“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” said Shakespeare. Powerful men are never at ease because they are always insecure about plots, real or imaginary, that may usurp their positions of power. Insecurity engenders tyranny, and dissidence is not tolerated. History is replete with instances of men who were cut down mercilessly when they dared to question powerful men. Many learnt the hard way that when you are a hunted man there is no such thing as a safe hiding place. One such man was Leon Trotsky.
One of the prominent figures in the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, Trotsky became Lenin’s lieutenant and a star of the October Revolution. An intellectual and a magnetic speaker, Trotsky was everything that Stalin hated. However, Stalin waited for the opportune moment to act. When Lenin was felled by a series of strokes, Trotsky found his influence waning and he became more in disagreement with the Communist party policy. Stalin then struck with all the venom of a cobra. Trotsky was marginalised, isolated and expelled from the party in 1927. He was sent to Alma Ata in Siberia and deported soon after.
However, even though he was exiled outside Russia, Trotsky continued to write and castigate Stalin. This was too much for Stalin to stomach and he decided that as long as Trotsky was alive, he would continue to be a thorn in Stalin’s flesh.
But Trotsky knew he was a hunted man and he was stalked by Stalin’s men across three continents. After shifting several homes, Trotsky took refuge in a suburb of Mexico City. Sheltered behind high walls and guarded around the clock by a posse of armed American Trotskyites, he still did not feel safe and awaited Stalin’s vengeance. He had already lost his children to the Gulag and seemed to have no illusions about his fate.
Ramon Mercader was the son of a prominent Catalan communist turned Soviet assassin. In order to gain access to Trotsky, he had an affair with one of Trostky’s secretaries. He introduced himself to Trotsky using the alias Frank Johnson and slowly befriended him. One day, Trotsky invited Mercader to take afternoon tea with him. When he arrived at the Trotsky residence, he had a small pickaxe concealed in his trousers. It was around 5.30 pm on August 20, 1940, and Trotsky was sitting at his desk in his study, helping Mercader edit an article. Mercader quietly snuck behind Trotsky and swung the pickaxe into Trotsky’s skull. Before he slipped into unconsciousness, Trotsky’s last words were, “I think Stalin has finished the job he started.”
Before this fatal attack, Trotsky escaped unharmed a couple of months earlier when hundreds of machine-gun bullets were fired into his house.
Despite the ferocity of the attack, Trotsky fought back and kept standing long enough to say his murderer’s name to his guards, who came running to his aid. When Trotsky’s bodyguards came upon Mercader, they began beating him up but were stopped by Trotsky who said, “Don’t kill him. He must talk.”
Trotsky was taken to the hospital where doctors tried in vain to save him. On August 21, 1940, Trotsky died at the hospital just over 25 hours after being attacked. He was 60 years old.