The following three articles are taken from a special number of the French journal Rouge on the 50th anniversary of Trotsky’s and death have been translated by Ted Crawford.
[Additional note by Jj Plant re Sokolovskaya
Enquiries are often made on the Internet about the fate of Trotsky’s first wife, Alexandra Lvovna Bronstein (née Sokolovskaya). Not very much information has been gathered about her. Victor Serge reports her being arrested in 1935 (see The Serge-Trotsky Papers (1), p.136) and in Destiny of a Revolution (2) that she was deported to Tobolsk (perhaps Tomsk), after having taken care of Trotsky’s grandchildren. It is evidence of Trotsky’s continued concern for her that immediately on establishing communication with Serge after the latter’s expulsion from the USSR, he wrote seeking news of her and her sister Maria Lvovna Sokolovskaya.
Nadezhda Joffe adds a little more information in her Memoirs. (3)]
The tragedy of the Bronstein Family
By Alain Brossat
It was not good to be a member of the Bronstein family after the banishment of the founder of the Red Army. When, the survivors met in Moscow in 1988, they carried on their bodies the mark of the apocalypse of the century.
In December 1988, Esteban (Sieva) Volkhov, grandson of Trotsky, met his sister Alexandra and his niece Olga in Moscow. Suffering from cancer, Alexandra died several weeks later. Sieva and Alexandra, the son and daughter of Zinaida Volkhov who committed suicide in exile in 1933, were but children when they were separated after Trotsky was banished.
This reunion had a bitter taste, even if it was a sort of belated redress. It was made possible by the work of Pierre Broué and the intervention of the son of Victor Serge, a Mexican painter and friend of Sieva.
Sieva had waited a long time for his visa, and when he met his sister he knew she was dying. They had no common language and in this unexpected family reunion they showed their feelings by means of gestures, gifts or photos or with the help of an interpreter. In their own way they each embodied the two faces of the tragedy of the Bronsteins, pursued by an implacable fate.
Alexandra, living in the USSR, had paid for her relationship with the founder of the Red Army by long years of deportation, and, until the end of the 80s her origin was for her, and those close to her, a terrifying family secret, which all knew had been paid for in blood and tears.
As for Sieva, torn from his native tongue and the country of his birth, he had been the unwilling witness of the relentless hounding and murder of his grandfather by Stalin’s secret service, which he constantly talked about as it had become a traumatic memory. If eventually he had become a real Mexican it was at the price of losing his “Russian half” which, in a kind of way, had become accursed. He had forgotten the Russian language – oddly enough he spoke French to his grandfather – and, in the winter of 1988-89 he became a puzzled and even flabbergasted witness of the perestroika agitation in the Moscow streets and the poverty of the shops in the capital.
But it was a tremendous moment of emotion and memory when he visited unannounced the exhibition of the “Week of Conscience” organised by the Memorial Movement, and was literally seized by the organisers and solemnly presented to a packed hall of some hundreds of visitors and sympathisers of the movement.
In a tense silence he told once again of the circumstances in which his grandfather had been murdered. But when he came to the fate of Ramon Mercader and to the honours with which he was covered in Moscow after his years in a Mexican prison it was as if an abscess had burst, and in the hall there rose a howl of disgust and shame. “Is it possible? We did that!”. Then after that, as is usual in all Soviet meetings, there were sent up innumerable questions on carefully folded bits of paper: it seemed if this audience, assembled by chance and tormented by the collective historical psycho-analysis which the USSR was undergoing in the late 80s, could not tear itself away from the piece of accursed history embodied by Sieva.
It was in quite another way that the tyranny of history lay on his niece Olga, born in 1958. Until then her ‘bad’ origin had simply been for her a gift of fate which she well knew had cost her mother dearly. For her this little ‘difference’ had not stopped her from leading the ordinary, that is to say a difficult, life of any young working mother in the Russian capital, a life with all the daily worries of shortages, queues, housing and transport.
