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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Murder of Leon Trotsky: Criminality of International Gulagism

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Subrata Sen


What crime did we not commit! Our cruelty was no less than that of the imperialists and fascists! We can never be forgiven for this. Nor should we forgive and excuse ourselves. That we believed this to be the need of the cause is no justification.

— Mohit Sen, An Autobiography

On the twentieth of August, 1940, Bolshevik leader, Leon Davidovicn Trotsky, illegally exiled from the USSR, and living in Mexico City, the capital of the Central American Republic of Mexico, was hit on the head with an ice-axe by one Ramon Mercader, an agent of the Soviet secret service, NKVD. He died the next day in a city hospital.

In January 1937, Trotsky at last found asylum in Mexico. Lazaro Cardenas, the newly elected President of the Republic, had come to power as a candidate of a Popular Front coalition. Cardenas, an agrarian socialist, was by no means a follower of Trotsky. Yet in admitting Trotsky at the request of the famous painter, Diego Rivera, as well as a large section of his own entourage, he acted from a sense of revolutionary solidarity.

As President, Cardenas had parcelled out the lands of some large latifundas (estates) amongst poor peasants. He had proposed nationalisation of the British owned railways and US owned oil companies. Naturally, the relations with the Western imperialist countries were strained. Foreign investors, landlords and the Catholic Church were up in arms. Political adversaries constantly accused him of foisting a Bolshevik programme on Mexico at the behest of Trotsky. On the other hand, the Mexican Gulagists launched a strident campaign for driving out the ‘leader of the counter-revolution’ from the country. (The reader may legitimately discern close similarity with the campaign of fascist Muslim fundamentalists for driving out Dr Taslima Nasreen from India.)

For two years, Trotsky lived with Diego Rivera and then shifted to a house he purchased with the royalty and advances on his books. It was in this house at Coyocan, a suburb of the Mexico City, that two attempts were made on his life. The second one was successful.


The threat to Trotsky’s life was well perceived by all concerned. The first and the third Moscow frame-up trials wiped off the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party. Hundreds of thousands of old Bolsheviks were summarily executed in prisons. More were sent to the Siberian prison camps (Gulags). News about the massacre was slowly trickling out of the Soviet Union. In the West, close followers of Trotsky like Erwin Wolfe, Rudolf Klementis and Leon Sedov (Trotsky’s son) died under mysterious circumstance. Soviet officials like Alexander Barmin, Walter Krivitsky and Ignace Reiss defected. They had of course tales to tell. Indications were indeed many.

The Mexican Police constantly guarded the Trotsky residence from outside the perimeter. Inside the house, security was provided by a group of secretary-guards recruited from his followers in the US. Alas, as Trotsky himself apprehended, all this ultimately proved futile.


The first attempt on Trotsky’s life was organised and led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the two most famous Mural painters of Mexico. (The other was Diego Rivera, Trotsky’s host in Mexico.) Internationally reputed, they were often compared to the renowned Spanish-French painter, Pablo Picasso. Both belonged to the leadership of the Mexican CP. Rivera broke with the party as well as his friend of long standing, Siqueiros, when they sided with Stalin in his campaign of slander and murder against the opposition, which included virtually the entire leadership of the Bolshevik Party at the time of the October Revolution.

On May 24, 1940, at the dead of night, a gang of armed marauders managed to enter the Trotsky residence and spray the bedrooms of Trotsky as well as his grandson, Seva, with submachine guns. Trotsky and Nataliya rolled down from the cot and took shelter beneath it. Seva too escaped with minor bullet inuries.

After the raiding party left, it was discovered that one of the secretary-guards, Robert Sheldon Harte, was missing. Initially, the police presumed the incident to be the work of members of Trotsky’s entourage. Harte was considered to be involved. Two of Trotsky’s security guards were arrested. The Stalinist press stridently denounced Trotsky and Rivera for staging a show for maligning the Soviet Union and the Mexican CP. Trotsky, however, stood by the secretaries. He sent a message of condolence to Harte’s family. He also secured the release of the secretaries by interceding with Cardenas.

