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Testimony of Leon Trotsky's Grandson on the Murder of his Grandfather

06.10.2010

LALIT has pleasure in publishing below the testimony of Sieva (Esteban Volkov), the grandson of Leon Trotsky, on the murder of his grandfather, Leon Trotsky. We also publish the two introductory passages from The Organizer, which sent us this testimony (see end of article). This testimony reminds us of the long struggle of the left opposition and other revolutionaries against the Stalinists in power in the USSR, at the same time as against capitalism. LALIT members Alain Ah-Vee and Rajni Lallah, met Jean-Jacques Marie when they went to Slovakia in 2002. Other LALIT members had met Pierre Lambert before his death.

The Testimony of Sieva (Esteban Volkov)

[On Wednesday, February 8, 2006, Sieva (Esteban Volkov), grandson of Leon (Lev) Davidovich Trotsky, while passing through Paris, gave a lecture alongside comrades Pierre Lambert and Jean-Jacques Marie. Before an attentive audience, he gave his personal testimony on the memories of his grandfather, especially of the assassination of Leon Trotsky on August 20, 1940. With his permission we publish this testimony.]

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Introduction by Jean-Jacques Marie:

Sieva (Esteban Volkov) was born in 1926 in Moscow. He is the son of Zinaida (one of Trotsky's two daughters by his first wife, Alexandra Sokolovskaya), and Platon Volkov, teacher, member of the executive committee of the teachers' union and member of the Left Opposition.

His father was deported to Siberia in 1928, as part of the opposition group called "Bolshevik-Leninists." He was tried by the military college of the Supreme Court on October 3, 1936, and shot the next day, October 4 -- two months after the Moscow Trials began.

Sieva's mother, Zinaida, left the USSR in 1931 for treatment. She took Sieva with her. After a stay in Prinkipo, Turkey, where Trotsky was exiled, she went to Berlin to undergo treatment, and lived with her half-brother, Leon Sedov, Trotsky's son, and with his second wife, Natalia. Zinaida committed suicide on January 5, 1933.

Sieva lived with Leon Sedov, at 26 rue de Lacretelle in Paris, until the assassination of Leon Sedov on February 16, 1938. At the same time, Alexandra Sokolovskaya was shot in Moscow, although a Russian historian claims she survived and passed away in 1991, as he had found someone of the same name and was thus trying to cover up the execution.
Then Sieva arrived in Mexico on August 8, 1939. He survived the first attack on the house where Trotsky lived on Calle Viena on May 24, 1940, and where he spent a year living with his grandfather until the assassination on August 20, 1940.

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Sieva (Esteban Volkov):

For me, it is great to be surrounded by comrades who are continuing to fight for the political principles of Leon Trotsky. Just now we are in Paris for a documentary that is being filmed. This morning we went to 26 rue de Lacretelle, where we lived -- Leon Sedov with Jeanne Martin, his girlfriend, and myself.

I have a fairly accurate recollection of that time. I'm really the luckiest one in the family, because nobody in my family reached my current age. The whole family was murdered, exterminated by the counter-revolutionary dictatorship of Stalinism.
Fortunately, today, the historical truth is in the process of carrying the day, thanks to historians like Comrade Jean-Jacques and others who are rebuilding the memories that were mutilated by Stalinism.

It was rather emotional for me to visit this place where I lived when I was in Paris, from the age of 9 to 13 and a half. I saw the primary school where I was educated. Afterwards, we visited the Mirabeau Clinic. This is where Leon Sedov was most certainly poisoned by the GPU (or KGB). He had been brought there following an attack of appendicitis, by his false friend, an agent of the GPU, Zborovska, called "Etienne." While on the road to recovery after his surgery, Leon Sedov's health suddenly deteriorated and he was the victim of this fatal attack.

I had left Russia in 1931 with my mother. The condition set forth by Stalin was that she could take only one of her children out of Russia. I was fortunate to be one chosen. I was the youngest and smallest and went with her to Prinkipo where my grandfather, Lev Davidovich, lived. I had the good fortune of going back a few years ago and visiting the house.