With the arrival of the “uncle from America”, Sieva, she met westerners for the first time, smoked Marlboro, dined sumptuously (by Soviet standards) in a cooperative restaurant in the company of high society such as Yuri Afanassiev and Bernard Guetta. There she was reinstated by history, redefined by her kinship, which but recently had been an affliction but from now was an advantage. She listened, talked and was willing to be recognised as Trotsky’s great grand-daughter.
Only the break was quite complete. When asked if she approved and sympathised with the ideas of the Old Man she replied “How would I know? I have never read a word of his!” And would she read it? Certainly, but when it was published in Russian … But while waiting they could start by fully reestablishing his rights and his Soviet nationality.
Here then the amputation had well and truly taken place even if the consequences were less tragic for Olga than for her mother: a young ‘ordinary’ soviet woman, she lived sharply cut off from world culture and her own history, with the exception of a thin thread of family memories transmitted by the force of circumstances …
One can basically read the Bronstein family tree as a simple image of the sombre tragedies of the apocalypses of the XXth century: all the great catastrophes of the century are written in the flesh of individuals, in their scattered diaspora and in their wanderings.
On Meeting with Trotsky
by Raymond Molinier
Born in 1904, Raymond Molinier was one of the pioneers of the IVth International. From its creation he was involved in the young Communist Party. He opposed the bureaucratic direction taken by the Communist International after the death of Lenin. Because of this he became one of the leaders of opposition based on the positions of Trotsky, and it was thus that he met him at the start of his long exile. A founder of the paper la Verité he was also one of the leaders of the Parti Communiste Internationaliste in 1936. Today he is a member of the LCR.
At the beginning of February 1929 we learnt that Trotsky had been banished from the USSR for counter-revolutionary activity. He was forced to take ship to Constantinople. The expulsion of Trotsky was a decision taken by the Political Bureau and extended to all Trotskyists. The hunt against Trotskyism was strengthened. We were immediately united around a single phrase, “We must go.” We knew that there were a great number of white Russian refugees in Constantinople constantly threatening to put an end Trotsky. The Pazs and the Rosmers preached calm and reflection.
As soon as I knew of Trotsky’s situation I decided to go to his side. It seemed clear to me that now was the time to meet him and discuss the situation internationally and in France.
The only problem was getting the money for the journey. I immediately sent a telegram to Jeanne in London, where she was working at the time as a translator, and I hurried to go and see my brother, Henri. He alone could provide me and two other comrades, Gourget and Segal, with enough money for us to go. Henri, then a director and accountant with the Banque Industrielle and Commerciale, had no alternative but to ‘lend’ capital to two dealers in leather, ‘the leather firm of Labinal and Rocoul’, for some time. I do not remember the actual sum, but it was enough to get us three tickets to Istanbul on the Simplon Orient express with enough over for the expenses of the trip.
At the end of March we caught the legendary Orient express at the Gare d’Austerlitz a few days after Maurice Paz. The journey was uneventful. What would Trotsky think of the three young activists, none of whom was twenty five years old, coming to his help?
However, I was determined to be useful.
After three days we arrived in Istanbul and went to the Russian Embassy. The embassy had no knowledge of our departure or arrival. We were received in a room by three policemen who heard our demand to join Trotsky with a great deal of irony. One of the officers offended us by remarking in French “Is this all that is left to him of his Red Guard ?” They asked us to wait there. We were aware of and agonised over all the possibilities which could happen in this adventure. I thought of Jeanne, who was doubtless getting ready to join us.
At last after about two hours the officer reappeared with a young man whom we instantly recognised as the son of the Old Man, followed shortly afterwards by Trotsky himself. Our welcome was warm. Trotsky spoke fluent French and he replied patiently to the questions which we had prepared during our long journey, but he did not want to get into a general spontaneous discussion. Trotsky left us to get ourselves organised and arranged to meet us the next morning. We all three stayed in a hotel in Constantinople not far from Trotsky’s flat.
