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International Socialist Review, Summer 1957


The Editors

New Evidence on Trotsky’s Murder


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.3, Summer 1957, pp.75-79.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


An ex-Soviet agent reveals what he learned when Stalin’s secret police made a slip and handed him their massive file on the dictator’s arch-political foe

* * *

THE most direct confirmation to date that the Kremlin’s secret agents planned and carried through the assassination of Stalin’s archpolitical opponent, Leon Trotsky, has been presented by Vladimir Petrov in his recently published book Empire of Fear. [1] Petrov was Third Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra and chief of the Soviet espionage organization in Australia. His defection caused an international sensation when he and his wife sought political asylum there in April 1954.

Both Petrovs were career officers in the MVD, variously named the OGPU, the NKVD and the MGB. He joined the OGPU in May 1933 as a cipher clerk handling the cable traffic at its headquarters in Moscow. He worked there during the great purges of 1936-38. Rising in the organization, he served in the Sinkiang Province of China during the elimination of “anti-Soviet elements” in 1937, at the Soviet Embassy in Stockholm during the Second World War, and finally in Australia.

Petrov had ample opportunity to become intimately familiar with the methods of operation, the leading personnel and secrets of Stalin’s domestic and foreign terror machine. His authentic inside information on the OGPU’s role in Trotsky’s murder was obtained through an accidental perusal of the massive file on Trotsky which came into his hands in the archives of the Committee of Information at the Soviet capital.

Petrov relates:

“I saw Trotsky’s file by accident and through a defect in our Soviet records system. It happened in 1948, as follows:

“At that time there were two main Intelligence Registries, or Archives as they are called, in the Soviet Union. The first was in the basement of No.2 Dzerjinsky Square and was the Registry of the First Special Department. There, on shelf after packed shelf, were housed the records of every person accused or suspected of political offenses inside the Soviet Union since the Revolution of 1917. These files numbered many millions; some were feet thick, others no more than a brief note on a single sheet of paper.

“A friend who worked there told me of the gigantic task of reviewing all these files, the majority of which consisted of old, useless, or unreliable reports. But all were graded Top Secret. Each time I visited the Registry I had to produce my Identity Card, and hand in my request slip through a window on the right-hand side of the stairs that led down from the street. All files had to be studied on the spot, in a special reading room. No files might be taken out of the building. Of course, authorized MGB officers like myself, were permitted to keep working files, consisting of notes and summaries, in our various MGB departments and sections.

“The other registry belonged to the KI (Communist International) and contained all the foreign files. It occupied three floors in a section of one of the Committee of Information buildings. This registry covered the whole field of foreign intelligence – Soviet agents abroad, Counter-Revolutionary organizations in foreign countries, dossiers of foreign politicians, scientific and technical intelligence ...”

Went There Often

Petrov’s special task in 1948 was the supervision of Soviet merchant seamen on ships plying the lower Danube who might become infected with dissent through contact with foreigners.

“I often went to this KI registry to check the records of sailors; the staff knew me well,” he goes on to say. “But our filing system was cumbersome. The files consisted of grey cardboard covers, containing papers which were permanently fastened together; as each new report came in, it was stitched on to the preceding mass of material, much of it irrelevant.

“When the Soviet armies invaded Germany and reached Berlin,” we discovered the superiority of the German filing system in which pages which were required for reference could be detached from a file, and later reincorporated without difficulty. This made it possible to limit the access of any one person to secret material much more effectively than could be done under our system.

“But to reorganize our filing system would have been a mammoth task. Therefore, when I came across a reference to Trotsky on a seaman’s dossier and wanted to check it, I was handed the whole volume of Trotsky’s file.

“It did not take me long to clear up the point I was looking for and I should have returned the file, but curiosity was too strong. Though it was four or five inches thick I skimmed right through it. After all, Trotsky, though damned, was a legendary figure of Soviet history. Trotsky in the early days, stood second only to Lenin as the organizer of the Bolshevik Revolution and as the prophet of the new Russia. He was Lenin’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, then Minister for War when the Red Army defeated the Whites; later he organized the troops as ‘labour armies’ to restore vital railway communications within the Soviet Union.

