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on 13 October 2012
I am, I must admit, a fan of Trotsky, his ideas and ideology were the best of any communist leader and his intellect and rhetorical skill unmatched by almost any other man of the period. Despite this I can, unlike some of my obtuse comrades, accept that he was not flawless. He was brilliant but we must accept that he was also arrogant and brutal. The Cold Warriors such as Deutscher were eager to praise him as the arch-enemy of Stalin and the Soviets however this is not history but hagiography. This has changed and historians, both sides of the Iron Curtain, are presenting him not as a deity but a man, talented but far from perfect.
Fabulously written and wonderfully informative.
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on 7 December 2010
I have now finished Service's book. Well, I have to agree with some of the critical comments above. It is written in a rather pedestrian style, and yes, Service does come across as snide in parts. He doesn't much like his subject, that's clear. As for the alleged errors of fact, I'm not qualified to pronounce on that, but in a book of 500 densely written pages (excluding notes and index) it would be surprising if there were no errors of fact in it. These complaints may be nit-picking. Readers like myself who know little of Trotsky the man are more interested in getting an overall picture of what made him tick, than in a catalogue of details.

The main thing I would look for in any book about a subject like Trotsky, who seems to inspire adulation and loathing in equal measure, is that the writer should attempt, however unsuccessfully, to present both sides of the picture. This is something that Service does, however grudgingly. His very dislike of Trotsky means that his praise of the man's achievements and personal qualities has to be taken seriously. Conversely, his criticisms are backed up with quotes which seem to go some way to prove the point. For example, here is Trotsky's son Leva: "Papa never recognizes when he's in the wrong. That's why he can't bear criticism. When something is said or written to him with which he disagrees he either ignores it entirely or gets back with a harsh reply". For another side of Trotsky which is not normally acknowledged by his disciples, Service reveals that he treated the women in his life between badly to abominably. After ditching one of his mistresses and while attempting to reopen relations with Natalya, he wrote her - or at least Service claims that he wrote her - a frankly pornographic note reproduced on page 450 of the book (the language makes it inappropriate for repetition here). In fact, it seems that he was a self-centred, priapic old goat.

Irrespective of all that, he was a great man with a lasting influence. Oddly enough, Service reveals that the contemporary politician with whom Trotsky had the closest resemblance in many ways was - Winston Churchill!

While this may seem a potty assertion, it is not quite as daft as it sounds. Both men were highly intelligent political mavericks, who were much smarter than their party colleagues and unafraid to go their own way without fear or favour. They both supported themselves by writing books (highly articulate and well written books by any standards, and quite exceptional by the standard of books written by politicians). They both had an obsession with a cause (the Nazi threat in Churchill's case, international revolution in Trotsky's). They both suffered eclipse after great early success and promise. They both showed exceptional physical bravery on the field of battle, and the ability to take sometimes brutal decisions under stress. They both inspired a remarkable level of loyalty, amounting to hero-worship, in the people they led and inspired. Trotsky of course never lived to emulate Churchill in making a spectacular come-back.

Yes, Service does mention Trotsky's Jewish background rather a lot, but this may be because it was important in his development. This background provided Trotsky with a properous, loving and supportive family, and a first rate education by the standards of the time (though it stopped short of university, a lack which did not seem to hamper Trotsky in his later life). It is also significant that Trotsky faced anti-semitism himself, and to this extent his Jewishness must be taken into consideration, however little it meant to Trotsky himself.

Stanton Carlisle seems to have looked on this book as an exercise in character assassination. This was not how it appeared to me. Trotsky comes across as a far more likeable character in this book, than in hagiographical accounts that attempt to portray him as superhuman. I think it rather endearing for instance that Trotsky was an expert croquet player! Imagine, say, Stalin playing croquet. You can't. Trotsky was a warm human being with a sense of humour and perhaps the most brilliant polemicist of his generation.
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on 16 January 2014
Trotsky has many many apologists in the Western political class, so for Service to produce a biography thats based on critical evaluation of the evidence and is not a gushing hagiography, has opened him up to savage attacks. This is an heroic and largely successful effort for which Service should be rightly praised.
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on 30 December 2014
This is a good general account of Trotsky's life, making use of very extensive research. It lacks the sheer excitement of Deutscher and the in-depth study of Trotsky's ideas found in Knei-Pax, but it is well worth reading. Apart from reading Trotsky himself, and Service on Lenin and Stalin, a good further source would be the writings of Ian Thatcher.
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on 14 December 2014
As with Professor Service's other biography on Lenin that I have read, it is not a biography from which the reader will emerge with any particularly intimate feel about the subject in any psychological sense. But from what is revealed about Trotsky's character in the book, even through what appears to be a wealth of intimate personal correspondence, you get the impression that Trotsky had too egotistical, insensitive and political a nature to be someone to inspire empathy or warmth of feeling, either from his own contemporaries or from those of us looking back at him historically. Exposing such flaws and failures in Trotsky's character - in his moral, political and human personae - was for me the strength of this book.

