Some people really have an impact on the world. Maybe they discover the cure for a terrible disease, become great leaders of men and nations, or write fantastic books that are read and loved long after they themselves are gone.
Or maybe they help crush a nascent democracy and bring about an inhuman dictatorship that kills millions. Leon Trotsky is in this latter category.
Author Dimitri Volkogonov's career is interesting – a high official in the Soviet military and a loyal communist, he couldn't reconcile what he found in the historical archives with his ideological stance, so he renounced Communism. His severe criticism of Stalin, first in a biography, then in a WWII history, earned him enemies and he lost his high position within the military. He then went on to pen biographies of both Lenin and Trotsky. Leon Trotsky's career is also interesting, but for pretty much the opposite reasons. He jumps on Lenin's anti-democratic, dictatorship train at a time when Russia had the chance to solidify its democracy and then just digs deeper into the ideology he's chosen for himself (and, tragically, Russia). Even though the predictions he makes based on that ideology keep failing, he sticks with it – like his "Theory of Permanent Revolution", which led him to not only argue that the Communist revolution had to be spread to the rest of the world, but to keep predicting it, regardless of how that prediction kept on failing.
(It is interesting to note how Marxism tends to consider itself "scientific", and yet so many of its foremost proponents choose to disregard the fundamentals of science – like the idea that you need to take empirical outcomes into consideration and be prepared to adjust your theory accordingly.)
Trotsky was undoubtedly highly competent, not just as a theorist (and by the term "competent theorist" in the context of revolutionary Marxists, I refer not mainly to any actual deeper political insights, but to an ability to interpret and adjust the writings of Marx to make them seem to be applicable to the tactics the revolutionary movement wants to apply in any given political situation, and to do so in a manner that finds approval with the leaders of said revolutionary movement) but at actually making the revolution happen and survive – by holding speeches to fire the up masses, by building up an army making use of actually competent military men, regardless of whether they've served in the tsarist army before, and by waging utterly ruthless war on the revolutions enemies. (Note: the October Revolution was really more of a coup than a revolution, but I'll stick with established terminology and call it "the revolution".)
Anyway, much thanks to Trotsky's leadership of the army as People's Commissar of Army and Navy Affairs in the Russian Civil War (where the White forces certainly committed their unfair share of atrocities), the Bolsheviks were victorious. Unfortunately for Trotsky, he not only had to deal with the outright war against the White forces and the intervening Western armies; he also had to do bureaucratic battle, or turf war, with Stalin. That would not end with the war. Instead, due to a curious, seeming inability to fight a bureaucratic turf war – as well as a severe underestimation of Stalin – Trotsky was outmaneuvered and defeated, stripped of his position of power and even his Party membership, and exiled. This likely saved his life, as he thus was largely out of reach for Stalin's brutal reign of terror that would claim the lives of so many – including those relatives of Trotsky who remained in the USSR. On the other hand, in the long run, it wouldn't save his life at all, as a vengeful Stalin (all the more vengeful as Trotsky kept up a steady stream of criticism in the form of books and articles from his exile; you can find a huge archive of his writings here) ordered his security apparatus to have Trotsky killed. Meanwhile, a huge propaganda effort was also expended to blacken Trotsky's name as a capitalist lackey.
Finding refuge in Mexico after problematic stays in Turkey, France and Norway, Trotsky lived to see almost all of his relatives killed off by the vengeful Stalin and also experienced severe health problems. He seems to have gotten quite depressed – even contemplating suicide, but refraining from it because he didn't want to stain his legacy as a revolutionary, and possibly because he just didn't want to give Stalin the satisfaction. (That last part is my private speculation, not Volgokonov's.) Anyway, Stalin's murderers finally got to him in 1940. The end.
I read Robert Service's Lenin biography and found it rather dull, but I couldn't decide whether it was because of the way it was written, because I wasn't really in the mood to read it, or because Lenin simply was an incredibly dull person. You won't be bored in the company of Volgokonov's Trotsky, though; the only thing I was a bit put off by was the occasional somewhat repetitive editorializing, but I'll grant the author that right for his hard work not just bringing Trotsky's life history to light, but also overcoming his own personal history of being socialized into an inhuman state ideology.
Possibly what made the Lenin biography so boring was that he never really did anything worthwhile. He spent his life in exile mainly writing theoretical works of little scientific value or intellectual stringency, all the time building a case for revolution on whatever seemed the currently most likely theoretical basis for it. Then other people actually went through with a revolution, not according to his (somewhat variable) principles, so he rushed over there and ruined it. Then he died. The end. Trotsky, on the other hand, didn't just help Lenin and the other Bolsheviks wreck Russia, his military leadership was instrumental in keeping them in power, and he also experienced what he had put others through: the full force of the dictatorship's enmity. That makes him a more tragic and hence more interesting figure. It's hard to feel any grief over his death; he was all for murder and mayhem as long as he was part of the ruling "elite" dishing it out. His relatives, however, had no part in his crimes against the Russian people, so it's not hard to pity them their miserable fate – a fate in no small part due to Trotsky's hard work installing the regime that would kill them and consider itself justified in doing so.
This book paints a fascinating portrait of not only the man himself, but also of the anti-democratic ideology he helped make such an important part of the 20th century. So I'll end this review with a couple of illuminating quotes from Trotsky himself:
"From the historical point of view, European capitalism has run its course. It has not developed significantly productive forces. It has no further progressive role to play. It cannot open any new horizons. If this were not so, then any thought of the proletarian revolution in our age would be tilting at windmills (...) History is challenging the workers, as if it were saying to them: you must know that if you do not overthrow the bourgeoisie, you will perish beneath the ruins of civilization."
(Editorial comment: Yeah, right.)
"Violent revolution was necessary precisely because the urgent demands of history were powerless to cut a path for themselves through the apparatus of parliamentary democracy."
"The form of repression or its degree is of course not a question of principle. It is a pragmatic question"
(Editorial comment: Is it any wonder that a movement led by people like this would create a thoroughly inhuman, repressive and stagnant society? The greatest question raised by this book isn't what went wrong with Trotsky to make him the ruthless ideologue he became, but why on Earth some people – even today – would want to call themselves "Trotskyists".)