This 200 page book compares well with the 600 page Robert Service biography of 2009 (Trotsky: A Biography. While keeping Trotsky's full life in perspective, author Joshua Rubenstein notes the influence of Trotsky's Jewish ethnicity on his actions and outlook and how it could be, and was, used against him. Of the two books, Rubenstein's gives a far better portrait of who this man was.
In exploring Trotsky's Jewish roots, he brings up points not often said out loud about Pre-Revolutionary Russia. While many histories note the pogroms, they rarely assign responsibility; Rubenstein cites sources that show, or in some cases circumstantially show, the pogroms to be policy directly from the tsar. In observing the large number of Jews in the revolution, he notes that the more thoughtful members of the autocracy noted that had they been treated as badly as the Jews, they join the revolution too. In Post-Revolutionary Russia, Rubenstein notes that Stalin's call to German communists to break with other socialists helped pave the way for Hitler.
Rubenstein shows how David Bronstein, Trotsky's father and successful farmer, could be cruel to his son and crueler yet to the peasants whose lives depended on him. In the Service book, the expropriation of the family farm seems to come in the course of the unfolding revolution. While Rubenstein doesn't describe the "reform" of the Bronstein land, his observations provide insight into how Trotsky developed the views that ultimately led to his father losing his land.
Trotsly's relationships with Lenin and Stalin are also more clearly drawn by Rubenstein than by Service. Two items stick with me: In 1912, Lenin took the name ("Pravda", meaning truth) of the newspaper Trotsky had established and nurtured, for his own (Lenin's) paper. In 1913, Stalin, whom Trotsky had never met, walked into his apartment without knocking, helped himself to tea, and walked out. Both actions show an early disposition to marginalize Trotsky.
Rubenstein has a good description of Trotsky's role in creating the dictatorial monolith that shut him out and likely killed most of his family. He shows how Trotsky helped centralize power by closing down newspapers/destroying presses, creating a secret police, overturning election results by dissolving the Constituent Assembly, firing on supporters of election victors as well as reluctant members of his own army, and meted out severe punishment and death to opponents and critics.
The cover portrait shows the well-dressed Trotsky in a "young revolutionary" pose. The expression is both studied and arrogant. The inside portrait threw me... was this the author? Someone's kindly uncle?... No it is Trotsky fishing in Mexico. In these two portraits we see the Trotsky enigma. How did the child who sympathized with the peasants whom his father abused come to brutalize so many? How did this writer, linguist and lover of art, come to usurp the civil liberties, lives and dignity of so many? Would history have been different had Trotsky prevailed over Stalin?
Of course these questions are not answered. Perhaps the question that can be answered in our lifetime is how Stalin was given a pass by western journalism, examples being "The Nation" and "The New Republic", (pp.177-179), the New York Times (p. 204 and elsewhere in the book). Rubenstein notes Barbara Kingsolver (The Lacuna: A Novel), among others has explored this.
This book is written for the series "Jewish Lives" and the role of persecution/discrimination are themes. There is nothing on Trotsky's spiritual life since Trotsky claims to have none, and left no evidence of any. He felt that the revolution would sweep away all injustices suffered by Jews. While these are themes, the book goes well beyond Trotsky's heritage and adds to contemporary discussion of his life.