In one of those cruel strokes of fate, all of Leon Trotsky’s four children predeceased him, even if many would not feel any compassion for one of the fathers of totalitarian communism. When the Old Man (as he himself and those around him called him) was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940, he was only certain of the survival of one of his grandchildren, Seva Volkov, who was living with him and his second wife, Natalia, at the time.
As it transpired, however, another grandchild somehow managed to survive: Yulia Akselrod, the daughter of Trotsky’s son Seryozha, who was shot in 1937 during the Great Terror. Yulia’s mother herself was later arrested and sent for ten years to Kolyma, one of the most notorious gulag camps. Brought up by her maternal grandparents, that family too was arrested two years before Stalin’s death and exiled to Siberia. After half a lifetime of travails, Yulia, being Jewish, was finally allowed to emigrate in 1979.
She ended up in the United States, where she met and befriended one of her grandfather’s bodyguards, Harold Robins. Robins, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia became a Trotskyite union organiser in his youth and was sent by Trotsky’s political allies as part of an all-American protection detail that watched over the Old Man during the years of his Mexican exile. Robins, in fact, was the first to subdue Trotsky’s assassin after the Spanish-Cuban agent famously managed to strike out with a pick.
Yulia wrote of Robins:
I sometimes had to suppress the urge to kill the dear fellow. He was a true believer – a man who has never lost faith in Trotsky’s ideas and his dreams of a world revolution – and we never stopped arguing.
Robins insisted that if only Yulia read more Marx she too would understand and come back to the fold. Yulia, of course, having been brought up and educated in the Soviet Union, has had her fair share of Marx’s classics. The debates between Trotsky’s granddaughter and his bodyguard were a stalemate and there was no prospect that their minds, formed in such different environments, would ever meet. In Yulia’s words,
I had nothing but my experience to go on, after all, whereas he had a vision.
“I had nothing but my experience to go on, after all, whereas he had a vision.” Read it and repeat it a few times.
Because this is the best one-sentence distillation of the difference between socialism experienced and socialism imagined – experienced by those who had to live, survive, under “the real and existing socialism”, whether in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, China or Ethiopia, and imagined by all the fans living in a relative comfort and safety of the democratic and developed West.
Many have spoken and written about it, not least the generations of exiles, emigres and escapees from the workers’ paradises; I, too, have blogged about many a time, including in my most popular blog post, “Dear Resistance, listen to my lived totalitarian experience – you have no effing idea what you’re talking about” – but if I could summarise the experience, the lessons, and the explanation for the near-unbridgeable chasm in perceptions of and attitudes towards Marxism it would be this: “We had nothing but our experience to go on, after all, whereas they had a vision.”
We knew the practice, they had their theories. And the theories were beautiful, as only theories can be – immaculately conceived and inviolable by the reality. Whatever always ended up happening at the hands of flesh and blood people out there was never the real thing. Next time it would be different. But we knew that the next time kept being the same as every previous time; we were all “the next”, from the Soviet peoples of the 1920s to Cambodians of the 1970s.
Today, there are only a few examples of the reality still in existence, like Cuba and North Korea.
But the vision; oh. The vision remains beautiful, unspoiled – and increasingly popular again.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where this piece also appears.
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