Leon Trotsky’s home in Mexico City is an interesting site to visit for two reasons… First, regardless of one’s political leanings, there is no disputing the historical significance of Leon Trotsky – Marxist revolutionary and theorist, Soviet politician, founder and commander of the Red Army, figure of blame for the brutal crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion, fierce opponent to Stalinism – and it is interesting to see where and how he lived (and died) in Mexico City.
And, secondly, it is interesting to see what life in a well-to-do household in Mexico City in 1940 was like. The home was essentially frozen in time following Trotsky’s death on August 21, 1940 and so, when visiting, one very much feels as if they are stepping back into that era.
By the time Leon Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, arrived in Mexico City in 1937, Trotsky had not only lost the battle with Joseph Stalin to direct the course of communism in the Soviet Union, but also all four of his children, and many other relatives as well.
After nearly a decade of wandering exile, they were greeted and taken in by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Trotsky and his wife stayed at Frida’s Casa Azul (Blue House) until an affair between Kahlo and Trotsky made things a tad awkward, and the Trotskys moved five blocks down the road to Avenida Rio Churubusco.
The house that was Trotsky’s Mexican refuge would evolve into a mini-fortress after Stalin gave orders for Trotsky to be killed and attempts to see this carried out were made.
The Old Man, as he was known in the household, would rise early to feed the chickens and rabbits he kept at the bottom of the garden, and then immerse himself in his work, stopping only for short naps and collective meals.
Most of his working hours were spent on a biography of Stalin, as he had been given a substantial advance in dollars, or planning the one he really wanted to write about Lenin.
But there were still games in the garden on Sundays, trips to the countryside to collect cacti, and outings to the cinema – at least until May 24, 1940, when 20 gunmen, led by Mexican muralist and Stalinist David Alfaro Siqueiros, burst into the house and clumsily tried to gun Trotsky down.
The house was subsequently fortified with metal doors and watchtowers and the outings were banned, but Trotsky’s sense of humor remained. “Natalia, they have given us one more day of life,” Trotsky’s grandson, Vsevolod Volkov (Sieva) remembers Trotsky joking most mornings. “My grandfather knew that the next attack would be soon. The question was where from.”
It came from inside. A Stalinist agent had wormed his way into the house through an affair started years before with a trusted secretary in the inner circle. “It was very well done,” Volkov says with a hint of admiration. “We were like children compared to them.”
Closed off from the outside world by high walls, this is the garden that first greets one arriving at Trotsky’s home in Mexico City… Many of the cacti growing here were methodically collected and planted by Trotsky himself:
Trotsky had chickens and rabbits brought to the house and their care became an important part of his daily routine. As his widow, Natalia, later put it, “The operation implicated in the care of the animals and the cleaning of the rabbits’ cages provided rest to his spirit and distracted him.”
The cages where the rabbits were kept:
Trotsky feeding his chickens:
A view of the outside of Trotsky’s home from the garden… You can see one of the watchtowers on the roof to the right:
Another view of the home from the garden:
The Guards House
Upon moving to this site in May of 1939, after his stay in the Blue House (Frida Kahlo’s home), Trotsky had this section built as a house for the “family”. By May of 1940, cook Carmen Palma, servant Belen Estrada, assistants Otto Schussler, Harold Robins, Jake Cooper, Charles Cornell, bodyguards Robert Sheldon Harte, Walter Kerley and old French friends Alfred Rosmer and his wife Marguerite all lived in this part of the compound. During the attack by the Siqueiros group, none of them could get out of their rooms to offer resistance because of the intensity of the gunfire:
The kitchen underlines how rustic and austere Trotsky’s lifestyle was in Mexico and how Natalia and he tried to adopt Mexican customs in their new life. They both apparently enjoyed visiting traditional markets to buy their food and kitchen utensils.
There used to be a window on the east wall, but it was bricked up after the first attack because it faced Morelos Street.
Next to the entrance is an icebox:
The Dining Room
The dining room furniture retains its original layout, as well as its original color… Trotsky, Natalia, and Sieva along with Trotsky’s closest associates (those whom Trotsky called “the family”) all had their meals here:
This is where Trotsky’s secretaries worked…
The books are part of Trotsky’s and Natalia’s library.
Natalia also used to work in this room. Her desk is the one next to the tall bookcase.
The two windows, which face Morelos Street, are bricked up halfway. And, at one end of the room, the old portico, which faced Viena Street, is bricked up completely.
Otto Schussler, Jackie Cooper, Harold Robbins, Charles Cornell and Fanny Ivanovich worked here during the last months of Trotsky’s life. Joseph Hansen, Trotsky’s old collaborator, joined the staff in May of 1940.
The tables were always covered with papers, newspapers and magazines. Trotsky recorded some of his works on the Ediphone machine (in wax cylinders), which is on the table on the back, and Fanny, his secretary, would transcribe them using an Underwood typewriter.
Every day, after dinner, at 9 pm, Trotsky would get together with his associates to review the day’s activities:
This is the room where Trotsky worked tenaciously for at least ten hours a day… This was also the scene of the Russian revolutionary’s final fight with his assassin, Ramon Mercader del Rio, who on August 20th, 1940, struck Trotsky a mortal blow in the head with an ice axe.
The table is covered with books that belonged to Leon Trotsky, who in the last months of his life, was working on the manuscript which would reveal the hidden side of the Stalinist government: Stalin’s biography, which was left unfinished due to Trotsky’s untimely death.