The building is preserved but the interior is completely devastated; you could see that it had been through some bombings. But the outside of the house is more or less the same as when my grandfather lived there. The small fishing port has not changed; neither has the garden on the hill. But Prinkipo is no longer the same island. It was a fairly deserted island with a few houses, and it now it is home to all the bourgeoisie of Istanbul. We intend to go back there for the film that we're making, but first we need to see if the house still exists. As it is for sale, there is always the risk that someone has bought it and made changes.

In Prinkipo I met comrades Jean Van Heijenoort, Otto Schussler and Jan Frankel. Frankel is the person with whom I connected most in terms of friendship. In this period Natalia took care of me often. Thanks to her patience, I even learned to read and write in Russian. According to Van, I even began to speak a little Turkish.

I still have many memories of when the house burned. It was the middle of the night, I left my bed and my room and watched the hellish show, with the house engulfed in flames in the dark night, sparks flying. It was impressive. After that, we changed houses and left the island of Prinkipo for a while to settle in Kadikoy on the Asian side, temporarily, until the house was repaired. When it was restored, we moved back.

I went to Berlin with Van at the end of 1932, a year after the departure of my mother, at the moment when Hitler was preparing to take power. I stayed a very short time with my mother. One day, suddenly, Leon Sedov, my uncle, came and took me under his wing. But at that time nobody informed me of my mother's suicide. I only learned a year later, when I was in Vienna.

In Vienna I was around nice people. They were socialists, and I lived in a small youth hostel directed by Freudian psychoanalysts. I stayed two years, until comrade Frankel, one of Trotsky's collaborators, came and got me. He took me to Paris, where I stayed with Leon Sedov and his companion, Jeanne Martin, who had previously been Molinier's wife.
After Leon Sedov's death, Jeanne and I first lived in a rented room. After that we went to live with Molinier, who was then married to a Romanian, or Bulgarian, comrade who was named Vera Lanis. This stay with Jeanne was not a very happy one for me, for she was a wounded woman, very depressed, and the death of Liova (Leon Sedov) had filled her with grief and sadness. She had a rather difficult character. She was very rigid, with sometimes absurd ideas from another era. For her, children had to go to bed at 8:30 p.m., not one minute later, could not eat mustard or vinegar because she said it was bad for them, and had to wear high shoes so as not to damage their ankles. ... It was really torture to live with her!

When Leon Sedov died, Jeanne kept his bloodied pajamas in a small suitcase on top of a chest. Upon the death of Leon Sedov, the apartment where we lived was sealed off by the police. All our belongings remained there -- books, clothes, my toys. We just stayed with the belongings that we had on us.

After the death of Leon Sedov, there was a problem with Jeanne -- she wanted me to stay with her, while Trotsky wanted to take me with him. My grandfather had to initiate litigation and legal procedures to ensure paternal authority over me. Jeanne sent me to the Jura in the winter with a friend who had a youth hostel. There, I got sick. I had diphtheria, and it lasted one or two months. And one day, suddenly, I was told that someone was there to see me. It was Margaret Rosmer and a lawyer friend who came with a court order, and I left with them by car. We traveled through forests full of snow, staying overnight in a small inn in the middle of the woods beside the road.

Then my journey to Mexico began. But it took time. I stayed several months with friends in the suburbs of Paris, half hidden, until we obtained the visa and necessary documents. Finally, we left for Le Havre and from there we took a boat, which, after a stop at the port of Southampton late at night, departed for New York. It was 1939, at the time of the World's Fair in New York. We spent some time in the apartment of Ruth Ageloff's sister, Sylvia Ageloff, the young woman who was seduced by Ramon Mercader (aka Frank Jackson), the future assassin of Trotsky. From there we took the train to Mexico and we arrived at the station in Mexico City. Trotsky's young secretary and bodyguard, Jean Van Heijenoort, came and picked us up. After a long journey in an old Ford, we arrived at the house on Calle Viena in Coyoacan.

It was a big change in my life, a total change. It was another world for a boy like me. I was 13 and a half years old. It was a place full of life, full of human warmth. My grandfather and Natalia were surrounded by a group of young comrades -- there were some Americans, one German and one Frenchman.

