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Trotsky’s Grandson in Moscow

A Conversation with Esteban Volkov

[From Workers Vanguard (US) no.474, 31 March 1989]

Of all the Bolshevik leaders executed on Stalin’s orders, Gorbachev has now juridically “rehabilitated” all but one: Leon Trotsky, co-leader together with Lenin of the 1917 October Revolution. And this gaping “blank space” in official Soviet history continues to haunt the regime. For it was Trotsky who opposed the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution, building the Left Opposition while others capitulated before Stalin; Trotsky who analyzed and fought against the system of bureaucratic misrule, Stalinism, which continues to this day. Trotsky carried forward the program of the early Comintern in the struggle for the Fourth International, counterposing to the Stalinist-nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country” the Leninist-internationalist program of world socialist revolution.

As Bukharin and the Right Opposition are raised to a place of honor, Trotsky is described in the pages of Pravda as a “demon of the Revolution” and a “failed dictator” as bad or possibly worse than Stalin (see our two-part article. Trotsky and the Gorbachev School of Falsification, WV Nos.464 and 466, 4 November and 2 December 1988). Yet despite the continuing “satanization” of the world revolutionary by Stalin’s heirs in the Kremlin, interest in Trotsky is mushrooming in the Soviet Union. Last November 15, hundreds crowded into the House of Culture of the Moscow Aeronautics Institute to participate in the first-ever “Trotsky evening.” Those who couldn’t get in crowded around the large (6 feet by 9 feet) display of photos in the entry under the title L.D. Trotsky, 1879-1940. We publish (see next page) a photo, never before printed, of this pathbreaking display.

“It was,” wrote the Paris daily Le Monde (22 November 1988), “the first time in 60 years that a public meeting took place in the USSR devoted to the creator of the Red Army, the first time that one could see or again see documents which showed him at Lenin’s side in the leading role in the revolution. The intensity of the people’s looks expressed the extent to which the history of this country is not its past, but its present.” And a month later, in the same location, participants in a meeting of the “Memorial” Society, founded to call for a monument to the victims of Stalin’s terror, were able to meet and hear Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban (Vsevolod) Volkov Bronstein, relating the murder of the Old Man in his Mexican exile by Stalin’s agent. Workers Vanguard recently spoke with Esteban Volkov about his experiences during his brief trip, the first time in 57 years he was able to return to the land of his birth.

Visit with a Long-Lost Sister

Volkov went to Moscow to meet his sister, Aleksandra Sakharovna, who was gravely ill with cancer. She died earlier this month at the age of 66, shortly before our conversation. Aleksandra and Vsevolod (Seva) were the children of Trotsky’s daughter Zinaida (Zina). Seva’s father, Platon Volkov, had been deported to Siberia in 1928 and then arrested in the wake of the 1934 Kirov affair, never to be heard from again. After Stalin expelled Trotsky from the USSR in 1929 and stripped him of his Soviet citizenship, Zina (whose health had broken down after the death of her sister Nina, whom she had nursed to the end) was left alone with two small children to care for. Zina was finally allowed to join Trotsky in early 1931, but was forced to leave her daughter behind, “a six or seven-year-old hostage to Stalin,” as Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher wrote. Two years later, her nerves shattered and her lungs destroyed by tuberculosis, Zina committed suicide in Berlin on the eve of Hitler’s takeover.

After decades without news of Aleksandra and years of trying to find her, contact was established through Pierre Broué, director of the Institut Leon Trotsky in Paris. A brief phone call was put through, and then Volkov applied for and received a visa. At a press conference in Paris after his trip, he said they were “really happy, joyous to meet each other. 1t was a little like people from a shipwreck who meet safe and sound on the beach.” Aleksandra had been condemned to ten years of internal exile in Kazakhstan during a major roundup of children of “enemies of the people” in 1949, but was freed after Stalin’s death. “She had Stalin to thank for having met her companion there, her husband Anatol,” reported Volkov. He also got to know Aleksandra’s circle of friends, including Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s companion, who met Aleksandra when they were both in prison.