In the meantime the police apprehended several of the raiders who confirmed that Sequeiros was the leader of the raiding party. Siqueiros went into hiding. Finally Harte’s body was dug out. Sheldon Harte’s bullet ridden body was dug out from a shallow grave from the grounds of a farmhouse outside Mexico City. The farmhouse was rented by two well-known painters, both Stalinists.

Eventually, Siqueiros was also arrested. He admitted his role in the raid, but claimed that the purpose of the raid was to protest against Trotsky’s presence in Mexico and to produce a psychological shock and not to kill Trotsky. He also denied any connection of the Mexican CP with the raid. Released on bail, he disappeared for several years. The case was eventually dismissed for lack of ‘material and incriminating evidence’. (The reader may note the parallel with the difficulty in bringing to book the perpetrators of the post-Godhra riots.) The Mexican CP and its trade unions had considerable clout with the Popular Front Government.

In his autobiography, Mohit Sen discloses that long after the murder, Siqueiros visited India. He had by then risen to the post of General Secretary of the Mexican CP. Sen informs that Siqueiros delivered some ‘excellent lectures’ on Mexican Murals and was highly critical of Picasso. Did his role in the first attempt on Trotsky’s life ever figure in his discussions with the Indian Gulagists? Mohit Sen is silent on the issue. In the late seventies, however, Valentine Campa, a veteran member of the Mexican CP, had disclosed the role of a Comintern delegation (NKVD representatives?) in persuading the Central Committee to undertake the crime.


The second (and successful) attempt on Trotsky’s life was much more of a professional job. Sylvia Agelof, an American follower of Trotsky, attended the founding conference of the Fourth International in Paris (September 3, 1938) as an interpreter. From time to time she was working as a secretary for Trotsky at Coyocan. In Paris he met one Jaques Mornard, a Belgian, with rather vague connection with commerce and journalism. Sylvia, a rather unattractive spinster, was assiduously courted by Mornard and became his mistress.

When Sylvia Agelof returned to the States, Mornard followed after a few months. He was, however, using a passport in the name of Frank Jackson. He explained this to Sylvia as an attempt to evade military service in his native Belgium.

Soon he moved to Mexico ‘on business’ and invited Sylvia to follow. Through Sylvia he managed entry into the Trotsky residence. He even managed entry into Trotsky’s study on the pretext of getting an article vetted by him. While Trotsky was going through the article, Mornard-Jackson struck a mighty blow on the back of his head with a sawn off ice-axe, which he had concealed in his raincoat. Trotsky raised an alarm and grappled with the assassin. His bodyguards rushed to the study. The assailant was handed over to the police and Trotsky was rushed to a city hospital. He expired the next day.

Unlike Sequeiros, who went scot-free, the assassin received a twenty-year sentence, which he served as a model prisoner. He continued to insist that he was a Belgian and his real name was Jaques Mornard. He claimed his disillutionment with the ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ of Trotsky and ‘Trotsky’s supposed opposition to his formal marriage with Sylvia’ as motives behind his attack on Trotsky. The second point was vehemently denied by Sylvia Agelof.

All those who have studied the case, including Issac Deutscher and Roy Medvedev, are convinced that the murderer was a Spaniard (Catalan) and his real name was Ramon Mercader. Ramon and his mother joined the Spanish CP during the civil war. They were recruited into the Soviet secret service by one Eitengen, an executive of the NKVD. Medvedev (author of Let History Judge) mentions that Mercader was made a Hero of the Soviet Union and his mother as well as Eitengen were awarded the Order of Lenin.

To the disappointment of the assembled reporters, Mercader on his release was met at the jail-gate by consular representatives from the Cuban embassy, who spirited him away to the airport and put him on a Cuba bound aircraft. At Havana, he was transferred to a Czech aircraft. After the collapse of the Gulagist regimes in Eastern Europe, attempts were made to trace him but without success. There are indications that he fled to Cuba and his efforts to return to Spain with the help of the Spanish Gulagist leaders were also not successful.

The writer would submit that participation of such eminent personalities and so many Gulagist outfits be considered the most horrible aspect of the murder plot. Unfortunately, the legacy of treachery, slander, murder and mayhem still persists. The long march to Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh commenced in the Soviet Union in the twenties. The murder of Leon Trotsky was an important landmark enroute.

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