It’s January 1913 inside a café in Vienna.
At his favorite corner table, a young Russian journalist named Lev Bronstein plays chess with another regular patron. Lev blocks out the sound of the lively café as he analyzes the board, carefully considering his next move. He reaches for his knight… and moves the piece toward the center, capturing a pawn and threatening his opponent’s queen. It’s a simple but effective move, designed to force his opposing player onto the back foot. Lev settles into his chair, satisfied.
But his opponent doesn’t fall for the trap.
He counter-attacks with his queen, capturing Lev’s bishop. Lev frowns and strokes his black goatee. It seems he underestimated his opponent, and now finds himself in a vulnerable position. Lev stares at the board, his mind momentarily blank. But then the young man’s eyes light up behind his round spectacles.
He picks up his rook and places his opponent in check. He soon realizes there’s no coming back from this position. With a defeated sigh… he knocks over his king and congratulates Lev on another victory.
Lev smiles and takes a sip of coffee.
And with the game finished, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a newspaper, the One he edits. It’s no surprise that Lev’s own article features on today’s front page. But he still feels a thrill whenever he sees his name in print. But, the byline doesn’t read “Lev Bronstein.” Instead, the name above it is “Leon Trotsky” - Lev’s pseudonym.
Lev is about to start reading… when the door bangs open and another young man strides into the café.
He is about Lev’s age, though he’s shorter and heavier set. He has a bushy mustache and a dark, swarthy complexion. Spotting Lev in the corner, the man picks his way through the busy café. And when he arrives at Lev’s table, he nods and smiles - though Lev notices how cold and unsympathetic the man’s eyes are. Then, in a quiet voice so as not to be overheard, he introduces himself as Joseph Stalin.
When they meet in a coffee house in Vienna, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin have many things in common. Both are Bolsheviks, members of a far-left political organization founded by Vladimir Lenin to agitate for a communist revolution in Russia. Both are in exile from Russia due to their involvement in radical politics. Both are highly ambitious, and both envision a future for themselves at the very heart of the revolutionary movement.
But there are some key differences too, and over time, they will multiply and widen until they form a yawning and unbridgeable chasm between the two men.
Over the course of the following decade, Trotsky and Stalin will work together to bring about the downfall of the Tsar and replace the Russian monarchy with a communist government. But following the revolution of 1917, their paths will diverge. A bitter rivalry will develop and a simmering conflict will ultimately lead to Leon Trotsky’s exile to Kazakhstan on January 31st, 1928.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 31st, 1928: Leon Trotsky is Forced Into Exile.
Act One: Power Struggle
It’s the winter of 1918; ten years before Leon Trotsky will be exiled.
An armored train thunders through the frozen Russian countryside.
From his office on board, thirty-eight-year-old Leon Trotsky wearing army fatigues reads through the speech he’s about to deliver to his troops. With his owlish spectacles and unkempt mane of jet-black hair, Trotsky looks more like a bookish intellectual than a military commander. But to the soldiers in the Red Army, Trotsky is a fierce and inspiring leader, somebody not to be underestimated or disobeyed.
Still, today, Trotsky isn't feeling his normal commanding self. He has a pounding headache. So he pours himself a glass of water and takes a long gulp. But it doesn’t help. Feeling suddenly short of breath, Trotsky stands up and staggers across the carriage. He throws open the window and takes in several great lungfuls of cold, revitalizing air.
Trotsky has been having many more of these funny turns lately - throbbing migraines and dizzy spells. His doctor assures him it’s related to stress, and indeed, Trotsky isunder a lot of pressure. As the People’s Commissar for Military Affairs, Trotsky is responsible for leading the Red Army against their anti-communist opponents - and so far, the war is not going the communists’ way.
Ever since the revolution of 1917 toppled the Tsar and replaced the Russian monarchy with a communist government, Trotsky and his comrades have been fighting a civil war to consolidate power. But after a year of bloody conflict, the anti-communist forces have rallied across Russia, forcing the Red Army to retreat. For months, Trotsky has been traveling along the frontline on board this train, coordinating the war effort and urging his men to battle on. It is no surprise that this taxing schedule has taken its toll. But Trotsky can’t allow himself a moment’s rest; the future of communist Russia is at stake.
So as Trotsky watches the snowfields streaking past the train window, his mind turns to another concerning matter. Recently, Trotsky came to blows with another senior figure in the communist hierarchy, Joseph Stalin. Stalin has been publicly critical of Trotsky’s handling of the war. He disagrees with the decision to appoint former members of the Tsar’s imperial guard to positions of authority in the Red Army. Stalin argues that these officers might still harbor royalist sympathies, and even had the gall to send a telegram to Vladimir Lenin, urging the party leader to stop Trotsky’s plan.
