THE LAST WITNESS OF A POLITICAL ASSASSINATION
Born in Yalta in 1926. His Russian name was Vsevold but he was always known as Seva. His mother was Zinaida Bronstein, the daughter of Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Seva’s father was Platon Volkov, a leading member of the revolutionary Trotskyite Left in Russia, that vied for power with Joseph Stalin between 1924 and 1929. Seva was the youngest child of Zinaida and Platon.
As Stalin surged to power in Russia, he exiled his arch-enemy Trotsky. Initially it was internal exile, to Alma Ata, but then he was banished from the Soviet Union. Trotsky lost his citizenship, but so did all his immediate family – “a wretched and stupid act of vengeance against me”, said Seva.
His father Platon was purged and sent to a Gulag, where he died in 1936. Esteban (Seva) had just one very faded photograph of his father – believed to be the only one in existence.
Trotsky’s first wife (Esteban’s grandmother) was Aleksandra Sokolovskaya. She also died in a gulag.
Trotsky in exile, went first to Paris, then to Norway, then to Istanbul, and finally ended up in Mexico City. All the while, he kept writing anti-Stalinist literature, culminating in Stalin’s determination to have him assassinated.
Seva visited his grandfather (Trotsky) with his mother Zinaida, whilst he was living on Prinkipo, an island off the Istanbul coast. But Trotsky was ultimately expelled from Turkey (as he had been from Norway, when he tried to claim political asylum).
Zinaida suffered from both tuberculosis and depression. She travelled on her own to Berlin for treatment.
Trotsky tried to get his grandson permission to join his mother in Germany, but as the boy had no status as a citizen, it proved extremely difficult. Finally, permission was given for the boy to join his mother at the end of 1932.
Within a week of Esteban’s arrival, the Mayor of Berlin decreed that Zinaida was to be expelled from Berlin. She promptly committed suicide, on the 5th January 1933.
One month later, Hitler got to power in Germany, and Trotsky’s eldest son, Lev Sedov, was forced to flee, taking his nephew Esteban (Seva) with him, to Paris.
Esteban loved Paris. He wandered for hours by the banks of the River Seine, into cafes, bistros and bookshops. He quickly became fluent in French – and lost his ability to speak Russian.
But the long arm of Stalin’s vengeful security forces reached Paris. Lev was murdered, his body found in the river.
Leon Trotsky immediately attempted to get Esteban to Mexico, but Lev Sedov’s (unhinged) partner tried to claim custody of him. It went to the courts before Trotsky was given parental rights.
Trotsky had been granted permission to live in Mexico City in 1939, and Esteban joined him there, having to learn Spanish from scratch.
The family lived in a villa on Avenida Viena in the Coyoacan suburb of the city, rented from the artist Diego Rivera. They lived with Natalia Sedova, Trotsky’s second wife and Seva’s step-grandmother. Esteban always had a very close relationship with Natalia.
Esteban did not share Trotsky’s name, because that in itself was a pseudonym. It was the name of one of his guards in the Tsarist, Siberian prison camp Trotsky was incarcerated in prior to the Russian Revolution. His real name was Lev Bronstein. He took the name Trotsky partly as a joke (and to disguise his Jewish origin) and partly to remain incognito after his escape from the prison camp. The name just stuck.
Esteban remembered a very happy, albeit short, period with his grandparents, finally getting a sense of security. “I was constantly changing father and mother figures. I finally found something stable, though it did not last very long.”
Together, Trotsky and Esteban fed their pet rabbits and chickens every morning. There were happy trips to the countryside and to the cinema.
Trotsky told Esteban that he had a sister, who had gone missing in the purges in the Soviet Union, and nobody knew what had happened to her.
Trotsky tried to make a living from writing. He wanted to write a biography of former Soviet leader Lenin, but no publisher wanted it. They were only interested in Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin.
Trotsky knew this put him in danger, so he had permanent bodyguards around him.
In 1939, there was an assassination attempt on Trotsky. A group of 25 Stalinists led by artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, burst into the villa and into Trotsky’s bedroom. They had been let into the house by a newly appointed American bodyguard who was a secret Stalinist.
Trotsky shared the bedroom with Seva. The would-be assassins sprayed the room with bullets and threw two bombs, both of which exploded. Amazingly, they totally missed Trotsky, but Seva threw himself under the bed and was hit in the big toe by a ricochet from a bullet.
In the chaos afterwards, seeing lots of blood, Trotsky assumed that Seva had been kidnapped.
When he realised the boy was safe and the assassination attempt had failed, Trotsky said to his wife, “Natasha, they have given us one more day of life.”
Siqueiros was sentenced to prison but was released after one year on the condition he emigrated to Chile.
There was another attempt on Trotsky’s life by Soviet agent Ramon Mercader on the 20th August 1940. Trotsky was hit over the head with an ice pick. Seva was at school at the time but returned to the villa to a scene of chaos. “I felt anxiety rise…the fear…”. He ran past armed guards to see his grandfather lying on the floor, severely wounded.
Trotsky’s last words were, “Don’t let the boy see this.”
Trotsky died in hospital the following day.
Mercader was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the murder. He was made a ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ in 1960.
Esteban was too distraught to go to the funeral. Trotsky was buried in the garden of the villa at Avenida Viena.
Esteban stayed in Mexico. He eventually took a degree in Chemistry and went on to become a chemical engineer. He patented a method for mass producing an oral contraceptive pill.
He was married and had four daughters. He remained a committed socialist throughout his life.
He continued his close relationship with his step-grandmother Natalia until she died in 1962 aged 79. She was also buried in the garden of the villa, alongside her husband.
Esteban’s missing sister was finally tracked down in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, during the Gorbachev years. He was given permission to fly to Moscow to meet her.
It wasn’t a very successful meeting. She could only speak Russian and Esteban only French and Spanish. She was also in the last throes of cancer. She died very soon after the meeting.
Esteban was determined to keep the memory of his grandfather alive. He turned the villa where the assassination occurred, into a Museum named ‘Museo Casa Leon Trotsky’ in 1990, and maintained it for many years – “defending my grandfather’s ideas and career”.
In 2017, he went to court to try and stop a Netflix picture about Trotsky, claiming it was biased and, “portrayed him as a monster”.
Esteban died 83 years after his grandfather, Trotsky. He was the last living witness to the assassination of the former revolutionary.
His close friend, Alan Wood, described him as a friendly and kind man who was always laughing. “And yet, there was always a deep sense of melancholy and intense suffering.”
The museum is now run by Esteban’s former carer, Gabriela Perez Noriega.
RIP – Revolutionary’s Ice Pick