal.

Did the reading public believe them? Yes and no. The colossal tide of raging malice swept over them, engulfed them and they became disoriented ... Tired, worn-out by the heroic years of the revolution, filled with fears about the future of its conquests, they began to believe the calumny, just as people begin to place faith in miracles during periods of decline and prostration. I used to see how the hands of readers would tremble as they held up the huge pages of Pravda; their hands would drop and then would be upraised again.

Our boys also lost sleep. The younger one, in bitter perplexity, would ask me: “What is it? Why do they say these things about papa? How dare they?” [1] The older one, Leon, became frantic and was in a constant state of excitement. With a pale face he would tell me of his impressions in the circles of the youth and of his struggle against the buffets of the torrent of filth. “Brave little tailor,” (a hero of one of Andersen’s fairy tales), his father would say observing him with approbation.

“The brave little tailor” took pride in his health, and was not a little upset during that period by the unexpected insomnia, but he did not give in. He remained proud of his health until the last two years of his life, when suddenly it worsened quickly. The black years of the cynical Moscow trials mowed him down. For our son Leon was, though in absentia, one of the chief defendants. The venom of criminal slander entered like poison into his young body. His entire nervous system was affected by the murders of Zinoviev, Piatakov, Muralov, Smirnov, Kamenev, Bukharin and many others; Kamenev and Bukharin he knew from his childhood, with the others he became acquainted later on, and he knew them all as honest revolutionists, he learned from them, loved them, respected them and connected them with the revolution, with its heroism, with its Lenin and Trotsky. [2]

Nights of sleeplessness returned and he did not have the strength to fight them off. Sleeping drugs worked poorly on him. He would doze off only towards morning. And he had to get up between seven and eight in order to begin work, which was rendered still more difficult by the surveillance of the ever-wakeful GPU whose agents, as was later revealed, occupied quarters next to his. He lived at No. 26; they at No. 28.

Father and Son During the Moscow Trials

Our arrest in Norway aroused our son to the very core of his being: he was fully aware of what it meant. Our departure for Mexico, the three weeks’ journey on board the oil tanker surrounded only by enemies introduced mortal alarm into his life. When we were at Gourum – the place of our incarceration in Norway – he sent us directions written in invisible ink and in code how to organize our trip. It was not discovered by our enemies and we received it. He sent friends to us from France. But no one was permitted to see us. And none of our friends was allowed to accompany us. Those three weeks of complete uncertainty were a great trial for Leon.

His father raged like a caged tiger. Delayed newspaper accounts of the then famous and first staging of the Moscow trials, his inability to answer it and expose the liars, were the greatest torture for Lev Davidovich. To defend himself against slander, to fight it – after all, this was his native element, the organic passion of his being; he found refuge in furious labor and in the struggle against all his contemptible enemies. But here in Gourum where he was doomed to silence, he fell ill.

Our son Leon understood this: his despair knew no bounds. He applied himself to the task which his father could not fulfill. In order to ease the latter’s burden he came out himself with the exposure of the vile masters of the “Moscow Trials” whom he branded for what they were and who have written into the annals of history its most shameful and most revolting pages. Leon fulfilled this task brilliantly. In our jail we read his Red Book with great excitement. “All very true, all very true, good boy,” said his father with a friend’s tenderness. We wanted so much to see him and to embrace him!

In addition to his revolutionary activity and his literary work, our son occupied himself with higher mathematics which greatly interested him. In Paris he managed to pass examinations and dreamed of some time devoting himself to systematic work. On the very eve of his death he was accepted as a collaborator by the Scientific Institute of Holland and was to begin work on the subject of the Russian Opposition. He was the only one among the youth who had had an enormous experience in this field and who was exhaustively acquainted with the entire history of the Opposition from its very inception.

