Thursday, August 26, 2010

Robert Service's biography of Trotsky

About a third of the way through Robert Service's biography. Some random thoughts:

The start of the book is a bit slow and kinda annoying. Partly because the stuffy formal style and the unfamiliar British idioms. Also annoying is the pseudo-psychoanalysis of each minute detail of his childhood and attempts to link it with what Trotsky was like as an adult. Mostly because the only way we know about what happened in his childhood is from interviewing the people that were around him, and by the time they were interviewed, Trotsky was already famous, so of course they saw all sorts of portents in every detail of his childhood.

The book does get better as it moves on. One thing that is interesting is the picture of the Czar's secret police and the Russian justice system. I'd always had the impression that the revolutionaries were ruthlessly persecuted and mistreated, but Service seems to paint a very different picture.
The impression I get from reading his description of the interactions between the revolutionaries and the law is that they were almost bordering on incompetent Keystone Cops. Sure they were imprisoned and exiled to Siberia, but it seemed very easy to escape from exile to Europe, which is what most of the revolutionaries wound up doing. I'd have figured that the punishments would be much worse for people charged with trying to overthrow the monarchy.

Another interesting thing - Trotsky was basically a vain blowhard. He was very good at writing moving and poignant prose and for this he was sought out by the Marxists, but he was an argumentative and polemic person. It was ironic because in the big split between the Bolshevik and Menshevik Marxists he always envisioned himself as a person trying to unify the two factions, but he basically managed to have both of them pissed at him.

Something else - reading this book, you really do get a sense of how enamored these people were with "ideas" - the "right way of thinking" vs errors of dogma. Yet at the same time, you get the sense that at least some of them, especially Trotsky were just into it because it gave them a chance to show off. It is telling that as a young man, when Trotsky first joined the revolutionary circles, he read Schopenhauer's The Art of Controversy, so he could basically always win the argument by any means necessary, regardless whether he was right or wrong.

More thoughts later...


Blogger Jerry Pat Bolton said...

Very interesting. You seem to have a good grasp on the book. I hope to catch more when you post again. Your wisdom about the people interviewed is classy and straightforward.

August 26, 2010 8:10 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

e-k, what you say about how the revolutionaries were treated is interesting and mirrors Applebaum here.

As with the 'reservations' for the native peoples, one wonders how much of a pre-history there was to these forced exiles and gulags.



August 26, 2010 11:53 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Thanks for the compliments.

The Applebaum article looks very interesting - I will have to read it over the weekend.

From what I know of the 'pre-history' of the GULAG, there were hard labor camps in Czarist Russia. I am not one hundred percent sure, but it seems to me that the prisoners in the hard labor penal colonies were all lower class people and not political prisoners (who typically came from the intelligentsia).

August 27, 2010 7:58 AM  
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