July 2, 2018
n 1917, New York City teemed with socialists and would-be revolutionaries. That year’s mayoral race saw the Socialist candidate Morris Hillquit win a respectable 21.65% of the vote. Yet the city’s really radical politics were to be found amongst recent immigrants. At that time, six Yiddish language newspapers, four Russian, and three German were published daily in the city. Future Soviet Politburo member and Russian revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin arrived in the city in October 1916. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Bukharin would become editor-in-chief of Pravda, the Soviet Union’s paper of record. In 1916, he however he had to content himself with Novy Mir, the limited-run, Russian language socialist paper.
Leon Trotsky, an even more prominent Russian revolutionary, soon eclipsed Bukharin at Novy Mir. Trotsky arrived in New York on January 13, 1917, and spent a few key weeks there, before becoming a British prisoner in Halifax. This brief period of Trotsky’s like is the subject of Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Trotsky in New York, 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution. Ackerman having carefully studied the few existent sources of this period has crafted an excellent portrait of the Russian Revolution’s most intriguing character.
Trotsky, like most Eastern European immigrants to New York in 1917, was hoping for a Central Powers victory against Tsarist Russia. Tsar Nicholas was keen to stir up anti-Semitism and make the Jews scapegoats for Tsarist mismanagement of the economy. He wrote in his private letters that “nine-tenth of the troublemakers are Jews.” Russian anti-Semitism radicalized some and sent many thousands more Jews into exile, many ending up in New York.
Trotsky, born to a Jewish Ukrainian family as Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, came to see his Jewish identity as devoid of any religious obligation or sentiment, an opinion largely shared by his parents who never taught him Yiddish, the most commonly spoken language amongst Jews in the Tsarist Empire.
In a strange echo of this parental linguistic negligence, Trotsky prevented his grandson, Esteban Volkov, from learning Russian, to spare them from the discussions of Soviet politics around the family table, choosing instead to speak to him strictly in French.
When Trotsky arrived in New York, he found many former victims of Tsarist cruelty, including Bukharin. Trotsky’s main occupation in New York was editing Novy Mir. He also wrote columns for the Yiddish language socialist paper, Forward, which unlike Novy Mir, survives to this day.
In America as in Russia, Trotsky was quick to make enemies with socialists who didn’t share his views. Hillquit unlike Trotsky was no revolutionary and the two men soon became rivals. While Ackerman is at pains to suggest that the Hillquit-Trotsky rivalry substantially weakened America’s socialist movement, this is doubtful. Even if Trotsky had never visited New York the left’s tendency to factionalize would have been its undoing.
Trotsky was in New York when the Russian Revolution began. Caught off guard he set sail for Russia as quickly as possible, but almost didn’t arrive before the brief window for such voyages closed. After departing the United States, his vessel was boarded at Halifax, and Trotsky was detained. A British secret agent had alerted Canadian authorities that the Russian revolutionary was returning to Europe. After a few weeks in a German POW camp, Trotsky was released, claiming that “I must admit that even to-day the secret machinery of our arrest and our release [in Canada] is not clear to me."
The circumstances are no clearer today. According to Ackerman, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson may have had a hand in Trotsky’s release. A Saturday Evening Post reporter writing in the 1930s claimed that "Wilson had been the dupe of ultra-liberals in the United States who looked upon Trotsky as the protagonist of Russian democracy." Ackerman notes at least three different journalists and historians writing as early as the 1930s and as late as 1952 who argued that Woodrow Wilson played a role in Trotsky’s release, but dismisses them all. He insists Trotsky was too independently minded to become a pawn of the U.S. or the Central Powers.
The circumstance of his return aside, once back in Russia, Trotsky was at the very heart of the Soviet Union. He was tasked with rebuilding the Red Army and even led Soviet forces against a combined American, British, Canadian, and White Russian force at the Battle of Tulgas in November 1918. Just a year after visiting New York, Trotsky was leading the nascent Red Army against American forces in the field.
Trotsky help to develop the Soviet system under which he ultimately become a victim—right down to its sartorial outlook. A style of leather jacket he wore became popular with the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. He was also not afraid to use decimation, the old Roman practice of killing every 10th man in a unit for cowardice.
For a man who prided himself on his atheism and devotion to Marxism, it would be his Jewish heritage that would be his downfall. As early as 1926, less than a decade after being a central character in the Russian Revolution, the powerful pro-Stalin circles of the Kremlin were maligning him with anti-Semitic curses. Anti-Semitism was an unfortunate and an unofficial byproduct of the Soviet system. As head of the Red Army, Trotsky tried to stamp it out, but failed. In 1918, for example, the Red Army lead a pogrom in Trotsky’s native Ukraine with the slogan "Strike at the bourgeoisie and the Jews." Though Trotsky was only officially rehabilitated in Russia in 2001, his influence continues to loom large over Russia down through the decades.