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Leon Trotsky: A Short, Thorny Portrait

The 1917 Russian Revolution and the early years of Soviet history was one of the most controversial and volatile periods of Twentieth Century history.  Beginning with the execution of the Tsar's family, adding in the brutally harsh time of the Red Terror, combined with an unrelentingly aggressive foreign policy, all of these factors came together to drive the international reputation of the 'new' Bolshevik government into the mud.


In the face of this, the vivid personalities of this historic era are of great interest as the key 'movers and shakers' who profoundly influenced the Bolshevik movement, and indeed, the entire world.


Leon Trotsky was one of the most mysterious, and certainly, the 'thorniest' of the early leaders of the Russian Revolution.  Trotsky was a journalist who became a military minister, a Jew who was almost as popular as Lenin, and a person whose talent, intelligence and pure political drive enabled him to rise to become the number one rival of Stalin.

Given that the only professional experience that Trotsky had prior to the October revolution was writing and public speaking, the question is: How did this man build an army from scratch at a time when Russia was just emerging from the First World War, the old Russian Guard was attacking the Bolshevik positions from every direction, and, there was no cognizance of anything resembling a management system?  The situation was dire. There was no food or ammunition, the railroads were in a disastrous state, and, there was very limited power of State governance. 

Trotsky wrote:

 "The Revolution was saved. What did we do for it? Not much: the most advanced part of the mass (the people) needs to understand the existential thread. The main success factor was our transparency; we did not hide anything, any weakness from the very first."

Isn't this very issue a number one priority for crisis managers in modern companies, a vital issue that is not always successfully accomplished even now? One wonders how brave and honest should a leader be, to speak candidly about the most difficult and sensitive issues?

Another point to notice is Trotsky's relationship to people; he says: "advanced part of the mass", when he talks about society or nation. This detail shows his technocratic mind. Trotsky was not really interested in "soft" issues, but rather, he saw people as an instrument for getting things done. He consistently demonstrated his strength and rigidity to the end of his life. As a result, in the end, Trotsky paid a great price for his arrogance and heartless technocratic approach to people.

Nevertheless, he was able to build up an Army of 5.5 million soldiers, among which were some 30 thousand ex-tsarists officers and generals. This accomplishment is special evidence of Trotsky's astute approach to staff selection.  As one of the key Bolshevik leaders, he was able to initiate amnesty to "enemy" officers and in fact, in several instances, Trotsky saved their lives. These former military professionals brought much needed core competences to the chaotic morass of uneducated and untrained people. In short, Trotsky grew an effective army, which ultimately defeated the opposing side on all fronts, from west to east.

Trotsky was rigid and consistent not only because of his personal character, but also because of Lenin's great trust and assurance. Several times Trotsky was severely criticized in the highest-level meetings. Once at a Central Committee's meeting, Lenin wrote and signed a letter, which contained following words:

"I am aware of the hard character of Trotsky's orders. I am absolutely sure of its correctness and necessity. That is why I fully support it.
Vladimir Ulyanov-Lenin".

This close relationship between two leaders was a great source of their mutual trust and respect, and provided a foundation to build a new state in a hostile environment.  That relationship lives today as an excellent example of mutual cooperation for modern leaders. 

Leon Trotsky was born Leva Bronshtein. He was skinny and sickly for all of his childhood and youth. He was born into a large Jewish family in the eastern part of Ukraine, which, at that time, was part of the Russian empire. Although his parents were not indigent, they were only able to provide for the children by working hard, farming on rented land.

Young Leva saw how terrible life was for seasonal workers, who lived and died in poverty. This childhood experience impressed him deeply and came into play when much later he consciously became a professional revolutionary.

During the time of his first arrest, he experienced a superintendent with a quiet but strong character, a man who was cold and self-assured. The surname of this person was Trotsky, and Leon adopted this pseudonym, after he escaped from exile. Leon borrowed this name with a part of his character and 'lived into the name' to become stronger and more assertive, exactly as he thought a professional revolutionary should be.

As he rose in prominence in his revolutionary career, he made a name for himself as a Marxist who consistently supported Lenin, and who understood the stark realities of Russia. During the revolution of 1905, Trotsky was elected as Chairman of the Petrograd Deputies Council, and though the council was useful for only a short time, at the moment of the October 1917 revolution, Trotsky was the only leader among the Bolsheviks, who known to be reliable. 

By the time Lenin came to Petrograd, Trotsky had already made the most important moves to consolidate power into his own hands. However, Leon Trotsky was a man of ideas and he consistently viewed Lenin as his mentor and partner. Even though, Trotsky and Lenin had quite different views on actual issues, their warm relationship, openness, and mutual sense of responsibility, to each other and to the revolution allowed them to accept their differences and cooperate with each other. As a result, by the early 1920's, the only two leader portraits in every official cabinet were Lenin and Trotsky. Trotsky became very popular among the people, in spite of his nationality being far from the official Russian nationality.

Stalin, a man with a mania to power could not and did not tolerate Trotsky's success. Their personal conflicts arose from very beginning of their relationship. Trotsky was arrogant and selfish, and fatally underestimated Stalin. Trotsky never showed the 'Man of Iron' due respect and Stalin's Georgian character would never tolerate disrespectful behavior. Moreover, Stalin was on his own path, a man of destiny who was to become the one and only man in power. Thus, anyone disloyal and/or more talented became the enemy and the next step taken by Stalin regarding Trotsky was predictable. Stalin occupied the position of Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist party; at the very beginning it was simply a technical assistant role.  In fact, Stalin's public speaking talents and knowledge of Marxist philosophy were far short of Trotsky's abilities. Thus, because Stalin was close to the party decision making processes, he did his best to discredit Trotsky at every turn.

At the beginning of Trotsky's carrier as a military minister, he faced terrible cases of desertion in the army. Trotsky saw himself as the one who had to make the hard decisions, something he called, "our draconian measures". Trotsky issued this order and transmitted it all over the army:

"Every scoundrel who deserts his post will be executed"

And, this order was implemented. Dozens of apprehended AWOL's were shot. However, millions stayed on their post and successfully defended the new nation. This was the case, when Lenin wrote the abovementioned carte blanche letter to Trotsky. Trotsky's popularity among people was so great, that even after Lenin's death, Stalin's efforts to damage his reputation were fruitless.

The irony was, that at the very end Trotsky was condemned as a national enemy by the very state, which he built.  Thus, tragically ended the vivid life of the most controversial of Russian leaders of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Trotsky, of course, is a great example of strong technocratic leadership. However, his emotional blindness, arrogance and lack of political acumen made this outstanding leader a victim, rather than a long lived hero of Russia who had the talent, the skill and the tenacity to make more precious contributions to the revolution.

Sergey Esenin, famous Russian lyricist was Trotsky's favorite. On the occasion of Esenin's tragic death, Leon Trotsky wrote this obituary:

"The unprotected human child fell into the abyss.

The wild flower was not able to grow through the asphalt of city".

Behind the mask of arrogant and selfish man, sometimes lives a romantic person.


Dr. Tim Yadgarov



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