Trot­sky: A Biography

Robert Ser­vice
  • Review
By – January 16, 2012

While Service’s mag­is­te­r­i­al biog­ra­phy of Trot­sky is cer­tain­ly com­pre­hen­sive, employ­ing an impres­sive range of pre­vi­ous­ly unavail­able source mate­r­i­al, read­ing it is like eat­ing at one of those pricey restau­rants where the over­sized main course is indi­gestible, although the side dish­es are delight­ful. Service’s account of Trotsky’s life is so heav­i­ly col­ored by his dis­dain, that at times it is hard even to read, much less to take seri­ous­ly. He harps on Trotsky’s boy­hood pec­ca­dil­los, his shab­by treat­ment of his wives and chil­dren, his van­i­ties. The biographer’s petu­lance on such mat­ters obscures the strengths of oth­er chap­ters, espe­cial­ly the ones deal­ing with Trotsky’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, or the internecine strug­gles of var­i­ous polit­i­cal fac­tions. The exten­sive maps — of Rus­sia, of the ear­ly Sovi­et Union, of Trotsky’s exile, of his com­pound in Mex­i­co — are won­der­ful, as are the pho­to inserts. Some­how, a cou­ple of pages of Trotsky’s doo­dles say so much more about his social man­ner than all Service’s tut-tut­ting about his arro­gance. Read­ers look­ing for an acces­si­ble, mod­ern take on Trotsky’s life and times might well pre­fer Rubenstein’s recent Leon Trot­sky: A Revolutionary’s Life. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, maps, notes, photographs.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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