To Mark the 75th Anniversary of Trotsky’s Arrival in Mexico: Interview with Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson
Sieva’s mother, Zinaida, left the USSR in 1931 in order to receive medical treatment. She therefore took Sieva with her. After spending some time in Prinkipo (Turkey), where Trotsky was living in exile, she went to Berlin for medical treatment and lived with her half-brother, Leon Sedov, Trotsky’s son with his second wife, Natalia. Zinaida committed suicide on January 5, 1933.
Sieva lived with Leon Sedov at 26 Rue Lecretelle in Paris, until Leon Sedov was murdered on February 16, 1938. Around the same time, Alexandra Sokolovskaya was shot in Moscow after three years of captivity.
Later, Sieva arrived in Mexico, on August 8, 1939. He therefore experienced and survived the first assassination attempt against Trotsky on May 24, 1940, in the house where Trotsky was living; in all, he lived for a year with his grandfather, up to Trotsky’s assassination on August 20. 1940.
Alan Benjamin, a member of La Vérité-The Truth‘s editorial committee, interviewed Esteban Volkov to mark the 75th anniversary of Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico.
Esteban Volkov: Well, in 1937 the wind of the Mexican Revolution (1910-19) was still sweeping across Mexico (1), a liberating wind, and there was also a very strong anti-imperialist movement, after so many battles against French, British and U.S. imperialisms. Mexico’s President, General Lázaro Cárdenas, had some sympathy for Leon Trotsky as a leader of the Russian Revolution. Also, at that time the right to political asylum was exercised very much there; exiles from Nicaragua and Cuba, to name just two countries, had already arrived in Mexico as political refugees.
But by giving asylum to Trotsky – a decision that was strongly condemned by both the U.S. government and Stalin’s accomplices – Cárdenas was demonstrating the country’s sovereignty and political independence. It was also a gesture to Stalin and his agents that Mexico was autonomous and took its own decisions regardless of any pressure. Let us remember that my grandfather had characterized the Cárdenas government, because of its decision to give him a visa, to redistribute land and so many other political positions, as “the bravest and most honest government of those times“.
LV-TT: How did the request to Cárdenas come about, and why Mexico?
Volkov: In August 1936 the first Moscow Trial was underway; that was also the month when Norway’s social-democratic government placed Trotsky and Natalia under house arrest. Faced with the imminent danger of the Norwegian government handing Trotsky over to the Soviet Union, all of my grandfather’s comrades and supporters immediately started working together to find him a place where he could receive asylum.
Diego Rivera and Octavio Fernández, both of them members of the Trotskyist party in Mexico, asked General Francisco Múgica to intervene. With a letter from Múgica in hand, they went together to see Cárdenas, who was in Torreón (Coahuila), supervising the distribution of land in the Laguna region.
In a meeting that lasted five minutes, Cárdenas immediately agreed, saying that Trotsky could come to Mexico on the sole condition that he respect the laws preventing any foreigner from getting involved in Mexico’s domestic politics.
LV-TT: Who was Múgica and how did he come to play such an important role regarding Trotsky?
Volkov: Like Cárdenas, Múgica was a general in the Mexican Revolution. When Cárdenas came to power in 1933, Múgica was his right-hand man. He was one of the regime’s key ideologists. As Secretary of the National Economy in the first Cárdenas administration, Múgica drafted the first bill to nationalize the oil industry. In the political spectrum at that time, Múgica was one of the most left-wing of the political leaders, the one who was nearest to the ideas of Trotsky, of Marxism, of socialism.
Múgica was Secretary for Communications and Public Works in the second Cárdenas administration. He became an ardent defender of asylum for Trotsky in Mexico, and a reliable intermediary between Trotsky and Cárdenas.
I must say that Múgica and Cárdenas had very close experience of the oil industry, the wells and the oil companies, and they genuinely felt strongly about rejecting the control that imperialism exercised over this sector.
LV-TT: Before we deal with the oil issue, when Trotsky and Natalia arrived in Tampico, you were in Paris. In fact this was one of the worst times, in terms of the persecution of your whole family. Did you know then what was happening to your grandfather?
Volkov: In 1937, I was in Paris with my uncle Leon Sedov and his partner, Jeanne Martin. I lived with them until February 16, 1938, when Leon Sedov died in Paris, poisoned by Stalin’s NKVD following a bout of appendicitis. Then I lived with Jeanne Martin. Those were very difficult times for me. After my uncle died, there were serious problems with her, because she didn’t want to let me go. My grandfather had to take legal action to uphold his rights and regain custody. I only arrived in Mexico on August 8, 1939.
