80 years after Trotsky's assassination: Natalia Sedova against Stalinism and oblivion

“You have sent L.D. into exile as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ under Article 56. You would logically proceed if you declared that you were not in the least bit interested in his health. You would logically proceed if you declared that you were not in the least bit interested in his health. With this you would do nothing but proceed in a consistent manner, with that annihilating consequence that, if it is not remedied, will end up sending to the grave not only the best revolutionaries, but also the party and the revolution itself. But, surely out of fear of the working class, you lack the courage to reach this consequence. (…). The fact that you are forced to give an account of this matter to the masses and that you are trying to get out of the way in such an unworthy manner shows that the working class does not believe the political lies they are told about Trotsky.” [i]

By Maura Gálvez – Bernabé, Movimiento Anticapitalista – Juntas y a la izquierda- Chile

Eighty years have passed since the assassination of Leon Trotsky at the hands of Stalinism, and as anti-capitalist feminists we cannot fail to remember his companion in life and struggle, Natalia Ivanovna Sedova, who brought Leon together, confronted the most powerful bureaucratic apparatus in history, and was also the cornerstone in keeping the memory of the old revolutionary alive.

As a young student at a women’s university in Moscow, she entered the revolutionary movement by joining Social Democracy. That first experience was part of her journey that later, when she moved to Geneva to study botany, continued to expand as she joined the Marxist studies group led by Plekhanov, which allowed her to collaborate with the Iskra newspaper.

Natalia’s story as part of the revolutionary litter of the restless Russia is an exciting one. At the age of 19 she was already taking on the task of smuggling party texts under the magnifying glass of the Czarist police. Then in 1902 she met Leon and together they began a journey that linked the revolution, prison, exile and the raising of two children.

In the days leading up to Red October, Natalia worked in the wood workers’ union, while León led the Petrograd Soviet. Days without rest and almost no sleep brought the couple and militant revolutionaries together. On the days of social transformation, time was drawn with daily life and their children, in this respect she wrote: “L.D. and I did not stop for a moment at home. The kids, when they came back from school and didn’t find us there, would also go to the streets. The demonstrations, the street riots, the shootings, which were frequent, instilled in me in those days much fear, because of them; bear in mind that they were a sea of revolutionaries”[ii].

Natalia made it her daily life to live in the revolution and after that historic 8M in 1917 where women lit the fuse of the explosion under the clamor of bread, peace and work, there was no turning back, they began to forge the germs that would give way to the government of the workers. Not an easy task, the Bolsheviks at the head of the Soviets were storming the skies, although the reaction was acting, and there his comrade, from the rubble, set up a militia made up of workers, peasants and soldiers, the Red Army, which, led by Trotsky, faced a civil war and 14 imperialist countries that were trying to prevent the advance of the revolution.

While the civil war was going on, Natalia was in charge of the service of museums and monuments, Leon, about this passage of his companion’s life says: “She worked in the Commissariat of Public Instruction, where she was in charge of the direction of museums, historical monuments, etc. She was lucky enough to defend the monuments of the past under the living conditions of the civil war. Neither the white nor the red troops were very inclined to concern themselves with the historical value of the cathedrals of the provinces or the ancient churches”[iii].

The story of the first workers’ government was a huge learning experience for subsequent generations who know that a new world is possible.

On the basis of a series of historical factors (which we cannot analyze in this text), the way was opened for the Termidor, the most disastrous bureaucratic apparatus in history led by Stalin, which was savagely combated by Leon and Natalia and by the so-called left opposition. The coming years saw the reversal of those conquests that the Revolution had consolidated, like the right to abortion, the socialization of the tasks of care that fall to women embodied in public dining halls and laundries, homosexual marriage. It is not by chance that these were the first conquests extirpated announcing the coming debacle.

In spite of the internal political struggle of the opposition, the lies, the murders and the persecution mounted by the bureaucratic caste that took control of the state advanced in the purges of the Bolshevik leadership, thus barricading the margins to stop the advance of the revolution and in that way consolidating a caste that was far from the democratic bodies that gave birth to the experience of the reddest October in our history and for which Natalia dedicated her life.

The years in the making were the disturbing exile in the midst of the Stalinist assault and also of the fascism that was emerging in Europe. The assassination of her children, collaborators and close friends marked her revolutionary will, ratifying the unyielding struggle to the end for the liberation of humanity.

