Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The Prophet Returned?

A survey of recent works by and about Trotsky in the Soviet Union

Judith Shapiro lectures in Economics and Soviet History at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. She is a member of the National Executive Committee of the British Association for Soviet and East European Studies. She has lectured for six months at Kharkhov University and visits the Soviet Union frequently. She has written a number of articles on economic history and Soviet historical writing today, and is completing a book on Soviet unemployment and the NEP. She considers herself a ’former Trotskyist’.

I am often asked if I think that they will soon publish anything by Trotsky in the Soviet Union. The shortest answer is that they already have. The May issue of Gorizont (Horizon), a popularly oriented political monthly published by the ‘Moscow Worker’ publishing house [1] reprints his essay Joseph Stalin, a fairly substantial article which first appeared in Life magazine of 2 October 1939. [2] Gorizont has a press run of 100,000. [3]

Trotsky’s essay, it may be recalled, begins with his first premonitory encounter with one Dzhugashvili in Vienna in 1913, goes back in time to Gori, Georgia, and Stalin’s upbringing, and skips through Stalin’s autobiography with an emphasis on the psychological and personal. In the last, most important, section Trotsky deals with the cause of Stalin’s pact with Hitler, which had just then been concluded. He corrects the emphasis given to his article by the concentration on personalities, no doubt demanded by the Life magazine circulation department, when he offers his familiar – to us – reminder: ‘It was not Stalin who created the apparatus. The apparatus created Stalin’. [4] The man responsible for the new publication of this piece, Vasetskii, takes particular exception to this view (in his footnotes) since it suggests an absence of party democracy in the early ’twenties. [5]

Although the Gorizont editors submitted their May copy for the censor’s approval at the end of March, [6] they were pipped at the post in April by the prominent weekly Ogonyok, the perestroika flagship, with its multi-colours and multimillioned readership. For Lenin’s birthday the well-known publicist Lev Ovrutskii compiled some ‘unknown pages’ of Leniniana by Radek, Zinoviev and Trotsky. [7] Trotsky’s remarks are put together from two 1924 memoir collections and, more significantly, from the 1930 Berlin Russian edition of My Life. [8]

The Gorizont choice is politically richer, but Ovrutskii’ short introduction in Ogonyok underscores the importance of the ‘unknown’ pages of Trotsky on Lenin. The reader who has eyes, he asserts, will see in the rediscovered lines “sincere love and respect for Lenin”. Ovrutskii cites Lunacharskii as authority: “in relations with Lenin after their unification he [Trotsky] manifested a touching and tender, respectful attitude”. Ovrutskii does, of course, feel obliged to add that the reader will also perceive “something [unspecified] diverging from Leninism”. [9]

The hell black night

The third significant Soviet publication in this field so far this year has been the presentation of the penultimate chapter of Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast [10], The hell black night, in the March number of the monthly journal Inostrannaya Literatura (Foreign Literature). [11] Deutscher’s masterpiece is also long overdue: for publication in the Soviet Union, “for reasons which do not require detailed explanation”, as the introduction to this first morsel drily notes.

If the first two pieces cited above are less politically significant than a great deal of Trotsky’s writing, then this portrayal by Deutscher is the most depressing, if personally moving, picture available. It is the single darkest chapter of the entire trilogy, as the title itself underscores. Deutscher himself would surely never have selected it as the first presentation of Trotsky to a new Soviet generation. Tamara Deutscher only learned of the chapter’s appearance after publication. Without the considerably more positive Postscript: Victory in Defeat, [12] which follows it, it must to some extent distort Deutscher’s view itself.

The translation is introduced by a leading member of the Supreme Soviet, Soviet historical authority and CPSU member Roy Medvedev, who may understandably be confused with harassed dissident and unemployed teacher training college lecturer Roy Medvedev. Perhaps surprisingly Medvedev’s whirlwind transformation into a respectable national figure has been accompanied by an increase of his sympathy for Trotsky, an increase in his insistence on righting the historical record, though not, on his part, an increase in doctrinal support for Trotsky.

