Archive for May, 2011

Coyoacan, a leafy, tranquil suburb of Mexico City, is home to Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, which is located there on Londres street. A few blocks away, and yet often overlooked, is the Casa Trotsky. On a warm day in February, after visiting the Casa Azul, two friends and I decided to walk around the corner to the house where the fomenter of the Russian revolution spent his final days.

A friend from San Miguel who leads tours of Mexico City, had told us not to bother.  “It’s incredibly ugly and not very interesting,” she said. I have to agree, Casa Trotsky looks more like a rundown prison than a house. Yet I found Trotsky and his house fascinating. First, because of who he was; second, because of the inadvertent role he played in the demise of my father-in-law’s career; but most of all, because of the job of a brilliant, quirky young guide did escorting us through.

I’d just purchased my ticket when a thin, stooped young woman wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo of the Museo Leon Trotsky approached and asked in barely audible Spanish if my friends and I would like a guided tour of the house and museum.  “Cuanto cuesta?” I asked, wanting to know the price before we committed. “It’s free,” she mumbled, looking at her feet. I quickly consulted my friends who agreed to the free tour.

“My name is Alma,” she said when we were all gathered. “I speak Russian, French, English and Spanish. Which would you prefer we do the tour in?” “English, please!” the three of us said in unison.

Alma, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties, looked as if life was a massive allergen for her. Her face, neck, arms, and hands down to her finger tips were red and inflamed with eczema. She seemed painfully reticent and had trouble maintaining eye contact. But as we wandered through the museum where photos of Trotsky, his wife Natalia, and various friends and famous people hung on the walls, she came to life. Like a marionette whose strings have been pulled taut, she was surprisingly animated as she recounted intimate stories of Trotsky’s life in Mexico. As we studied the photographs she named everyone in them and told us some fascinating tidbit about their relationship to Trotksy. She spoke fondly of the Old Man,  as if he were a beloved uncle.

In addition to the gossipy bits, we learned plenty of real history about Trotsky’s life from Alma. That he and his wife Natalia had arrived in Tampico, Mexico in early January 1937. That they’d spent the previous two years in exile in Norway; that just as the Norwegian Minister of Justice—probably in collusion with Stalin—was preparing to send them into exile on an island off that country’s coast, word arrived that the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had convinced the Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to grant them asylum; that with all other possibilities exhausted the Trotskys were resigned to living out their exile in Mexico; and that, initially, they lived at Frida’s house, the Casa Azul.

Casa Trotsky, as my friend had warned us, is a dismal place. It is a rambling mishmash of brick and stone buildings with a massive perimeter wall surrounding it. A series of chicken coops, rabbit hutches and a small cactus garden provide the only respite from the brick and mortar drabness of the place. According to Alma, the house and grounds have been preserved exactly as they were the day Trotsky was murdered.

As we toured the leader of the Red Army’s bedroom and that of his grandson Seva, it was evident that nothing had been changed. The walls of the bleak rooms were riddled with bullet holes. It was under the simple iron beds in those rooms where the Trotskys and their grandson took cover during a failed assassination attempt led by the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros and a band of murderous—and most likely drunken—Communists had breached security and invaded the property on the night of May 24th, 1940.

Trotsky’s study, the place where in August 1940 Ramón Mercader delivered a fatal blow to Trotsky’s head with an ice axe, was a simple room with a map of Mexico on one wall and a large, stained-glass window on another. There was a long wooden desk surrounded by straight-backed Mexican chairs, an ancient Dictaphone, and shelves packed with leather bound books. In addition to many of his most famous letters and manifestos, this was the room where he’d written his book on Stalin. If publishers had found the courage to print it earlier in 1940, it might have changed the course of World War II and world history.

Many people suspect Leon Trotsky was manic-depressive and his days in Mexico were marked by a deep depression. Living that narrowly circumscribed existence where nothing but bad news arrived each day, only served to worsen his symptoms.  His closest comrades were being tortured or killed by Stalin, his son Lyova was murdered in Paris by the G.P.U.  He was obsessed with his own health and thoughts of death. Unable to sleep, he took double doses of sleeping powders.

His mania manifested in days of relentless work, dictating letters, writing articles, books and publishing his latest manifestos. He exhausted both himself and the cluster of young men who served as his secretaries with his urgency and driving will. His manic side also expressed itself in his grandiose plans for revolutions in unlikely countries. In the last weeks of his life, a tiny delegation of Minnesota Socialists arrived in Coyoacan to discuss the overthrow of the American government. Trotsky eagerly partook in the conversations, convincing the young men that it could and should be done.

As we ended our tour with Alma, I couldn’t help asking her about Trotsky’s relationship with Frida Kahlo. It is widely believed that Trotsky had an affair with Frida and that Natalia, hurt and  angry upon discovering it, insisted they move out of the Casa Azul to the Casa Trotsky on Avenida Vienna.  When I asked Alma about it, she vigorously defended Trotsky. “There is no concrete evidence that Leon Trotsky had an affair with Frida Kahlo. His grandson, Seva, is a close friend of mine and he also disputes the affair.” She was so firm in her conviction, I didn’t argue. Seva, in his eighties, lives only a few blocks away from the Museum and Alma told us she sees him almost daily.

In the last room on our tour—the dormitory-like quarters where Trotsky’s many young male  secretaries slept— I decided to share with Alma a small piece of my father-in-law’s history.  “My father-in-law’s name was Leon Trotsky Atlas,” I told her.  “Leon Trotsky Atlas?” she said with surprise.  “Yes. He was a medical doctor in the United States.” What I didn’t tell her was that his name had likely cost him his research fellowship at the NIH during the days of McCarthyism in the late 1940s. “Leon Trotsky Atlas,” Alma repeated slowly. “That is such a beautiful name. I must tell Seva tonight!”

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