Our economic instability used to worry him a great deal. How he yearned for economic independence! He once wrote me about his prospective earnings. The possibilities were good but he did not yet have definite assurance. “It would be a remarkable thing” (i.e., work in the Scientific Institute), he said and then added facetiously, “I would be in a position to assist my aging parents.” “Why not dream?” he asked. His father and I often recalled these words of our son with love and tenderness. Mr. Spalding – assistant supervisor of the Russian Department in Stanford University – conducted some negotiations with our son in Paris concerning a prospective work, and here is what he later wrote about Leon:

The news of Sedov’s death came to me as a shock. He impressed me as an extremely able and attractive personality, his future would undoubtedly have been brilliant. We are quite unclear about the circumstances of his death: some sources of our information indicate that it was due to medical negligence, or even something more terrible. Could you find it possible to write a brief note summarizing the conversation I had with Sedov last October (1937), including the tentative agreement which I had concluded with him. I could use such a note in ease it is possible to obtain certain information from Trotsky concerning the Russian civil war and war communism.

Leon entered the revolution as a child and never left it to the end of his days. The semi-conscious loyalty of his childhood toward the revolution later matured into a conscious and firmly intrenched devotion. Once in the summer of 1917, he came from school with a bloody hand into the office of the Woodworkers Trade Union (Bolshevik) where I was then working as editor and proof-reader of its organ, Woodworkers Echo. It was the time of hot debates which took place net only in the Tauride Palace, the Smolny, or the Circus but also in the streets, the streetcars, schools and at work. Early in the morning, as a rule, a multitude of workers milled in the officer of our union, discussing current questions, i.e., the questions involving the impending seizure of power by the proletariat For the mass of workers these questions were indissolubly bound up with the personality of L.D. They discussed his speeches – and in these discussions could be felt the unity and inflexibility of will: a burning desire to march forward, summoning for a decisive struggle with unconquerable faith in victory.

The children were permitted to have their meals together with me in the union’s dining room. Lev Davidovich was at the time sitting in the jail of the Provisional Democratic Government. To the queries of comrades concerning his hand Leon replied that he had been bitten by Kerensky (the Premier’s son). How come? “I gave him one in his teeth.” We all understood what had happened. The same school was also attended by the children of Skobelev, the then Minister of Labor. Fights were a daily occurrence.

By a blow from ambush the GPU cut short the young and dented life of our son and friend. This price was exacted for the upward flight unprecedented in history of the October revolution. Those responsible for its decline are now bringing their despicable work to its conclusion. The Second October will come; it will conquer the whole world and it will mete out their deserts both to the heroes of its predecessor as well as to its grave-diggers.

* * *

Lev Davidovich did not pore over the filthy pages of the Communist Party’s paper Pravda. He would quickly glance over it, and toss it aside with aversion.

* * *

They are shooting ... Lev Davidovich is now also awake. I whisper in his ear: “They are shooting here, in our room.” And pressing close to him, I push him very, very gently, and drop down together with him from the low bed on to the floor.

“They are shooting.” I uttered this with the self-same feeling as in the July days of 1917 I had said, “they have come.” This was in Petrograd – it was later named Leningrad – when the police of Kerensky’s government came to arrest L.D. We had expected arrest at the time – it was inevitable. The attack of Stalin was likewise expected by us. It was also inevitable. Nevertheless the expected came more unexpectedly on the night of May 24, 1940 than did the arrest in 1917.

When Kerensky Arrested Lev Davidovich

Kerensky’s government had at that time scored a victory, not for long, but it did nonetheless succeed in arresting the Bolshevik leaders. I recall the manner in which the crisis of the Provisional Democratic Government was resolved. A stormy session was going on in the beautiful Hall of Columns in the Tauride Palace. I was sitting in a box, very close to the speakers’ platform which was filled to overflowing with all the Lieberdans (this was how Demyan Bedny had labelled the Mensheviks in one of his poems which gained wide popularity). Suddenly there came the blare of triumphant music. A military band marched into the palace to the accompaniment of deafening applause and ecstatic greetings. The Government had secretly transferred from the front regiments loyal to it and, as the future proved, these regiments were the last loyal ones. But at the time, they were sufficient. Those in power began to feel firm ground under their feet. I saw how those who tilled the platform, the conquerors, were covertly shaking each other by the hand, how they with great difficulty tried to restrain their transports of joy – their faces glowed, they were unable to preserve even an outward appearance of calm as was dictated by the circumstances.

