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Joshua Rubenstein – Leon Trotsky


Northeast Regional Director, Amnesty International USA 1975 - 2012

Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

National Jewish Book Award, East European Studies

Selected Works:

Leon Trotsky: A Revolutionary’s Life, Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press.

The Last Days of Stalin

 Soviet Dissidents, Their Struggle for Human Rights and Tangled Loyalties.

 The Life and Times of Ilya Ehrenburg.

 Co-editor of Stalin's Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

 Co-editor of The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov.

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Episode #1

Q: Joshua Rubenstein – Leon Trotsky – Intro


  • Studied at Columbia during anti war years

  • Focused on Russian studies & language

  • Decided to become a writer

  • Initial pieces were on Soviet History

  • Led to writing on human rights & dissident movement

  • Spent 37 years at Amnesty International

  • Anita Shapiro, Yale Jewish Lives encouraged me to write on Trotsky

Episode #2

Q: What was Trotsky’s childhood like?


  • Raised in Southern Russia / Ukraine not in Pale

  • Father was a very successful farmer

  • Claimed that his parents did not speak Yiddish

  • Attended a Heder for 3 months

  • No emotional connection to Jewish people & religion

  • Driven by fanatical belief in revolution

  • But, visceral reaction to physical attacks on Jews

Episode #3

Q:  What led Trotsky to become a revolutionary?


  • Sharp, sensitive nature, critical of father’s business

  • High school 1890s – read revolutionary literature

  • Claimed Jewish oppression was not a factor

  • Developed Marxist approach, joined revolutionary circles

  • Arrested & exiled to Siberia 

Episode #4

Q:  What were Trotsky’s outstanding skills?


  • Compelling person; charismatic personality

  • Masterful writer

  • Great orator

  • Central public figure of 1917 revolution

  • Public following but not one in the party

Episode #5

Q: How radical was Trotsky?


  • Trotsky had a personality issue within the party

  • Early 1920s Trotsky seen as radical

  • Advocated for a permanent revolution in other countries

  • Stalin seen as more moderate

  • He claimed that Russian could do it on its own

Episode #6

Q: Did Trotsky get along with Lenin?


  • Trotsky was inspired by Lenin’s writing in Iskra

  • Agreed with Lenin’s view on need for professional revolutionists

  • Smuggled out of Siberia to meet Lenin in Europe

  • Taken by Lenin and Lenin was impressed with Trotsky

  • 1903 Trotsky soured on Lenin; running arguments

  • Reconciled in 1917 & worked together

Episode #7

Q: Was Trotsky evil like Stalin?


  • Stalin was evil, endless crimes, caused tens of millions of deaths

  • Trotsky was polished, well dressed

  • Trotsky made a good impression

  • George Orwell: when you abandon democracy, a Stalin is inevitable

  • Stalin was actually, in a sense, a student of Trotsky

Episode #8

Q: When was Trotsky exiled?


  • 1927 Expelled from the party and sent to Kazakhstan

  • 1929 Expelled from the Soviet Union to Turkey

  • Turkey – productive years writing history of the revolution & memoirs

  • From Turkey to France to Norway to Mexico in 1937

  • Murdered by Stalin’s assassin in 1940

Episode #9

Q: Did Trotsky write about Jewish issues?


  • Trotsky responds to all physical attacks on Jews

  • Wrote about Beilis Trial in 1913

  • Not sympathetic to Jewish autonomy or independence

  • In 1930s grudgingly accepts that Jews need a haven

  • More of Jew in spite of himself

Episode #10

Q: What do we learn from Trotsky’s life?


  • Need to adhere to basic democratic values

  • Look for moderate way forward; avoid violence

  • Importance of civil liberties

  • Fanaticism – be wary whether from the right or the left

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Full Interview - Joshua Rubenstein

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