The Bronx… an Obscure Root of the Russian Revolution
Believe it or not… it is an historical fact that one of the most notorious and ruthless leaders of the infamous Red Army and a mover and shaker of the Russian Communist Revolution lived for a time in the United States. In fact, he lived within a few blocks of where I grew up in the Bronx. While his real tag, Lev Davidovich Bronstein, may not strike a chord with most, his more disreputable alias of Leon Trotsky certainly will. Trotsky, his second wife, Natalya, and their two sons arrived by ship in New York, which he referred to as a city of capitalist automatism. Trotsky, who became Lenin’s chief lieutenant in revolutionary Russia, wanted to live in a ”workers district,” so he moved his family into an $18-per-month apartment in the Bronx. A princely sum for any newly arrived Bronxite prior to the Great Depression, and clearly, by the standards of the day, an upper-blue collar area, if not white collar. The only real working classes in his neighborhood were the largely Polish and Italian Supers, that is, janitors of the apartment buildings themselves.
For a New York minute…
He stayed for nearly three months at 1522 Vyse Avenue in The Bronx. There’s some question about where exactly the Trotsky’s lived. In My Life, Trotsky gives 164th Street in the Bronx as the location, if I am not mistaken; but most other historians think Trotsky misremembered, and point to 1522 Vyse Avenue, on the corner of 172nd Street, just east of Crotona Park, as the more likely address.
Before occupying the apartment, Trotsky’s wife paid the janitor three months’ rent in advance. She received no receipt and upon moving in, Trotsky learned that the janitor had absconded with rent from several tenants. But when he unpacked boxes of belongings that he’d stored in the apartment, Trotsky found his $54 carefully wrapped in paper.
He did not mind robbing the landlord, but he was considerate enough not to rob the tenants, Trotsky wrote of the janitor. Trotsky’s sons were won over by the apartment’s amenities: electric lights, a gas stove, a bathtub, an automated elevator, a telephone and a garbage chute, known in local jargon as a dumbwaiter. In many left and Socialist articles this building was described as a tenement, but Trotsky himself worried that his sons, whom he hoped would follow in his footsteps, would become spoiled by the conveniences of the building and neighborhood.
In the distant past, Vyse Avenue, on the eastern edge of the Morrisania section, had been home to Irish, Italian and Jewish laborers and their families. His particular neighborhood of Vyse Avenue, in the northern reaches of the Soundview district was largely Jews from Europe, most especially, Poland and Russia. Nearby Westchester Avenue and the adjacent streets were home to host of stores and shops for the tenants of the area, but many catered to the predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Indeed, even as a boy I distinctly remember going to several kosher delis for the delicious garlic pickles and mouth-watering knishes. Hmmm… kosher dill pickles…☺
So, you may ask, how did a recent deportee from France, via Spain (both kicked him out for being a revolutionary socialist troublemaker), afford a relatively well to do neighborhood? Well, Trotsky plunged into the fractious, polyglot radicalism in the city, especially on the Lower East Side, where anarchists, Socialists, Communists, and others waged mostly a paper war against each other in the pages of The Call, Novy Mir (The New World), the Yiddish-language daily, Der Forverts, that is, (The Jewish Daily Forward), and the Volkszeitung. He wrote and lectured, met Socialist Party leaders and had contempt for them, read voraciously in the New York Public Library’s Slavic collection, and tried to keep abreast of news from Russia.
He was officially earning some $15 a week from his writings and lectures however; there must have been some other sustaining help for the Trotsky family as most immigrants at the time could not afford the prerequisite 3 months security deposit needed for an apartment. Indeed, most immigrants were living in “railroad” flats with pot-bellied coal stoves for heat. Some even had communal toilets and bath facilities shared with the floor or even the entire building.
While lecturing in New York, Trotsky discussed politics with Alexandra Kolontay, an expatriate Bolshevik and free-love advocate who informed on Trotsky in letters to Lenin. He also met Eugene V. Debs, the five-time Socialist candidate for the American presidency, whom he described as a sincere revolutionary. It is also likely that he had some acquaintance with Dorothy Day, before her conversion to Catholicism as both were involved in the local radical politics.
Trotsky was living in New York City when the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew Tsar Nicholas II. He left New York on 27 March. Trotsky had been in New York only a month when revolutionary uprisings began in Petrograd. Soon the Hammer and Sycle banner was flying over the Tsar’s Winter Palace. Trotsky was anxious to return home and bought his family tickets on the first available ship.
