Cover: Trotsky: A Biography, from Harvard University PressCover: Trotsky in PAPERBACK


A Biography

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$30.00 • £26.95 • €27.95

ISBN 9780674062252

Publication Date: 10/30/2011


648 pages

50 halftones

Belknap Press

Not for sale in UK, British Commonwealth & Europe (except Canada)

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Trotsky, even before one of Stalin’s agents found him in Mexico and assassinated him with an ice axe, was a romantic figure to those who believed that if only he had succeeded Lenin everything would have been better. Service, who has also written studies of Lenin and Stalin, does an excellent job of dispensing with such notions… Service’s book, unlike much writing about Trotsky, is the work of a historian, not an ideologue, and the better for it.New Yorker

Robert Service fashions a vivid portrait of this brilliant, merciless ideologue, who did not hesitate to drag his country kicking, screaming and bleeding toward the utopia he dreamed of creating for it… [Service] approaches Trotsky without emotional or ideological attachment. He has also mined a rich lode of newly accessible archival material, including documents that reveal Trotsky’s support for cruel methods while Lenin was still actively leading the government… More than anything else, Service compels us to look at Trotsky as he really was rather than to accept the image that Trotsky conjured for himself.—Joshua Rubenstein, Wall Street Journal

If only, his adherents argued, it had been Trotsky who had succeeded Lenin and not Stalin, then the USSR might have been spared its famines and its terrors, its show trials and its denials of freedom… Now, 50 years after the last full-scale biography of Trotsky in English, Robert Service has turned his attention to this myth—and has, effectively, assassinated Trotsky all over again… If one can imagine the most obnoxious middle-class student radical one has ever met—bitter, sneering, arrogant, selfish, cocky, callous, callow, blinkered and condescending—and if one freezes that image, applies a pair of pince-nez and transports it back to the beginning of the last century, then one has Trotsky… Service makes it absolutely plain that Trotskyism was Stalinism in embryo… Seldom has the pathology of the revolutionary type, and its murderous consequences, been more mercilessly exposed than in this exemplary biography.—Robert Harris, Sunday Times

In a sober narrative thick with political details, both fresh and familiar, Service deflates the notion that the Old Man offered either a humane or plausible alternative to his unlamented comrades. The only major difference between Trotsky and his fellow Bolshevik leaders was that he never got the chance to wield total power… Service is the first major biographer of Trotsky to portray him as myopic villain instead of defeated prophet.—Michael Kazin, Daily Beast

In this astonishingly comprehensive book—Robert Service has trawled almost every archive on the planet that has any reference to Trotsky—we get a clear picture of Trotsky’s political development, his part in the 1917 revolution, his differences with Lenin, his break with Stalin and, finally, the years of exile and agitation in which he attracted a ragbag of bizarre followers and made the mistake of professing that there was a form of communism different to Stalin’s… This is a superb work of scholarship, and above all leaves the reader in no doubt as to the evil of Trotsky, not just in politics but in his personal life… If you seek to know about this crucial figure in the history of Marxism–Leninism, this book will tell you everything.—Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph

Robert Service delivers an outstanding, fascinating biography of this dazzling titan. It is compelling as an adventure story—the ultimate rise and fall—but also revelatory as the scholarly revision of a historical reputation… The portrait of Trotsky’s forgotten world of Jewish farmers and poverty-stricken Russian aristocrats is eccentric and intriguing. Trotsky himself hid much of his background that Service reveals for the first time… At the end of Service’s revision, what remains of the Prophet? The intellectual, orator, manager of the Bolshevik coup and architect of the Civil War victory remain, but alongside them must be laid the mendacity of his memoirs, the ugly egotism and unpleasant, overweening arrogance, the belief in and enthusiastic practice of killing on a colossal scale, the political ineptitude, the limit of ambition. Apart from their famous row about ‘socialism in one country’ versus international revolution, there was little politically between Stalin and Trotsky. It was personality that divided them and both personalities were highly unattractive. If Trotsky had become dictator, Service is clear that while Russia would have avoided Stalin’s personal sadism, the same millions would still have been killed.—Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sunday Telegraph

The idea that a humane communism could have come out of Trotskyism is pure romanticism, Service says. Yet, Trotskyites maintain even today that the tragedy of Soviet history lay in Trotsky’s failure to win the battle of succession for leadership of the Soviet Union. Service’s biography will not convince them otherwise. But for those with an open mind, Trotsky: A Biography shows that in the end, Stalin and Trotsky were blood brothers. Blood being the operative word.—Christopher Orlet, American Spectator

Trotsky is fascinating, detailed, highly intelligent, and meticulously researched… Service is among the very best living historians of the Soviet Union and Russia, and he is supremely good at stitching together the broad outlines of complex lives and developments.—Peter Savodnik, Commentary

[Service] has produced a valuable handbook on the life of one of the twentieth century’s most fascinating—and still puzzling—personalities.—Stephen Schwartz, First Things