“Lenin’s death seemed to leave him the natural successor, but that was when he clashed with the rising star of Stalin. As leader of the Left Wing of the Opposition, Trotsky was first expelled from the Communist Party and in 1929 banished from the Soviet Union. He lived in Turkey, France, and Norway, went to Mexico in 1937 and was assassinated there on the 20th of August 1940 ...”

Petrov’s account of what he saw – and did not see – in the dossier he examined is highly significant. Trotsky’s archives had been broken into by OGPU agents in France who carried away with them, among other materials, his correspondence with his son Sedov. The defendants in the Moscow trials were accused of carrying on correspondence with Trotsky abroad, although no actual letters were ever produced.

On these points Petrov writes:

“Trotsky’s file was interesting, both for its disclosures and its omissions. It contained a mass of published articles by Trotsky in which he attacked and criticized Stalin’s policy, and a series of letters between Trotsky and his son Sedov. One piece of evidence was conspicuous by its absence. According to Soviet official statements, Trotsky carried on a persistent correspondence with dissident groups inside the Soviet Union, inciting them to violent revolt against their government. If so, some of these letters would cer-certainly have been intercepted and put on the file, along with Trotsky’s other correspondence. In fact, I did not see one such letter.

“However, there were detailed descriptions of Trotsky’s life as an exile in Norway and this reminded me that soon after I joined the OGPU in 1933 we used to get cypher telegrams from the OGPU Resident in Norway giving a very full account of Trotsky’s life and behaviour and reporting the progress that had been made in getting the OGPU agents into his circle of intimate friends and admirers.”

It might be added that Petrov saw nothing in the files to substantiate Trotsky’s alleged connections with Hitler and Hess or with the Mikado of which he was falsely accused in the Moscow Trials. Neither was anything of the kind brought forward in the postwar Nuremburg trials of the Nazi leaders.

Petrov prefaces his confirmation of Stalin’s plot against Trotsky’s life with a summary of the circumstances in the case.

“The facts of Trotsky’s actual assassination are well known; indeed, the assassin, Jacques Mornard, readily re-enacted the whole crime for the Mexican police. I have recently read several newspaper reports speculating on whether Mornard will claim the parole to which he is now entitled, or whether he will be too afraid to come out of the security of his quarters in the Lecumberri prison, where he enjoys considerable comfort and affluence. [2]

“Investigations into the background of the crime have revealed that Mornard won the affections in Paris of a New York girl on holiday, Sylvia Ageloff, who was introduced to him by her travelling companion Julia Weill. Julia was then secretary to Louis Budenz, an American Communist who broke with the Party in 1948. In August 1939, Mornard followed Sylvia back to the United States, travelling on a Canadian passport as ‘Frank Jacson.’ It was found that this passport had been originally issued to a Yugoslav who was killed fighting in Spain with the International Brigade. All members of the International Brigade had to turn in their passports and the passports of the men who died were sent to Moscow. In this way the Soviet authorities obtained a fund of genuine foreign passports for the use of secret agents.

“Mornard went to Mexico and through Sylvia’s sister, a member of Trotsky’s circle, was introduced to Trotsky’s friends and gained access to the fortress-villa where Trotsky lived under constant guard. Finally, posing as a devout disciple, he was introduced to the great man himself.

“At 5:30 p.m. on 20th August, Mornard walked past the guards, carrying a coat over his arm, though it was warm weather. Under the coat, slung from his wrist, he carried an ice-axe. He also had with him a dagger and a revolver. Trotsky’s wife met him, conducted him to Trotsky’s study and left them alone. As Trotsky bent over the table, studying a paper on French Trotskyists which Mornard had written, Mornard struck him with the ice-axe, but the first blow did not silence him. His screams brought his wife and the bodyguard, who battered Mornard until Trotsky cried, ‘Let him live! He must tell his story!’ Trotsky died twenty-five hours later without regaining consciousness.

“It is also said that, when the guards attacked him, Mornard cried, ‘They made me do it – they imprisoned my mother!’ But from that day to this he has steadfastly refused to reveal his identity, his history and his associates. He insists that he committed the crime from purely personal motives, as a Trotskyist who became disillusioned with his leader.”

Mornard’s method of killing his victim had been practiced in similar cases known to him, Petrov declares.