But I knew that my grandfather had gone to Mexico, especially due to the large number of postage stamps that arrived from faraway Mexico, which I waited for impatiently, as I had become a stamp-collector, with the encouragement and advice of my friend Roman Reiss; he was the son of Comrade Ignace Reiss, murdered by the NKVD in Switzerland.
LV-TT: Getting back to the situation in Mexico and the oil issue, following the opening of the Trotsky Archives at Harvard and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, several researchers have been able to establish that there was some indirect collaboration between Múgica, Cárdenas and Trotsky during his stay in Mexico. Olivia Gall, author of Trotsky in Mexico (2), points out that Cárdenas – acting through Múgica, who in turn used Antonio Hidalgo as a go-between to discuss with Trotsky – asked Trotsky for his opinion on the final draft bill that was going to be presented to the nation for the nationalization of the oil industry. Apparently, Cárdenas wanted to know Trotsky’s opinion on the question of worker control over nationalized enterprisesŠ
Volkov: It is clear that there was no way that Cárdenas and my grandfather were going to meet up or have discussions. Any kind of meeting had to be avoided, precisely in order to avoid any hint of political involvement. But apparently, yes, there was some communication via Múgica, and it does seem that my grandfather was asked for his opinion on the law that was passed later on March 18, 1938.LV-TT: The question of nationalizing the oil industry is very important. It is a fundamental act of sovereignty, which explains why it is being attacked so violently today by the whole political caste of the PRI and the PAN, which, as mouthpieces of imperialism, want to privatize the oil industry and hand it back to the foreign companies.
: Evidently. It is a highly-coveted commodity.LV-TT: Coming to our last question: in an interview you gave in August of this year to the British daily newspaper The Guardian, you indicated that imperialism today is in a phase of such decay that this is making it intensify all its attacks on sovereign nations and peoples, and on the working classes and all the oppressed. And you finished by saying that your grandfather’s life will be avenged by history.
Volkov: That’s right. We need to review what Stalinism was. Personally, I consider the appearance of bureaucratic totalitarianism, of Stalinism, to have been one of the biggest catastrophes, one of the biggest defeats suffered by the cause of the socialist revolution.
The greatest rejection and the greatest confusion were created. Through the imposition of Stalinist regimes – in Russia, in West Germany, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, not to mention Ceausescu’s Romania – the socialist cause was harmed, and this is really where Leon Trotsky’s character stands out. He was the one who analyzed the most, who best understood and most loudly condemned that huge retreat, that bottomless abyss that was Stalinism, which pushed back the socialist revolution and gave the capitalist system room to breathe, gave it a reprieve.
Nobody understood and condemned like Trotsky that historic stage which was so disastrous for the socialist struggle, and that is where my grandfather’s biggest contribution lies, that bright lighthouse throwing its light out to the future, towards genuine socialism.
LV-TT: Today, with the collapse of Stalinism on the one hand, and the sudden rise of what we can call “classic” forms of the revolutionary process (like in Tunisia or Greece, for example) on the other, the influence and thoughts of Leon Trotsky are re-emerging as the authentic way for defending the working classes on the path to socialism. During his last few years of life in Mexico – and he knew that his days were numbered – Trotsky devoted himself to the task of summing up all of the lessons of the experience accumulated during that historic epoch that was so crucial for humankind: the Russian Revolution and its degeneration.
Volkov: That’s true. In the political spectrum, Marxism is the only worldview that offers an alternative, the only one that puts forward a solution to a system that is so destructive, so obsolete, a system that leads humankind into greater and greater suffering, to the point of practically destroying the planet – by destroying its very environment.
And it is in this context that we are seeing so many new variations of reformism suddenly appear, or the so-called Fifth International or “socialism for the 21st century” – so many processes that we have seen emerge in the past and which offer no solution whatsoever.
We need to remember my grandfather’s last words, which he said to Joe Hansen: “I am sure of the victory of the Fourth International.”
(2) Olivia Gall, Trotsky en México (y la vida política durante el período presidencial de Lázaro Cárdenas, 1937-1940) [Trotsky in Mexico (and political life during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, 1937-1940)], Era, México, 1991.
(3) PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos) is a state-owned petroleum company. In 2012 it was the world’s fourth biggest producer of crude oil, the third largest exporter of oil to the United States, and the world’s fourteenth biggest oil group (covering all activities), with over US$100 billion in sales.