Trotsky in Mexico

What’s another murder amid the carnage of today’s Mexican drug cartels? But the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City still stands out. It occurred at the apex of Communist influence around the world following Stalin’s great victory over the Nazis and the consequent expansion of Soviet power. Indeed power talks and converts, and that was true of Mexico as elsewhere. Mexico City was crawling with Stalinists who were awaiting his every command.

In this environment Trotsky sought refuge. The arts were embroiled. Famed artist Diego Rivera welcomed the exile, while equally famed David Siquieros staged an unsuccessful raid on him. Trotskyites, as they were called, visited him and offered homage. As it was becoming apparent, even to loyal intellectuals, that Stalin was a boundless tyrant, Trotsky would replace him in communist affections. This was partly illusory in that Trotsky was a fierce dogmatist who believed in “permanent revolution” of a violent sort largely conducted by superior minds like his own.

Leon Trotsky

And that was his failing. He thought that Stalin had a “third rate provincial mind,” when in fact the canny strongman outmaneuvered him throughout. Trotsky dropped from being the star of the Bolshevik revolution, esteemed for his oratory and organization of the Red army, to a hapless outcast with his life in danger wherever he went. He defended himself with reams of writings denouncing Stalinism, but as Stalin noted: “Paper will put up with anything on it.”

Still, compared to Stalin Trotsky was almost humanitarian, and there was always a certain glamour to him as biographer Isaac Deutscher notes in a touching description of his last days in The Prophet Outcast. Knowing full well the end was near, he was kind to those around him and acknowledged his shortcomings while remaining steadfast to his Communist vision. “Life is beautiful,” he writes his wife Natalya. “Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

Today’s drug cartels would not have botched his assassination, just a quick bullet to the head. Instead a Stalinist spent months courting a woman who gave him access to Trotsky and then smashed his skull with an ice axe. The blow was fatal but not instantaneous. Trotsky lingered in pain for close to a day. So Stalin got his revenge and then some. When the assassin was released from prison twenty years later, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Russia.

Trotsky’s legacy in today’s Mexico? Not permanent revolution but what about permanent drug warfare? Communist brutality is no longer with us, but it set a precedent for unceasing violence. If the communists can do this, the drug lords might say, why not us? It’s in the best intellectual tradition. The Stalin-Trotsky duel remains fixed in history.

Let’s Remember Stalin

Adolph Hitler has got his just deserts over and over and over. Hardly a day goes by when his evil is not recalled one way or another. Any autocrat who comes to power, however limited his domain, is dubbed “another Hitler.” Meanwhile Joseph Stalin remains a rather sinister figure lurking in the shadows as if long after his death he is still to be feared. Let’s not talk about him more than we have to.

Lies matter. Hitler, in fact, told the ugly truth. From the outset he made clear that he wanted to establish a tightly controlled racist regime from which “undesirables” like Jews would be excluded and persecuted.  He said he would reclaim German lands lost in the First World War and would push militarily eastward until he confronted his great antagonist Stalin. He was as good as his word though ultimately unsuccessful.

Stalin preferred to lie, and it served him well. People were prepared to believe him or perhaps were afraid not to. All through the massive starvation of his collectivization program and the vast purges of friends and enemies alike, he offered a benign explanation that was accepted and even applauded. The dishonesty was colossal, writes Adam Ulam in his biography Stalin. “One day, when nearly every family had yielded a victim to his terror, Stalin would address the nation:  ‘Brothers, sisters… I speak to you my friends.'”

Joseph Stalin

Yet Stalin was powerfully assisted by the doctrine he espoused; namely communism. At the time it had a global following, often fanatical. It held out the promise of a better world to be achieved almost overnight by revolutionary thought and action. Turn the tables on the predators currently in charge and all would be well. Stalin saw an opening and lunged.

