Arts & Culture

Dedushka Trotsky: Talking Trotsky With Jewkrainian Grandpas On Leon’s Special Day

It’s Trotsky’s would-be 132nd birthday today, and for the occasion, I took a risk that equated to shaking a stick at the Red Army: I sought out the thoughts of some ex-Soviets on the renegade Russky. Read More

By / November 7, 2011
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It’s Trotsky’s would-be 132nd birthday today, and for the occasion, I took a risk that equated to shaking a stick at the Red Army: I sought out the thoughts of some ex-Soviets on the renegade Russky. This was precarious behavior because I ventured to ask the opinion of my own grandfather first, a man who generally treated questions about the old country as threats to well-being, even if posed by grandchildren and not KGB (understandably so).

A Warning

In response to a blank email with the subject WHAT IS YOUR OPINION ABOUT TROTSKY?, Dedushka pointed me to the girth of resources available online (a completely different information-base from the KGB-sourced “facts” available to an inquirer in another place and time), he quickly retracted and proceeded to dissuade me from whatever I was planning to get myself into with this research: I do not recommend to you to be involved in that project, or need to study tons of documentations from Russia, Argentina, and other countries where he spent his life. I kiss you , your grandpa.

An Anecdote

Next, a family friend who was also a refusenik pointed me to a humorous joke about the theorist:

In 1920s Soviet Russia, in the middle of the jockeying for power following Lenin’s death, Stalin emerges to address an expectant crowd.

“Comrades!,” he says. “I have in my hand a telegram from Comrade Trotsky, which I think will resolve our current differences of opinion. Let me read it to you: ‘You were right and I was wrong. You are the true heir of Lenin. I should apologize. Signed, Leon Trotsky.’”

The crowd goes wild! But wait, there’s one man in the crowd signaling to get Stalin’s attention.

“Yes, comrade?,” Stalin asks.

“Comrade Stalin, I think you know Comrade Trotsky is Jewish.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, I’m Jewish, too, and I thought I might have an extra insight on what Comrade Trotsky was trying to say. May I read the telegram myself?”

“Of course, comrade!,” Stalin asks. The man gets up and starts reading:

You were right and I was wrong? You are the true heir of Lenin? I should apologize? Signed, Leon Trotsky.”

An Opinion

And finally, another trustworthy Dedushka with a tidbit on Trotsky is Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion (originally from the Russian Empire). Trotsky appears in an excerpt of Shimon Peres’ new biography Ben-Gurion: A Political Life (Nextbook Press), as David’s wife Paula reveals a flirtatious past with Leon (told from Shimon’s perspective):

As a young man in Ben-Gurion’s bureau, I was once privy to the couple’s reminiscing about their life together in America. Like everything else about them, it was unique. During his time as prime minister, Ben-Gurion sometimes vacationed with Paula in Tiberias, and sometimes I would have to go up there to see him on defense ministry business. He would always receive me kindly.

One time he, Paula, and I were having lunch at his hotel, the Galei Kinneret. As usual, his mind was miles away from the food in front of him and the small talk around him.

Paula: Look how he eats.

Peres: Paula, you married him. What are you complaining about?

Paula: Mayesh? [What’s your problem?]

Peres: Mayesh? Who’d have married you apart from him!

Paula: Chanfan! [Flatterer!] You’re pandering to him.

Peres: Why am I a chanfan? Was anyone else courting you?

Paula: Tippesh! [Idiot!]

Peres: So who was?

Paula: Trotsky!

Ben-Gurion remained completely oblivious throughout this tart exchange. After the meal we walked a little in the garden, and I asked him if there really had been something serious between Trotsky and Paula.

Ben-Gurion: Ma pitom! [No way!]

Peres: So what was she saying?

Ben-Gurion: Trotsky came to New York to give a lecture, and Paula said, Let’s go and hear him. He doesn’t interest me, I said, you go yourself. When she returned, I asked her, How was Trotsky? And she said, I think he’s fallen for me. What leads you to that conclusion? I asked. He never took his eyes off me throughout the lecture, she said. Where did you sit? I asked. In the middle of the front row, she said.

Later, Peres describes Ben-Gurion’s take on Mother Russia’s contradictory political characters, again bringing Trotsky (and Lenin) into the spotlight:

On the one hand, he wanted to foster close ties between the Histadrut and the Soviet state. On the other hand, he viscerally hated dictatorship and was painfully conscious of the murderous inhumanity of the Soviet system and the inherent anti-Semitism still prevalent in Russia.

This sojourn in the Soviet Union and his experience almost two decades later in London during the blitz were perhaps the two most formative experiences in his life on foreign soil. In the one he saw close up the depredations of dictatorship upon the human spirit. In the other he witnessed a mature and deep-rooted parliamentary democracy survive intact during the most grievous tribulations. Compounding the contradictions, Ben-Gurion saw Lenin as a great man. He admired him above all for his single-mindedness and his clear-eyed view of history. “There is integrity in his soul, he disdains any inhibitions, he is faithful to his aim, he knows neither concessions nor leniency, he will crawl through the mire to obtain his objective.” On his return to Palestine, he took to wearing Lenin-like neomilitary clothes, an apparent expression of his bewitchment. His deep reverence for Lenin did not carry over to Stalin, however, to whom he would refer privately in later years as “just a hot-blooded Georgian.”

Trotsky too emerged shrunken in his eyes from any comparison to the great Lenin. This I learned, unforgettably, in my own first meeting with him. I was at the time a young activist in Ha’noar Ha’oved, and I had the chutzpah to ask the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive for a lift in his car from Tel Aviv to Haifa. Breathlessly, I prepared the sparkling questions with which I was going to pepper our leader en route, demonstrating my cleverness. In actual fact, Ben-Gurion sat in silence all the way up the coastal road, and I didn’t dare open my mouth. As we approached the outskirts of Haifa, he suddenly said, “You know, Trotsky was no statesman.” Almost struck dumb with self-consciousness, I muttered, “Why is that?” “Because of his concept of no war–no peace,” Ben-Gurion replied. “That’s not statesmanship. That’s some sort of Jewish invention. A statesman must decide, one way or the other: to go for peace and pay the price, or to make war, knowing what the risks and dangers are. Lenin was Trotsky’s inferior in terms of intellect, but he became the leader of Russia because he was decisive. He decided on peace and paid the heavy price that peace required.” I knew vaguely then, and much more clearly soon after, that Ben-Gurion was mulling in his mind his own imminent, unavoid- able confrontation with history. Would he seize the moment, le’altar, Lenin-like, to create the Jewish state? Or would he allow himself to be persuaded by his “Trotskyite” colleagues to defer the decision for more propitious times?

(Excerpted from Ben-Gurion: A Political Life by Shimon Peres in conversation with David Landau. The book, published as part of the Jewish Encounters series from Nextbook Press and Schocken Books, came out October 25.)