Entrance to the Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky (photo: Wikimedia Commons).
Forget the politics. Look at the bullet holes.
Fist sized chunks of stone are ripped from the bedroom wall. The window facing it has shutters of reinforced steel, set in place after this assassination attempt on the life of Leon Trotsky failed. Look at the guard tower over the courtyard. Look around the windowless kitchen. Note the lack of light at the man’s writing desk. Everything about the house itself says keep out. Says, go away. Says, last stand.
It’s not a home. It’s a prison. And that’s what it was supposed to be.
Leon Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937, a step ahead of Josef Stalin’s agents. He’d been sentenced to death in absentia by a kangaroo court assembled in Moscow a few months earlier. He’d lived much of his life in exile. Siberia following his first prison sentence. London and Vienna in the time of the Tsars. Switzerland at the outbreak of the Great War. And following his banishment by Stalin in 1929, a constant state of movement from Turkey to France to Norway. In 1936, around the time of his death sentence, Norway kicked him out, likely due to economic pressure from the Soviet Union.
After interceding on Trotsky’s behalf with the Mexican government, the painter Diego Rivera invited Trotsky to live with him in Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul. The home was fortified with bricked-in windows and guards, and Trotsky and his wife Natalia moved into the home for two years, before an affair with Kahlo and arguments with Rivera led to a permanent split. Trotsky moved a few blocks away to the home where he would spend his final months. In August, 1940, he was assassinated by an undercover Soviet agent who was serving as his butler.
The story is fairly familiar for anyone who has studied either the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the life of Trotsky, or the lives of Rivera and Kahlo. What is not familiar, and what needs to be seen, is the way they lived out those final months.
The home has become a museum of Trotsky’s life. Pictures adorn the walls of him in his youth, leading the army that would secure the new republic. A master of organization, Trotsky virtually formed the Red Army while serving as the right hand of Vladimir Lenin. After Lenin’s death, Trotsky lost a power struggle to Stalin, and was forced out. First from his position. Then out of the Communist Party. And finally, out of the country itself.
Bullet holes in the bedroom wall.
By the time of his arrival at the home of Rivera and Kahlo, his situation had gone from untenable to tragic. Stalin’s forces murdered his sons. They murdered his ex-wife. They murdered nearly everyone who had stayed loyal to Trotsky over a decade earlier, all of whom had “apologized” for their loyalty in an effort to save themselves and their families from punishment.
Trotsky’s legacy, like the legacy of most revolutionaries, is a complicated one. There is something supremely human in his desire to see poverty eliminated, to see democracy as a sustaining force for social movements, and his fierce opposition to totalitarianism. And yet, there is his role in setting up a one-party system that did not tolerate dissent, that became increasingly repressive, and that would eventually hunt him down and murder him and nearly everyone close to him. He took the blame for some things that were not entirely his fault, such as the disastrous Soviet-Polish War, and he was written completely out of the history books by Stalin as the purges of the nation extended.
In a sense, Trotsky benefits in historical perspective from comparison to Stalin. Perhaps things would have gone more successfully in the Soviet Union under his leadership, and perhaps they would have fallen apart. Trotsky did participate in the suppression of uprisings during the early years after the October Revolution, including the Red Terror. Perhaps he would have become a repressive dictator. Or, perhaps he would have become a voice of moderation, figuring a way to make a smooth transition to some kind of democratic socialism. Every hypothetical seems possible.
But no matter your opinion of the Leon Trotsky who fought for that revolution in the early years, it’s impossible not to have empathy for the Leon Trotsky who ended his days here in Mexico City, plagued with high blood pressure, surrounded by guards, and under constant threat of assassination. It’s hard to imagine the terror of that first assassination attempt, with a machine gun firing the room he shared with his wife, an attack that would leave his grandson wounded and one of his guards dead.
Trotsky’s study, where he continued working until his assassination. The dictaphone sits under the far corner of the table.
He lived a quiet life here, and would probably be a more obscure figure today if Stalin had simply left him alone. Then again, Stalin didn’t leave anyone alone. The Trotskyites who threw themselves on his mercy were eventually murdered anyway. In a sense, Trotsky must have known he was a dead man once he went into exile. And there is something admirable about his desire to refine his theories and continue to attack Stalin in spite of the danger, writing at his desk and reciting ideas in his Edison Dictating Machine, which would then be typed out by two secretaries working in the next room. Whatever else you can say about him, the man went down fighting.
The assassination of Leon Trotsky took place on August 20, 1940, when Soviet agent Ramon Mercader, who had been posing as Trotsky’s butler, struck him on the head with an ice axe. The blow was fatal, but Trotsky did not die immediately. One of his final acts was to order his guards not to kill Mercader where he stood, so that he could be made to stand trial. Trotsky died the next day in a hospital and is buried in the courtyard alongside Natalia.
Today, his grandson Esteban, who was wounded in the unsuccessful assassination attempt at the house, helps to run the museum dedicated to Leon Trotsky’s life and death. Starting in 1987, Trotsky’s books became available in Russia, and he was formally rehabilitated by the government in 2001. And his museum serves another function today for people like the man who occupied it: Providing assistance to political refugees. That last part would surely have made an old revolutionary proud.
The Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky is located in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City at Rio Churubusco 410. It is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday. Entrance is 40 pesos. They have a website here.