Portraits of Russian Revolutionaries Cause Stir
As new information surfaces, insights on Trotsky and Stalin
TROTSKY: The Eternal RevolutionarySkip to next paragraph
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By Dimitri Volkogonov
Free Press, 524 pp., $32.50
By Edvard Radzinsky
Doubleday, 607 pp., $30
Not least among the radical changes sweeping Russia over the past decade has been the widespread rewriting of history.
Opening secret archives, discarding Marxist cliches and stereotypes, finding vigorous new writers who dare raise long-suppressed questions: All this signifies a gigantic recasting of historical memory, a vast reassessment of the past and a new vision of the future.
Resurrecting hidden documents is necessary but not sufficient. What matters most is replacing traditional Marxist verities with new ideas, new themes - the totalitarian motif, for example, that Western historians have largely discarded, has proved surprisingly popular - that offer satisfying interpretations of the great sweep of Russian history.
The point man in this vast enterprise has been the late Dmitri Volkogonov. As a member of the Soviet establishment; as both a professional historian and a professional soldier of high rank; and as a lieutenant of President Mikhail Gorbachev in the l980s, he could have been expected to play a cautious insider's game. But instead, he created a tremendous stir in Russia with the sharply critical "Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy" (l990). There followed a biography of Lenin (l994), and now, completing the trilogy of the three who made a revolution, Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary.
It is an apt title for a carefully written and thoroughly researched work that, addressing a Russian audience, assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge as it raises a vital, transcendent question: How could Trotsky, with all his brilliance, his knowledge of languages, his remarkable verbal and literary fluency, his obvious intelligence, nevertheless insist - despite all factual experience - that world revolution was imminent and indeed certain? What explains this ridiculous obsession, this fanatic insistence that capitalism was soon to disappear?
The answer of course lies deep in Trotsky's psyche, which Volkogonov does not attempt to penetrate. His purpose is, instead, twofold. First, to introduce Russians to a vital historical figure who has been systematically ignored - or denounced - for decades. Second, to shape interpretations, offering analyses and assessments for and against. And here, Volkogonov is solidly on target.
The facts are well-known. They differ only slightly from those surrounding his fellow Old Bolsheviks. Trotsky (1879-1940), the brilliant son of a hard-driving, wealthy Jewish peasant, embraced radical Marxism in his teens, and became a prominent spokesman for the aborted l905 Revolution. There followed prison, exile, journalism, party meetings and maneuvers, the predictable life of a professional revolutionary.
The overthrow of czarism in l917 found him in New York. Returning hastily to St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), he joined Lenin and the Bolsheviks in pressing for another revolution. It came in October, bringing Trotsky international fame as its very symbol, as the tireless agitator, assault commander, and supreme leader, who forced events forward, even as Lenin kept a cautious low profile.