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.