Professor Service acknowledges Trotsky's undoubted rhetorical brilliance and the literary flourish of his written work, but does not allow himself to be blinded by it as a quality that should in itself let him off the historical hook. This is particularly important given the sometimes hagiographic feel of other Trotsky biographies like that of Isaac Deutscher and the often lamentable analyses by some of his political admirers, of Trotsky as the civilised face of socialism and a tragic hero who but for that nasty and uncouth Stalin would have led a more humane Soviet regime. Service's account convincingly rebuts the plausibility of such arguments, showing Trotsky as someone not averse to using terror and indeed as a central player in creating the Soviet institutions that allowed and encouraged it.

Professor Service also lays out clearly Trotsky's gifts for self-discipline, organisation and leadership that enabled him and his comrades to come to the fore as historical figures - in 1917 and during the Russian Civil War - and maintain the Bolsheviks in power when the regime could so easily have collapsed. A potentially interesting comparison in that regard might have been what qualities and circumstances allowed Trotsky to succeed where Bela Kuns and Rosa Luxemburgs failed.

Overall a very informative read
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on 5 October 2010
An even-handed biography on Trotsky was always going to be difficult and a long-time coming, and I think Robert Service does very well here.

Being exiled from the Soviet Union before the horrors of Stalin's rule, plus the fact that Trotsky was then free to criticize the approach taken by the leaders after he left (without having to deal with the practicalities himself) as well as being an excellent writer himself, means that Trotsky has definitely been viewed with rose-tinted spectacles in the West (while demonised in the USSR, which only added to his reputation elsewhere).

This biography brings out his strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side were the way he ran the Red Army during the civil war and his key role (equal in many ways with Lenin) in making the revolution happen. This was all done with a selfless commitment which mean that it never seems to have occurred to him to shape the Red Army to be an instrument to allow him to take personal control, or to build a serious faction in the party. The flip side was that he was careless in the way he dealt with others, making cutting criticisms without realising that he was creating enemies. Also he was every bit as ruthless as Stalin and Lenin, e.g. during the Civil War Trotsky was willing to use savage repression to consolidate Bolshevik rule.

The difference this book shows between him and Stalin is that Stalin was very much the organizational player, patiently building up a network of support against Trotsky until he could be edged out, then doing the same with Bukharin, until eventually Stalin was unchallenged as ruler.

So this book left me feeling I had a much better overall understanding of Trotsky, and why he was able to achieve his successes but then suffered his downfall.

It's also fascinating to read some of the negative reviews here and to see that there are still some who find any criticism of Trotsky unacceptable. Ignore them and if you have an open mind and are interested in the Russian Revolution, this is well worth reading.
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on 11 May 2015
Very well researched and objective biography which gives you a valued insight into Trotsky. Especially how vague his politics were, his vanity and his lack of cunning which Stalin had in spades.
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on 20 February 2014
Service's problem is that his biography has to be compared with perhaps the greatest political biography of the 20th Century,
Isaac Deutscher's three volume study - The Prophet Armed; The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast He seems to concede in his introduction that he can't write with Deutscher's style and verve, but more importantly Service lacks any passion. Not even the passion of a thoroughgoing hatchet job. Perhaps this was his idea in the first place, but in the face of the flawed grandeur of Trotsky's life, he resorts to minor quibbles and reservations - even missing,, as in his account of Kronstadt revolt the chance to challenge Trotsky's own version of events. What he doesn't seem to realise is that you can admire Trotsky without being a revolutionary Socialists - after all Duetscher's biography is Tony Blair's favourite book!.
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on 3 June 2016
Bought as a gift for my history obsessed friend, she loves it.
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on 17 December 2011
Anyone who has a level of knowledge beyond GCSE History and whom is not rabidly committed to an ideologically driven attack on all things Russian/Bolshevik/Communist will find Service's book surprisingly damning in its assessment of Trotsky. However, much of the population has very little knowledge of the Russian revolution beyond the widely known facts; Service's book is directly aimed at this 90% and is an endless river of anti-communist/Bolshevik bile suitable for the McCarthy era.

Leading German historian Hermann Weber described Service's book as dealing "in lies, falsifications of history, dubious references and even anti-Semitic prejudices. Such pamphlets should not have a place in an academic publishing house with a liberal tradition". Weber was among a number of leading German and Austrian historians who signed a letter sent to the German publishers of Service's appalling 'history' strongly objecting to its publication on the basis that is full of mistakes and purposeful, knowing misrepresentation and anti-semitic bias.

Weber is not alone; the American Historical Review (hardly a bastion of communism!)review says "Service commits numerous distortions of the historical record and outright errors of fact to the point that the intellectual integrity of the whole enterprise is open to question."

I do not have the time or energy to devote more time to my review, and would rather forget Service's insult to the word 'history'. But Weber's and the American History Journal's should go some way to opening people's eyes to the value of this book and ignoring the ridiculous praise heaped on it by the British press.
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