“I recall that the description of the actual killing said that the broad end, not the pointed end, of the ice-axe had been used. The crudeness of the instrument may seem strange, but if Mornard had been as skilful as my colleague Bokov, who [on OGPU instructions] killed the Soviet Ambassador (in Persia) with a single blow from an iron bar, he would have fulfilled his task with very little noise and might have walked out of the gate of Trotsky’s villa quietly and unmolested.”

Directed from New York

Petrov testifies that the NKVD under Stalin’s orders prepared the assassination and the NKVD Resident in the Soviet Consulate-General in New York directed the operation on the American continent.

“That the crime was really a political assassination directed by Stalin has remained a speculation, in spite of exhaustive police inquiries in many countries,” he writes. “I read a recent article on the case (The People, 7th November 1954) which concluded: ‘Despite what seem well-founded suspicions, the direct association [of Moscow with the crime] has never been established.’

“I can confirm those suspicions from the evidence of my own eyes. Trotsky’s file, which I read in the KI Registry in 1948, contained the detailed planning by the NKVD experts over a period of years, which led up to the successful assassination.

“Though I read the file quickly, with a certain apprehensive speed, I remember clearly these planning papers. One of them had a footnote comment by a senior NKVD officer that Trotsky should never have been allowed to leave the USSR.

“There were also copies of instructions sent out from NKVD Headquarters in Moscow to the NKVD Residents in all the countries where Trotsky had lived at various times, including instructions to the NKVD Resident in the Soviet Consulate-General in New York, who directed the assassination operation on the American continent. There was complete photographic documentation of Trotsky’s life, from the first days in the Soviet Union, before his banishment in 1928, right up to his last days in Mexico, after he had grown the pointed beard which features in his later pictures. There were numerous photographs taken inside his fortified villa, perhaps by Mornard himself, showing the guards, fences and courtyards, photos of Trotsky with his wife, Trotsky having tea with his friends, Trotsky’s dog ...

“The secret department which organizes such operations outside the Soviet Union was at that time headed by Colonel Serebriansky, a quiet, stooping man with a brilliant planning brain. Later it was directed by Sudoplatov. Now it may be under the direction of Leonid Studnikov, the man who last year sent out Captain Khokhlov (who gave himself up to the Americans) with his poisoned bullets and noiseless camouflaged revolvers, to assassinate the leader of an anti-Soviet organization in Berlin. Khokhlov has reported that the direction of Trotsky’s assassination, and the training of Mornard, was actually carried out by Serebriansky’s deputy, Eitington, whom I remember seeing at NKVD Headquarters in Moscow.”

* * *

The Petrovs’ book contains much information of interest about other well-known personages associated with the Soviet regime. Petrov reveals the fate of the Old Bolshevik, Karl Radek, who was let off with a 10-year sentence after making a bargain with Stalin to fabricate false confessions implicating himself and others in the Second Moscow Trial of January 1937. Radek, who knew many of Stalin’s most compromising secrets, did not live long after that. He was reportedly attacked and killed in a quarrel with a cell mate in 1938.

The Petrovs were sent to Sweden to keep surveillance on Madame Kollontai, the Soviet Ambassador and Lenin’s friend, one of the few among the Old Guard Stalin permitted to remain alive. Her husband, Dybenko, had been shot in 1936 on a charge of Trotskyist activities. Moscow feared that she was too sympathetic to the Swedes and critical of her own government. One of the tasks the Petrovs undertook on Moscow’s orders was to photograph the notes and drafts of Madame Kollontai’s memoirs without her knowledge.

Petrov decoded the cable from Madrid in July 1938 reporting that Alexander Orlov, chief OGPU Representative with the Republican forces in Spain, had deserted. Orlov published an account of his experiences in 1954.

“I wondered,” writes Petrov, “what would be the fate and fortune of such an important State Security official, who had decided to defy Stalin and had fled to the forbidden world of the West. I little guessed then that I myself was fated to take the same road fifteen years later.”

Background of the Petrovs

The Petrovs’ story of the events in their lives leading up to their break with the Stalinist regime is instructive on its own account. Both husband and wife were “second generation children of the Russian Revolution. We were both born into the primitive poverty of the Russian village; the Revolution gave both of us opportunities which we would never have enjoyed otherwise; we each rose to positions of comfort, prosperity and privilege in the Soviet service.”

