Biography of Leon Trotsky, Russian Marxist Revolutionary

He led the Red Army after the czar's defeat but lost a power struggle to Stalin

Leon Trotsky at a desk with newspapers
Russian revolutionary and political theorist Leon Trotsky (1879 - 1940) poses at his desk, an open newspaper in front of him, early to mid 20th century.

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Leon Trotsky (Nov. 7, 1879–Aug. 21, 1940) was a Communist theorist, prolific writer, a leader in the 1917 Russian Revolution, the people's commissar for foreign affairs under Vladimir Lenin (1917–1918), and then head of the Red Army as the people's commissar of army and navy affairs (1918–1924). Exiled from the Soviet Union after losing a power struggle with Joseph Stalin over who was to become Lenin's successor, Trotsky was brutally assassinated in 1940.

Leon Trotsky

  • Known For: Being a leader in the 1917 Russian Revolution, the people's commissar for foreign affairs under Lenin (1917-1918), and head of the Red Army as the people's commissar of army and navy affairs (1918-1924).
  • Also Known As: Lev Davidovich Bronstein, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein
  • Born: November 7, 1879, in Yanovka, Yelisavetgradsky Uyezd, Kherson Governorate, Russian Empire (in what is now Ukraine)
  • Parents: David Leontyevich Bronstein and Anna Lvovna
  • Died: August 21, 1940, in Mexico City, Mexico
  • Published Works: "My Life" (1930), "The History of the Russian Revolution" (1932), "The Revolution Betrayed" (1936), "In Defense of Marxism" (1939/1940)
  • Awards and Honors: Cover of Time magazine three times (1925, 1927, 1937)
  • Spouses: Aleksandra Sokolovskaya ​(m. 1899–1902)​, Natalia Sedova ​(m. 1903–1940)
  • Children: Zinaida Volkova, Nina Nevelson, Lev Sedov, and Sergei Sedov
  • Notable Quote: “For 43 years of my conscious life, I have remained a revolutionist; for 42 of them, I have fought under the banner of Marxism. If I had to begin all over again, I would, of course, try to avoid this or that mistake, but the main course of my life would remain unchanged.”

Early Years

Leon Trotsky was born Lev Davidovich Bronstein (or Bronshtein) in Yanovka in what is now Ukraine. After living with his father, David Leontyevich Bronstein, a prosperous Jewish farmer, and his mother, Anna, until he was eight years old, his parents sent Trotsky to Odessa for school. When Trotsky moved to Nikolayev in 1896 for his final year of schooling, his life as a revolutionary began.

Introduction to Marxism

It was in Nikolayev, Kherson, at age 17 that Trotsky became acquainted with Marxism. He began to skip school in order to talk with political exiles and read illegal pamphlets and books. He surrounded himself with other young men who were thinking, reading, and debating revolutionary ideas. It didn't take long for the passive talks of revolution to develop into active revolutionary planning.

In 1897, Trotsky helped found the South Russian Workers' Union. For his activities with this union, Trotsky was arrested in January 1898.

Siberian Exile

After two years in prison, Trotsky was brought to trial and exiled to Siberia. At a transfer prison on his way to Siberia in the summer of 1899, Trotsky married his first wife, Aleksandra Lvovna, a co-revolutionary who had also been sentenced to four years in Siberia. While in Siberia, they had two daughters together.

In 1902, after serving only two of his four years sentenced, Trotsky decided to escape. Leaving his wife and daughters behind, Trotsky was smuggled out of town on a horse-drawn cart and then given a forged, blank passport. Without thinking long on his decision, he quickly wrote the name Leon Trotsky, not knowing that this would be the predominant pseudonym he used for the rest of his life. (The name "Trotsky" had been the name of the head jailor of the Odessa prison.)

The 1905 Revolution

Trotsky managed to find his way to London, where he met and collaborated with Lenin on the Russian Social-Democrats' revolutionary newspaper, Iskra. In 1902, Trotsky met his second wife, Natalia Ivanovna, whom he married the following year. Trotsky and Natalia had two sons together.

