Introduction by Peter Katel
Kremlin-ordered murders of dissidents abroad began nearly a century ago.
One telling episode took place in Paris one year before World War II. It deserves to be better known.
On Feb. 16, 1938, Leon Sedov, eldest son of Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova, died mysteriously in Paris after an appendicitis operation. He had been poisoned, though that did not become clear until decades later.
Alongside his father, Sedov fought Stalin’s transformation of the USSR and the global Communist movement into a totalitarian machine. Under constant surveillance by his key assistant, later revealed as a Soviet spy, Sedov was a key target of Stalin’s campaign to “liquidate” anti-Stalinists around the world, like their comrades in the USSR.
Two years before he was killed, Sedov had written the first detailed denunciation of the Moscow purge trials. These were a Kremlin spectacle designed around the lie that Trotsky and other veteran revolutionaries were terrorist allies of Hitler.
The late French historian Pierre Broué (1926-2005), Sedov’s only biographer, made the case for Sedov’s historical importance.
French to English Translation
Leon Sedov: Trotsky’s Son, Stalin’s Victim, (Les Éditions Ouvrières, 1993)
By Pierre Broué
On February 16, 1938, a gravely ill Russian immigrant died at the Mirabeau Clinic on Rue Narcisse-Diaz in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. He had been hospitalized under the name Léon Martin, an engineer. His real name was Lev [Leon] Lvovitch Sedov. He was the son of Lev Davidovich Sedov, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the political world as Lev Davidovich Trotsky.
The press paid little attention to his death, which was immediately explained officially as a case of peritonitis following an appendicitis attack that led rapidly to complications. The young man – he was 32 years old – had issued a warning in case he died suddenly: He did not want to disappear nor to commit suicide, but he feared assassination by Stalin’s agents.
His father had been Lenin’s comrade, the man who, in October, 1917, had led the victorious revolution in Petrograd, created the Red Army and had won the long and terrible civil war against the Whites supported by the imperialists. Defeated by Stalin in a struggle within the ruling Bolshevik Party, then expelled from the party, he had been sent to internal exile before being deported from the USSR. When his son died, he was living in Mexico, the only country that had agreed to accept him, preventing the world from being for him, what he had called a “planet without visa.”
Must historians necessarily be interested in Trotsky’s son? Did Sedov have a place in the series of biographies that Les Editions Ouvrières has started to publish on militant workers, whose work may have been more widely known in their own times?
Trotsky, after all, had four children. The eldest, a girl, had undeniably committed suicide in the face of Stalin’s persecution. The second died of tuberculosis, the disease of the poor, in the country where her father had led the revolution. Her younger brother had just been executed on Stalin’s order – something not known until 50 years later. All of them may have deserved study.
As a biographer of Trotsky, I asked myself, during the first years of my work, the question that I have just raised. But I quickly became convinced that, after struggling to re-establish the truth about the father, restoring him to his rightful historical dimension, I should one day give the son his due.
Not because this man was the child of a revolutionary inner circle, born when his father was in prison, and was later his companion in exile and even at the battle front, having known all the Old Bolsheviks, and played with their children, starting with his Kremlin comrade and neighbor’s son, Yakov Stalin.
More than one of these young people had enjoyed the same youthful experience, the same adolescence as “boss’s son,” and a handful of them succeeded, with a lot of luck, in reaching leadership posts and in taking advantage of the privileges available to men of their caste.
More than one of them, son of a Communist of his generation, enthralled by the model of revolutionary hero his father represented, joined the fight against the Stalinist dictatorship, lived for years as a target of the great purge and died by firing squad or murder, mostly in secret. More than one Communist of Sedov’s age had been pursued worldwide and had eventually been killed by select teams of murderers, acting on Stalin’s orders.
Why did Sedov emerge from the obscure ranks of a massacred generation? According to all evidence not simply because he was Trotsky’s son, though what his father recounted and what Trotsky’s collaborators later wrote contributed to making him known. But among these people, in the historical context of a revolution going through a huge crisis and then degenerating, he was, without doubt, the one who had the greatest historical and universal understanding, who understood best and soonest the rules of the storm in which he was caught up, and who from beginning to end endured his own tragedy with eyes wide open.
In 1929, going into exile voluntarily, he left behind his partner and the son of whom he never stopped thinking. He loved many women and was never happy. He had lived through the murders of men he had loved and respected since childhood. He wept on learning of their executions. He lived undercover, and any militant activity exposed him to mortal danger, sometimes several times a day.
He did not think he would see victory, but he fought to the end. Murdered young, he aged prematurely under deprivation, fatigue and tension.
His name was Lev Lvovich Sedov. He is known in France as Léon Sedov. Those closest to him called him Lyova. He was Trotsky’s son.
This perpetual student, who was also a professional revolutionary of noble stamp who inspires nothing but respect, this man in his 30s who accumulated the experiences of two generations of many countries, never ate his fill nor enjoyed restful sleep. But he frightened the Kremlin’s master.
