Kingsley Martin: Trotsky in Mexico

10 April 1937.

Leon Trotsky.
Trotsky was exiled from Russia in 1929. Photograph: Hulton/Getty Images.

I went to see Trotsky in the house that Diego Rivera and his wife have lent him in an outlying suburb of Mexico City. He is very well guarded and cannot go out, I am told, without a bodyguard of detectives and armed patrols on motorcycles. Four armed guards were standing at the gate.

Once inside, I thought an exile could scarcely hope to find a lovelier refuge. Trotsky was sitting in a long, cool room looking out on to the patio—a gay and beautiful courtyard, the walls bright blue and the bougainvillea a blazing glory in the sunshine. He was working, he told me, on his new book, The Crimes of Stalin.

Pictures of Trotsky are apt to suggest the stage revolutionary in the fuzzy hair and a certain untidy vehemence about the neck. Nothing could be further from the fact. “Dapper” was the word that came into my head when I first saw him. He looked as if he had just come out of a hot bath, just had his hair cut, his beard trimmed and his suit pressed. His hair and beard are grey and his face is a fresh pink. He looked like a Frenchman, not, I decided after a few minutes, a French politician but, in spite of his neatness, a French artist.

As we talked, I retained the impression of Trotsky as an artist, an intuitive and ima - ginative man, vain and very able, a man of fierce will and unruly temperament. If I had met him without knowing who he was or what he had done and without having read his books, I should have been impressed; but I doubt if I should have recognised his genius.

Trotsky was charming and friendly. Yes, he was pleased to talk to me because he regarded the New Statesman and Nation as one of the few honest and genuinely radical papers. I suppose that he had read a recent article expressing scepticism about the evidence of the Moscow trials.

I told him that I was still puzzled by the confessions. They were difficult to explain on any hypothesis. What possible pressure could be brought on all these experienced revolutionaries that would make them not only confess but stand by their confessions when they had the opportunity of publicly repudiating them in open trial? Trotsky explained that I did not understand the methods of the GPU (the Russian intelligence service). He described how it first got hold of a woman and questioned her until she made a confession that incriminated her husband; how this was used to break down her husband’s resistance and how he in turn was induced to incriminate his friends, all of whom were gradually persuaded by pressure of one sort or another to sign what was required.

The GPU knew, he said, how to attack each of its victims in his weakest spot, this man signing from sheer nervous exhaustion, that one because of a threat to his wife and children, and the other in the hope of pardon and release. The preparation of such a case took years and the trials were the climax of a determination that Stalin had taken in 1927 (when the split in the party occurred) completely to eliminate all those who had sympathised with Trotsky and who might in the future swing opinion against Stalin’s policy. The GPU would not stage a trial until they were sure of all their men.

I still did not understand why none of the prisoners had repudiated his confession in court. I try to think of myself under such circumstances. I can see myself breaking down and confessing to anything under pressure but the trial was free and open and I think I should have withdrawn an extorted confession when I saw the press correspondents hanging on my words. Russians tell me that this is an English view, that confession is a spontaneous impulse of the Slav soul, “an old Russian custom”, not a peculiar invention of Dostoevsky and the GPU.

However, I put it to Trotsky. It was strange that not one of them should have gone down fighting and have appealed to the public opinion of the world. Most of them knew they were going to die anyway. Trotsky grew very animated. I was wrong. Even after the example of the first trial, these men did not know they were going to die. There was a world of difference between the certainty of death and just that much hope of reprieve— here Trotsky made an expressive gesture with his fingers to indicate even a millimetre of hope. Moreover, in Russia the foreign correspondents were all “paid prostitutes of Moscow”. He seemed to believe that anyone who had a word to say for Stalin or who hesitates to denounce the whole trial as a frameup must be in the pay of Moscow. He made an exception in the case of the Webbs—they were merely poor, credulous dupes.

Afterwards, turning over this conversation in my mind, I did not find that it had cleared away my perplexity about the Moscow trials. When I wrote that I did not know whether or not to believe in the confessions, I meant exactly what I said. It seemed to me the only honest thing to say. Trotsky, like other people, interpreted my scepticism as a vote against Stalin and he had tried to remove any lingering doubts. Yet I came away from our talk rather less inclined to doubt the possibility of Trotsky’s complicity than I had been before, because his judgement appeared to me so unstable and therefore the possibility of his embarking on a crazy plot more credible.

In any case, I shall not let myself become a partisan in this controversy until I have seen what evidence is produced before the inquiry that is now opening in New York and until I have read the facts and arguments that Trotsky is compiling in The Crimes of Stalin. But I fear this open-minded attitude will have no effect on Trotsky except to convince him that I, too, am a prostitute in the pay of Moscow.