Hot to Trotsky: Life of enigmatic revolutionary sizzles in stellar biography

There’s not a single figure in the 20th century, historical or fictional, with a more suspenseful ending to their biography than Leon Trotsky, nixed in Mexico with an icepick through the skull.

Bertrand M. Patenaude’s “Trotsky: Downfall of A Revolutionary” is a biography that does justice to the celebrity, intelligence and suspense of the life of Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein. Patenaude will join Said Sayrafiezadeh, a writer whose parents were members of the Socialist Workers Party, to discuss Trotsky as part of the JCCSF’s BookFest on Nov. 2.

In his biography, Patenaude, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has crafted the most intimate portrait of Trotsky’s final days to date. “Trotsky” seamlessly melds together the narrative of early Soviet history with a sympathetic and close portrait of the Jewish revolutionary’s final years in Mexico.

What separates this book from other works of Soviet history is Patenaude’s writing style. He does not write like an academic, and he allows for the passion, anguish and fear of Trotsky’s final days to come through. He has a keen sense of suspense, recreating assassination attempts, trials and affairs as if he were there himself.

The research for “Trotsky” was largely compiled from personal letters, transcripts of his speeches and hours of interviews with his bodyguards and secretaries.

What results is a historical book filled in with much more emotional depth than readers of the genre may be accustomed to, and a narrative that reads as if you are right there.

For example, on the first page of the book, the reader is thrust to the scene of an assassination attempt at Trotsky’s villa in Coycacán, Mexico. Lulled into a false sense of security behind a fortress of walls and five bodyguards, the reader watches Trotsky save his own life by playing dead, as bullets rip holes in his bedroom doors. His grandson Seva screams, covered in blood and glass in the other room, and is presumed kidnapped.

But this peril, pain, betrayal and terror is only half the story, and equaled by brilliant coverage of Trotsky’s personal affairs and intellectual struggles.

Patenaude’s work gives a detailed account of Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo. Patenaude finds the motivations for affairs for both of the adulterers, through the context of their own imprisonments and celebrity. We see a young Frida Kahlo liberate herself from Diego Rivera’s machismo, and Trotsky attempting to recapture the playboy ways of his revolutionary days. We see the affair splinter, as Trotsky finds it unwise to sleep with the wife of the guarantor of his asylum, with his marriage falling into disrepair.

In his coverage of Trotsky’s love life, Patenaude finds one of the most human sides of a man idealized as larger than life. We see Trotsky desperately struggle to reclaim his marriage, even getting a glimpse at erotic correspondences between Trotsky and his wife.

The Trotsky that appears in Patenaude’s work is a strained and exhausted man. The subtitle “Downfall of a Revolutionary” is appropriate, as the revolution he spearheaded is hijacked, his family members are picked off one by one, his unending energy can only be put to use avoiding further assassination attempts, and his health begins to fail him.

Patenaude’s work is a must-read for anyone interested in Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Soviet history. His account is one of suspense, tragedy, betrayal and resilience. The illuminating primary source accounts and interviews that form the factual basis for this work of scholarship would shine on their own, but here they are woven into a masterwork.

Patenaude does not intrusively editorialize, politicize or idealize any of his subjects, and the result is one of the best historical biographies of the year.

Now that the Cold War is over, it’s time for America to know the human side of Leon Trotsky. If you don’t end up liking the man, take solace in the fact that there couldn’t be a better ending to a book than an icepick through the back of the skull.

“Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary” by Bertrand M. Patenaude (384 pages, HarperCollins, $27.99)

Bertrand Patenaude will join Said Sayrafiezadeh for the BookFest discussion “Trotsky: The Life and Beyond,” 12:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at the JCCSF’s Fisher Family Hall East, 3200 California St., S.F. A book signing will follow at 1:45 p.m. Information: www.jccsf.org/bookfest.