In a few days the arrests began. L.D. and I occupied at the time a small room in the apartment of Comrade Y. Larin. Our boys were in Terioki with some friends. L.D. had spent that entire day as, incidentally, he spent all previous ones, at meetings until late into the white Petersburg night.

At five o’clock in the morning I heard a cautious tramping of feet on the asphalt in the courtyard and when I ran to the window and opened a chink in the shutters, I saw in the early white light uniforms in gray and guns slung across the arms. It was a military detachment of the Provisional Democratic Government. Beyond any doubt, this was for us. And touching L.D. on the shoulder I said, “They have come.” He jumped up and began to dress himself swiftly. The bell rang. Comrade Larin, whom I had warned, did not open the door immediately. They rang again. They asked for Lunacharsky, this was a subterfuge. Then they presented an order for Trotsky’s arrest. Larin did not give in. He forced them to wait. He tried to get the responsible Lieberdans on the telephone. But there was no answer anywhere. We said goodbye. Lev Davidovich did everything to keep up my spirits. They led him away. The general political situation was very grave a; the time. The struggle was out in the open, direct actions were already being employed. It was a life and death struggle. But the last look L.D. gave me before he was taken away war full of confidence and challenge. That glance said to me: “We shall see who will vanquish whom.”

There were visits to jail to arrange, the sending of packages to attend to, and so forth. I had the assistance of Leon and Sergei who undertook the delivery of packages (food, and so on) and transformed it into a game: “Who’ll get there first.” The overfilled street cars presented them with a great difficulty, but they hitched on and always arrived in jail exactly at the appointed hour.

They were greatly aroused by their father’s second arrest. But the entire situation bore the promise of swift liberation and victory. It was quite different from the time when we were taken off the ship en route to Russia by the English and separated, in 1917 in Halifax. The boys then remained with me in the status of prisoners not in jail but in a filthy room of a Russian spy in whose house a room was assigned to us. But L.D. was taken away with the others without a word of explanation. Complete uncertainty and isolation oppressed us extremely at the time.

* * *

The Attempted Assassination

We are lying on the floor, beside the wall in a corner and away from the cross-fire which proceeded without interruption for several minutes. Afterwards we took count of the holes in the walls and the doors of our bedroom: they numbered sixty. Pressing our bodies to the wall, we waited ... I raised myself a little in order to shield L.D. because it seemed to me that the shots were being directed at him, but he stopped me. “Grandfather!” We both heard the cry of our grandson who slept in the neighboring room into which the criminals had entered. His voice rang out as if part in warning of the danger threatening us and part in a plea for help. Our grandson forgot about it, forgot his outcry, and no matter how I tried to remind him of his experiences and memories, he could not recall it. But this cry chilled us to the marrow. Everything became silent ... “They have kidnapped him,” said his grandfather to me quietly. On the threshold which separated our bedroom from that of our grandson, illuminated by the flare of an incendiary bomb, a silhouette flashed: the curve of a helmet, shining buttons, an elongated face flashed by me as in a dream, and then I lost sight of the intruder. The shooting in the room stopped. We heard the sound of gunfire at a distance in the patio.

Quietly, slowly I crossed our bedroom and walked into the bathroom where a window gave to the patio. The little house could be seen where our friends, our guard lived. There also stood an enormous eucalyptus tree, and it was from there that they were firing! Beside this eucalyptus tree, as we later learned, the enemies had placed a machine gun. By a steady stream of fire they thus strategically cut off the guards from us. Investigating magistrates later found on the premises a bomb containing one and a half kilos of dynamite. A record of this is to be found in the minutes of the court in the case of the assault by Siqueiros, who was subsequently released on March 28, 1941: for lack of material and incriminating evidence! How monstrous! “The Master of the Soviet Land,” “The Father of the Peoples,” etc., etc., paid out lavishly from the proletarian treasury. According to the records, there was some sort of technical defect in the bomb and it could not be used by the criminals. But the investigation brought out the fact that it had sufficient power to blast the entire house to its foundation.

