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Archive for the ‘Leon Trotsky’ Category

The Crowned Romanovs, Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna, 1896 image

On May 26, 1896, the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II was held in Moscow. Four days later, the traditional public festival was to be held at a field five miles north of the city. At the invitation of the new tsar, every Russian was welcome.  As Tsar Nicholas II was the absolute ruler of 1/6 of the earth and more than 120 million people, many people were expected. (3) All were promised free food, beer, gifts, and entertainment.  The tsar himself was to appear at the central pavillion to watch the parade and greet his people.

The Khodynka Program of Events

Khodynka Field was the site selected for the popular celebration because it was the only place large enough to contain the expected crowd. However, Khodynka Field was not a natural fairground; it was a training ground for troops of the Moscow garrison. The field was crisscrossed by a network of shallow trenches used for moving troops and artillery and pitted with holes. Therefore, in preparation for the festival, wooden stalls, reviewing stands, and entertainment stages had to be built as well as bridges to span the enormous ditches. Barricades – really just skimpy wooden railings – protected the site from the crowds.

Khodynka Field is being prepared for the May 26, 1896, post coronation celebration for Russian Tsar Nicholas II.

Thrilled by the coronation and excited by the prospect of the carnival to be held at Khodynka Field, the people were “stirred up and restive.” (1) The night before, thousands thronged to the area and camped out in the open, waiting for dawn, when the turnstiles would open and they could enter the fairgrounds. As the group waited, a rumor began to spread

that there would not be enough gifts or food to go around. They had been promised sausage, bread rolls, sweets, nuts, gingerbread and a precious keepsake – a pink enamel mug bearing the arms of the city of Moscow and the words “In memory of the Holy Coronation,” all wrapped together in a colored kerchief stamped with the tsar and tsarina’s pictures.” (1)

More and more people came. There was much jostling and crowding. “The crush was so great a bullet could not have slipped through.” (2) Over the course of the night, made anxious by rumors of shortages, people pushed toward the barricades that guarded the entrance to the fairground in order to be the first in line when the gates opened.

It was sometime just before dawn when the barricades fell. The crowd surged forward, stampeding onto the meadow, rushing toward the food stalls. The patrol of 100 mounted Cossacks could not even begin to control the “mass of people half a million strong.” Khodynka Field, with its open trenches, became a deathtrap:

People by the thousands fell in a ditch and ended standing literally on their heads at the bottom. Others fell straight after them and more, and more….” (1)

Others, knocked down in the pandemonium, were trampled to death or mutilated by the incessant forward motion of the crowd. In minutes, Khodynka Field resembled a  battlefield, strewn with carnage. People were fainting,  gasping for air, vomiting, writhing, screaming, bleeding, lying dead or dying. Thousands were wounded, over 1300 were dead.

Trampled bodies cover Khodynka Field prior to the post-coronation celebration of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, May 30, 1896.

Russians standing in the Khodynka Field in the aftermath of the riot that killed over 1300 Russians, May 30, 1896.

By 10:30 a.m., Tsar Nicholas II was told of the Khodynka catastrophe. He was shocked and sorrowful. Out of respect to the victims, his first inclination was to cancel the day’s activities which included not only his appearance at the Khodynka Field but a ball at the French embassy. But he gave into his advisors, his uncles, and kept to the official schedule.  After all, France was Russia’s only European ally, he was reminded, and Russia could not afford to offend France. Besides, to adorn the ball, the French government had gone to great lengths, sending priceless tapestries and treasures of silver plate from Paris and Versaillles, along with 100,000 roses from the south of France. (3)

So the day went forward as planned. Bodies were carted off from the Khodynka Field where the tsar made his traditional appearance as if nothing had happened.

The celebration at Khodynka Field, parades and all, went on, despite the morning's carnage.

The French “ball was opened by the Majesties dancing a quadrille,” said the Minister of Finance.

The "Coronation Cup" given away at the Khodynka Field post-coronation celebration for Tsar Nicholas II. It has come to be known as the "Cup of Sorrows," commemorating the tragedy of 1300 people trampled to death that day in May of 1896.

Outward appearances aside, both the tsar and tsarina were deeply affected by the events at Khodynka. They visited the wounded in the hospitals. They paid for the burial of the dead. From the Tsar’s private purse, each victim’s family was remunerated. But no act of kindness could erase the terrible event from the Russian national consciousness. Many felt that the Khodynka Field Massacre was an omen that the reign of Tsar Nicholas II would not be a happy one. The tsar earned the nickname “Bloody Nicholas.”

Russian Empress Alexandra with her firstborn, daughter Olga, in 1896.

Secretly, throughout those long and difficult days, Empress Alexandra, the tsarina,  had been expecting a child, her second after Olga. After the Khodynka tragedy, the Empress was greatly distressed and suffered a miscarriage.  The lost baby was a boy, who, had he lived, would have become the male heir in line for the Russian throne, the boy everyone was clamoring for Alexandra to give birth to.

