Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Death of Trotsky

After eleven years living in exile, Stalin's arch-rival met his death at the hands of an audacious Soviet agent whose identity remained a mystery for years.

Lev Davidovich Bronstien (Leon Trotsky) was born exactly 38 years before the October revolution on November 7, 1879. After playing a leading role in the 1905 revolution, he played a crucial role in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. In the Soviet government, he was to become the arch-rival of Stalin and was out maneuvered by the latter in to insignificance within the communist party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in the 1920s. Exiled from the USSR in 1929, he was pursued by Soviet agents around the world, until his death in 1940.

Exiled from the USSR

In 1928, Trotsky was exiled to Kazakhstan and a year later from the Soviet Union itself. He was never to return to the country where he once held immense power. For four years, he stayed at an island off the coast of Istanbul, Turkey. Then he was offered asylum in France. After two years, he was no longer welcome in France. The next two years were spent in Norway and he was forced to leave that country also. His last destination was Mexico, where he was greeted warmly by the Mexican president. Trotsky settled in Coyoacan in Mexico City, first at the house of Diego Rivera and later in a heavily guarded compound which was near by.

During the exile, his battle with Stalin continued. He wrote The History of the Russian Revolution (1930) and The Revolution Betrayed (1936) and continued his criticism of Stalin in The Stalin School of Falsification (1937). This was the times of the notorious Moscow show trials, where Stalin eliminated all possible threats to his leadership in the USSR. Meanwhile, Soviet agents were in hot pursuit for Trotsky himself, assassinating his secretary in 1936 and possibly assassinating his son in 1937. But, the revolutionary himself was still out of their reach.

Assassination in Mexico

Then, on the 20th of August, 1940, Trotsky was attacked with an ice-axe by a man who identified himself as Jaques Mornard after the incident. Trotsky died the next day of his head wound.

Although he claimed to be a disillusioned Trotskyite, questioning revealed that he had deep Stalinist views. Also, his apparently flawless French had traces of Spanish accent. The identity of Mornard was not known for a decade until it was found by Dr. Alfonso Quiroz Cuaron, professor of criminology at the national University of Mexico, among the police archives in Madrid. Jaques Mornard was actually a Spanish communist and a NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) agent named Ramon Mercader. In 1989, the Soviet authorities finally confirmed the story of the assassination of Trotsky by the NKVD.

The Road to Mexico City

Ramon Mercader was recruited by a NKVD Colonel, Leonid Eitingon, who had a relationship with his hard-line communist mother, during the Spanish Civil War. Mercader’s fluency in Spanish, which is the spoken language of Mexico, was an added qualification for the clandestine operation.

In 1938, Mercader befriended Sylvia Ageloff, an American Trotskyte in Paris. The following year, under an assumed identity and a forged passport, a certain “Frank Jacson” followed Sylvia to the U.S.A. Then appearing to do business, he made to Mexico City. Ageloff joined him and through her, Mercador gained access to the Trotsky household.

The details of the inside of the house he supplied were essential for the attack undertaken in May 1940. About a score of gunmen, dressed in Mexican police uniforms, stormed in and shot at the bedroom of Trotsky. But he and his wife miraculously escaped. Although the people responsible for the attack were uncovered, Mercador’s role was not found.

Thereafter, Mercador was instructed to befriend Trotsky, posing as an admirer of his views. The fact that he went about the job just after a raid had been thwarted is an indication of his iron will and skills of deception.

The Assassination of Trotsky

On August 17, Mercador met Trotsky to discuss the outline of an article he was writing. They were alone in the latter’s study for eleven minutes. Three days later, Mercador returned, clad in a raincoat, which was surprising for a sunny day. Mrs. Trotsky inquired him about it and he told her “Yes. But you know, it won’t last long-it might rain.” What he could not tell her was that in one of its pockets, he had an ice-axe concealed, for a more sinister purpose.

According to the description of Mercador in his trial, once inside Trotsky’s study, he placed the raincoat in such a way as to be able to retrieve the ice-axe. Once Trotsky started reading his article, he took out the axe and hit Trotsky on his head with his eyes closed. The blow was not critical and Trotsky struggled with the assailant. Guards rushed in and nearly killed Mercador, but Trotsky himself prevented them, declaring that he was to made to answer questions. Rushed to the hospital, Trotsky died due to severe brain damage the next day. His assassin, Mercador, spent 20 years imprisoned in Mexico and then made his way to Cuba, where he died in 1978.


1. Levine, Isaac Don, Secrets of a Soviet Assassin. In Great True Stories of Crime, Mystery and Detection, Readers Digest (1965)

2. Volkogonov, Dmitri, Trotsky: a Deamon of the Revolution. In Sputnik, Digest of the Soviet Press (May 1989)

3. Vasetsky, Nikolai, Lev Trotsky: Personal and Political Profile. In Sputnik, Digest of the Soviet Press (April 1990)

4. Soviet Readers Finally Told Moscow had Trotsky Slain NY Times Jan 4, 1989. Retrieved Aug 20, 2010.

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