"Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary," by Dmitri Volkogonov. Translated by Harold Shukman. The Free Press. 560 pages. $32.50 Leon Trotsky is one of the most fascinating and forgotten figures of the 20th century, a fanatic revolutionary who inspired the Russian masses to overthrow their Tsar and kill their priests, who led the Red Army to victory in the Civil War that followed the Bolshevik revolution; who preached global communist revolution, then ran afoul of Joseph Stalin, was hounded from Russia and died a painful death at the hands of an NKVD assassin in Mexico City.
This biography by Dmitri Volkogonov, a former Soviet military historian, is brilliantly done, a tale of bloodcurdling cruelties, sinister intrigues and treacheries, the sweep of battle and the most hideous crimes. Even allowing for a few dull passages about the various bureaucratic reorganizations of the young Soviet government, it is riveting reading for anyone interested in the horror story known as Soviet communism.
Poor Mr. Volkogonov! Like many intellectually liberated former Soviet functionaries, he was able to delve back into the voluminous archives, apparently in hope of finding that communism was a good, democratic idea that somehow took a disastrous wrong turn. Instead he finds, and courageously reports, that it was criminal from the start, that all the gods he was taught to worship were villains and that their communist victims - Trotsky and the other Old Bolsheviks murdered by Stalin - were villains too.
There are no heroes here. Trotsky is both repellent and irresistibly interesting. He was the son of wealthy Jews who became a self-appointed spokesman for the working class and an atheist - all the while supported by an allowance from his father.
This champion of the proletariat appropriated for himself a palace, traveled about the Civil War battle zones dressed in a chic leather suit, riding in a private train and with a chef.
Trotsky is dimly remembered as a martyr to Stalinism, but Mr. Volkogonov makes it clear that he was no innocent. In the author's words, he was ""one of the inspirers of the Red Terror and its victim." As a revolutionary leader, Trotsky ordered mass shootings, started the Soviet forced labor system, censored his opponents. His crimes were not on the scale of Stalin's, but they were bloodcurdling enough.
They are not why Stalin ordered him executed, of course. Trotsky regarded Stalin, a relatively minor figure in the revolution, as a mere bureaucratic intriguer and faulty Marxist who did not understand the need for permanent, global communist revolution. To Stalin, Trotsky was both a hated personal rival and a threat to the Stalinist strategy of securing communism in one country, Russia, with aid from a lulled world.
Though the Soviet Union is no more, Trotsky's influence lives on in peculiar ways. Various branches of his Socialist Workers party still preach worldwide revolution and proletarian dictatorship. More curious, some of his former American followers -radicals of the 1930s like Irving Kristol, James Burnham and Saul Bellow - crossed the political spectrum from far left to hard right, and some numbered among President Ronald Reagan's loudest supporters. In a way it makes sense: Trotsky despised liberals above all; his followers despised them first from the left and then from the right - and with the same superheated, personally abusive rhetoric that was Trotsky's hallmark.
Mr. Volkogonov's Russian is gracefully translated by Harold Shukman, although he misidentifies the murder weapon that fractured Trotsky's skull as an ice pick. It was an ice ax.
Lars-Erik Nelson, Washington columnist for the New York Daily News, has covered politics there since 1981. He was diplomatic correspondent for Reuters, based in Moscow, Prague and London.