TREMBLING! No 1
I've always been fascinated by the Russian Revolution. Trotsky, however, despite his significant cameos in the various histories and biographies I'd read on the topic, was still a vague character in my mind up until about ten days ago, when I came across a second hand copy of Robert Service's biography Trotsky, bought it, and devoured all five hundred unsettlingly brilliant pages over the next week.
The most indelible image my other revolutionary reading had left me of Stalin was the reputation he purportedly earned amongst the Siberian peasants he lived alongside during a stint of exile. Allegedly, all he had to do was cast his line into the icy water, and he could instantly haul out a fish, leading the locals to comment that he possessed magical powers.
But if Stalin was some kind of political witch, Trotsky, it transpired, was a kind of mad scientist recklessly wielding a lethal pseudo science (Marxism). He was also shrill, deluded, dogmatic, vigorous, tedious, disinterested, laughable and (for the latter third of his life, at least) pathetic.
A couple of mornings after buying the volume I woke up and looked down at the brick-thick paperback beside the matress. There, on the cover, Trotsky stared back, his steady brown gaze marginally magnified by his omnipresent pince-nez, wedged onto his nose and giving his face a suitably inorganic appearance. His remarkable hair flowed upward (like Morrissey's might first thing in the morning). Otherwise, his visage was an unattractive one, especially his full yet very unsensuous lips.
These lips reminded me of someone.
"You know who Trotsky reminds me of?" I shouted, addressing my wife, Rachal, who had just finished brushing her teeth in the bathroom next door.
"Paul I studied with."
"It's a type," she shouted back.
A few years ago, Paul and I had both done a Russian language course at UCL (the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies) as part of our respective MAs - his political, mine literary. He was unusually tall, and unusually unattractive. Besides his Trotsky lips, Paul had thick glasses, buck teeth, and general wonky geek features that accurately belied an extremely academic disposition. There are of course as many kinds of geek as there are things to be geeky about, be it said that in my opinion Paul, whose interests were historical, political and philosophical, had preoccupations worthy of a decent degree of scrutiny, and his intelligence and application to the topics made him good company.
The only time my wife (who was then my girlfriend) met him was the night after a language exam when Paul and I, alongside our friend and fellow-student Ian, found ourselves in my native Hackney at the tail end of a night's boozing. I invited both gentlemen back to mine for a few more. After half an hour, my wife got home too, about as pissed as we were, and plonked down next to Paul on the sofa.
I introduced them, and with some trepidation noted her eyes flit contemptuously over our guest's face. Unlike myself, who frequently finds geeks refreshingly intelligent, my wife has always been an outright geekaphobe, her prejudice sometimes resulting in a rudeness that can be embarrassing. Nonetheless, I let them broach conversation, and continued talking to Ian.
As well as being a geekaphobe, I knew that Rachal (who approximately speaking is sort of 'blue Labour' herself) detested the type of left wing politics habitually espoused in academia, and outright loathed the radical revolutionary left, both of which Paul had strong affinities with. It came as little surprise, then, to hear her raising her voice. Ian and I turned to watch the ruckus. Rachal looked disgusted, and was openly sneering as Paul (in his calmly dogmatic way) reiterated some position on state ownership, capital, ideology or what have you. As with many politically inclined personalities, discursive battle didn't unsettle him the way it does others, though I did observe some slight ripple of surprise in his expression when Rachal interrupted him to aggressively spit the following into his face.
"You're the sort of person who would shoot a peasant for refusing to join a stupid collective farm."
"I'm not a Trotskyite," corrected Paul, calmly punctuating his disavowal with a raised palm.
"Right," continued Rachal, entirely incensed, "get out of my house."
Now Paul looked positively confused.
"Hey," I cried, interceding on his behalf. "Don't be a bitch Rachal. Paul - sorry mate, you don't have to go. Rach, come and sit next to Ian and I'll sit over there." I could feel that I was blushing.
A little while later I walked both gentlemen to the bus stop, and found myself profusely apologising en route, insisting to Paul that my missus was fundamentally insane and that he shouldn't take it to heart. Partly this was true, and partly to spare Paul's feelings, but being a geek and all he wasn't that fussed anyway. Back home I only laughed about it, merely rebuking Rachal a little for her inhospitality.
I hadn't seen Paul for years when I noted his slight resemblance to Trotsky on the cover of the biography, and Rachal hadn't seen him since that night. My observation regarding Trotsky and Paul's resemblance reminded us both of the event. Frowning with the effort of recollection, I asked Rachal exactly why she had tried to throw Paul out.
"Because when I accused him of being the sort of person who'd shoot a peasant for not joining a collective farm," she said, bursting back into the bedroom and starting to chuck on her work clothes, "he said he wasn't a Trotskyite, instead of saying, 'I would never do that, it would be completely inhumane.'"
Rachal's answer surprised and delighted me. I had just thought she had had enough of Paul's tone or style, rather than responded to a specific and very profound philosophical inference. I laughed, applauded, consented, and experienced the satisfaction one gets when a dusty memory receives accidental illumination.
I also felt that this explanation resonated with some fundamental facets of Trotsky's life, as I was getting to understand them from the biography I was chewing through. For while Paul distanced himself from the Trotsky he happened to slightly resemble on the issue of what the Bolsheviks so blithely and often fondly referred to as 'terror' (state sanctioned violence), he did so on wholly theoretical, ideological grounds, an approach that Trotsky would have wholly appreciated, despite disagreeing with his conclusions. Of course, while a theoretician may not acknowledge the existence of evil, evil can make excellent use of theoretician. And the grand irony regarding Trotsky, as far as I was concerned, was that his lifework really consisted of his just sawing a nice hole in the ice, into which Stalin could drop his fishing line.