It was a family, a big family. These were not professional guards, they were comrades, collaborators who had come of their own free will, who were not paid. They were given some pocket money on Sundays to go out and buy cigarettes. They were true comrades who, upon arriving in Mexico, had no idea of how to use a revolver and had little knowledge of security measures.

Stalinism was ratcheting up the smear campaigns. The insults were constant and violent in their publications. Though few people read these newspapers, the money kept pouring in from the Kremlin. Today, thanks to the VENONA documents of the U.S. government, we know much more about the links and mechanisms through which the money arrived to the people responsible for the preparation of Trotsky's assassination. One of them was Vicente Lombardo Toledano. He was a leader of one of the most important union federation in Mexico: the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM). He was one of Trotsky's biggest detractors. He received money through Kathy Harris, an American Stalinist.

The slander campaign greatly intensified in early 1939. Trotsky, who never abandoned his sense of humor, said, "It appears that journalists are about to exchange the pen for the gun." And indeed, on May 24 at 4 a.m., the house was stormed by a group of 20 to 25 gunmen led by the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Stalinist who had participated in the Spanish Civil War.

One group stood behind a large tree from where they could lay down a curtain of gunfire over the comrades' and guards' rooms. Three other groups advanced on Trotsky's room, which had two doors and a window opening onto the garden. From these three directions they sprayed the room with bullets, with Thompson 45s. I slept in the next room and was awakened by someone pushing open the door from the garden. At first I thought it was a comrade, because I could not imagine that someone from the outside could penetrate into the house. But after a few seconds I realized that they were not comrades, but attackers. That moment seemed eternal -- the gunshots, the smell of gunpowder ... a bullet grazed me, scratching my big toe. And finally there was silence, and I had the impression that my grandparents were no longer alive.

After that, someone came back in and I heard the word "bomb." At this point, I left my hiding place -- I was under the bed in a corner -- and I jumped up and ran at full speed to the garden. I was afraid that the house would explode into pieces. But thankfully they were not explosive bombs, but incendiary bombs, which were beginning to start a fire in the room. The idea of the Stalinists was certainly to burn the archives. After that, there was a great silence. When I jumped into the garden, I almost collided with one of the assailants leaving in a hurry. My grandfather thought that this attempt to burn the archives established, without a doubt, that Stalin was behind the attack.

Then I walked through the library and dining room. I exited out the back toward the guards' room and I entered into the room of Harold Robbins, one of the guards. A few minutes later we heard the voice of my grandfather, full of life and joy for having survived the attack. The whole house was around him to give their accounts of what had happened. That was the character of Lev Davidovich. He came out of the attack as if nothing had happened. When he told what had just happened to the chief of police, Salazar, the latter at first did not believe there had been an attack.

So when the Mexican Communist Party put forth the story that the attack was a false attack, what they called a "self-inflicted attack," the police fell right into the trap. Trotsky seemed so calm, without any emotion, that they could not believe he had just been on the verge of losing his life.

Upon making a head count we realized that the comrade who was on guard duty, the young American Sheldon Harte, was missing. Today, we know that he was an undercover agent in the house, a Stalinist. We know the ease with which the GPU and CP infiltrated the ranks of the Trotskyists. We were very naive. Zborowski, known by the name of Etienne, was the closest friend of Leon Sedov. As for Lola Estrine -- also a friend of Etienne and Sedov -- and the role she played, we do not know too much. It is still a mystery to be solved.

Sheldon Harte had entered the house upon the recommendation of the SWP, the American party. He was a young man of 25. I found him very anxious. My grandfather's secretary, a Russian of great poise named Fanny Yanovitch (who according to her recollections sometimes received a few poems of my grandfather written between the lines), told how she had often borrowed Sheldon Harte's pen, and on the day before the attack he demanded that she return the pen in a really too insistent manner. She also said that Harte was always requesting information about the book that Trotsky was writing about Stalin -- where the book was, how it was proceeding, was it almost finished?