The next morning I suggested that he should ask me to arrange a more comfortable place to work and one which was more secure. He agreed. I took charge of negotiations with the owner of a villa of ‘Izzat Pasha’ on the island of Prinkipo. I sent a telegram to Jeanne to join us as soon as possible. When she arrived in Prinkipo, we all set up house together in the villa, Trotsky and his wife Natalia, Leon Sedov, Sieva his grandson, the Austrian Jacob Franck (later suspected of being a GPU agent), Jeanne and myself which was greatly appreciated by the Old Man. There was much coming and going as many comrades came to see the Old Man. We did a lot of work. From the beginning I was given the job of keeping in touch with Athens, where a Conference was being organised, and putting on the agenda matters which bothered us, in particular the question of the party. I went to Greece to get involved with the orientation and decisions of the conference.
At the beginning of July I had to go back to Paris to do my national service. I left the Old Man and his household with regret. I asked Jeanne to stay with them and continue to back up Trotsky in his work for the secretariat, and to help Natalia in the house. Jeanne immediately accepted. From the beginning of summer Pierre and Denise Naville, Gérard Rosenthal, the Rosmers and van Heijenoort joined Trotsky. I stayed in constant touch with Prinkipo: the Old Man wrote to me regularly and told me that we must set up a Communist Opposition daily paper in France to put the Communist International back on Leninist lines.
With Rosmer, Gourget, Pierre Frank, Naville, Rosenthal and me, and not without some arguments, we published the first number of la Verité on the 15th August 1929.
“Shoot the Mad Dogs”
by Peter Huber (4)
The NKVD, the Stalinist machine of repression, was ordered to liquidate the “mad dogs”, the enemies of the bureaucrats. Among them was Ignace Reiss, murdered in 1937 at Lausanne. He had approached the Trotskyists as a reaction to the Moscow trials. During the same period, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, the revolutionaries who departed from the “line” disappeared in their dozens.
Until he broke in 1937 Ignace Reiss played a considerable role in the counter-espionage section in Paris of the Red Army and had worked in Switzerland. He collected information about the rearmament of Hitler’s Germany. His entry into the ranks of the opposition had an explosive effect in Moscow. At a time when the liquidations of the Red Army cadres were taking place and when there was a turn to Popular Fronts in the West, the desertion of someone as important as Reiss, who openly took up Trotskyist ideas, was intolerable.
Alexander Orlov, who was the NKVD representative to the Popular Front, regained his liberty in 1938 and explained later to the police “the attitude of Reiss established a dangerous precedent that the other officers of the NKVD working abroad could follow.” (5) A ‘mobile group’ detailed for special missions immediately left Moscow for Switzerland. We know more about the methods of recruiting these commando groups thanks to the statements of a Swiss woman, Renata Steiner, one of the few people who was arrested after the murder of Reiss.
Tsarist Emigres in the NKVD
People like Renata Steiner were only a minor link, though an indispensable one, in the chain of the machine of repression which, since the start of the Moscow trials, could seize dissident Communists even in foreign lands.
The statements by Renata Steiner to the police in Lausanne about her recruitment to the NKVD pointed the Parisian police on a path that led straight into the middle of the Tsarist emigration. At first sight this is astonishing. The one hundred and fifty thousand souls who made up the Russian colony in France were not only exiled great landowners, officers and industrialists but also people of modest social origin who, in poverty, had to make a living as cab drivers, singers and cleaning women. By the end of the twenties thousands of these people had buried all hope of overthrowing the Soviet regime, and had enormous difficulty in keeping their heads above water, financially speaking. In the minds of some of these old Tsarist supporters the wish to return to the mother country could only grow. This current of the Russian immigration had not gone unnoticed by the NKVD. They were to exploit in brilliant fashion this desire to return home in order to arrest dissident Communists.