Thus it was Medvedev who has been most prominent in arguing for the effective rehabilitation of Trotsky (though not in a form which would thoroughly satisfy most Western Trotskyists). In a round table of historians in the Izvestiya supplement Nedelya (The Week), Medvedev moved to dispel any sense of self-congratulation:

There are still ‘forbidden’ topics and ‘blank spots’ in history ... there is no possibility of expounding facts truthfully and in detail in connection with the personality of Trotsky ... in some publications of the previous period there is not a word about the revolutionary activities of Trotsky, not one positive assessment, as Lenin gave him in his time. [13]

To begin to correct this, Medvedev offers a concise amount of Trotsky’s entire life in seven pages, acknowledging his debt to Deutscher, while pointing out that his evaluation of events does not always coincide with Deutscher’s (an understatement). Medvedev has a good deal of praise for the trilogy’s author who, he underscores, was far from an apologist for Trotsky. Deutscher’s biography, he explains to Soviet readers, up to this time is considered in Western sovietology and historical science, and also in the broad literature about Trotsky not only the best but even the classic work. [14]

Medvedev versus Trotsky

Much of Medvedev’s introduction is simply factual because “even many of our professional historians have an extremely distorted and inaccurate conception” of Trotsky. [15] Among Medvedev’s critical remarks – and silences – I would select three as the most significant. First, Medvedev stresses strongly Trotsky’s role in initiating the exceptional harshness of the Civil War period, while noting that there is rarely a civil war without such brutality. He also adds that Lenin usually approved Trotsky’s severe measures, [16] It is this portrait of Trotsky, the commander, which particularly deflects the interest of present-day Soviet intellectuals, who have little knowledge of the subject and stand at an immense temporal and psychological distance from the revolutionary period.

Secondly, Medvedev is essentially silent on the 1923 Opposition, of which he has recently written in some detail. [17] The 1923 Opposition, while no longer taboo, is surely one of the least illuminated of Soviet ‘blank spots’. His major criticism of the entire Left Opposition is that, however accurate some of their judgements, their policies objectively would have destroyed NEP. [18] I believe different Western Trotskyists would reply in a variety of ways to this particular charge.

Finally, Medvedev, underscoring the way in which the vast bulk of the Left Opposition went over to Stalin after the ‘Great Turn’ to rapid industrialisation and all-out collectivisation, adds that Trotsky, out of “dogmatism, insufficient information and tendentiousness could not understand and evaluate in the necessary measure these complex processes which went on in the USSR and the world Communist movement in the ’thirties”. [19] This seems the most dogmatic, insufficiently informed and tendentious of Medvedev’s statements. It seriously flaws an otherwise admirable attempt by someone who lacks any empathy for the Trotskyist world view.

This total absence of empathy is not uniquely Medvedev’s, of course. I believe the single most important obstacle to wider interest in Trotsky's views lies in the profound acceptance of Socialism in (at best) one country. Ideas of world revolution appear profoundly chimerical to virtually everyone in the Soviet Union today. A typical view; more third world revolutions means more mouths to feed; the prospect of revolution in advanced capitalist countries seems absurd. Thus I would agree with Tariq Ali [20] that resistance to greater historical honesty flows not from fear of the power of Trotskyist ideas but in the threat to party legitimacy such real debate has already posed. Still such real debate has begun. Even the ‘Russian Question’ is now being debated in Russia. [21]

Out from under the mountain of dead dogs

Medvedev’s call at the very end of 1988 [22] for greater attention to Trotsky, greater objectivity, and publication of his works, has already been taken up by not a few influential Soviet figures in 1989. [23] It is getting rather hard openly to disagree with the head of Leningrad’s Department of the history of Soviet society, Sobolev, that the Soviets are sufficiently independent to make sense of what Trotsky wrote before and after his exile, “without the help of interpreters, ours and others”. [24]

Some Soviet historians are quite open now about their earlier erroneous views. Thus Civil War specialist Yuri Korablev, writing in the Central Committee journal Politicheskoe obrazovanie (Political education), [25] notes that Soviet historical and public relations literature no longer calls Trotsky an enemy of the people, but still depends on the Stalinist Short Course history of the CPSU evaluation:

Trotsky’s activity in the Civil War is exclusively presented as an enumeration of his actual and non-existent sins. I can’t help but say that the author of this article shared this viewpoint in the past which, naturally, was reflected in his works. [26]

And Korablev’s change of view is visible to anyone who compares his presentation with not only writing of some years ago, or last February, but even with, for example, his contribution in a book put together last summer. [27] In this new well-documented and genuinely original short piece he backs up its claim to answer numerous enquiries at readers’ conferences by showing that:

Trotsky in the days of the October uprising and the years of Civil War did a good deal for the victory of the revolution, the construction of the Red Army and the organisation of its victory and that this activity was highly valued by Lenin, the Central Committee of the Party and the VTsIK. [All-union Central Executive Committee of the soviets].