The shooting in the patio also ceased. Then, all was silence. Silent ... intolerably silent. “Where can I hide you safely?” I was losing my strength from the tension and the hopelessness of the situation. Any moment now, they will come to finish him. My head spun around ... And suddenly there came again the same voice, the voice of our grandson, but this time it came from the patio and sounded completely different, ringing out like a staccato passage of music bravely. joyously: "Al–fred! Mar–gue–rite!” It returned us to the living. A moment before we had felt the stillness of the night after firing ceased as in a grave, as with death itself ... “They are all killed.”

“Alfred! Marguerite!” No, they are alive ... alive! But why then does no one come? Why does no one call us? After all, the others had left. Perhaps they are afraid, afraid of coming face to face with the irreparable. I seized the handle in the door which leads from our bedroom into L.D.’s workroom. It was closed, although we never locked it as a rule. The door was riddled by bullets like a sieve. They had fired through it into the bedroom. Through the interstices I could see the room suffused with a soft golden light from the shaded lamp on the ceiling; I could see the table covered with manuscripts in complete order; the books on the shelves were not touched. everything was tranquil there; the very background of the reign of thought, of creativeness was there. It was exactly as it had been left on the eve ... How strange that was: order, tranquillity, light, everything on the table intact ... Only the door with its black yawning holes bespoke the crime just committed.

I began pounding on the door. Otto came running. “The door is jammed for some reason.” With our joint forces we opened the door. We walked into this wonderful, and at that time undisturbed room.

Robert Sheldon Harte

Seva, Alfred, Marguerite, Otto, Charlie, Jack, Harold – they were all there. Only Bob Sheldon was not with us. He, poor boy, had been on night duty and they had kidnapped him. A few of his belongings, some clothes and parts of his equipment remained in the empty garage ... These made one’s heart constrict in pain; one wanted to ask them what had happened to our friend, our guard? where was he? what had they done to him? Bob's things shrouded in mystery spoke to us of his doom. Sheldon had behind him altogether 23 years. How many hopes, how much idealism, faith in the future, readiness to struggle for it had perished with this young life! Exotic Mexico enthralled him. He was fascinated by the brightly colored little birds, acquired a few of them, kept them in our garden, and tended them so touchingly. Twenty-three years: they lacked in the experience of life: they had not yet been moulded to an awareness of danger, the urgency of keeping on guard, but they were so sensitive as to have acquired all this presently, in a very short time. Sheldon loved to take walks. In his free hours he took walks around the environs of Coyoacan and brought back bouquets of field flowers.

Shortly after his arrival, he received a lesson from Lev Davidovich. Our place was being rebuilt, and it was necessary to open the gates every 15–20 minutes in order to let a worker with a wheelbarrow out into the street and then let him in back again. Bob was so carried away by building a bird cage that in order not to tear himself away from his work he handed the gate-key to the worker. This did not escape the notice of L.D. The latter explained to Bob that this was very careless on his part and added, “You might prove to be the first victim of your own carelessness.” This was said about a month or six weeks before Bob’s tragic death.

The day of May 24 began for us early and was full of excitement. The more we probed into an analysis of the bullet-riddled walls and mattresses all the more did we become imbued with the realization of the danger that had threatened us, and all the more did we feel ourselves saved. The nervous tension of the night discharged itself into a state of high excitement kept in check by efforts to remain calm. This absence of dejection later served as one of the arguments in sup port of the senseless and shameless “theory of self-assault.” As I recounted the events of the GPU’s night assault to friends who visited us during that day, I felt that I was relating this almost with joy. But those who listened heard me with alarm, they cast frightened glances towards the heads of the two beds, where the wall was dotted with bullet holes, and I would say to myself as if in justification: “But after all the enemies did suffer failure.”

