Trotsky: The Commissar Returns (2013)

Exhibition statement by David King

Leon Trotsky in a cell at Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, 1906

My first visit to the former Soviet Union took place in the deep mid-winter of 1970. It was a particularly dark and snowbound February in Moscow, with temperatures often thirty below zero, and my cameras would sometimes freeze up, protesting at the extreme cold. The revolutionary museums in those days were very popular, and on a gigantic scale. Their echoing halls were filled with acres of paintings, sculpture, banners, photographs and artifacts depicting the history of the first workers’ state. But the one figure who I was most interested in finding out about was nowhere to be seen. So I spent a lot of time asking, “Yes, but where’s Trotsky?” or “That’s very interesting, but what about Trotsky?”  

At first my questions were met with silent incredulity, then excuses: “You see, David, Trotsky not important in Revolution. Stalin important.” Later, feeble attempts were made by officials in the Soviet archives and photographic libraries to show me even one picture of the co-leader of the Russian Revolution. They found nothing, there was nothing. Over the decades, Trotsky had been totally wiped out of history, along with all the other enemies and victims of Stalin and Stalinism. 

I remember returning to London in great excitement. I had a new plan; to search for Trotsky, to document his life in pictures. I wanted to show that no amount of political falsification, no amount of photographic retouching, no amount of cover-up, could extinguish the memory of the inspirational revolutionary genius, whose extraordinary life and ideas were at the centre of some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, and who later became so influential for the New Left in the West, seeking socialist alternatives to Stalinism. 

My work began in earnest, often in the dark and damp basements of the world’s bouquinistes, where vast amounts of revolutionary photographs, books and journals shipped to the West by the Comintern in the 1920s were to be found discarded and long forgotten. 

Many Trotskyist groups existed in those days and each one willingly helped me with the hilarious proviso, “Don’t mention where you got this information from or they won’t see you.” I travelled across Europe to Trotsky’s former places of exile and tracked down many of the comrades and ex-comrades who had known or worked with him. Most of them would produce never-before-seen photographs from old brown manilla envelopes, unopened for decades. And in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City, in the same house where Trotsky had been assassinated by a Stalinist agent in 1940, Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson, showed me rare pictures from his grandfather’s Mexican years. 

Following his final, enforced exile from Soviet territory in 1929, all Trotsky’s works were banned from the State libraries and museums. Possession of his photograph or reference to his name was a crime. Every member of his family and comrades still living in the Soviet Union (and many of those abroad) suffered terrible reprisals. 

In the late-1930s, the Stalinist censors went further, and banned anti-Trotsky material so that his name could not be spoken of even in a negative way; as if, in effect, he had never existed. 

More than four decades ago in London, the English writer Francis Wyndham and I published the first ever photographic biography of Trotsky. The idea that the photographs used in that work, and many others now seen for the first time, would ever be shown in Moscow was entirely unthinkable. Today, the search continues and at the Gulag Museum – at least in photographs ­– Trotsky, the commissar, returns. 

Statement written for an exhibition about Trotsky, showing more than 170 photographs from Kings collection, at the Gulag Museum, Moscow, 18 May to 15 September 2013