This definite change is something of a weathervane.

Leading Trotsky specialist Vasetskii, speaking not only critically but favourably of “this contradictory figure” to Komsomol’skaya Pravda [28], also criticises some of his own earlier work, in particular his portrayal of Trotsky’s role in the October Revolution. Vasetskii continues to maintain the presently popular stereotype of Stalin and Trotsky as twins, but his writing has also evolved, even from his January full page article in Literaturnaya Gazeta, which appropriately opened the new year by putting Trotsky on centre stage. [29] This article has been wrongly portrayed in some of the Western press as more sympathetic to Trotsky than it actually is.

In place of a conclusion

This survey has focused exclusively on Trotsky, and on some selected publications of 1989 devoted exclusively to him. The reader should know that this survey maps the top of the iceberg. There have been scattered meetings to discuss Trotsky, there has been a pronounced revival of interest in Christian Rakovsky [30], and there has been a marked rise in the number of political and historical articles which refer in passing, but importantly, to Trotsky and the Left Opposition. [31] New archival material is trickling out. [32]

Even more obviously, public thirst for historical truth does not yet show much sign of diminishing. There is a certain amount of modishness in the gradually rising interest in Trotsky: Bukharin, after all, is now too accepted to be really exciting. But the quest to understand the Soviet past goes deeper than the fads of some Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals. Amidst all the evident contradictions and crises of the Soviet Union, I find this the most optimistic sign. As Deutscher, prophetically, wrote in the last chapter of his great trilogy:

Mankind, however, when after some progress it succumbs to a stampede, allows those who urge it forward to be abused, vilified, and trampled to death. Only when it has resumed the forward movement, does it pay rueful tribute to the victims, cherish their memory and piously collect their relics; then it is grateful to them for every drop of blood they gave – for it knows that with their blood they nourished the seed of the future. [33]

This intense attention to the victims of the stampede gives hope that Soviet historian Vitaly Lel’chuk was correct when he insisted to doubters: “I’ll be bold enough to assert that we are only at the beginning of the ‘historical renaissance’ that our descendants may perhaps call the start of perestroika.” [34]

Judith Shapiro



1. Gorizont no.5, 1989, pp.51-62. The 11 page reprint carries a four page critical introduction by N.A. Vesetskii. “On byl zakhvachen borb’boi protiv Stalin” [“He was carried away by the battle against Stalin”], pp.47-51, discussed below, and two pages of footnotes in a similar tone, pp.62-4. It is Vasetskii’s title which appears in the table of consents and on the cover, so that it is not immediately evident to the reader that a work by, as opposed to about, Trotsky ties inside.

2. This essay is reprinted in English in Pathfinder Press’s collection Political Portraits, but (because of this) not in their Trotsky Writings. The manuscript of the article bears the date 22 September 1939. Gorizont uses the Russian translation made recently by the emigré Yuri Fel’shtinskii, with appropriate note of this man’s efforts to publish the works of Trotsky in Russian abroad. His latest important effort, not cited by Gorizont, is a four-volume compilation from the Houghton Library archives of opposition documents from 1923-27 in the original Russian, Kommunistichieskaya Oppozitsiya v SSSR [Chalidze Publications, Benson, Vermont 06731, 1988]. These volumes contain much that is not in the Pathfinder Challenge of the Left Opposition series, carry the Houghton reference number, which Pathfinder amazingly neglects to do, and will be an invaluable research aid, especially for Soviet scholars.

3. All Soviet publications carry their press run (tirazh) along with other mandatory information. The readership of Gorizont is, of course, much higher, but rather localised in the Moscow region.

4. Trotsky, Gorizont, op. cit., p.60.

5. Ibid., p.64.

6. This can also be determined by information carried in all Soviet publications.

7. Leniniana: neizvestnye stranitsy, Ogonyok no.17, 1989, (22-29 April), pp.3-7.

8. O Lenine ,Moscow 1924; Iz bospominanii o Lenine, Tiflis 1924; Moya zhizn’, vol.2, Berlin 1930.

9. Ibid., p.3.

10. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Outcast, London: Oxford University Press 1963, pp.356-509. The skilful Russian translation, by the young journalists Alexander Zlobin and Yuri Zarakhovich, whose most recent effort was on The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, is slightly shortened.

