MOSCOW -- Fifty years ago today, at a villa in Coyoacan, Mexico, a young Spanish Communist named Ramon Mercader closed his eyes and drove a mountaineer's ice axe through Leon Trotsky's skull. After years of plotting, Joseph Stalin's order, scrawled in red ink to the Soviet secret police, had finally been carried out.
"This is the end," Trotsky said as he reeled around his study. And when he died a few hours later, Trotsky, Stalin's fiercest rival, disappeared from history, too. For decades, Soviet reference books referred to him only as an anti-Soviet plotter and "enemy of the people" -- if they referred to him at all. Stalin's historians air-brushed Trotsky from every official photograph.
After 20 years in jail, Mercader won the title of Hero of the Soviet Union and an apartment on Leninski Prospect. "It is a great paradox of history that Trotsky, one of the main heroes of the revolution and the civil war in Russia, is buried under a white headstone with a hammer-and-sickle in faraway Mexico, while his murderer is buried in a Moscow cemetery," said Dmitri Volkogonov, a Soviet army general who has written the first Kremlin-sponsored biographies of Stalin and Trotsky.
For years, Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost held Trotsky at arm's length, and in his 1987 speech that called on scholars and party workers to fill in the "blank spots" of history, Gorbachev said little about him. Instead, the chief beneficiary of Gorbachev's initiative was another of Stalin's rivals, Nikolai Bukharin.
A small Bukharin cult appeared, largely because his legacy was useful to Gorbachev. The theorist behind Lenin's quasi-market initiatives, Bukharin became the embodiment of what Gorbachev was calling socialism without Stalinist distortions -- meaning purges, executions, forced collectivization and "super-industrialization." Bukharin's anti-Stalinism, death by firing squad and endorsement of what Gorbachev might call a "controlled market" gave the new reformist leadership historical legitimacy.
Bukharin was rehabilitated, the Museum of the Revolution mounted an exhibit of Bukharinalia and his widow, Anna Larina, became a living link to a what-might-have-been past. "Bukharin gave young people like me the hope we could build a democratic socialism without fanaticism," said Valery Psigin, who organized a Bukharinist political club.
But Trotsky, who commanded the Red Army in the civil war with brilliance and brutality, offered Gorbachev and his reforms nothing. He had held a dogmatic belief that socialism required expansion throughout Europe, and historians say it was he, not Hitler, who coined the term "concentration camp" -- not at all a helpful legacy. Gorbachev was busy reaching toward the West's capitalists and social democrats and was releasing political prisoners, not ordering their execution. How could the legacy of Trotsky serve him?
Still, Trotsky is now the subject of a modest vogue, although not as a political model. Instead, historians and the press are trying to inform the Soviet public about Trotsky, to return him to his place beside Lenin and Stalin.
This weekend, the government newspaper Izvestia and the independent magazine Ogonyok featured long articles on his life and murder. Other stories have appeared in the influential Literaturnaya Gazeta and Moscow News. Publishing houses are printing parts of his historical and theoretical writings, and there are plans to publish his massive "History of the Russian Revolution." His grandson and great-grandson appealed in the Moscow News last year for his rehabilitation.
It is no longer a surprise to open a newspaper or magazine and see that familiar face -- the whitened little beard, the round glasses, the penetrating gaze.
"Without a doubt, after Lenin, Trotsky was the most influential and authoritative figure in the government between 1917 and 1923," Volkogonov wrote in Izvestia. He praised him as a military commander and revolutionary: "Had Trotsky died in 1923, we would have made an idol out of him. There would have been statues; cities and factories would have been named after him."
But Trotsky began to battle Stalin for power, and, in losing the fight, lost his page in Soviet history. As George Orwell wrote of his fictional Oceania in the novel "1984": "History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."
Volkogonov, influenced by such Western scholars as Isaac Deutscher and Joel Carmichael, fills out the Trotsky biography for Soviet readers but does not make an angel of him. He criticizes the Bolsheviks as a whole for their utopianism and revolutionary urge to push aside what Gorbachev calls "common human values" for an enforced model of a future society. "Abstract ideas give rise to fanatics, and such was Trotsky," Volkogonov said.
While Trotsky is still a shining light for tiny groups of would-be revolutionaries -- from New York's Lower East Side to radical-chic London parlors -- he has no followers to speak of here. Among the huge range of political groups -- monarchists, social democrats, anarchists -- there are no Trotskyites.
"Why would there be?" asked Nadezhda Joffe, daughter of a close Trotsky aide. "I was sent to the camps time and again for being a Trotskyite. I lost countless friends to that cause and for daring to speak against Stalin. But we have to recognize that his most important idea, the permanent revolution that would move from Russia to Germany to France and so on, was mistaken. Socialism did not spread to many countries, as he said it would. In fact, we've never even had socialism here, have we?"