Leon Trotsky

The Jewish renegade socialist.

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Lev Davidovitch Bronshteyn was born in 1879 in southern Russia, a part of the Russian empire where more mobile, entrepreneurial Jews had been settling for more than half a century. His parents were wealthy landowners, and though they spoke Yiddish with each other, Lev was raised in a Russian-Jewish milieu.

After completing traditional Jewish school, heder, he was sent to the great southern capital of Odessa, where thinkers and writers like the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am and the Yiddish and Hebrew writer Mendele had turned this commercial port on the shores of the Black Sea into one of the greatest Jewish think tanks of the late 19th century.

Wandering & Writing 

Trotsky reading the Militant in 1931

Trotsky reading The Militant, 1931

Trotsky’s political awakening was slow. In his autobiography, he reports that when he first moved to Odessa, he “did not know even the name of Engels, and could hardly say anything definite about Marx. As a matter of fact, I probably had never heard of him.”  But the installation of the conservative Tsar Nicholas II in 1895, which dashed liberal hopes after the death of Alexander III, and Trotsky’s own move to a new, more radical school possibly awakened political tendencies in him.

In 1896, Bronshteyn joined a small cell of underground socialists in Odessa. Since socialism was illegal, he was arrested two years later by tsarist police and eventually exiled to Siberia, a common punishment for political prisoners. In 1902, Bronshteyn, who now went by the name Trotsky as a means of masking his identity in exile, escaped and ended up in London where he met Georgy Plekhanov, founder of the Social Democrats, the Marxist party that would spawn the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In London, Trotsky also met the future leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin. Trotsky, Plekhanov, and Lenin worked together on the Social Democrats’ newspaper Iskra (The Spark), the future Pravda, mouthpiece of world communism.

In 1905, during the first leftist attempt to overthrow the tsars, Trotsky returned to Russia and in St. Petersburg he organized the first revolutionary soviet–a city council run by popular election. This was the socialists’ attempt to organize rule from below, by the workers of the city, rather than from above by the tsars. At age 26, Trotsky was appointed president of the Petersburg soviet. After the tsars agreed to relinquish autocratic power and set up a parliament called the Duma, ending the 1905 revolution, Trotsky, whose politics were still too radical, was again arrested, imprisoned, and exiled to Siberia. However, he managed to escape once more, this time to Vienna.

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Dr. David Shneer, a co-founder of Jewish Mosaic (now Keshet), is a professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the Program in Jewish Studies there. His work concentrates on modern Jewish culture, Soviet Jewish history, and Jews and sexuality.

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