Though his stay in New York was brief, two and a half months, they were apparently memorable ones for Trotsky. He later wrote in his autobiography: Here I was in New York, a city of prose and fantasy, of capitalist automatism, its streets a triumph of cubism, its moral philosophy that of the dollar. New York impressed me tremendously because, more than any other city in the world, it is the fullest expression of our modern age. He further wrote of his departure from New York: My only consolation was the thought that I might return. Even now I have not given up that hope. Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico in 1940, never lived in New York again.
Little known facts about Trotsky, WWI, The Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War
- Trotsky’s parents were wealthy land-owning farmers in the Ukraine. These were later called Kulaks under Stalin and whom he mercilessly persecuted, striped of their wealth, and murdered.
- The Bolshevik leadership was mostly exiled abroad or in Siberia when the first revolution occurred. V. I. Lenin was in Switzerland, and Leon Trotsky, was in New York City.
- Trotsky would rise to fame as the founder and head of the Red Army and then lose a power struggle with Joseph Stalin,
- The family left NYC on March 27, 1917, but Trotsky was pulled off the boat in Nova Scotia and detained by the British for a month.
- His already tumultuous life got a lot more frenzied before ending in Mexico in 1940 at the hands of one of Stalin’s assassins.
- The most far-reaching agenda of the First World War was the destruction of the three remaining strongest empires—Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Ottoman—and the utter transformation of the map of Europe and the Middle East as a result.
- The first of these to fall was that of Tsarist Russia, which began to topple in the Revolution of February, 1917. However, the Bolsheviks did not seize power until later that year, during the Revolution of October, 1917. (The Russians were then still using the Julian calendar, date these revolutions as March and November, 1917; while the West was using the more accurate Gregorian calendar).
- Trotsky, then Lev Bronstein, was exiled to Siberia twice and managed to make his way back.
- Siberia at the time of the Tsars was:
- Not a collective of prisons but more of a frontier where dissidents, nonconformists and other unwanted were sent to be forgotten.
- Comparatively speaking it was much like our Old West, but most residence were exiles of one sort or another.
- There were no bars, prisons, or guards, except if you broke the local laws, in which case, you were sent to local jail.
- Trotsky was confined for local infractions and he was briefly jailed. It was here that he adopted the name Trotsky from a jailer.
- The root of the name Trotsky means defiant thus it appealed to Lev. The Revolutionaries had an affinity for pseudonyms that had a significant meaning, i.e. Stalin was from the Russian word steel, and thus Stalin was the man of steel. …and I ain’t talking Marvel Comic’s Superman.
- The Russian Communist Revolution was not a single event but a progression of events beginning with:
- The Russian Revolution of 1905, then
- The overthrow of Tsar Nikolai I and his repudiation of his dynasty
- The February Revolution,
- The October Revolution, finally,
- The Russian Civil War
- The Russian Civil War was fought by:
- The Red Army, these consisted of the Bolshevik Communists
- The White Army, Monarchists, and a loose confederation of Anti-Communist forces that fought the Bolsheviks
- The Green Army was armed peasant groups which fought against all governments in the Russian Civil War of 1917–22. They fought to protect their communities from requisitions or reprisals carried out by third parties.
- Various foreign armies fighting on different sides, these were known as The Allied intervention was a multi-national military expedition launched during the Russian Civil War in 1918. The Americans contributed the 339th Infantry which set the tone of suspicion between the two nations for the next 70 years.
- After losing the struggle for power on the death of Lenin, Stalin tried to erase all memory of Trotsky from Russian history; yet there was a persistent and sizeable Trotsky following in the Soviet Union, most especially in the Red Army. Stalin knew that the only way to remove any threat from Trotsky in future was to remove Trotsky from the face of the earth. In this he succeeded by Trotsky’s receiving a mortal wound to the top of the head with an ice-pick at the hands of a Stalin assassin in 1940.
Very little commemoration remains of this staunch Marxist in the former Soviet Union any longer; except in the West where his posters are ubiquitously found in nearly every college dorm beside that of another bloodthirsty Marxist killer Che Guevara. This however, is largely for the show of adolescent rebellion rather than real political ideology.
So above is another tidbit of trivia from myself, The Font of Useless Information as I’ve been called. Yet perhaps there is a lesson to be learned about the obscure roots of revolution and how something seemingly innocuous can have lasting reverberations throughout history.
Meantime, lets continue the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the Consecration of Russia to Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart to assure that the errors of Russia and the legacy of Trotsky will not once again proliferate.
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Richard of Danbury, D.S.G.