“Aleksandra was always distressed,” Volkov told us, “that it was I who our mother took with her. It was Broué, who was first to find out why. Stalin had specified in the exit papers that she could only take her youngest child.” In an interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad (10 December 1988), Aleksandra said, “I do not remember my grandpa. I was three years old when he was expelled to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan by Stalin ... My mother was a revolutionary. She wore a leather coat and, I believe, a gun. She taught me geography. The revolutionaries were afraid their children would stay ignorant.” After Zinaida was exiled, Aleksandra lived with her father, Sakhar Moglin, but within a year he, too, was arrested. She stayed with her stepmother and spent the summers with her grand mother, Trotsky’s first wife Aleksandra Sokolovskaya, until she was sent to the camps at Kolyma in 1936. “My grandma was good friends with Lenin’s wife Krupskaya,” said Aleksandra Sakharovna:

“They considered themselves educators of the people. They wanted to enlighten the masses. I also wanted to do that. The Revolution and the whole era around it are still very dear to me, even after my exile. I still remember telling a girlfriend, ‘I was raised to be a Communist’ ... I love the Revolution, whereas almost everything else I hate. My life has been awful.” “It is only in the last few months that Trotsky is written about in other than a negative way,” said his granddaughter. But she also had some biting comments about the current crop of glasnost commentaries about the founder of the Red Army. “You can’t figure out what the writer himself thinks about Trotsky. Look, for example, at the article by General Volkogonov in Pravda under the title Demon of the Revolution. That was a horrible piece that left an awful aftertaste. Volkogonov knows that the winds are turning and covers himself for all possibilities. You can go anywhere with that article.” Aleksandra Sakharovna summed up, “Trotskyism is something like an exploding bomb,” and a lot of people in the Soviet Union desperately want to smother it.

A Mountain of Dead Dogs

Isaac Deutscher remarked that in writing his biography, like Carlyle with Cromwell, he had to drag Trotsky out from under a huge load of calumny and oblivion, “a mountain of dead dogs.” In our talk, Esteban Volkov noted that after 60 years of distortion and lies by the bureaucracy about Trotsky’s role, “people’s ideas about Trotsky can’t escape all the prejudices and satanization.” Recently, Moscow News (26 February) published an interview with him titled, An Old House in Coyoacan, the site of Trotsky’s home in Mexico, now the Leon Trotsky Museum, of which Volkov is the curator. In response to Volkov’s statement that Trotsky gave his life to the fight for Marxism and socialism, the author, Mikhail Belyat, says he “could not dispute” this because “like the overwhelming majority of Soviet people I haven’t read Trotsky’s works in order to grasp the substance of his errors.”

Yet the clearing-up of a half century of Stalinist lies about Trotsky proceeds at an accelerating pace. The magazine Ogonyok filmed a video reportage on Volkov’s trip to Moscow. Moscow News, in its 19 March Russian edition, printed a lengthy article on Trotsky’s assassin Ramon Mercader, quoting Volkov and stating flatly, for the first time in the Soviet press, that the killer was “the direct executor” of “Stalin’s order.” And a week later, Moscow News published excerpts of the petition by Volkov and his daughters demanding “dropping the false charges and criminal slanders raised, on Stalin’s direct order, against the Russian Marxist revolutionary Lev Davidovich Bronstein, called Leon Trotsky, [and] authorization that his works be freely published.” Le Monde commented that “hardly a week passes without a journal evoking, in one way or another, the personality of the founder of the Red Army.”

