The grandson and great-granddaughters of the assassinated revolutionary leader, survivors of the family extermination, have followed important scientific and artistic careers in Mexico and the United States.
By Paul de Llano – El País.
On a sunny morning, Esteban Volkov looks at the junk piled in the courtyard of his house, and identifies the pieces that years ago composed his laboratory of chemicals waste recycling. Glass pipes and steel. Bomb of void. Pressure gauges. Propellers. Valves. Stirrers. “And this ball…“, he says lifting a rusty soil sphere, “What the hell is this?“, and drops it. Business worked well for a long time, but in the end it was neglected and broke. “I was not interested in becoming a prosperous capitalist“, he laughs, and although the grandson of Trotsky lost his mother tongue as a child, his laughter sounds in Russian.
When in 1926 his grandfather called Stalin “gravedigger of the revolution“, he predicted that the vindictive dictator of the Soviet Union would not only kill him, but would also pursue his line. His mother, Zinaida, Trotsky’s daughter, sick with tuberculosis, committed suicide in Berlin by leaving the cooking gas open. His father, Plato, was shot. His uncle Leon, Trotsky’s son and right hand, died raving at a clinic in Paris, allegedly poisoned. His uncle Sergei was shot. His great-uncle Aleksandr was shot. His great-aunt Olga was shot. His grandmother Aleksandra, first wife of his grandfather, was shot. And of course, the grandfather, the founder of the Red Army, the ideologist of the world revolution, Lev Davidovich Bronstein himself, Leon Trotsky, was killed in 1940 with an ice ax blow to the head.
Esteban Volkov is the direct survivor of a family extermination. He was there when they killed his grandfather in the house of Mexico City, where they lived in exile. And in that same house, before moving, in the seventies, to where he lives now, he raised his four daughters, who are proof that Trotsky’s powerful brain survived, through its DNA. The twins Patricia and Natalia Volkov, the youngest, are now a well-known infectious disease expert, and the systems’ chief engineer of the Statistical Institute of Mexico. The second one, Nora, is Director of the National Research Center on Drugs, in the U.S. The eldest daughter, Veronica, is a poet and scholar. They exist, among other things, because his father had a narrow escape in the first of the two attacks to Trotsky, in Mexico. “I think my dad learned from Trotsky discipline, conviction and another extraordinary feature of my great-grandfather: resilience“, says Nora Volkov an afternoon from Washington, after presenting a report in the US Congress, on a day that started half past four in the morning in order to do her daily workout session. “My dad’s life as a child was the most stressful, and despite all these tragedies we see a man of emotional integrity, and very motivated, at 90 years old“.
Born in Yalta, Ukraine, in 1926, his original name was Vsevolod. At the age of five he left Moscow with his mother to the Turkish island of Prinkipo, first refuge of Trotsky. In 1932, mother and son move to Berlin, where the Nazi party begins to swallow the power. A few weeks later she commits suicide. He spends a year and a half in a boarding school in Vienna, led by disciples of Sigmund Freud, and in 1934 he is sent to Paris to live with his uncle Leon Sedov. In 1939, after the terrible death of Leon, Trotsky orders to send him to Mexico and name him Esteban. Now Esteban Volkov, lying on his couch in a youthful posture, almost a century after his grandfather and Lenin led the revolution, answers the question by ideology: “What can I tell you? Well, definitely, capitalism is not working. Trotsky’s grandson is the executor of his memory rather than his doctrine. I have always been away from politics. My role has been to bear witness to what I experienced. The fierce persecution my family suffered, the avalanche of lies and monstrous falsehoods“. Trotsky did not want to make him part of his business. In fact, he rebuked his guards if they did so: “Do not talk about politics with my grandson“, he ordered.
For the thousandth time, Volkov shows the house where his grandfather was killed, today Leon Trotsky House Museum. “Here were the chickens“, he says. “These were the rooms of the guards“, adding: “Many say that this was a fortress. Trotsky’s fortress! But it was no fortress. Although, after the first attack some windows were boarded up and walls were rose“. Volkov keeps moving. “This is the library of the house. And this is the collection of the magazine Le Mois, sent by Leon from Paris“. He stops, breathes and says: “It would be interesting to review it with ultraviolet light, because Leon used to write secret messages in invisible ink“. Esteban enters Trotsky’s office. The crime scene. It is almost the same as the day he was killed. His wooden cane. His nap blanket. On Tuesday, August 20th of 1940, Esteban came home after school a few minutes after his grandfather had received the deadly hit by Ramon Mercader. “When he heard my footsteps, he told the guards: ‘Keep Sieva away. He must not see this scene’“, he recalls. In a corner of the garden, two police officers were holding the murderer sent by Moscow. “At that time I did not recognize him” he says. “He had a bloody face and was making strange shrieks and howls“. In his office at the National Cancer Institute, Patricia Volkov talked about his father’s trauma: “He keeps a huge rancor against Mercader. Now he talks more about it, but when we were kids he never brought up the subject“.
She believes that, maybe, the legacy of his great-grandfather is his organizational capability. The proof could be her twin’s office, Natalia’s. On one side there is video surveillance panel from where she controls the micro-data rooms of the National Institute of Statistics. Researchers who receive permission to use these must access it without a phone, USB, not even a sheet of paper. Who breaks the rules loses the right to enter, for life. “What is at stake here is the confidentiality of the data and the statistical infrastructure of the country. I am not playing“, Natalia says.
In the house lobby, secluded under a stair, Esteban Volkov kept in barrels about 200 kilograms of 16 hydro-pregnenolone 3 acetate. “This is the raw material used for manufacturing hormones”, he explains. “This is the last thing I did in the factory before closing. I have tried to sell it, but it is very difficult to compete with the Chinese“. In the fifties, he worked for the Mexican laboratory that synthesized, for the first time in the history, the base element of the contraceptive pill. Then he rode for free a small waste recycling plant, whose remains now rest in the yard. His wife, Palmira Fernández, from Madrid, was a housewife a past worthy of her husband. Her family had been divided between the National and the Republican sides after the Civil War, and she worked several years as the head of the workshop until she left everything and went to Mexico to meet with her brothers, exiled from the loosing side in war. Her daughters never cease to stress that, rather than the genes of the Bolshevik genius, what made them what they are was the tenacity of their mother and the education on autonomy, given by his father.
Since Palmira died, Volkov lives home alone. However, he did not put down the religious picture his wife hanged. “It is not very suitable for Trotsky’s grandson“, he says with nostalgic smile, “but she liked it“. Nor has he removed a picture in a corner of the room: a nightmarish representation of the final moment of his grandfather, who appears curled up in the arms of his partner Natalia Sedova, scared of death. Esteban Volkov does not like it. He complains it is not reliable, because Trotsky remained standing after the hit, “with broken glasses and his head blooded, pointing to Mornard“, he says, using the false name of Mercader as if he did not deserve a name of his own, and repeating his words: “There it is. What we knew that had to come”.
A good friend of his painted the puicture, and he keep it as a souvenir. It was enough to cover the horror expression of his grandfather with a piece of tape.
Pablo de Llano, Bachelor in Philosophy and Master in Journalism by El País-UAM, has been a reporter of Section Madrid of El País, and since 2012 he works as a correspondent from Mexico City.
Article taken from El país Weekly: http://elpaissemanal.elpais.com/confidencias/las-huellasTrotsky
Translated by: Valentina Santamaría.