Next to the table can be seen the Edison Dictating Machine dictaphone, where Trotsky used to record his work in wax cylinders like those that are on the table.
On the left side of the desk is the bookcase where dictionaries and reference books were kept:
The desk at which Trotsky was seated when his assassin struck… Everything – from his glasses, to his papers, to the books on the desk – has been left exactly as they were when Trotsky was attacked:
Trotsky dying in the hospital shortly after the final attempt on his life:
On the north wall of the study is the largest bookcase, which contains the main collection of Trotsky’s library: several of his works, some of Lenin’s works, essays by Marx and Engels and 86 volumes of the Brockhaus and Efron Russian Encyclopedia, among other works in different languages.
In the corner is the bed where Trotsky used to rest for a few minutes during work days. One of the main worries Trotsky had about himself during his last years was the high blood pressure that he suffered from, and which caused him to have strong headaches, forcing him to stop working to seek relief. Testimonies of this worry appear in his last letters and in the will that he wrote in this house:
The bed that is now in this room replaced Trotsky’s and Natalia’s former bed, which had been riddled with more than fifty bullets in the early morning of May 24, 1940. As mentioned above, muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was the leader of the group of twenty people that made this attempt on Leon Trotsky’s life.
According to the information given later by the police, the attackers entered the house with the complicity of Robert Sheldon Harte, Trotsky’s chief of security, who opened the door for them. The men were firing powerful weapons, and hundreds of bullets ended up embedded deeply in the walls of the house.
Siqueiros fired from the door that opened to the garden which is now a window; Spanish painter Antonio Pujol fired from the door to the study and Mexican painter Luis Arenal did so from the other door. These three men alone fired almost 200 rounds which struck the bed and the walls (some of the bullet holes can still be seen in the north wall and above the headboard).
Aside from assassinating Leon Trotsky, a secondary goal was to burn his archives, which is why incendiary bombs were also thrown inside the house.
According to Trotsky, Natalia and he were able to save their lives thanks to hurling themselves down in the only place that was outside the attacker’s range of vision; the corner behind the bed:
Following the assassination attempt, Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas ordered that the house be fortified. Metal doors were installed and, outside, alarm systems were improved.
One of the metal doors installed in the home:
The Bathroom/Dressing Room
The bathroom/dressing room is long and narrow. It has a tin roof and two entrances: one from the grandson’s room, and a second, armored one, from Trotsky’s and Natalia’s bedroom.
Some of the interesting items in here are the old bathtub, the firewood boiler for hot water, some clothes that belonged to Trotsky, some pairs of Natalia’s shoes, a metal bottle of Trotsky’s Colgate toothpaste, as well as some glass bottles and other toiletries:
The interior of the house is somewhat dark and gloomy due to the bars and steel shutters on the windows as well as the fact that some of the windows were covered over with bricks following the first assassination attempt at the house.
Shoes and clothing belonging to Leon and Natalia:
The Grandson’s Room
Trotsky’s grandson, Vsevolod Volkov (Sieva), is the son of Zina Bronstein (committed suicide in Berlin on January 5, 1933) and Platon Volkov (arrested in 1935 during the Great Purges and disappeared in the Gulag).
Sieva arrived in Mexico to join his grandfather here in August of 1939.
According to his testimony, Sieva was sleeping in this room in the early morning of the first attack when he was awakened by the sound of gunshots in the garden. He hid under the bed and ended up being only lightly wounded by a bullet that struck his foot. He was the only one wounded in the attack:
Vsevolod Volkov (Sieva) is still alive and is, today, the current director of the Trotsky Museum in Mexico City.
I’ll let Trotsky’s widow, Natalia, have the last word on his life in Mexico City:
“He never did anything slowly or half-way, laziness and depression were unknown to him.
With what passion he looked in the mountains for cacti for our garden! He devoted himself completely to his duty, full of passion; he was the first at the job and the last to leave it. None of the young people that went with him to the excursions were able to be faster than him: He got ahead of all of them, one by one, and in the end they had to give up… He was tireless, sometimes when I looked at him, I was amazed by that miracle. Where did he get all this energy, all this physical strength? He walked with his cacti, heavy as lead, and not even the rigorous sun, nor the hard-to-climb mountains, could decrease his speed. He seemed hypnotized by the goal to be reached. The change in the occupation was a sort of relief… He found in the work a compensation for all the hard blows that ripped him up inside and the harder the test, the more passionately did he forget it, thanks to the work.”
Trotsky’s ashes, along with those of his wife, are buried under a stone memorial in the garden under a Communist flag:
As an early advocate of Red Army intervention against European fascism in the late 1930s, Trotsky opposed Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Adolf Hitler. And we all know what a monster Stalin was… It’s interesting to speculate as to how history might look had Trotsky triumphed over Stalin and how many millions more might be alive today had he done so.
Should any readers care to visit, the home and museum (Casa y Museo Leon Trotsky) are located at:
Avenida Rio Churubusco 410, El Carmen
Open 10-5 Tue – Sat.
The Metro stop is: Coyoacan L3
Also in the neighborhood of Coyoacan is the Museo Frida Kahlo (where Trotsky and his wife stayed before moving to the home profiled above) at Londres 247, Del Carmen (get off at the same metro stop as the Trotsky home).
This house, the Blue House, is the house in which Frida Kahlo was born in 1907, grew up in with her family, and lived in with husband Diego Rivera in the later years. Kahlo’s life began and ended in Mexico City.