We also spoke with Volkov about the sinister “Pamyat” (Memory) group in the Soviet Union, who have been parading about in black shirts and jackboots spewing out anti-Semitic filth. He compared this “fascistic” outfit to Nazi-loving “skinheads” in the capitalist West. Pamyat tried to disrupt the Trotsky evening in Moscow last November, heckling the speakers and then (after hecklers were removed) launching diatribes on “historical” subjects such as claiming that the directors of the gulag camps and other GPU officers were Jewish. In fact, their Russian-nationalist vituperation against “cosmopolitanism” is straight from Stalin’s “doctors’ plot” purge, combined with the anti-Semitism of the tsarist Black Hundreds, Russia’s Ku Klux Klan, whose version of lynching was murderous pogroms against the Jewish ghettos. The Soviet working people must mobilize to smash this deadly threat to the USSR (see Fascist Cancer in Gorbachev’s Russia, WV No.473, 17 March).

On the other hand. there are groups such as Memorial which is campaigning in the name of Stalin’s victims, although on a classless basis rather than from a Marxist perspective. In his speech to the Memorial meeting, Volkov spoke of the “extremely important work they are doing: denouncing all the crimes of Stalin.” He added, “They have been able to put many people in contact, for it is thanks to the existence of Memorial that we were able to find my sister Aleksandra.” At the Memorial exhibit, people fill out questionnaires about family members who suffered from the Stalinist repression, listing dates and locations of camps where they were held, so far as this is known. Esteban Volkov, whose grandfather and grandmother, mother, father and uncles (Leon and Sergei Sedov) were ail victims of Stalin, and who was himself wounded in the failed Siqueiros machine-gun attack on Trotsky, filled out a questionnaire along with countless others whose families and comrades were annihilated in the Stalinist counterrevolutionary terror.

At the Memorial meeting, Volkov was applauded as he spoke of the task of “constructing a genuine socialism” (Die Tageszeitung, 24 December 1988). Yet Memorial talks not of socialism but of abstract “democracy” based on supposed “common human values” which it places above “class interests” (from a Memorial appeal by Yevgeny Yevtushenko). In our conversation, Volkov spoke of Trotsky’s socialist fight against Stalinism: “He made an analysis, with Marxist methodology, arrived at an understanding of Stalinism with an exactness and precision which 50 years later is impossible to modify or add anything to. But we are seeing that the bureaucratic dictatorship has arrived at absolute bankruptcy. History has shown that they have no way out, no role to play except to paralyze, to prevent progress and create backwardness, suffering, poverty. The bureaucracy is presently aware of the need to implant changes, but it is afraid of returning to the course of genuine socialism with workers democracy, which would undermine its monopoly of political power. So they prefer to introduce changes in the direction of a market economy. with capitalist-style stimulus.”

Trotsky’s grandson underlined “the importance of the political revolution in the Soviet regime”: “That the working class really participates in decisions, in ruling, planning, And I think that we are arriving at the historical moment where efficient economic planning is perfectly realizable. Fifty years ago for technical reasons it would have been very difficult to carry out, even without the burden of the bureaucracy, because it was too complex to plan and coordinate on the scale of a country like Russia. But today with computers, communications systems, data banks – cybernetics – it can be done, very efficiently, rapidly and up-to-date, to go forward in a dynamic way. Not the infernal labyrinth of bureaucratic planning – total chaos. Today there is sufficient technology for very good planning. Of course, not overly rigid and detailed planning but rather laying out certain parameters which with prudent leeway meet the needs and requirements of the country.”

His brief visit to Moscow convinced him that many people in the Soviet Union hold Trotsky in great admiration. says Volkov. “But it’s almost impossible to get an objective view of Trotsky within the USSR. They need outside sources of information and access to his writings.” He has called for the juridical rehabilitation of his grandfather, to be declared innocent of all the charges by Stalin against him. But “politically it’s the bureaucracy that seeks historical legitimacy. The record of the Marxist revolutionary Trotsky is spotless.” And historically, he will assume his rightful place as the Soviet peoples reappropriate their own history. It is by returning to the road of Lenin and Trotsky that the Soviet working people and the workers of the world can open the way to authentic socialism. This will be the fitting homage to our forebears who set about building a proletarian state in Russia to the battle cry: “Long live the world socialist revolution!”


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Last updated on 28.12.2002