By the mid-thirties another element was working for a reconciliation between part of the Russian emigration and the Stalinist regime. The tradition of internationalism which had come from the societies of Western Europe – personified by the exile Trotsky – had given way in the Soviet Union to a chauvinist Great Russian tendency which revived to a considerable extent conservative values. (6)
The first grouping of the Russian immigration on which the NKVD could draw was the Parisian organisation of the “Eurasians” who saw Russia’s salvation in its rejection of western thought. By then for this slavophile circle, Russia was already “a vast continent (Eurasia) quite distinct from Europe or, on the other hand, Asia”. Their most famous ideologists, came from the pro-Soviet wing of the “Eurasians”, such as the musicologist Peter Souvchinski and Prince Sviatopolosk-Mirski who, having settled in London, were to return to the Stalinist Soviet Union in the mid-thirties. (7)
Dissidents under Surveillance
Alongside this politico-philosophical current of the “Eurasians” among whom the NKVD could win over intellectuals there was an office in Paris called “The Union for Repatriation” and the “Union of the Friends of the Soviet Homeland” who looked out for those who could help with the surveillance of dissidents – such as Renata Steiner. Steiner, a secondary school teacher at Zurich, had got to know the people close to the Communist Party in 1932 and had gone to Moscow for six weeks in 1934 “to find out for myself what was happening in that country”. The statements of this woman of twenty-six, who had fled the narrowness of her family home in Switzerland, shows the power of attraction that the USSR had on wide social layers faced with the moral and economic crisis of the capitalist world. “On the other hand” explained Renata Steiner “I could not live any longer at home, as my father was not in agreement with my ideas (…) I also had the hope of going back to Russia, not so much because I was very interested in Communist policy, but because I wanted to know more of the role of the Russian woman in public life”.
Renata Steiner was recruited by the NKVD in 1936 in Paris when the Soviet Embassy recommended her to the “Union For Repatriation” so that she could get her visa to the USSR. The numerous operations which Steiner undertook between 1936 and September 1937 – the date of her arrest after the murder of Reiss – concerned above all Leon Sedov, the son of Trotsky, who lived in Paris. During the summer of 1936 she had instructions to watch Sedov while he was on holiday in the Antibes and to note his visitors.
At the Lausanne Police Head-Quarters
The man in charge of the police in Lausanne represented the pro-Pétain and pro-Mussolini current among the bourgeoisie of western Switzerland. Robert Jacquillard, as head of the police, was not a novice in these matters, as he had already undertaken the enquiry in 1923 into the murder of a Soviet diplomat Worovski – a political crime with some worrying features. (8)
The military career of this “Vaudois to his fingertips” had started when he commanded a regiment of infantry. Reaching the rank of colonel, he was after that the head of Swiss counter-espionage during the Second World War. Jacquillard made his ascent by openly stating his opinions; in the year of the murder of Ignace Reiss he published a pamphlet “regretting the softening of the penalties and unjustified acquittals as a result of juries impregnated with sentimentality” and thought that Bolshevism was the cause of the growth in criminality. “We find this school of criminality in the principles behind Bolshevism, that satanic invention of the authors of the Russian Revolution”. (9) At the request of Robert Jacquillard, at the end of September 1937, the French police arrested Dmitri Smirenski and Pierre Ducomet, who had together ‘set up’ Reiss, and whose name only Renata Steiner could have given to the Lausanne police.
After this first success, which, it is true, only involved two low grade NKVD agents, some middle ranking ones must have been arrested, such as the Russian refugee Serge Efron who was named by Steiner, Ducomet or Smirenski as their boss. But the ordinary police who carried out the enquiry in Paris were told on the political level not to go down this forbidden route. What Steiner had said was a centre of recruitment for the NKVD, the “Union for Repatriation” and where Serge Efron had an office, would profit from favourable treatment.