Death was near, Natalia and Leon knew it, it was only a matter of time before it fell on them, therefore, they had to take advantage of every minute to continue promoting the historic task of building an alternative to capitalist and Stalinist barbarism. During that pilgrimage of exile, Leon wrote The History of the Russian Revolution, My Life (a book in which Natalia’s participation was fundamental), and Trotsky also deepened The Theory of Permanent Revolution”, as a response to the thesis of socialism in one country which was pushing the already decadent Third International and the founding text of the Fourth International, “The Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International or the Program of Transition”, among a vast and voluminous amount of other writings.

Being in Norway with death around the corner and with no country agreeing to give them asylum, the Mexican government allowed them a break in the middle of the long march. There again the bureaucratic apparatus of the PC was present, headed by the muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros a group went to the house in Coyoacán one night in May and while Natalia, León and their grandson slept, they opened fire on the room. The clumsiness of those who carried out the attack ordered from the USSR allowed the battle to continue. The bullet marks are still intact on the adobe walls of the house. Natalia made sure that they were not erased as a sentence that would prove the truth to the rest of humanity.

House Museum León Trotsky

That spirit of Natalia, the same spirit that in the midst of the revolution and civil war led the conservation of the heritage of the old society as a bastion for the future, in a double commitment full of humanity and revolutionary politics, precipitated her notion and historical role that she should play when the fatal moment arrived. On August 20, 1940 Ramón Mercader buried an ice axe in the skull of the Bolshevik leader. It was Stalin’s hand from the Kremlin. Natalia, on confirming the imminence, shouted “DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING, YOU MUST LEAVE IT AS IT IS”, one day later Leon Trotsky died.

During the twenty-two years that followed, Natalia kept that decision intact, the broken glasses on her desk, the books, the flowers that decorated the color of her patio. Thus she defined her years of life, to consecrate the memory of her comrade, her son and the thousands of revolutionaries assassinated at the hands of Stalin. Guardian of the truth in the midst of the storm. A fundamental task, since without Trotsky, revolutionary Marxism would have lost a fundamental thread of the experience of the first government of the workers, an explanation of Stalin’s obsession with putting an end to the living legacy of Bolshevism, which Natalia not only fought against, but also managed to preserve, in its dazzling preservation, part of that dispute for memory and truth to the apparatus that only with lies and blood could it advance.

And this is what Natalia expresses in a letter addressed to Lázaro Cárdenas three weeks after the assassination of her comrade: “… There has not been a time in history so darkened as ours, by lies, slander, crime and inhumanity. Honest fighters fall as victims. Their memory, however, will be eternal… (The) slander and lies that are not weapons capable of assuring the one who wields them a definitive victory” [iv].

Natalia breaks away from the Fourth International in 1951 in a letter in which she reproaches the leaders of the Trotskyist organization for holding on to the positions that were Trotsky’s at the time of his death. She considered that the evolution of the USSR forced a new appreciation. “We cannot continue to consider the Soviet state as a workers’ state”[v]. A debate that occupied a large part of the young international.

In 1962 cancer took her life far from Mexico. Her order was that her remains should rest in Mexico, in the tomb of the Coyoacán house next to his companion, and this was done. The house of Coyoacán is the conservation of a time that fought against Stalinism, capitalism and its spawn, fascism. The green grass slips into the corners and the flowers that Natalia planted bloom in every corner sparkling with color. The books that had to overcome more than one difficulty, intact in all the rooms. In the bed of her room rests the cane of Leon, architecture of those who live and die to preserve the truth which we, the new generations cling to.

Much of what we can see today of that moment in history we owe to her, and our way of remembering the trajectory of Natalia and León is by militating for the construction of that new world that the revolutionary couple gave her their whole life for. An urgent task in a world full of crisis, the revolution in the 21st century is our will, our commitment as revolutionary feminists.

[i] Fragment of the telegram sent by Natalia Sedova to Uglanof, then secretary of the organization in Moscow, on September 20, 1928, quoted by Leon Trotsky in his book My Life.

[ii] Marguerite Bonnet Natalia Sedova A Life of a Revolutionary 1962

[iii] My life, Leon Trotsky

[iv] Letter in the house museum Leon Trotsky Sent by Natalia Sedova to Lazaro Cardenas on September 11, 1940

[v] Letter to the Fourth International 1951