Enraged, Trotsky sent his own telegram to Lenin. He complained about Stalin’s meddling ways and requested that he be recalled from the frontline. In the end, Lenin sided with Trotsky and ordered an embittered Stalin back to Moscow in disgrace.
But while Trotsky may have won that particular battle, he knows men like Stalin rarely forget such injuries to their pride. Trotsky suspects that he will have to keep a close eye on Stalin.
But as the train arrives at the frontline, close to the border of present-day Belarus, Trotsky tries to set his worries aside. He clambers up through a trapdoor and emerges onto the roof of the train. A crowd of soldiers has gathered around, all craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the famous politician, who launches into a rousing speech. It doesn’t take long for Trotsky’s oration to have a visible effect on the soldiers. They cheer and clap, emboldened by his words.
And as Trotsky looks out at his raptured audience, he does momentarily forgets about his troubles with Stalin. He also feels newly optimistic about the war, confident that the Red Army will push on to victory and drive out the last remaining vestiges of royalist support in Russia. But it takes time.
Four years after Trotsky makes this speech, the tide of civil war does turn in the Communist favor, and Russia becomes the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s strong military leadership is hailed as a principal reason for the Red Army’s victory, and he becomes regarded by many as the most likely successor to Lenin, who has by now fallen terminally ill.
But following Lenin’s death in 1924, another man will take center stage. At Lenin’s funeral, it is Josep Stalin, not Leon Trotsky, who carries the coffin. Trotsky isn’t even inMoscow at the time - he’s recovering from his own illness at a medical center on the Black Sea coast. So, when Stalin writes to notify Trotsky of Lenin’s death, he deliberately tells him the wrong date for the funeral: a cunning ploy designed to paint Trotsky in a bad light.
It is by such duplicitous machinations that Joseph Stalin will eventually assume sole leadership of the Soviet Union. And with Stalin in charge, Trotsky’s political career will crash and burn, as the Soviets’ new leader sets about silencing his opponents and consolidating power with a comprehensive purge that will soon see Leon Trotsky arrested and exiled.
Act Two: Exile in Kazakhstan
It’s the early hours of the morning on January 16th, 1928 in Moscow.
Leon Trotsky lies awake in bed. His wife Natalia sleeps soundly beside him, but the 48-year-old Trotsky can’t keep his eyes shut; there’s too much playing on his mind. As he stares at the ceiling, Trotsky dwells on the events of the last four years. And even now, he can hardly believe how everything went so catastrophically wrong.
Following Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin out-maneuvered his rivals and emerged on top in the power struggle to secure the leadership of the new Soviet Union. Once at the helm, Stalin filled the Communist Party’s executive committee with his own loyal supporters and soon expelled Trotsky from the Party altogether. But Trotsky’s expulsion was not punishment enough for Stalin. Recently, Trotsky was informed by the Kremlin that he was being re-posted to the town of Alma Ata in Kazakhstan - a remote and inhospitable corner of the Soviet Union. Though the word was never used explicitly, Trotsky knows this so-called “re-posting” is really an imprisonment - only instead of iron bars, Trotsky is being incarcerated behind the impenetrable mountains of central Asia.
As a result, the Trotskys’ apartment is now filled with crates of their belongings. The family is due to leave tomorrow morning, and agents of Stalin’s secret police will transport them to the train station, and onward to their life in exile.
But after dawn breaks, though Trotsky anxiously awaits the pounding on his door, the police escort never arrives. Instead, the telephone rings. When Trotsky answers, he is informed by the Kremlin that their departure has been delayed by two days.
As Trotsky hangs up the phone, it dawns on him that this delay is another of Stalin’s dirty tricks. By now, news of Trotsky’s impending exile has spread all through Moscow. This morning, the train station will be surrounded by crowds of Trotsky’s supporters, holding up signs and demonstrating against his mistreatment. By delaying the departure, Stalin has ensured that Trotsky will be whisked away from Moscow in secretive silence, avoiding any unwanted negative attention.
And sure enough, two days later, the police bang on his front door. Trotsky opens up, and soon the apartment is swarming with officers. But rather than go willingly, Trotsky takes Natalia’s hand and pulls her into the bedroom. He locks the door and flattens himself against it, muffling the sound of the police officers’ continue pounding fists. He explains to Natalia he wants to make sure people understand what’s happening here: that this is nota diplomatic re-posting - this is a stark demonstration of Stalin’s brutal repression and a sign of things to come. Eventually, the police officers break into the bedroom by smashing the window. They forcibly remove Trotsky, before dragging his wife Natalia out in tears. The couple is then driven to Moscow’s central rail station, where the officers bundle Trotsky and his wife onto the waiting train.
The journey to Kazakhstan lasts twelve days. The final stretch is so mountainous and snowy that it cannot be traversed by rail. So Trotsky and Natalia, along with their adult son Lev, are driven the remainder of the way by an unsmiling police officer. On January 31st, 1928, Trotsky and his family arrive in the far-flung town of Alma Ata.