The Pen Against the Moscow Trials [excerpt]
…[He agrees] despite scruples and doubts, to replace Trotsky in writing the necessary pamphlet against the [first Moscow Trial]. This will be the “Red Book Against the Moscow Trial,” a methodical and impassioned defense that remains the foundation of any solid criticism of the trial of the 16.* In it, he takes apart, piece by piece, the Stalinist indictment presented by prosecutor [Andrei Yanuaryevich] Vyshinsky. Lyova was aware of the importance of this work, which of course rested on some observations by Trotsky before he was reduced to silence, as well as Sedov’s own research and analysis. He writes in the preface, dated October 26, 1936:
The author of these lines is also one of those accused in the Moscow Trial. He has the right to defend himself. But he answers to a double duty, that of the only defendant to remain free: To establish the truth, to defend Trotsky’s honor.
The real trial, that of the executioners in Moscow, is only just beginning. We have no weapons but the truth. We will pursue our task to the end, without weakness, regardless of the hardships to be overcome. The truth will out.
Not one piece of the monstrous Stalinist apparatus will remain. The dreadful responsibility will rest with the Moscow Thermidorians.*
Stalin’s crime will be seen for what it is, one of the greatest in modern history.
He starts by analyzing the reasons why Stalin had to go so far as to hold such a trial. At the center of the decision, Sedov writes, are domestic politics:
The official doctrine of Stalinism proclaims that socialism has been established, and classes abolished. ‘Socialism is established’ and the Soviet Union has never before known such inequality as exists now, almost 20 years after the October Revoution: Salaries of 100 rubles and salaries of 8,000 to 10,000 rubles. Some people live in miserable barracks, their shoes are worn out; others have sumptuous automobiles and live in magnificent apartments.
Some fight to feed themselves and their families; others have their car, domestic help, a country house in a Moscow suburb, a villa in the Caucasus and so on. ‘Classes are abolished,” but what does the life of a trust director have in common with that of a laborer? That of a marshal and that of a kolkhoz worker? To be sure, a certain level of inequality would still be inevitable even now, but – and here is the whole issue – this inequality increases from year to year, taking on ever more monstrous proportions. And all of this is said to amount to …socialism. In the most varied domains, the heritage of the October Revolution is is being liquidated. Revolutionary internationalism gives way to the cult of the nation in the narrowest sense. And nation, above all, means the authorities.
Ranks, medals, titles are being reintroduced.. Old Communist workers take a back seat; the working class is divided into different levels, with bureaucracy resting on ‘Bolshevism without party,” resting on Stakhanovism.*
That is, resting on the working class aristocracy, the foreman, and, above all, the specialist and administrator. The old petit-bourgeois family, idealized in the most conventional fashion, is being re-established. Despite general protest, abortion is prohibited, which, amid difficult material conditions, means the enslavement of women, the return to pre-revolutionary times.
The October Revolution’s decree on creating a new kind of school has been repealed. School is re-created on the Czarist model: School uniforms are back for students, not only to shackle their independence but to facilitate surveillance after class. A student’s grades are based on behavior, with an orientation toward docility and submission, not toward liveliness and independence. The fundamental virtue of youth is today “respect for elders,” alongside “respect for the uniform.” All sorts of inspectors have been created to monitor young peoples’ conduct and mores. The association of Old Bolsheviks has been dissolved, as well as that of former political convicts. They are too reminiscent of the “damned” revolutionary past.
In the economic realm, a quick march to the right is underway. The market is re-established, the system of financial balance in enterprises, along with piece work. Following the administrative abolition of classes, the Stalinist leadership has come to rest on the privileged…
He pursues his analysis, highlighting the growing number of prostitutes and abandoned children, the harshness of a repression directed now against the proletariat itself.
The bureaucracy, using all means, has appropriated an enormous share of the national revenue. It has something to defend! The Soviet bureaucracy is fattening and prospering, zealously defending its privileges, its ‘comfortable and happy” life, against the masses deprived of rights.
Stalin faces the workers’ discontent and their drive to play a political role, their protests against social inequality – “violent contradictions tearing at the Soviet State.” Stalin seeks to terrorize the workers, hence to exterminate the “Trotskyites” who for him represent the greatest danger. He aims at the slender cohort of his apparatus, still made up of Old Bolsheviks sensitive to the memory and heritage of October. He wants to use the trials to politically kill the left opposition and Trotsky – in reality the main defendant – in order to open his way to the right.
In foreign affairs, Sedov insists that Stalin is not content simply to break with the country’s revolutionary past, but that he is doing so in the interests of the global right: “This is the end of the world revolution,” Stalin says. The bourgeoisie can, and now must, treat Stalin as a serious ally, as a national chief of state.
One of the objectives of the trial is to demonstrate to the capitalist world that Stalin is no longer on the side of revolution. Sedov maintains that he will be ready ‘to unhesitatingly sign a pact with Hitler, on the back of the German and international working class.’ For all these reasons, he must kill Trotsky and all his supporters around the world, the Fourth International.
*”The Cast of Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Center,” August, 1936. The first of three major show trials.
*The Stakhanovite movement began during the Soviet second five-year plan in 1935 as a new stage of socialist competition, emerging as a continuation of the rapid industrialization and forced collectivization that had transpired seven years prior. The movement took its name from Aleksei Grigorievich Stakhanov, who reportedly mined 102 tons of coal in less than 6 hours (14 times his quota) on 31 August 1935. However, Stakhanovite followers would soon “break” his record. On February 1, 1936, it was reported that Nikita Izotov had mined 640 tons of coal in a single shift. [Wikipedia]
*Thermidor was a summer month in the new calendar established by the French revolutionary regime in 1792, and was the month in which Robespierre was toppled. For Trotsky and others, the event marked the ouster of genuine revolutionaries.