In [Service’s] account, he is a figure more of fascination than admiration—quite in contrast to earlier biographies written by his devotees. He is a compelling crowd rouser but remote and cold personally, puritanical but more than a little lascivious, and the object of fervid political devotion yet ruthless in the pursuit of his compassionless notion of revolution. Service deals with Trotsky’s life from boyhood to the end but concentrates on the critical period from his days as a youthful revolutionary and foe of Bolshevism through the 1920s and the dramatic arc from his ascendancy to his defeat. The writing is trim and unadorned, allowing Service to march expeditiously over new ground: Trotsky’s early political affinity with Stalin, the smug self-confidence that worked against him in the post-1923 maneuvering, and his moments of striking political insight, which were matched by those of disastrous misjudgment.—Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs

Trotsky, the Bolshevik most powerfully associated with persisting hopes of global transformation, has had many biographers including the classic trilogy by Isaac Deutscher. Robert Service, less admiring by far, has uncovered a mass of new information, some of which makes for a pretty unattractive view of the man. Trotsky: A Biography is sparkling on his political and personal travails, and indeed his crimes and follies.—Stephen Howe, The Independent

Robert Service’s iconoclastic yet rigorously balanced portrait of the fiery intellectual who helped Lenin cement Bolshevik power in Russia strips away the elaborate myths and lies that have buttressed Trotsky’s place in the pantheon of revolutionary martyrs. Using new archival resources—including family letters, party and military correspondence, confidential notes, and, perhaps most interesting of all, medical records—Service gives us a keen understanding of the character and intellect, peccadilloes and virtues of one of the key, yet wildly misunderstood figures in 20th century history… With his impressive book, Service completes his trilogy of the giants—Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky—who fashioned the Soviet state. There is no facet of Trotsky’s life that hasn’t been examined in detail, from his character and finances to his quarrels with party comrades over the minutiae of Communist dogma and his struggle with his Jewish roots. Encyclopedic is the word, and it is oh, so well written.—Michael J. Bonafield, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Robert Service has written what will undoubtedly be the definitive biography of Trotsky… It is the achievement in particular of Robert Service not only to have uncovered new material from previously unavailable Soviet archives, but to have cast new light on many of his writings and activities. He forces us to reinterpret drastically what it was Trotsky believed and fought for. Rather than being some kind of alternative to Stalin, Trotsky undoubtedly would have created a regime as monstrous and horrific as that which came to exist.—Ronald Radosh, New Criterion

Trotsky helps explain both the allure and the danger of the mass murderer who was affectionately known to his followers as ‘the Old Man.’—Adam Kirsch, New Republic

Service never lets his reader forget Trotsky’s callousness, and rightly so: on the few occasions that Trotsky worked in conjunction with Stalin—suppressing the Orthodox Church, deporting dissident intellectuals—he equalled or even exceeded the Georgian in ruthlessness. Some of the worst aspects of the Soviet system, such as the use of military force to exterminate rebellious starving peasants, or the exploitation of concentration camp inmates for hard labour, were devised by Trotsky… Trotsky is the final part of a triptych, and you can sense the author’s enjoyment as he completes his heroic task.—Donald Rayfield, Times Literary Supplement

A massive study of Trotsky, a grotesque character, politically and personally, even by the demanding standards of communism.—Joseph C. Goulden, Washington Times

This absorbing, well-written biography presents a major reassessment of the life and career of Leon Trotsky… The biography is distinctive, in part, because it casts a critical yet judicious and well-founded view on Trotsky’s life and is written by distinguished Oxford historian Service, who has a deep understanding of the events and actors of the period. The author uses newly available archival materials such as telegrams, letters, and other documents to build a more accurate portrayal of his complex subject. In addition, Service reconsiders the large volume of materials that has long been available about Trotsky and subjects it to innovative scrutiny that often yields interesting results… This book will undoubtedly become the standard biography of Trotsky, and it is unlikely to be superseded for many years.—N. M. Brooks, Choice

Distinguishing the work is its extensive use of archival sources and rare contemporary published materials, much of it used for the first time in this biography. Service casts a critical eye on Trotsky’s own writings and the interpretations of his followers and finds Trotsky’s diagnosis of his defeat by Stalin self-serving and misleading… Service succeeds in recovering many of the aspects of Trotsky’s life that the revolutionary and his followers tried to bury… A readable and persuasive biography that should be required reading for students of the Soviet Union and the history of world communism.—Sean Pollock, Library Journal (starred review)

Thick and intensely researched but a pleasure to read, it should remain the definitive work for some time… This is a thoughtful, rewarding and essential contribution to 20th-century history.Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Awards & Accolades

  • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of 2010
  • 2009 Duff Cooper Prize
  • An Independent Best History Book of 2009
  • A New Yorker Reviewers’ Favorite Nonfiction Book of 2009

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