Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 53. Trotsky’s End

KATYN HAD BEEN BERIA’S WORST MISTAKE, but in August 1940 he had a resounding success: he had Trotsky killed. For seven years, since Trotsky had left Turkey for France, the NKVD’s pursuit of the only enemy Stalin took seriously had been a gruesome farce. The French authorities were fed up with the trail of bullet-ridden corpses and the émigrés and diplomats who helped the killers; the NKVD, apart from killing Trotsky’s children, his parents, his sister, his sister-in-law, and some of his political followers, had murdered eight secretaries. When in January 1937 Trotsky moved to Mexico, the NKVD could plan anew as the Stalinist Mexican Communist Party had influential supporters, and Mexico’s refugees from Spain included NKVD collaborators. Stalin’s determination was not lessened by Trotsky’s newly conciliatory position toward him. To the dismay of his followers, Trotsky had approved Stalin’s division of Poland with Hitler, on the grounds that the USSR was a workers’ state and that the Baltic states and Poland would now benefit by joining a proletarian empire.

Beria had inherited from Ezhov a few Spanish Civil War adventurers. One was Naum Eitingon, who had operated as a guerrilla with the republican forces under the name of General Kotov, and who took over from the defector Aleksandr Orlov as the NKVD’s main agent in Spain.46 Eitingon was assisted by Iosif Grigulevich and by a new recruit to the NKVD’s main directorate, Pavel Sudoplatov—the only one of Beria’s men to publish a full, if mendacious, account of his activities. They were allotted $300,000 to mount their operation, which produced two plans, both using new agents unknown to Trotsky. One, organized by Grigulevich, was an amateurish machine-gun attack on May 24, 1940, by Mexican Stalinists led by the painter David Siqueiros and assisted by the treachery of Trotsky’s last secretary, Robert Sheldon Harte. Siqueiros’s men riddled Trotsky’s room but failed to search it. The Trotskys hid under the bed.47

Eitingon’s plan was more subtle. His agent Ramón Mercader was a fanatical Stalinist, physically strong but morally weak, and had fought in Spain. His mother, Caridad, had for three years been an NKVD agent. Mercader had many aliases: the Belgian Jacques Mornard, the Canadian Frank Jackson. Sudoplatov and Eitingon instructed him to court Trotsky’s assistant Sylvia Ageloff, to express no interest in Trotsky or Trotskyism, and to insinuate himself into the house as her apolitical husband. Despite Mercader’s lack of credentials, political knowledge, or personal charm, Trotsky was too polite or too resigned to assassination to investigate him or to avoid being alone with him. On August 20, 1940, Mercader smashed an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull. Mercader was caught; Eitingon and Caridad Mercader were already on their way to California. If there was any doubt that Trotsky’s death was Stalin’s doing, it was unwittingly dispersed by Pravda’s triumphant announcement before even the Mexican police knew that Trotsky had been killed “by a member of his inner circle.”

Stalin was so pleased by this success that he personally assured Naum Eitingon, “not a hair will ever fall from your head.” 48 Three weeks later Stalin’s magnanimity went further: he told a Central Committee meeting that enemies should be portrayed in films not as monsters, but as people hostile to our society, but not devoid of some human characteristics. The vilest villain has human traits, he loves somebody, he respects somebody, he wants to make sacrifices for somebody. . . . Why not represent Bukharin, however much he was a monster, but he did have some human features? Trotsky is an enemy, but he is [corrected to “was” in the stenogram] a capable man, without argument, represent him as an enemy who had negative features, but he also had good qualities, because without argument he did.49

Having disposed of Trotsky, on January 30, 1941, Beria became general commissar of state security. It did not worry him that he might last no longer than Iagoda or Ezhov after Stalin had awarded them that rank.