French Justice on Stalin’s Side
With the consent of the Minister of the Interior, Delbos, finally on the 22nd October the police searched the Union for Repatriation and Serge Efron’s flat. They found nothing. Efron, like Kondratiev, had fought the Reds on the side of the Whites in the twenties but had gone back to the USSR immediately after the 12th October, where as a reward he was lodged in a dacha by the NKVD.
The flight of Efron and Kondratiev inspired some bitter remarks from Robert Jacquillard, in a memo dated November 1937, addressed to “the Political Authorities of the Confederation and in the Canton of Vaud.” He indulged in a full length argument in favour of banning the Swiss Communist Party: “In some countries the police and judicial action are to a great extent brought about after political interventions (…). Our western neighbour, now that it is governed by a Popular Front, has shown an excessive tolerance for the activities of the political agents of its ally the USSR, and of its terrorist henchmen.”
According to him, under the cloak of the right of asylum, France held a mass of sinister people, real “international scum”, “just as in the canton of Vaud the Communist Party includes an important number of the criminal and mentally sick”. And he added that all those who had fought in Spain in the Swiss brigade, whose return was imminent, “would constitute a social danger which was all the greater since they had taken part in a merciless war … One can perhaps reply that the outlawing of Communism, which can be done in several cantons here, should be a sufficient obstacle”. In January 1938, several months after the murder of Reiss, and after a referendum, the Communist Party was made illegal in Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel.
Fifty-three years after the murder of Reiss the Soviet Union has, for the first time, taken a position on the murder of Reiss. Replying to our letter to the Commission for Rehabilitation, the public prosecutor of the USSR writes, among other things (10), “Ignace Reiss, born on 1899, was serving abroad. During 1937 he refused to return to the USSR after misappropriating a large sum of money and some highly secret documents.” This classic and slanderous accusation of personal gain and the betrayal of state secrets precedes a formally irrefutable statement according to which “no legal case was opened against Ignace Reiss, and thus there is no need to begin a procedure of rehabilitation”. A political affair that serves to prove the liquidation of the Trotskyists is thus wrapped up.
1. The Serge-Trotsky Papers, edited by David Cotterill, Pluto Press, London 1994.
2. Destiny of a Revolution, trans M. Shachtman, London 1937.
3. Back in Time: My Life, My Fate, My Epoch. The Memoirs of Nadezhda A. Joffe, Labor Publications, Michigan 1995.
This would seem to be some time during 1938. Joffe later mentions that Aleksandra was moved to the “mainland” (the prisoners phrase for southern Siberia and other places of exile, away from the bleakest Northern regions). These are the last reports on her that I am aware of.(JjP)
Another comment by Joffe is worth mentioning in this context. She reports that Olga Ivanovna Grebner also fell foul of the systematic persecution of the Trotsky/Bronstein family. The niece (Lily) of her husband had been the first wife of Sergei Sedov, Trotsky’s younger son. This ‘connection’ was sufficient cause for her arrest and sentence to 5 years in Kolyma.
4. This article relies mainly on four police dossiers which the author consulted at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and in the Trotsky archives at Harvard, in the Paris Police archives and in the Central State Archives in Rome. It was written in collaboration with Daniel Kunzl of Geneva.
5. Statement of Orlov in The Heritage of Alexander Orlov, Washington 1973, p.118.
6. On this see the remarks by Trotsky on the prohibition of abortion and family law in The Revolution Betrayed, Pioneer Press, 1945, p.139, 151 and all Ch.7.
7. See Alain Brossat, Agents de Moscou, Paris 1988, p.177-80.
8. See A. Gattiker. L’Affaire Conradi, Frankfurt 1975.
9. See Robert Jacquillard, La Crime et la Presse, Lausanne 1937, pp.17-25.
10. Letter of the 8th June 1990 addressed to the author who had made approaches to the Soviet authorities.
Updated by ETOL: 25.10.2003