Leon Trotsky (trŏt´skē, Rus. lā´ən trôt´skē), 1879–1940, Russian Communist revolutionary, one of the principal leaders in the establishment of the USSR; his original name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein.
Trotsky was born of Jewish parents in the S Ukraine. His father, a prosperous farmer, sent him to Odessa, where he became an outstanding student in a German secondary school. He early became a populist, and he began to be attracted to Marxism in late 1896. In 1898 he was arrested for the first of many times. Exiled to Siberia in 1900, he escaped in 1902, using a forged passport under the name of Trotsky, the head jailer of the Odessa prison in which he had earlier been held.
He went to London and collaborated with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on the revolutionary journal Iskra [spark]. After the split (1903) in the Russian Social Democratic party he was for a short time a leading Menshevik spokesman, but he later established an independent course, wavering for years between Bolshevism and Menshevism.
Returning to Russia in 1905, Trotsky became chairman of the short-lived St. Petersburg soviet and was arrested during its last meeting. While in prison, he developed his theory of permanent revolution; he declared that in Russia a bourgeois and a socialist revolution would be combined and that a proletarian revolution would then spread throughout the world. Banished again to Siberia, he escaped to Vienna, where he worked (1907–14) as a journalist. At the outbreak of World War I, he went to Switzerland and then to Paris, where he was active in pacifist and radical propaganda. Expelled from France, he moved (Jan., 1917) to New York City, where he edited, with Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin and Aleksandra Mikhaylovna Kollontai, the paper Novy Mir [new world].
He returned (May, 1917) to Russia after the overthrow of Nicholas II, and, by July, 1917, was a member of the Bolshevik party, taking part with Lenin in the unsuccessful Bolshevik uprising of that month. He was imprisoned by the Aleksandr Kerensky government but was released in September. He was one of the chief organizers of the October Revolution (see Russian Revolution), which brought the Bolsheviks to power.
Trotsky became (Nov., 1917) people's commissar for foreign affairs under Lenin. He was a principal figure in negotiations for a separate peace between Russia and the central powers. In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (Feb., 1918) Russia submitted to such humiliating conditions that Trotsky was compelled to resign as commissar for foreign affairs. He became commissar of war in 1918 and organized the Red Army in the civil war that followed the revolution, accomplishing the monumental task of welding an efficient fighting force from the tattered remnants of the czarist army and various disparate elements.
It was during the civil war that enmity grew between Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. In the trade-union debate (1920–21) within the party, Trotsky clashed with Lenin by demanding strict state control of unions. But the two leaders were again drawn together as a result of the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt Revolt (1921), the military suppression of which Trotsky directed. As Lenin's health declined, Stalin, more skillful in party infighting, gained prominence. As a result of the tenth party congress (1921), at which the trade-union issues were debated, Stalin was named (1922) general secretary of the party.
On Lenin's death (1924) titular power passed to a triumvirate consisting of Stalin, Lev Kamenev (Trotsky's brother-in-law), and Grigori Zinoviev. Advocating world revolution, Trotsky came into increasing conflict with Stalin's plans for "socialism in one country." Trotsky enjoyed great prestige as a revolutionary leader and had followers in the army and state administration, but Stalin effectively controlled the party machine. The triumvirate, although shaky, firmly opposed Trotsky.
Stalin refused to expel Trotsky from the party at this time, but he was dismissed as commissar of war in 1925. In 1926 Zinoviev and Kamenev belatedly joined forces with Trotsky in a desperate attempt to check Stalin's power. Trotsky was expelled from the politburo in 1926 and from the party in 1927.
In Jan., 1928, Trotsky was exiled to Alma-Ata (now Almaty, Kazakhstan), and in 1929 he was ordered to leave the USSR. Refused admission by most countries, he was granted asylum by Turkey, where he lived on the Princes' Islands near İstanbul. In 1933 he was allowed to move to France, and in 1935 he found refuge in Norway. In the public treason trials held at Moscow in 1936, 1937, and 1938, Trotsky was charged with heading a plot against the Stalinist regime. The accusations, which Trotsky bitterly denied, cloaked Stalin's real purpose of purging the party ranks of all who might prove disloyal to him. In Dec., 1936, the Soviet government obtained the expulsion of Trotsky from Norway, and he settled with his family in a suburb of Mexico City. There, on Aug. 20, 1940, he was assassinated by Ramón Mercader, a Spanish Communist and possible agent of Stalin.
Trotsky's prolific writings are marked by his superlative intelligence—unquestioned even by his enemies—by his indomitable aggressiveness, and by his incisive, always polemical style; they did considerable damage to the Stalinist cause outside the Soviet Union. Among Trotsky's translated writings are The Defense of Terrorism (1921), Lenin (1925), My Life (1930), History of the Russian Revolution (3 vol., 1932), The Revolution Betrayed (1937), Stalin (1941), and Diary in Exile, 1935 (1958).
See biographies by I. Deutscher (3 vol., 1954–63, repr. 2004), D. Volkogonov (1996), R. Service (2009), and J. Rubenstein (2011); see also I. Howe, Leon Trotsky (1978); B. Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (1978); R. Wistrich, Trotsky (1982); A. Glotzer, Trotsky: Memoir and Critique (1989).