The following days strengthened more and more in us the conviction that the failure suffered by our enemies on this occasion must be remedied by them; that the inspirer of this crime would not be deterred. And our joyous feeling of salvation was dampened by the prospect of a new visitation and the need to prepare for it.

L.D.’s Work During the Last Months

At the same time, Lev Davidovich was taking part in the conduct of the investigation of the case of May 24. Its slothful pace worried L.D. exceedingly. He followed the developments patiently and tirelessly, explaining the circumstances of the case to the court and to the press, making superhuman efforts to force himself to refute the self-evident and hopeless lies or malicious equivocations, doing all this with the intense perspicacity peculiar to him, and not allowing a single detail to escape his notice. He attached the proper significance to every single thing, and wove them all into a single whole.

And he grew tired. He slept poorly, dozing off and awakening with the self-same thoughts. Sometimes heard Lev Davidovich, when alone, say from his innermost depths, “I am tired ... tired.” A feeling of greatest alarm would seize me: I knew what this meant. But I also knew something else: I knew of the influx of vitality, inspiration and energy he would feel if he only could return quietly to his real work. He had outlined an analytical work on the Red Army for which he had been collecting material, another on the international situation; still others on world economy, and the latest period of the war. The day-to-day occurrences and the successive crimes of Stalin made it necessary to relegate these tasks to the second plane.

His book on Stalin had been forced on him by extraneous circumstances: financial necessity and by his publishers. Lev Davidovich more than once expressed a desire to write a “popular” book, as he called it, in order to earn some money thereby and then rest up by working on subjects of interest to him. But he could not bring this about, he was incapable of writing “popular” books. For a long time he hesitated to accept the publisher’s offer, but our friends insisted on it. L.D. finally agreed. He planned to finish this work in a short while. But once he undertook it, he began to surround it with a conscientiousness peculiar to him and with a spirit of meticulousness and pedantism of which he often used to complain to me. Nevertheless he proposed to have it finished completely by March–April 1940. He was not able to. First the controversy in our party – its American section-distracted him, and then the events of May 24.

One of L.D.’s secret and most cherished desires was to depict the friendship between Marx and Engels, their “romance” which, as he told me, had never been investigated in his opinion as he wanted to do it. Lev Davidovich was very much in love with Engels, his whole profoundly human personality. He was greatly enthralled by the coupling of the two great and utterly different personalities of the two friends bound together by their striving for a single goal.

His Projected Book on Lenin

It was not without sorrow that he had to renounce for the time being the continuation of his book on Lenin. His deep and burning desire was to show Lenin as he was in reality as against all those who had written about Lenin self-obstrusively and measuring him by their own yardstick. No figment of the imagination of the epigones, however brilliant, could compare with the original. Lenin must appear before history, he had every right to it, in all his genius and with all his human weaknesses. The epigones, on the other hand, had endowed Lenin with good nature, modesty, simplicity, etc., – but what did all this mean with reference to Lenin? They depicted him “in their own image.” And Vladimir Ilyich was not one to be squeezed into a common mould. Lev Davidovich would demand also of me the most minute and insignificant recollections, but those which corresponded with reality, and he was very happy when I would recount to him or jot down for him various details he had not known and in which he was able to discern the real Lenin.

In 1917, in Petrograd, in the Smolny, our apartment was in the same corridor with the apartment of Lenin and his family. They used the bathroom located on our living area. We used to meet each other often in passing. Lenin was always brimful of energy, cheerful, polite. Once he walked in and seeing the boys, placed them side by side, stepped back a little, and putting both hands in his pockets, astonished me by saying cheerily: “Say, I like this!” The costume of the children had suddenly caught his eye. In those days, textiles were unobtainable and it never entered my mind to get a special order to obtain material for some shirts. We had a velvet tablecloth, with a flowery pattern, which I had cleaned and then cut up and sewed into blouses for the children. The boys were not much pleased. “Why go and make us shirts out of a rug?” I justified myself ... but it did not do any good. To be sure, they wore them. but not without grumbling. After Vladimir Ilyich’s praise, the boys quieted down.

