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Portraits of Russian Revolutionaries Cause Stir

As new information surfaces, insights on Trotsky and Stalin

(Page 2 of 2)

Meanwhile, the czarist Army was disintegrating; achieving peace was vital. Dispatched by Lenin to negotiate with Germany, Trotsky displayed immense ingenuity and tenacity, but could hardly overcome the reality of German power. No matter: Surely the kaiser would soon be overthrown by a vast, all-powerful revolution that would sweep Europe....

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Reality was far different, as Volkogonov demonstrates. But Trotsky's reputation was saved by new events, by the civil war sweeping Russia, and by his brilliant work in organizing, equipping and inspiring the Red Army.

That this quintessential civilian should acquire remarkable military skills virtually overnight; that he should lead the Bolsheviks in smashing, now one, now another, White Army; that he should come within an ace of defeating Poland and spreading the revolution to Germany: Did not this demonstrate creative energies amounting to brilliance, even genius?

As befits his own military background, Volkogonov is excellent at assessing this phase of Trotsky's career - as well as the long decline that followed. For decline there was, a decline signified by the slow death of Lenin, and his succession by Stalin in the l920s.

The rise of Stalin as the Communist Party's general secretary, controlling all its appointments and business, drove Trotsky first into irrelevance, then into exile, then to death itself - in l940, at an assassin's hand. Trotsky, a journalist at heart, simply assumed that words and argument would make his case, that he could sway the masses by sheer fluency.

Never did he understand that the platform and printing press could be denied him, and that bureaucratic power could easily trump his arguments. Just how mistaken he was, just how inadequate he proved at the cut-and-thrust of bureaucratic politics la Stalin, became evident with one mistake after another during the last 15 years of his life.

Here is tragedy, all the deeper for its hero's brilliance.

By comparison, Edvard Radzinsky's Stalin, need not be taken seriously. A playwright and television personality in Russia, Radzinsky is skilled at popularizing history, at assembling cliches and stereotypes to produce an overheated and over-emotional text. Much is made of Stalin's surliness, wariness, and inordinate ambition, his grim heritage and outright viciousness. True enough, but hardly a sufficient explanation for what Stalinism signified for the Soviet Union.

Now and again, however, Radzinsky draws on personal memory, family history and a dramatist's instincts to offer momentary insights, not least about the great purges of the l930s.

The letters he draws on by the imprisoned Nikolai Bukharin, one of the most appealing of the Old Bolsheviks, to his wife, tell a grim tale of party loyalty: "Remember that the great cause of the USSR lives on" - sadly reminiscent of "l984." He was executed soon thereafter.