A Revolutionist in Istanbul: Leon Trotksy

On February 1929 Leon Trotsky entered Istanbul per ship accompanied by his wife Natalia Sedova and his son Lev Sedov. When he arrived he was a man who had experienced […]

On February 1929 Leon Trotsky entered Istanbul per ship accompanied by his wife Natalia Sedova and his son Lev Sedov. When he arrived he was a man who had experienced a gradual downfall. He started as one of the most powerful man in Russia, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the head of the Red Army, but soon became public enemy number one of the Soviet Union in Joseph Stalin´s eyes. Exiled from his homeland the young Turkish Republic was the only country which accepted Trotsky within its borders.

Leon Trotsky as a Young Student
Leon Trotsky as a Young Student

I will briefly depict the life story of Lev Davidovich Bronstein alias Leon Trotsky; he was born in today´s Ukrainian village Bereslavka in 1879 as a child of a wealthy peasant family with Jewish origins. The access to a solid education and with it to Marxist circles enmeshed him in young years in political activity.[1] Before the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, he spent the most of his time in Europe in order to escape imprisonment and banishment to Siberia by the Tsarist police. He grew up to be one of the most important figures of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party and the Marxist movement. Despite his wavering relationship to Lenin, the undisputed leader of the Bolsheviks, the revolutionist faction of the party, Trotsky stayed indispensable for Lenin and the Marxist propaganda as a forceful speaker and writer, who ardently believed in the revolution.[2]

The burst of social riots in the Russian Empire during the World War I as a consequence of misery and death created a power vacuum that was exploited by the Bolsheviks in order to seize control in October 1917. The result was a bloody civil war between Bolsheviks and their opponents, the White movement. Trotsky, now fighting alongside Lenin, founded and led the Red Army with draconian methods  so as to prevent  the imminent loss of the war. With the victory of the army his popularity and authority crested among the Bolsheviks.[3]

Trotsky was a founder of Red Army
Trotsky was a founder of Red Army

However his power came to an end with the death of Lenin in 1924. Joseph Stalin, former general secretary of the party and Trotsky´s archival, took over the position of Lenin mainly due to the fact that he stood up for the consolidation of power in Soviet Union whereas Trotsky still defended his idea of the international spread of the revolution. Trotsky´s radicalism necessary in war but difficult to handle in peacetime gave Stalin the chance to push him out of politics step by step. In 1925 Trotsky handed in his resignation with the Red Army due to the pressure. In 1926 and 1927 he lost his positions in the party. Finally in 1928 he was banished to Central Asia. However he still had numerous supporters, which is why he was one of the few who survived Stalin´s purge in the 1930´s. In order to get rid of Trotsky, Stalin sent him into exile to Turkey.[4]

As Trotsky entered Istanbul he immediately sent Mustafa Kemal Atatürk a letter about the fact that he was in Turkey by force.[5]  He did not know on which basis the negotiations had taken place between Stalin and Atatürk and was concerned about his security. However during his whole stay in Istanbul, the Turkish government should be guarding him. Not only due to an order from the Russian secret service but also because  the members of the White movement who had escaped during the Civil War and settled down in Istanbul were suspicious of him. Already during the negotiations with the Soviet Union, Atatürk had insisted on the pledge for the security of Trotsky´s life and ensured him his freedom with the statement that he would be handled as a free person within the framework of the Turkish laws as long as he would not intervene in the politics of Turkey.[6]

In Istanbul Trotsky firstly staid in the Russian Consulate in Beyoğlu, which is still active nowadays, after which he moved to the Tokatlıyan Hotel, which was one of the most popular hotels at that time next to the Çiçek Pasajı. Because he resumed his work as the opposition of Stalin immediately and sent some essays abroad which were met with controversy from the international media, the question of security became urgent for the Turkish police.[7]