It has now been proven that Sheldon Harte was an undercover agent. It was he who opened the door. But there is some disagreement about his role of opening the door. Jake Cooper, Sheldon's roommate and fellow American, a former Teamster (member of the truck drivers' union in Minneapolis), said, "Sheldon saved my life, because the guard duty that night was mine. But I had a health problem, a stomach ailment, and Sheldon filled in for me." But Sheldon Harte was murdered. What seems most logical, when you know the GPU, is that he was used as a scapegoat. To protect their image in Stalin's eyes, after a failure like the one they suffered, they had to find a culprit. The young American was the most appropriate person to be that scapegoat.

You probably know the film by Joseph Losey, The Assassination of Trotsky. The script came from Stalinist sources who tried to validate the story invented by the GPU: Mercader was a Trotskyist disappointed by Trotsky, a man who was desperate. And in addition they claimed that Sheldon Harte was actually recruited by Trotsky, and that the attack had not been successful because Trotsky had been warned and not slept in his room but in the basement -- leaving his grandson in the house, exposed to the bullets!

The machinery of Stalinist falsification was quite something. It is very likely that Sheldon Harte was chosen as a scapegoat in order to save the image of the painter Siqueiros, who led the attack.

Not a few untruths have been told about the house in Coyoacan. It is said that it was a fortress, which is completely false. It was a normal house, only with walls a little higher than normal -- and all fortifications were made after the first attack.

After the first attack, the American comrades organized a fundraiser to get some work done on the house. Guard posts were added on the roofs, iron shutters were installed on the windows and on the interior doors. All this meant that an attack of the same nature as that of May 24 would have been much more difficult to accomplish. But Trotsky said that the next attack would not be similar, it would be of a different type. Each morning he repeated to Natalia when she opened the window, "Natalia, they gave us one more day of life."

Just after the final attack by Mercader, the man who killed Trotsky, the first thing that my grandfather said when Natalia came near him was, "Jackson," indicating with that single word that the attack we had been expecting had come from him. As we know, the GPU had undertaken several assassination plots at the same time. If one of them did not work, they automatically put another into action. This Mercader had managed to seduce Sylvia Ageloff, a rather naive activist in the SWP. As we found out recently in books that were published, those of Volkogonov, for example, Stalin was seriously afraid of Trotsky and the clarity with which he denounced all Stalin's crimes and betrayals. One of Stalin highest priorities was the assassination of Trotsky. All the resources, means, and best agents were utilized to eliminate him.

One day, Jackson suddenly told Sylvia Ageloff that his boss was sending him to South America and that he had to go work in Mexico, as if by chance. Sylvia was on very good terms with all the comrades of the Trotsky household. Jackson, who accompanied her, remained a bit aloof and showed no interest in politics at first. But little by little he began to cultivate friendships with the comrades, though not with Trotsky or Natalia. He invited comrades to dine out in Mexico City. When he went on trips, he left his car. When Margaret and Alfred Rosmer were returning to France, and they had to take a boat from Veracruz, which is 400 km from Mexico City, he gave them a ride to Veracruz, and it seems that Natalia accompanied them. Sometimes he invited us to picnics on the outskirts of Mexico City. He gave gifts. But he did not seek to establish a personal relationship with Trotsky, which was a fairly clever way not to arouse the suspicion or curiosity of comrades.

But suddenly, as a result of disagreements in the American party on the defense of the USSR (a debate in which Sylvia was in the minority, i.e., with the group of Max Shachtmann, who was against the defense of the USSR and said there was absolutely nothing of the USSR to defend), Jackson, who had apparently never had the slightest interest in politics, suddenly showed an interest in this controversy. He made it known that unlike Sylvia he supported the defense of the USSR, wrote a short article on this subject, and asked via comrades if would be possible for Trotsky read it, so as to get his opinion and advice. My grandfather fell into this trap.

After all, Jackson has presented himself as a generous supporter who helped all the comrades and showed them a lot of attention. Besides, Lev Davidovich told himself, there might be an opportunity to win a new member to the party. So he agreed.

Jackson paid him two visits; on the first nothing happened. It was only a rehearsal, a test run. A few days later he returned with the article more or less corrected according to my grandfather's edits. Trotsky did not find the article to be worth very much, it was rather poor and confused. However, he did his best to advise Jackson. But the second visit was not a test run, it was to carry out the attack just minutes after entering the office.