Like other true believers, fun loving New York editor Max Eastman was thoroughly taken in by the foment over revolution as he describes in his book Love and Revolution. which eloquently captures the atmosphere of the time. He equated love of revolution with his passion for the woman of his life, Russian born Eliena Krylenko. With the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, “we had unbounded hopes of a new world coming to birth.” Visiting Moscow on this joyous occasion, he became a close friend of Bolshevik mastermind Leon Trotsky, later assassinated by Stalin. Indeed he missed seeing Stalin who was operating as usual behind the scenes and would not have been interested in Eastman, though he later called him a “gangster of the pen” when he renounced the dictator.

Eastman recalls that “all his thoughts then took place in a rather opaque cloud of optimistic emotion. I was unaware of the beastlike struggle for power that was in progress behind the scenes. I was unaware of the existence of Stalin,” who turned out to have a long reach. After Eastman disavowed communism, its adherents in New York joined Stalin in denouncing him as a traitor. They made sure he and others sharing his views didn’t get printed or published in “an astute and unremitting infiltration of centers of communications.”

When he was later able to publish a book, he titled a chapter “Stalin Beats Hitler Twenty Ways.” But such was the climate of opinion that nobody in high office in Washington paid any attention, thus helping Stalin make his territorial grabs at the end of the Second World War. His lies had paid off handsomely. So today he  deserves to have at least one local tyrant dubbed “another Stalin.”

World’s Worst Journalist

Walter Duranty was a glib, fun-loving playboy who regularly smoked opium for the “novelty of vision” it provided. He said his chief aim in life was to write consequential fiction, and that he achieved through journalism as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He witnessed and privately acknowledged Stalin’s state-induced famine of the 1930’s with people dying from starvation – a particularly hideous form of death – at the rate of 25 thousand a day. But he reported in the Times there was only some “malnutrition” in the region.

There followed the massive purge of Stalin’s fellow communists and others who had obstructed his quest for absolute power. Duranty attended the contrived show trials with the obviously coerced confessions of the ragged prisoners in the dock. But he insisted they were all true. How could you not believe the Great Father? He airily dismissed any accounts that contradicted him as the work of unseasoned amateurs, definitely beneath him. To prove the point, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for what can only be called a decade of lies.

Walter Duranty (left) and Josef Stalin (right)

Yet Duranty was not a spy or a communist or even an ideologue. He could have easily passed a security screening or even a polygraph. He captivated people with his endless, witty chatter, occasionally with a flourish of his wooden leg, resulting from a train accident. He was always the center of attention in Moscow and elsewhere – just like Stalin. He ruled in a small pond while the man he most admired was master of a vast one. Stalin was sheer brute force, he explained, but that was needed to overcome the benighted “Russian soul,” immersed in ignorance. When commands don’t work, whips will do. He liked to say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” These words serve as a finale for a new film about Duranty and a reporter who got the story right, “Mr. Jones.”

There was, to be sure, an element of society that welcomed his words. Communism had a much better press than Nazism, and when Stalin and Hitler split Poland to start the Second World War, most animosity was directed at Hitler. But it was one thing to welcome Stalin as an ally whose Russia eventually did the most and suffered the most to win the war; it was quite another to overlook his menacing ambitions. At the end of the war his troops overran and took control of the rest of Poland, all of Eastern Europe and a large chunk of Germany until the West came to its senses and called a halt, commencing the Cold War.

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” Walter Duranty

Duranty never seemed to regret his errors even when they had been clearly exposed. After all, he had achieved his goal becoming the most celebrated journalist of his time. No denying that. The New York Times eventually offered an apology for his work, as it did subsequently for its unstinting support of the false premises leading to the 2003 U.S war in Iraq. Walter Duranty remains an enduring lesson for journalists.

Beware the Nukes

In the Cold War, U.S. Presidents were not soft on communism, to put it mildly. At the same time, they were well aware – intensely aware – of the danger of nuclear weapons to the planet and did their best to control them. Not so today. There’s a strange nonchalance about nukes in the White House, the Congress, and the media as if somehow they don’t matter so much. What’s going on? Continue reading “Beware the Nukes”

Our Spy in Mexico

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, Mexico City was teeming with intrigue. Agents of the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba jostled one another for information and influence. Writes Gus Russo in his book “Live By The Sword”: “This megalopolis had become the most spy infested in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.” Continue reading “Our Spy in Mexico”