They entered the OGPU as convinced Communists and, despite terrifying experiences, remained loyal servants for 20 years. Petrov had an inside view of the massive internal purges of 1936-38 since he headed the section which handled communications within the USSR. “I can testify to this [indiscriminate mass terror against thousands and thousands of innocent persons] as an eye-witness, who myself coded and decoded the signals that passed between NKVD Headquarters in Moscow and the towns and provinces of the Soviet Union.” He handled hundreds of messages couched in the following form: “To NKVD, Frunze. You are charged with the task of exterminating 10,000 enemies of the people. Report results by signal. – Yezhov.” (Yezhov, then Chief of the NKVD, was later liquidated by Stalin.)

And in due course the reply would come back:

”In reply to yours of such-and-such date, the following enemies of the Soviet people have been shot.”

The quotas for each district and town were fixed at NKVD headquarters. Petrov estimates that two million Soviet citizens were wiped out in these nightmare years.

Why didn’t he and others speak out in protest? Here is Petrov’s explanation.

“Fear ruled us all, and drove underground any murmurs of protest and revolt. When old Revolutionary heroes like Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov were executed, when my chief Boki and all his deputies were likewise shot as spies, I found it unbelievable that all these distinguished men, who had given their lives to serve the Revolution, were really traitors to their country. But I did not breathe a word of my suspicions, except perhaps very tentatively in the close company of one or two old shipmates. And even that was a risk.

“All the same, in the depth of my being, as in the hearts of millions of my countrymen, there began to smoulder a hatred of the treachery, falsehood and injustice of the regime under which we lived, and which already seemed so remote from the hopes and ideals which the Revolution had set before the Russian people.”

For a short time during the war Petrov was chief of the cipher section of Gulag, the organization controlling the Soviet Labor Camps. He estimates that there are from 12 to 15 millions in these camps and tells some things about the human degradation in them. Mrs. Petrov’s first husband was framed up in 1937 and sent to one of these penal colonies.

The Petrovs lived most of the time in Moscow, the show city of the Soviet Union. Here is their description of its social stratifications:

“Three different classes existed in Moscow as we knew it. At the top were the notables, the great ones, a limited, privileged circle, who, so long as they maintained their position, lived in luxury, with town and country houses, servants, cars and chauffeurs and the best of everything. Such were Government Ministers, Department heads, Service chiefs and outstanding literary or theatrical figures. Apart from official occasions in the Red Square or at the Bolshoi Theatre, these great ones are never seen by the ordinary populace, except in fleeting glimpses as they sweep through cleared streets in guarded and escorted cars, or hurry from car to office and office to car ...

“Below this upper crust was a large but still privileged middle class of persons like ourselves, outside the ruling clique, but distinguished by Party membership and possession of good Government jobs, which enabled us to live comfortably so long as we made no slip which might enable jealous rivals to displace us ...

“But the mass of the Moscow people live without the privileges or obligations of Party membership.” They suffer from extremely congested living quarters, the relentless struggle for the basic necessities of food and clothing, constant shortages which require them to stand for hours and days in queues. Any outward expression of discontent is forestalled by the ubiquitous informing system.

“It is very hard to say what the Soviet people think. Even the lowliest Soviet citizen knows that silence is safety and speech dangerous; that in every building and staircase there are people anxious to advance themselves by reporting criticisms and complaints to the authorities.”

The psychology engendered in this atmosphere of mutual mistrust is illustrated by an incident involving Mrs. Petrov at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra. At a Communist party membership meeting she was accused by the Second Secretary of disloyalty because she had placed two amusing magazine photos, one of a Hollywood actress and the other of a dog playing the piano, under the glass top of her work table where someone had previously placed a portrait of Stalin.

“I was very upset,” she writes. “I knew very well that the minutes of every Party meeting went to the Central Committee of the Party in Moscow. In most countries such a charge would have been laughed out of court. But I did not take it lightly. I wrote to the Central Committee, insisting on the baselessness of the charge. I even enclosed a sketch of the lay-out of the top of my table. I knew only too well what a breath of suspicion, however baseless, can do on the file of a Soviet citizen.”

Petrov remarks upon the irony of the fact that the “first person to escape from the Soviet Embassy to refuge in Australia was myself, the specialist in preventing such occurrences!”

