Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Trotsky's Canadian Connections

Feb 8, 2014


Reading a review of a couple of new books about the assassination of Leon Trotksy brought back memories of a visit I made a few years ago to the scene of the murder, Trotsky's house in Coyoacan, a neighbourhood of Mexico City.

Now part of a museum, it is maintained much as it was on August 20, 1940, when an agent of the Soviet secret police, Ramon Mercader, gained access to the house and struck Trotsky a fatal blow to the head with an ice axe he had concealed in his raincoat. Trotsky was rushed to hospital where he received treatment but died the next day. He is buried in the garden next to the house.

The assassination was orchestrated, of course, by Stalin who had pursued Trotsky relentlessly across the globe and murdered most of his relatives. Mercader, a Spanish communist who was living in Mexico on a Canadian passport, served 20 years in prison. After his release in 1960 he went to live in Cuba where he died in 1978.

Trotsky's link to Canada is a little less tenuous than his assassin's false passport. In March 1917 he was living in exile in New York City when the news reached North American that the Russian tsar had abdicated. Trotsky and his family immediately made plans to return home, booking passage on a Norwegian freighter bound for Petrograd.

On April 1, when the freighter paused in Halifax, British naval officers removed Trotsky and other Russians with whom he was travelling to jail cells in the Citadel. His wife and two sons were lodged with a family in town while the men were interned in a prisoner-of-war camp at Amherst, near the New Brunswick border. The British, who had been keeping their eye on Trotsky in New York, did not want him back in Russia stirring up opposition to the war effort.

Trotsky was not someone who would be cowed by this treatment. He immediately began propagandizing in support of revolution among the German detainees and soon was considered by them to be a hero. He was "by far the most popular man in the whole camp" according to its frustrated commander.

As news of the internment spread, protest rallies were held in Russia and the US. What had Trotsky done wrong? He was a citizen of a country with which Britain and Canada were allies. All his papers were in order. Canada was denounced as a tyranny. The whole episode had obviously backfired on the British and after a month they released their notorious detainee. It was reported that a crowd of cheering prisoners lined his path as he walked to the camp gate, followed by a brass band playing the Internationale. Trotsky would not visit Canada again.

Anyway, Trotsky's house in Coyoacan is one of the most moving museums I have ever visited; partly because of its simplicity, partly because of the immediacy of the tragic events that took place there, and partly because of what it reveals about Stalin's creepily obsessive personality. If you should find yourself in Mexico City, I highly recommend a visit.