Whatever happened, as the gravel-voiced Hugh Cornwell so memorably intoned, to Leon Trotsky? The glib answer – and the one familiar to aficionados of Stranglers records – is that “he got an icepick that made his ears burn”. There is, however, a reason why historians do not tend to base their research around old punk-rock lyrics. They do not tell us the full story – for one thing, they make no mention of the fact that Trotsky was living in Mexico City at the time of his death. What was a revolutionary Communist firebrand from the Ukraine doing in laid-back Latin America? And, for that matter, why an icepick? Surely there cannot be much call for icepicks in Mexico City – was he assassinated by a murderous mountaineer, or perhaps by a tool of the capitalist bourgeoisie who had only just finished breaking up some ice to line a champagne bucket?

The small house in Coyoacán where the murder took place has been referred to as the “little fortress”, and its armoured bulkhead doors and shutters give an indication of what it was that brought Trotsky to Mexico. The man was a fugitive. His rival, Stalin, having assumed power after the death of Lenin, had already airbrushed Trotsky out of Soviet history – most famously in a 1920 photograph of Lenin addressing troops outside the Bolshoi Theatre, from which Trotsky (stood at the side of the orator’s wooden platform) mysteriously vanished, thanks to a deft bit of Soviet retouching. Now, he was determined to erase the man himself from existence.

At first, Stalin had been content to expel Trotsky from the Communist party; then, in 1928, he exiled him from Russia to Kazakhstan. Thereafter, as he increasingly became persona non grata, Trotsky flitted about the map of Europe like a persecuted housefly, alighting at first in Turkey, then France, then Norway. “Apparently the mere mention in the House of Commons of the possibility of my requesting a visa for England was sufficient to bring the House down in laughter,” he told that bastion of socialist journalism, the Daily Express, in 1929. “I have studied what appears to be the joke for some time but I fail to see the point of it.”

Intriguingly, it was the painter Diego Rivera who invited Trotsky to Mexico, and who persuaded its left-leaning government to grant him asylum in 1936. Anyone familiar with Rivera’s slightly hectoring murals will recognise the artist’s enthusiasm for the cause of revolutionary socialism. Presumably the pair spent their time together having cosy chats about the Fourth International or the workers’ control of factories; certainly, when it came to art they did not exactly see eye to eye.

André Breton, who collaborated with Trotsky in Mexico on the 1938 Manifesto Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, recalled: “I can still see the reproachful look he gave Rivera when the latter maintained (which was hardly extravagant) that drawing had been in decline since the cave period.” Despite this, Trotsky’s distinctively goateed and bespectacled face appears in two of Rivera’s modern updates of the Neolithic wall-painting tradition – the Man, Controller of the Universe mural in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bella Artes, and the Communist Unity Panel at the New Workers’ School in New York, of all places.

The subject of Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife, was another source of friction. It is rumoured that Trotsky had a fling with the hirsute Surrealist, which was one of the factors – along with ideological differences – that led to the two men falling out in 1938. Trotsky had been living in the Casa Azul, Rivera’s colonial-style home in Coyoacán; when this became untenable, he took up residence in the bunker-like house which was to be his final destination.

Today, the house is preserved as a museum, ostensibly exactly how he left it (with the obvious exception of such tourist paraphernalia as barriers, no-smoking signs and – on the day World of Interiors’ photographer visited – a picture of Britney Spears torn from a magazine). Ardent Trotskyites might well maintain that its spartan interiors showed how much its inhabitant stayed true to the Marxist principle of redistributed wealth, unlike the gilded palaces of the pampered Soviet commissars; however, it seems just as likely that circumstances compelled him to live as he did, surrounded by talavera earthenware, inexpensive furniture, and the cacti that he collected as a hobby. Bullet holes are still visible in the walls from a first, abortive assassination attempt in May 1940, when Stalinist agents led by the painter David Siquieros strafed the house with machine-gun fire. Unlikely (and redolent of a bad Hollywood blockbuster) though it may seem, this hail of bullets failed to hit Trotsky even once.

If the house is truly how he left it, then Comrade Leon was something of a vain man, for – as well as numerous photos – there is a large portrait bust of him that looks out imperiously across the study, over a suspiciously neat desk. Suspiciously neat, not because Trotsky was notoriously squalid, but because he left the room in a bit of a state. On 20 August 1940, he was visited by the implausibly named Frank Jacson, who claimed to be a writer and had inveigled his way into Trotsky’s trust by befriending his secretary. (In fact, he was called Ramón Mercader – codename Gnome – a Stalinist assassin who had been trained by Moscow in the arts of guerilla warfare and sabotage.) “Jacson” had brought Trotsky a tract that he had penned for his approval. By all accounts, Trotsky thought that “Jacson” was an atrocious writer, but he hospitably deigned to read the essay nevertheless.

While Trotsky bent over the desk, Mercader slipped the fateful icepick out of his pocket. The weapon had been chosen because it was light, portable (its handle had been sawn off), and undeniably deadly. Then, he crept up behind the Architect of Revolution, and cracked the blade through his skull. Surprisingly, Trotsky did not die immediately. Rather, he stood up and threw everything to hand – including a massive cabinet-like dictaphone – at his assailant. When his guards heard and burst into the room, Trotsky ordered them to spare Mercader’s life, saying: “Do not kill him! This man has a story to tell.”

Stalin had won; Trotsky died in hospital soon after. With a cruel irony, he had inadvertently predicted the mode of his death in his earlier writings: “Stalin conducts a struggle on a totally different plane. He seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent, but at his skull.”


First published in World of Interiors issue 270. Reproduced with permission.

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