Trotsky's Turkish hideaway
Trotsky’s Turkish hideaway

Finally the revolutionist was placed in the İzzet Paşa (Yanaros) mansion in Büyükada, where his movements could be traced most easily.[8] Here the daily life of the Trotsky was shaped around his political work. His gift for writing helped him again both to finance his living and to carry on his oppositional political practices especially against Stalin. He regularly published essays in influential newspapers and released the Bulletin of the Opposition, which was printed in both Paris and Berlin and distributed secretly in the Soviet Union under the supervision of his son Lev Trotsky who had left Büyükada to maintain the resistance outside of Turkey. Furthermore he wrote his autobiography and the History of the Russian Revolution amongst others to balk Stalin´s policy to change the history of the revolution at his own benefit.[9] On the side Trotsky became a keen angler and established a close friendship with a fisherman despite the language barrier on both sides.[10]

Numerous Trotskyists visited Büyükada traveling from various countries. This in contradiction to the response to Trotsky´s arrival in Istanbul by the Turkish left, which remained relatively silent. One reason for that is that the revolutionist kept himself away from the political developments in  the republic. Another one is the bilateral attitude of the Turkish government against communism; The domestic policy strictly suppressed the communist movement. So the first Communist Party of Turkey was banned[11]  and his leader Mustafa Suphi died of suspicious circumstances in the 1920’s. At the same time the Soviet Union and the Turkish Republic had established strong networks since the Turkish War of Independence as the nations were created on similar backgrounds.

Our Revolution, one of his books
One of his books

For all numerous rebounds Trotsky still staid an eager revolutionist who believed in a possible comeback. This was also encouraged by the general tendency to shift to the left or right wing in politics in order to improve the living standards due to the collapse of capitalism after the First World War and the outbreak of a financial crisis.[12]  After all people´s search would be ending advantageous for the right wing and Trotsky´s dream of a world revolution would be receding into the distance.[13]

After the outbreak of a fire in İzzet Paşa, Trotsky had to move to Kadıköy but the stay here was short-termed after he received permission for entry from France. The revolutionist had appealed to numerous countries for asylum[14] and had explained in his interview with Milliyet that his desire to go was based upon his communication problems regarding the Turkish language and not on the lack of hospitality.[15]

However Stalin´s pressure on the revolutionist increased more and more. Trotsky´s supporters and family members were killed. Propaganda trials in the Soviet Union were organized for the legalization of his murder. His escape ended finally in Mexico, where he died on the consequences of an attack with an ice pick done by Stalin´s agent in 1940.[16]

Leon Trotsky was one of the most important actors of his time who had an influential voice in the Marxist movement, the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union which affected the world history and therefore the history of Turkey. On his last exile escaping the system that he had co-founded he had a stop in Istanbul for four years. However nowadays you hardly find signs of him in Istanbul. Sad to say, that the villa in Büyükada where he spent almost his whole stay in Turkey is offered for sale now[17] despite numerous critics by experts. The previous owners have missed the restoration, which means that the building is hardly standing as it is. The municipality of the Prince Islands cannot offer the sales price.[18]  The Ministry of Culture and Tourism seems to be uninterested. Nobody accepts the responsibility for Trotsky´s House and turns it into a museum for saving a piece of history – again a case which shows Turkey´s lack of respect and interest for the history on its own ground.


2. SERVICE, ROBERT: P: 70, 93, 139
7. COŞAR, ÖMER SAMI: P: 33–42
9. SERVICE, ROBERT: P: 456-501
10. COŞAR, ÖMER SAMI: P: 74-75
12. COŞAR, ÖMER SAMI: P: 111-116
14. Patenaude, Bertrad M, p: 15-17
15. Coşar, Ömer Sami: p: 44-45
16. Patenaude, Bertrad M, p: 15-17
17. www.hurriyet.com.tr/ekonomi/29696010.asp
18. www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=house-of-russian-revolutionist-out-for-sale-2010-08-20

Photo Credits: , Revolutionary Books

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