A terrible scream shook the house, and Natalia ran straight into the office and found my grandfather at the door, standing, covered in blood. She laid him down in the dining room, and the comrades came running. Immediately some threw themselves on Jackson; comrade Joe Hansen broke his hand with the punch he gave him. And Trotsky, who heard the fight taking place in the next office, still managed to say, "No, no, they should not kill him. He must speak!"

I arrived five to ten minutes after the attack. I came home from school by a long street. Two or three blocks away, I felt that something strange had just happened. I saw a car parked in the middle of the street, with some police at the open door of the house. I had a hunch that this time things would not turn out the same. We would not be as lucky as the first time.

When I went into the garden, I found Harold Robbins, one of the guards, with his revolver in hand, really anxious. I asked him, "What happened here?" In reply, he simply exclaimed, "Jackson, Jackson!"

Rapidly crossing the garden, I saw at the end of the hall a person with blood on his face, escorted by police, moaning like an animal, acting like a real human wreck: It was Jackson-Mercader. What a contrast with the revolutionaries who fell under the bullets of the GPU in Vorkuta, Kolyma or Magadan, singing the Internationale and shouting, "Long live Lenin and Trotsky!"

I went through the garden to the library. My grandfather was in the next room. He told the comrades not to let me go in, "Sieva should not see this scene." I have never forgotten that very human gesture, that while mortally wounded he was still thinking of the consequences that this scene could have on a child. After that, he was taken to the hospital, where he underwent surgery.

To Joe Hansen his last words were, "I am confident in the victory of the Fourth International," after which he expressed his love and affection for Natalia and said, "I think this time, it will be over." He said that his heart was not going to make it. Then life escaped him. This was the assassination of Trotsky.

But history has proven to us that Stalin failed: Trotsky continues to live. Thanks to Trotskyists and to historians, the true history is being restored. Stalinism is in the dustbin of history, fortunately, and the path to socialism is opened anew. It is the task of the revolutionary party to retake the path that Stalinism blocked and filled with rubble. But fortunately, it is being reopened. Every day we see that the cause of socialism is more necessary than ever, and that capitalism, out of breath, has entered a dangerous stage of decay, and is in fact in the process of destroying the beautiful oasis we have in this universe. The task of revolutionaries is precisely to continue the struggle of Trotsky. I am pleased that comrades are continuing Lev Davidovich's fight against capitalism.

A well-known writer criticized Trotsky for having founded the Fourth International. I totally disagree with that criticism. The Fourth International has been an extraordinary university for Marxism and the revolutionary struggle, even if recent history has not yet led to revolutionary outbreaks or triumphs as we had hoped, and so we must prepare comrades and revolutionaries for the struggle, to follow the path. History has its own rhythm, and things do not go as fast as we would like. That's history. The important thing is to keep a hold of revolutionary theory, to continue the fight and not lose our way.

Finally I would like to talk about the image of Trotsky as I knew him in Mexico. There are many false images of Trotsky, which describe him as a very strict, military kind of person. No, he was a human being, full of life, full of joy, full of warmth, with a great sense of humor. And above all, a great love for human accomplishments. He allowed no hierarchy. I remember in the house, one day, there was a blockage in the sewer. And the first to take the shovel and pick was him.

When we went picnicking sometimes on Sundays, he liked to collect cacti. These plants symbolize resistance to the harshest conditions of nature. When there is no water and the heat is intense, they are the plants that survive in these conditions. That may be why he had great admiration and great love for cacti. Especially because in Mexico there is such a great variety of these plants. It's really wonderful. We see the adaptation of life to extreme conditions.

In the house, he gave much importance to the education of comrades. There were always meetings in his office at the end of the day, where he discussed all of the comrades' problems. He had an extraordinary sense of humor. He was interested in the personal situation of comrades, their health. Trotsky was a full human being, with a great joy of living despite the difficult situation in which we were placed, and with a fighting spirit. But he was very strict on the issues of discipline and respect for work, very strict.

