Leon Trotsky

Communist Writer and Leader

Leon Trotsky while in exile.
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. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Who Was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was a Communist theorist, prolific writer, leader in the 1917 Russian Revolution, the people's commissar for foreign affairs under 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 Stalin over who was to become Lenin's successor, Trotsky was brutally assassinated in 1940.

Dates: November 7, 1879 -- August 21, 1940

Also Known As: Lev Davidovich Bronstein

Childhood of Leon Trotsky

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 to take shape.

Trotsky Introduced to Marxism

It was in Nikolayev, at age 17, that Trotsky became acquainted with Marxism. Trotsky began to skip school in order to talk with political exiles and to 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 metamorphose 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.

Trotsky in Siberia

After two years in prison, Trotsky was brought to trial and then exiled to Siberia. At a transfer prison on his way to Siberia, Trotsky married Alexandra 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 of 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.)

Trotsky and the 1905 Russian Revolution

Trotsky managed to find his way to London, where he met and collaborated with V. I. 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 tsar'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 Russian Revolution. After a trial, he was again sentenced to exile in Siberia in 1907. And, once again, he escaped. This time, he escaped via a deer-pulled sleigh through the frozen landscape of Siberia in February 1907.

Trotsky spent the next ten years in exile, living in various cities, including Vienna, Zurich, Paris, and New York. Much of this time he spent writing. When World War I broke out, Trotsky wrote anti-war articles.

When the Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917, Trotsky headed back to Russia, arriving in May 1917.

Trotsky in the New 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 Russian 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.

The 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 Lenin's successor.

Trotsky seemed an obvious choice since he was a powerful Bolshevik leader and the man whom Lenin wanted as his successor. However, when Lenin died in 1924, Trotsky was politically outmaneuvered by Joseph Stalin.

From that point on, Trotsky was slowly but surely pushed out of important roles in the Soviet government and shortly thereafter, he was pushed out of the country.


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 entire Soviet Union.

Over the next seven years, Trotsky lived in Turkey, France, and Norway until he finally arrived in Mexico in 1936.

Writing prolifically during his exile, Trotsky continued to criticize Stalin. Stalin, on the other hand, named Trotsky as 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 16 were found guilty and executed. Stalin then sent out henchmen to assassinate Trotsky.

Trotsky Assassinated

On May 24, 1940, Soviet agents machine-gunned 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 age 60.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Leon Trotsky." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/leon-trotsky-1779899. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2020, August 26). Leon Trotsky. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/leon-trotsky-1779899 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Leon Trotsky." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/leon-trotsky-1779899 (accessed February 24, 2021).

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