11. Inostrannaya Literature no.3, 1989, pp.174-230. The journal has a current print run of 420,000.

12. Op. cit., pp.510-523. See the end of this survey.

13. Nedelya no,52, 1988, Istoriya: Trudnyi put’ k pravde [round table].

14. Medvedev, op. cit., p.167.

15. Ibid., p.167.

16. Ibid., p.170.

17. In the literary journal Znamya no.1, 1989, pp.1804. This is in the first installment of Medvedev's O Staline is stalinizme [On Stalin and Stalinism] which contains both old and new material.

18. Ibid., p.171.

19. Ibid., p.172.

20. Tariq Ali, Revolution from above, London 1988, p.95.

21. A taste of the debate is available in English as an appendix in Ali, op. cit., pp.237-243, though the debate is now proceeding beyond this.

22. Nedelya, op. cit.

23. More information on this can be found in my article The Perestroika of Soviet History, Slovo vol.2, no.1, May 1989. For essential brevity, I concentrate selectively in this article on material not covered there, and not yet available in English,

24. Vozvrashcherue k chitatelyu [Return to the reader], Kommunist no.3, 1989, p.125.

25. Pochemu Trotskii? Na voprosy chitatelei otvechaet istorik [Why Trotsky? An historian answers readers’ questions], Politicheskoe obrazovanie, no.2, 1989 (January). The journal has a press run of nearly 2 million.

26. Ibid., p.57.

27. Yu. Korabtev, Zashchita respubliki [Defence of the republic] in V A Ivanov [compiler], Perepiska na istorieheskie temy [Correspondence on historical themes], Moscow 1989.

28. Ya ne gozhus’ na vtorye roli [I’m not suited for a number two rôle], an interview with Vasetskii in Komsomol’skaya Pravda, 19 May 1989, p.4.

29. N.A. Vasetskii, Likvidatsiya [Liquidation], Literaturnayo Gazeta, 4 January 1989.

30. A shortened version of Rakovsky’s discussion of the 16th Party Congress (1930) was reprinted prominently in Nedelya no.21 1989 (21-28 May), favourably introduced, interestingly, by a prominent supporter of the market, professor of history Vladlen Sirotkin. Rakovsky’s rehabilitation, including reinstatement into party membership in June 1988, has facilitated a steady stream of articles, some potentially useful for future work on Rakovsky as well. Thus the Ukrains’kii istorichnii zhurnal [Ukrainian Historical Journal] offers a bibliographical essay on the holdings of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, no 11, 1988, pp.48-51.

31. ‘Publicist’ discussion of political importance but varying quality which refers to Trotsky includes the work of Igor Klyamkin, Dmitri Volkogonov (biographer of Stalin) and Otto Latsis. For references to this cf. my article in Slovo, op. cit., where I also argue that these articles cannot really be taken seriously as history, refracted as they are through the lens of the present discussion on market and plan. Very recently there has been an improvement in clarity in some of this writing, as we are at the very start of the stage where some writers now feel they can openly diverge with Lenin.

32. The archives, it is agreed, are in a dreadful state. Thus the scholars drafted in to write the new party history at First Five Year Plan tempo have found documents in sacks. Still the new monthly journal Izvestiya TsK KPSS [News of the Central Committee of the CPSU] has a tantalising section with apparently randomly selected material from the ’twenties and ’thirties: a letter from Preobrazhensky to Bukharin on Lenin’s health in 1923 (in no.4, 1989, pp.186-7) an anti-Trotsky note of E.M. Yaroslavskii in 1924 useful to any history of the Opposition (idem, pp.187-191), a memoir on October written by A.A. Ioffe just before his suicide in 1927 (idem, pp.201-3). In a talk in London in March Volkogonov demonstrated that the archive hold a great deal for those who can gain access, so far very limited. He told the story of his discovery of the way in which Stalin as early as 1925 had destroyed records relating to his Civil War failure to come to the support of Tukhachevsky when the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw. He also told the moving story, from the archives, of Stalin’s insistence on the execution of his old Civil War buddy Marshal Egorov on the eve of war. However, Volkogonov did not make a connection between these two quite possibly related events.

33. Op. cit., pp.522-3.

34. In Trudnyi put’ k pravde, op. cit., Nedelya no.52, 1988.

Updated by ETOL: 6.8.2003