I remember one incident. One day, Sheldon Harte (who was kidnapped on the morning of the attack), by mistake, left the door to the street open for a few minutes. Trotsky called him over and told him, "That is an unforgivable oversight, Sheldon, and you could be the first victim of such an oversight." That was the Trotsky's personality.

One of the guards told me that when my grandfather saw them talking with me, he asked them not to speak with me about politics. My personal interest was rather in science. We also saw this with his son, Serge, the youngest. He was not linked to politics, he was an industrial engineer. And I am a chemist. My role is rather to be a historical witness, to establish the truth, and to erase all the lies and monstrous falsifications of Stalinism. My role is to denounce a crime as severe and unforgivable as the murder of revolutionaries, as the attempt to destroy the memory of humanity -- which is also a crime against the future and against progress, a heinous crime.

There have been several films, especially that of Alain Dugrand, an historical film quite well done. Then there was an American Trotskyist, Dave Weiss, who just died, who filmed for ten or fifteen years but never finished the film. He left a lot of material. It would be interesting to complete the work he could not finish.

In Mexico, we just finished a documentary called "Trotsky and Mexico: Two Revolutions of the 20th Century." Naturally, the central character is Trotsky, who corresponds to the Russian Revolution. It was made by the Argentine filmmaker Adolfo García Videla, a Trotskyist sympathizer. It's a pretty good documentary. Currently, we are working on another documentary on me, the grandson, on my memories of Paris, then Prinkipo, and Mexico City related to Leon Trotsky.

I must also say a few words about the film by Losey, which is a film that fortunately failed, because the purpose of this film was to discredit Trotsky. The script came from Stalinist sources and tried to misrepresent the murder, as a decision of a Trotskyist disappointed in Trotsky. This is in fact a story pulled from the Moscow Trials. Fortunately, Losey failed because we started a fight, a struggle, against him, and we threatened to publicly denounce the attempt to falsify historical facts.

The film, showing Stalin's attempt to falsify history, had a rather curious history. A few years ago, the lawyer Adolfo Zamora (a close friend of my grandfather, who requested that Lev Davidovich become my legal guardian) explained to us the role of the Soviet embassy shortly after the assassination. The Attorney General of Mexico, Jose Aguilar y Maya, told Zamora, a personal friend, that the Soviet ambassador in Mexico, Konstantin Umansky, had contacted him and offered him money to have the Mexican justice system accept the GPU's version of events, namely that Jackson did not kill Trotsky by striking him from behind, but following a physical altercation. But Umansky did not succeed in this; Aguilar y Maya refused the money. Shortly after, Umansky was removed from his post in Mexico and transferred to Costa Rica. Strangely, a few weeks later, the plane the ambassador was taking to Costa Rica for his new position exploded virtually at takeoff. Coincidence?

Finally, some people came to see us offering to assassinate Jackson-Mercader. A counterfeiter named San Pietro, who was in a cell adjoining that of Mercader, offered to kill him. Another time, it was a policeman, a guard at the prison, who offered to eliminate Mercader. We told the press about all these attempts, because we thought it was in fact the GPU that wanted to get rid of Mercader and then blame the crime on us.

For Trotsky, death was not a problem. He knew it was an outcome of the struggle. He said (I think to a French writer Andre Malraux), "When a person accomplishes his or her task in life, dying is not a problem." Trotsky was not a man to die of old age in a bed. He fell during battle, in the trenches of the revolution.

Though I am not a member of your group, you may publish my testimony, for my 'leitmotiv' has always been to be on good terms with all groups who continue the struggle undertaken by Leon Trotsky, especially to restore the historical truth.


[Note: The above article is reprinted from Issue No. 69 (New Series), September 2010, of La Verité/The Truth, the theoretical magazine of the Fourth International. This is a double issue of the magazine devoted to Leon Trotsky, on the 70th anniversary of his assassination by a Stalinist agent, and to the relevance of Trotsky's teachings for today. To obtain a copy of this double issue, please send $10 (includes shipping) to Socialist Organizer, P.O. Box 40009, San Francisco, CA 94140. To subscribe to this theoretical magazine, three issues per year, please send $20 to this address. Please make checks payable to The Organizer newspaper.]