How Trotsky came to live and die in Mexico City

The Russian revolutionary spent the last few years of his life in exile in Mexico City before meeting a bloody end.

Exile from the Soviet Union

Leon Trotsky was a Bolshevik leader and one of the most prominent people to mold the early Soviet Union. He was known for heading the Red Army during the Russian Revolution and for his ruthless actions against political foes.

But, when Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, Trotsky saw his influence wane. He was removed from top government posts as Stalin consolidated his power. By 1927, Trotsky lost his position on the Central Committee and in 1929, he was expelled to Turkey with his wife.

Trotsky was then told to leave Turkey and was given asylum in France but soon stirred up trouble there by organizing strikes so he fled to Norway. The Trotsky’s stay in Norway was short-lived, however, due to Leon’s political agitation. He was exiled from Norway and Leon and his family was put on an oil tanker to Mexico.

Life in Mexico City

Frida Kahlo “Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress

Trotsky was welcomed to Mexico by President Lázaro Cárdenas. Mexico, through Cárdenas’ leadership, was leaning towards Socialism at the time. President Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry and redistributed land to poor farmers.

The Trotsky family moved into La Casa Azul (The Blue House), the home of painter Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. Both artists were devoted Socialists and welcomed the icon of Marxist thinking.

During his time at La Casa Azul, several old Bolshiveks were tried on trumped up charges in Moscow for plotting to kill Stalin and other Soviet government officials. They were found guilty and executed. Trotsky was tried in absentia and also found guilty.

Trotsky’s last days

Trotsky mural near his home in Mexico City (photo: Brent Petersen)

After a little over 2 years at Las Casa Azul, Trotsky and his wife were forced to leave. Trotsky had an affair with Frida and fought with Diego. The Trotskys moved to a nearby home on Avenida Viena.

“Self Portrait with Stalin” by Frida (photo: Brent Petersen)

Stalin was furious that Trotsky was writing and speaking out against his leadership. So, in 1939, he tasked the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) with eliminating Trotsky. On May 24th, 1940, a group led by NKVD agent Iosif Grigulevich and Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros (who was a friend of Diego Rivera) attacked Trotsky’s home with machine gun fire and explosives. Trotsky somehow escaped unhurt.

Then, on August 20th, 1940, another assassin, Spanish born NKVD agent Ramón Mercader, attacked Trotsky with an ice pick. Mercader’s attempted stabbing failed to kill and Trotsky’s bodyguards subdued Mercader. Trotsky was taken to the hospital where he died the next day.

Frida, who also knew Mercader, was brought in for questioning. She was released the next day and quickly left town to meet with her husband who was working on a mural in San Francisco.

Mercader was imprisoned for 20 years in Mexico. While in jail, Stalin presented Mercader’s mother with the Order of Lenin award to honor her son. Ironic, since Lenin and Trotsky were good friends.

Also ironic is the fact that Frida was a Stalin supporter, even after he ordered the execution of her lover. One of her last paintings was “Self Portrait with Stalin” completed shortly before the artist died in 1954.

Visiting Trotsky sites in Mexico City

Courtyard at La Casa Azul (photo: Brent Petersen)

Frida’s La Casa Azul, the home where she lived much of her life, is now a museum. It has some fine works from the artist. There is also a peaceful courtyard. I found the kitchen, which is just as it would have been during Frida’s life, especially evocative.

Fuente de los Coyotes (Coyote Fountain) in Jardin Centenario (photo: Brent Petersen)

Trotsky’s house is also a museum. It’s within walking distance of La Casa Azul. While it is more austere, the Bolshevik kept rabbits and the hutches are still there, the museum has given in to the inevitable lure of capitalism. Posters and trinkets are for sale in the gift shop.

After museum hopping, the Jardin Centenario with its famous Fuente de los Coyotes (Coyote Fountain) is a great stop. The park is lined with cafes, the best being Ave Maria, where you can dine outside and watch the world go by. And, if it’s in season, they will have the the Mexican delicacy of Huitlacoche, a corn fungus that is sometimes derisively called Corn Smut. 

Author: Brent