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.

Trotsky worked as a journalist in Vienna, and he eventually became an editor of the underground Pravda. He kept a close eye on Russian affairs, and wrote bitterly about the 1913 Beilis trial, when a Jewish factory owner, Mendel Beilis, was put on trial under false charges that he ritually murdered a Christian child around the time of Passover. Trotsky argued that the case proved that tsarist Russia was intrinsically anti-Semitic, and the only solution to anti-Semitism in Russia was to overthrow the regime.

With the outbreak of World War I, Trotsky began another nomadic period. He moved to Zurich in 1914 and then to Germany, where he was briefly imprisoned for opposing the war, which socialists understood as a conflict between imperial capitalist leaders, being unnecessarily fought by the working classes of each nation.

In 1915 he moved to Paris, editing the socialist weekly Nashe Slovo (Our Word), but he was expelled from France for anti-war activities. After a short stay in New York as the editor of the socialist newspaper Novy Mir (New World), Trotsky returned to Russia in 1917. He joined the Bolsheviks in St. Petersburg and established the magazine Forward (Vperyod), related only to the more famous Yiddish-language Forverts by their socialist politics.

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David Shneer

David Shneer is an associate professor of history and director of the Program in Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His writing has appeared in numerous publications including the Huffington Post and the New York Times, and his most recent book is Through Soviet Jewish Eyes: Photography, War, and the Holocaust (Rutgers, 2010).