Driving through the winding, frost-bitten streets, Trotsky reflects gloomily on the path the Soviet Union is going down. Many years ago, when Trotsky first joined Vladimir Lenin’s fledgling Bolshevik movement, he and the other architects of the revolution were driven by pure idealism. Trotsky and his comrades sincerely believed that a revolution in Russia would inspire the workers of the world to rise up and overthrow their bourgeois, capitalist oppressors.
But that revolutionary movement has been corrupted by one man’s desire for power. Joseph Stalin has turned the Communist Party into a bureaucratic machine built to serve only one purpose: strengthening of his own authority. As Trotsky contemplates this, he realizes that the revolution has failed in its central purpose. The workers remainoppressed. The only thing that’s changed is the color of the oppressors’ uniforms. Before, the ruling class in Russia wore the opulent trappings of Tsarism. Now, it disguises itself in the dull gray suits of Stalin’s powerful bureaucracy.
Trotsky and his family will spend the next miserable year in Kazakhstan. But in 1929, Stalin will decide that his old enemy is stilltoo close for comfort. He will banish Trotsky once again, this time out of the Soviet Union entirely, to Turkey. There, Trotsky and his family will remain for four years, before relocating to France, then Norway, before finally settling in Mexico City in 1937. There in Mexico, Trotsky will assume that he is safe from Stalin’s increasingly murderous regime back in the Soviet Union. But once again, Trotsky will underestimate his longtime rival, and it will become shockingly clear that nowhere is safe from Stalin’s paranoid grasp.
Act Three: Assassination
It’s August 20th, 1940 in Mexico City; twelve years after Joseph Stalin forced Leon Trotsky into exile.
Trotsky is in his study, reading. Golden sunlight streams through the branches of the purple-flowering jacaranda tree outside his window, casting a dappled glow across the pages spread out on Trotsky’s desk.
All in all, life in Mexico City has been pleasant for the now 60-year-old. He leads a largely peaceful existence: tending to his pet rabbits, picnicking with his wife Natalia in the countryside, and occasionally leading political discussion groups with the socialist community in the Mexico city.
Back in the Soviet Union, meanwhile, Joseph Stalin’s paranoid purge of his political enemies has reached a feverish height. Thousands of Stalin’s perceived opponents have been arrested or executed - from former politicians to military officers to members of the intelligentsia. Trotsky knows that he is high on Stalin’s list of assassination targets, so he travels with a retinue of bodyguards wherever he goes. Just a few weeks ago, gunmen from Stalin’s secret police stormed Trotsky’s gated compound. They sprayed the property with bullets before being chased away by guards. Fortunately, neither Trotsky nor his family were harmed in the attack.
Since that, the fortified walls around Trotsky's yard have been heightened and reinforced. Looking out of them now, Trotsky feels confident that no attackers will breach his sturdy defenses.
But, a creak in the floorboards outside his door makes him instantly alert. Trotsky swivels his head around with instinctive alarm but is set at ease when he sees the smiling face of Frank Jacson - a 26-year-old Canadian socialist with whom Trotsky has become friendly over the past few months. Frank often calls on Trotsky to discuss Marxist theory, and Trotsky always looks forward to the young man’s visits.
As Frank approaches the desk, Trotsky notices a raincoat slung over the Canadian’s arm. But it is a dry and sunny day, this strikes Trotsky as odd. But he doesn’t question it. He’s already sifting through documents, searching for an article that he thinks will be of interest to Frank.
But while Trotsky rummages through his desk, he suddenly feels a sharp pain in the back of his head. Turning, he sees that Frank, the amiable Canadian, has produced a sharpened ice pick from beneath the raincoat.
Trotsky screams and lunges at his attacker, blood pouring down his face. The two men grapple on the floor. And as they scuffle, Trotsky’s bodyguards rush in. They eventually subdue Frank, and race Trotsky to the hospital.
But the doctors won’t be able to save him. Leon Trotsky will die from his wounds the following day. It will be later determined that Frank Jackson was in fact Ramon Mercader, a Spanish communist and secret Soviet police agent, who had been slowly gaining Trotsky’s trust in order to assassinate him. Mercader will spend nineteen years in prison in Mexico for his crime, but in the Soviet Union, he will be hailed as a hero. Today, the house in Mexico City where Trotsky was murdered still stands as a museum and memorial to its former occupant, a man who played an integral role in one of the most important political events of the twentieth century, and whose violent demise was all but assured when he first arrived in exile on January 31st, 1928.
Next onHistory Daily. February 1st, 1925. After a diphtheria outbreak threatens to decimate the icebound community of Nome, Alaska, a five-day dog sled relay to carry life-saving medicine finally arrives in the isolated town.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.