Leon Trotsky Was My Grandfather
An interview with Leon Trotsky’s grandson, who lived with the famous revolutionary the last year of his life.
INTERVIEW BY WLADEK FLAKIN
Esteban Volkov was thirteen when assassins tried to murder him. Because his grandfather was Leon Trotsky. Now ninety-one, Volkov keeps Trotsky’s memory alive at a museum in Mexico City.
The building is one of countless villas in Coyoacán: a house with a garden behind a very high wall. Coyoacán used to be a rural town outside of Mexico City where artists sought tranquility. Today it’s a hip neighborhood in the middle of the megacity, a few steps from a subway station. The garden full of cacti could be idyllic — if it weren’t for the noise and smell of the highway.
When we arrive, Volkov is waiting for us in a gray suit and a red baseball cap from the Brazilian trade union federation CUT. His deep-set eyes look severe – but soon he starts laughing. Without any noticeable difficulty, he guides us through the house — the residence where Trotsky spent the final years of his life. We see the bullet holes, the walled-up windows, the heavy steel doors — a bit like a prison. All this is now a museum for his family, the majority of whom fell victim to political murders.
Trotsky was forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1929 and found refuge on the Turkish island of Prinkipo. After a few years, he was expelled from Turkey, then from France and Norway as well. In 1937, he received asylum in Mexico.
Trotsky’s daughter, Zinaida Volkova, suffered from severe depression and took her own life in 1933, leaving behind a small son, Vsevolod “Seva” Volkov. After briefly joining his uncle — who had to flee to Paris to escape the Nazis, and was subsequently killed by Stalinist agents — the young Seva moved in with his grandfather in Mexico.
He still recalls those months with the famous revolutionary, going on cacti excursions and narrowly dodging assassination attempts. Then, on August 20, 1940, Trotsky’s luck ran out. He was killed by a Stalinist agent.
Life went on after. Sedov became a Mexican citizen and adopted a Spanish version of his name: Esteban. He studied to be a chemist, and invented a method for the industrial production of the contraceptive pill.
But he didn’t forget his grandfather’s legacy. Since 1989, Sedov has served as the director of the Museo Casa León Trotsky.
WF: What are your first memories of Leon Trotsky?
EV: I was thirteen and a half when I first arrived in this house — from Paris, with Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer. The contrast was stark. Europe in winter is gray, gray, gray. I came from a sinister climate full of grief: after the death of my uncle, Lev Sedov, I was emotionally damaged. Sedov died in February 1938. His widow wanted to keep me in her care, and grandfather had to resort to lawyers. In August 1939, I finally came to Coyoacán.
My first impression was: color! Mexico is a country full of colors. At that time, this was a village completely isolated from Mexico City. You had to go through fields of beets and corn to reach the city. The dirt roads turned to rivers when it rained.
WF: Was it safer for you here?
EV: Somewhat. But the Stalinist secret service was active here as well. The first assassination attempt was on May 24, 1940. I hid under my bed. The assassins came into my bedroom from three different directions and emptied a pistol into the mattress. Seven or eight shots, one of which hit my big toe.
WF: They shot at a child?
EV: Of course. They murdered many Trotskyists and wanted to eliminate his entire family. Trotsky’s son, Sergei Sedov, who remained in Russia and was not interested in politics, was also shot.
In May 1940, a young bodyguard from the USA named Sheldon Harte had just arrived. He was a Stalinist agent and opened the door for the assassins. Later they killed him and buried his body in a park outside the city. In the Stalinist archives it was claimed that he had criticized his comrades — if he had known that they intended to murder the child as well, he would not have participated, he said.
So he was branded a traitor. That is how the Stalinist system worked: when something went wrong, you had to find someone to blame. And in this case, it was very easy to blame the American: they said Harte had warned Trotsky who then hid in the cellar.
The story was filmed this way several times. But that is absurd. As if grandfather would have left me alone.
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