Trotsky in Mexico: Interview conducted by Alan Benjamin in August 2012
Esteban Seva Volkov was born in 1926 in Moscow. He is the son of Zinaida Volkova (one of Trotsky’s two daughters with his first wife Alexandra Sokolovskaya) and Platon Volkov, teacher, member of the central committee of the teachers’ union and member of the Left Opposition.
His father was deported to Siberia in 1928, part of the cohorts of oppositionists who called themselves “Bolshevik-Leninists.” He was tried by the Military College of the USSR Supreme Court on October 3, 1936 and was shot the following day, October 4, in other words two months after the first Moscow Trial.
(Esteban Volkov in 2012, now 96 years old)
Seva’s mother, Zinaida, left the USSR in 1931 in order to receive medical treatment. She therefore took Seva 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.
Seva lived with Leon Sedov 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, Seva 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 interviewed Esteban Volkov to mark the anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination.
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Question: In January 1937, Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalia arrived in Tampico on board the Norwegian tanker Ruth. Why did Mexico welcome Trotsky, and what were the political conditions in Mexico that meant that Trotsky could find political asylum there?
Esteban Volkov: Well, in 1937 the wind of the Mexican Revolution (1910-19) was still sweeping Mexico (1), a liberating wind, and there was also a very strong anti-imperialist movement, after so many battles against French, British and American imperialisms. Mexico’s President, General Lazaro 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.”
Q: How did the request to Cárdenas come about, and why Mexico?
A: 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.
From 1934 onwards, the American Trotskyists had tried on several occasions, through the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky, to ask the President of the United States to grant him asylum. But when Morris Ernst, co-founder and chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union asked Roosevelt for this help, this favor, in the White House, Roosevelt almost had a heart attack.
In November 1936, faced with the latest refusal of the request for asylum in the United States made to the Roosevelt government, the American Trotskyists asked Diego Rivera if he could ask the Mexican government to grant asylum to my grandfather. Mexico was regarded as the only solution.
Diego Rivera and Octavio Fernandez, 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.
Q: Who was Múgica and how did this person come to play such an important role regarding Trotsky?
(General Francisco Múgica)
A: 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 government, 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 government. 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 business, the wells and the oil companies, and they genuinely felt strongly about rejecting the control that imperialism exercised over this sector.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
(Olivia Gall, author of “Trotsky in Mexico,” with Esteban Volkov)
Q: Getting back to the situation in Mexico and the oil issue, following the opening of the Trotsky Archives at Harvard and the Hoover Institution 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 enterprises. …
A: It is clear that there was no way that Cárdenas and my grandfather were going to meet up or have discussions in person. 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.
Q: 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.
Unquestionably, the nationalization of oil has been a pillar, a foundation-stone, for the industrialization of Mexico. For several years, Mexico has had fuel, petrol, genuinely at affordable prices – even today, when a big proportion of Mexico’s budget revenues come from taxes paid by PEMEX (3) to the government.
This is why the U.S. and European oil companies want to regain control over the oil that slipped through their fingers…
A: Evidently. It is a highly coveted commodity.
Q: Coming to our last question: in a recent interview you gave 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.
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 East 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.
Q: 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 living 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.
A: 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.”
This is a task that is still facing us. To carry it out, we must seek out points of agreement, not disagreement, unity and not divisions between our different groups claiming to stand for the Fourth International, in order to move forward towards achieving that task.
– Interview conducted in August 2012
(1) A reference to The Wind that Swept Mexico by Anita Brenner, the first broad account of the revolution, originally published in 1943.
(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.