What drove this Soviet functionary of proletarian origin and with an unblemished record in the Party and the MVD to defect? Here is his explanation of “the agonies, fear, doubt and conflict” which led up to his decision:

“I suppose it really began far back in my native Siberia, when, as I have described, I saw the sufferings of my own peasant folk under collectivization, and the ruin of my native village of Larikha. After that, the horrors of the purges, the victimization of innocent people, the desperate poverty of the Soviet masses, followed by the striking contrast of conditions in other countries – all these had destroyed my faith in the professions of our regime, long before I came near the point of action. I had reached a disillusionment, even cynicism, which today is general, though concealed, among Soviet officials who have seen the outside world and allow themselves to think honestly.”

Actually Petrov reached the breaking point shortly after Beria was shot and it appeared that he was being recalled to the Soviet Union to suffer the same fate, since he had been accused of forming a “Beria group” in the Embassy. He contacted the Australian Security Service and in return for an assurance of asylum and £ 5,000 turned over important documents and information to them.

Petrov’s MVD colleague in Japan, Yuri Pastvorov, turned himself over to the American Intelligence a little before his own break for the same reasons.

The Petrovs grossly idealize conditions in the West, disregarding the presence of exploitation, political reaction, colonialism and similar abominations of capitalism. Imperialism has its own “Empire of Fear,” fear of insecurity, of oppression, of annihilation by nuclear weapons.

Khrushchev’s Silence

But all this is no justification for the terror regime maintained under the name of “Socialism.” This latest contribution to the growing literature of highly placed defectors from the Soviet officialdom emphasizes that at the Twentieth Congress Khrushchev lifted only a corner of the curtain concealing the crimes against socialism and the Soviet peoples committed under Stalin’s rule. He refrained, for example, from telling the truth about Trotsky and other leaders of the anti-Stalinist opposition. Petrov however discloses that the materials necessary for such “rehabilitation” exist in the MVD files. When and by whom will Stalin’s successors be compelled to divulge more of the truth to the world?

For all its modifications and window trimming, the new regime maintains itself by the same methods. Petrov points out, for instance, that Beria was arrested on substantially the same charges as his predecessors Yezhov and Yagoda. He was charged with trying to put the State Security Service above Party and State in order to liquidate the present “Socialist” regime and restore capitalism; he was accused of being an agent of British and American Intelligence, together with a long list of other crimes and misdemeanors, including picking up women who caught his fancy from the streets of Moscow.

Beria committed countless genuine crimes – but he was not tried and shot for these. The charges against him were as preposterous as Krushchev’s explanation that Beria alone was responsible for Moscow’s break with Tito when he and every intelligent individual knew – as Khrushchev admitted later – that the policy decision was Stalin’s.

The Petrovs show that such a regime based upon lies, fear and sycophancy cannot command loyalty even from its favorites. Still less, despite its concessions, promises and shifts, can it win the confidence and support of the Soviet masses.

Petrov reminds us that

“the real Russia is not the shop-window selection of ‘samples’ shown to foreign visitors on their planned and conducted tours. It is not the picked features of Moscow, Kharkov, Stalingrad and other show places. It is the grim severity of towns like Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Novo-Sibirsk; the drab factory workers, driven remorsely by an imposed production quota; the millions of peasants in the 300,000 collectivized villages of Russia; and the ten or fifteen million slave labourers in the camps which I knew of when I handled the NKVD telegrams between Moscow and the camp commandments. Nobody can deny the immense technical and industrial achievements of the Soviet Union. But anyone who talks about them needs to know the truth about the vast mountain of human misery on which these achievements are built.”

It is this “real Russia” of the workers and peasants which has yet to settle accounts with the post-Stalin regime. These millions cannot defect; they confront their bureaucratic oppressors daily face to face.

The recent reports of revolts in the camps, of stirrings in the factories, and voices of criticism in the universities and among the intellectuals indicate that cracks have been opening in the totalitarian structure since Stalin’s death. These will widen and deepen until the “real Russia” of the workers and peasants make itself felt as forcefully in Moscow and other Soviet centers as the real Poland and Hungary have already asserted themselves against the Stalinist overlords in Warsaw and Budapest.


1. Empire of Fear, by Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov. Andre Deutsch, Publishers. London. 1956. 351 pp. 18s.

2. The Mexican courts recently denied Mornard’s latest petition for parole and he must serve the full 20-year sentence for his crime.

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