When news of Bloody Sunday in Russia (January 1905) reached Trotsky, he decided to return to Russia. Trotsky spent most of 1905 writing numerous articles for pamphlets and newspapers to help inspire, encourage, and mold the protests and uprisings that challenged the tzar's power during the 1905 Russian Revolution. By late 1905, Trotsky had become a leader of the revolution. Although the 1905 revolution failed, Trotsky himself later called it a "dress rehearsal" for the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Back in Siberia

In December 1905, Trotsky was arrested for his role in the 1905 revolution. After a trial, he was again sentenced to exile in Siberia in 1907. And, once again, he escaped. This time, he made his escape via a deer-pulled sleigh through the frozen landscape of Siberia in February 1907.

Trotsky spent the next 10 years in exile, living in various cities including Vienna, Zurich, Paris, and New York. He spent much of this time writing. When World War I broke out, Trotsky wrote antiwar articles. When Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917, Trotsky returned to Russia, arriving in May 1917.

Soviet Government

Trotsky quickly became a leader in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He officially joined the Bolshevik Party in August and allied himself with Lenin. With the success of the 1917 revolution, Lenin became the leader of the new Soviet government and Trotsky became second only to Lenin.

Trotsky's first role in the new government was as the people's commissar for foreign affairs, which made Trotsky responsible for creating a peace treaty that would end Russia's participation in World War I. When this role was completed, Trotsky resigned from this position and was appointed the people's commissar of army and navy affairs in March 1918. This placed Trotsky in charge of the Red Army.

Fight to Be Lenin's Successor

As the new Soviet government began to strengthen, Lenin's health weakened. When Lenin suffered his first stroke in May 1922, questions arose as to who would be his successor. Trotsky seemed an obvious choice since he was a powerful Bolshevik leader and Lenin's own pick. However, when Lenin died in 1924, Trotsky was politically outmaneuvered by Stalin. From that point on, Trotsky was slowly but surely pushed out of important roles in the Soviet government and, shortly thereafter, pushed out of the country.

Exile From the Soviet Union

In January 1928, Trotsky was exiled to the very remote Alma-Ata (now Almaty in Kazakhstan). Apparently, that wasn't far away enough, so in February 1929, Trotsky was banished from the Soviet Union. Over the next seven years, Trotsky lived in Turkey, France, and Norway before finally arrived in Mexico in 1936.

Writing prolifically during his exile, Trotsky continued to criticize Stalin, and Stalin named Trotsky the major conspirator in a fabricated plot to remove Stalin from power. In the first of the treason trials (part of Stalin's Great Purge, 1936–1938), 16 of Stalin's rivals were charged with aiding Trotsky in this treasonous plot. All were found guilty and executed. Stalin then sent henchmen to assassinate Trotsky.


On May 24, 1940, Soviet agents fired machine guns at Trotsky's house in the early morning. Although Trotsky and his family were home, all survived the attack. On August 20, 1940, Trotsky was not so lucky. As he was sitting at his desk in his study, Ramon Mercader punctured Trotsky's skull with a mountaineering ice pick. Trotsky died of his injuries a day later at the age of 60.


In 2015, 75 years after Trotsky's assassination, Dan La Boltz wrote the following of his life and accomplishment:

"For some on the left, Trotsky is—after Vladimir Lenin—the world’s greatest revolutionary. ... Trotsky’s achievements as a writer, an intellectual, and as an organizer—and he was also a great orator—vie with those of any other figure of the twentieth century."

However, Trotsky is not viewed as a revolutionary by all. In fact, perhaps because he lost the power struggle with Stalin, philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, Trotsky has largely been forgotten, even in present-day Russia. Trotsky "appears in none of the Soviet Russian history books," according to this political scientist.

To the extent Trotsky is remembered in Russia today, he is generally recalled as the revolutionary who was murdered with an ice pick. A 2017 Russian-produced miniseries called "Trotsky" portrayed Trotsky as an unhinged hothead and brutal murderer and Stalin as a sane and noble warrior, despite the fact that Stalin was responsible for murdering many more people than Trotsky, including Trotsky himself. For the person who once led the Red Army, it's an odd legacy to be so disremembered, but such is the case for Trotsky.


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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Leon Trotsky, Russian Marxist Revolutionary." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, September 9). Biography of Leon Trotsky, Russian Marxist Revolutionary. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Biography of Leon Trotsky, Russian Marxist Revolutionary." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).

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