L.D.’s Health

During our ten years in the USSR, there were no great variations in L.D.’s health. in exile, or rather in emigration, his physical condition began to ebb and flow. In exile (Alma-Ata) Lev Davidovich’s life was swallowed up by correspondence – in its way this was a continuation of our life during the last period in Moscow; current political and tactical questions were ever under discussion. We received such a quantity of mail as to make it impossible sometimes to read all the letters during the day. Our son Leon Sedov used to reply to a part of them, his father answered the greater portion. During the last months (of our stay in Alma-Ata) all correspondence, as is well known, was prohibited. It passed into illegal channels and its volume was greatly reduced.

At Prinkipo (Turkey) L.D. found it very hard at first. Inactivity and isolation oppressed him. The questions arose of the means of livelihood, funds for defense, funds for the foreign oppositional groups. All this compelled him to accept a publisher’s offer to write his autobiography. It was very difficult for L. D. psychologically to enter into this work. It was so sharply out of harmony with the general bent of his being. He had to force himself to “recollect.” This reacted on his nerves and his health on the whole became impaired.

A revival of his moral and physical condition occurred with the establishment of ties with European co-thinkers. Visitors from abroad, discussions with them, correspondence, writing political articles for oppositional organs in Europe – all this restored L.D. to his native element. And this in turn eased for him the compulsory labor over the autobiography.

At the dinner table or during fishing trips in the Sea of Marmora, no one suspected “low tide.” Conversations on political topics, jokes, perking up this or that somewhat crestfallen comrade, all these invariably testified to the equanimity of L.D.’s moods. Only our son, when he lived with us, was able to guess that this was not so. How I loved the periods of “floodtide,” how happy I was during them! Freshness, youthfulness, joyfulness returned in these periods to L.D. He would then passionately dictate political letters, and suggestions to friends, he would dictate his autobiography and various articles, and go fishing in the blue waters of the sea ... He seethed in a frenzy. And all this in complete isolation.

Behind four walls.

Our life near Royan (France) on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in the isolated villa Sea-Spray which our friends had rented for us, had a turbulent beginning. Friends and co-thinkers from different countries would arrive daily to visit L.D. We had from 15 to 20 visitors a day. L.D. would hold two or three discussions daily. Full of inspiration, vitality and seemingly inexhaustible energy, he astonished and gladdened our friends by his tirelessness and vigor.

And here in France the financial aspect of our life again arose very sharply. There was a lull. I had to go to Paris for medical care. Lev Davidovich insisted on it. In his own physical condition there came the alterations of ebb and flow.

From Royan, L.D. once wrote me that despite his poor health he had carried through a discussion, and did it very successfully, with some friends who had arrived and in the presence of our son. “I watched Lyovik,” he wrote. “His eyes were shining. He was radiant.” After the discussion L.D. went to bed early, because of fatigue and he heard the stormy ocean flinging its spray to the windows of his room, dashing drops against the window panes. Leon came in to bid his father goodbye. He had to return that night to Paris. They exchanged a few warm remarks about the discussion that had just concluded. Our son was very excited and aroused. He approached his father’s bed, and dropping his head, “like a child,” as his father wrote, on his father’s breast, he pressed closely and said, “Papa, I love you very much.” They embraced each other and parted with tears.

The ocean continues to live with its stormy ebbs and flows. It seethes in a frenzy. The great fighter might have also lived on ... Violence. The dealers of violence will meet with vengeance. Violence will wither away. Free mankind of the future will bow its head in memory of its innumerable victims.


1. The younger son, Sergei, grew up to be a scientist. He remained in the Soviet Union when his father was expelled in 1929. He was arrested during teh Moscow trials and has never been heard of since. – Editor

2. In one obscure village in the Caucasus Lenin and Trotsky were taken for one and the same person, and a battle song written about him. What happened to it?

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