1897 photo of Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky, born Lew Dawidowich Bronstein

Shortly after Khodynka, Leon Trotsky began his Marxist political activity against Imperial Russia.  Bread and circuses would not longer pacify the tsar’s people. The revolution had begun.

 (1) Erickson, Carolly. Alexandra: The Last Tsarina. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

(2) Radzinsky, Edward. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

(3) Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1967.

Readers: For more on the Russian Royal Family, click here.

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In this 1934 Diego Rivera mural, "Man, Controller of the Universe," Leon Trotsky makes an appearance.

In this 1934 Diego Rivera mural, "Man, Controller of the Universe," Leon Trotsky makes an appearance.

In 1937, Frida Kahlo took a new lover. He was Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary. When Frida met Trotsky, he was a man without a country. He had come to Mexico as a political refugee. He had been expelled from the Soviet Union by his archrival Josef Stalin. For nine years, Trotsky and his wife Natalia had lived in exile, searching in vain for political asylum in Turkey, France, and Norway, with no country wanting to admit them permanently, fearing reprisals from the Soviets (they threatened, for instance, to cancel their large exports of Norwegian herring).

Trotskyites all over the world were frantic with worry. Frida’s husband Diego Rivera, a well-known Communist and recent convert to Trotsky’s brand of Communism, came to the Trotskys’ rescue, intervening on their behalf with the Mexican government to grant them asylum in Mexico City.

Diego was hospitalized with eye and kidney problems when, on the morning of January 9, 1937,  the steamship carrying Trotsky and his wife arrived in Tampico harbor. Natalia Trotsky refused to disembark until she was sure she was safe and saw some familiar faces. She had lived for years surrounded by guards and under threat by assassination by Stalin’s agents. She was afraid to leave the boat. Finally a government cutter approached carrying a welcoming party of Mexican authorities, Communist party members, journalists, and Frida Kahlo, who was standing in for the ill Diego. (1)

Satisfied they were in safe hands, Trotsky and Natalia walked down the wooden pier to freedom. He, wearing tweed knickerbockers and a cap, and carrying a briefcase and a cane, walked with his chin held high, his stride that of a proud soldier. She, a little dowdy in a suit and looking worn and worried, watched her feet so as not to trip on the rought planks of the narrow dock. Just behind them walked Frida, lithe and exotic in her rebozo (shawl) and long skirt.” (1)

Natalia and Leon Trotsky arriving in Tampico, Mexico, January 9, 1937, greeted by artist Frida Kahlo, center.

Natalia and Leon Trotsky arriving in Tampico, Mexico, January 9, 1937, greeted by artist Frida Kahlo, center.

A train carried them to the capital where Rivera awaited them. The two great men, lovers of Communism, embraced, then all four drove quickly to Frida’s childhood home in Coyoacan called the Blue House. There the Trotskys would live rent-free, off and on for two years, with their every need and want attended to by Frida, Diego, Cristina Kahlo, friends, and Trotskyite party members who acted as guards, chauffeurs, escorts, and advisers.

Diego had the blue house turned into a fortress. The windows that faced the street were filled in with adobe bricks. Police stood guard during the day, Trotskyites by night. Diego even bought the property next door and connected the two buildings to provide a larger garden and a wing with a studio for Frida, as she would be the Trotskys’ chief  hostess.

"Fulang-Chang and I," by Frida Kahlo, 1937. At age 29, Frida was at her loveliest.

"Fulang-Chang and I," by Frida Kahlo, 1937. At age 29, Frida was at her loveliest.

It didn’t take long for both Frida and Trotsky to start making eyes at each other. Both were notorious for conducting extramarital love affairs. Trotsky and Frida spoke English to one another, which left Natalia guessing what they were saying, as she didn’t speak English (and Diego’s English was deplorable).

The two couples saw a lot of each other. Frida was openly flirtatious with Trotsky,  calling him “love”  and hoping to make Diego insanely jealous in retaliation for his affair with her sister Cristina (See previous post, “Frida Kahlo: I Can’t Live, if Living is Without You!”).

Trotsky slipped love letters into books he loaned Frida. By late spring of 1937, the two were immersed in a full-fledged love affair. They met secretly at Cristina Kahlo’s house, which Diego probably had bought her. Frida nicknamed Trotsky “Piochitas” (little goatee) for his white beard and called him also “el viejo,” as he was 58 years old while she was only 29.

By late July, though, the affair had fizzled out. Frida had proved to herself that she could still attract men and returned, as usual, to doting on Diego. The end may have come about, though, because Natalia and Diego discovered the affair (which could have been Frida’s intention all along).  Over time, Diego and Trotsky had several philosophical disagreements about Communism. Diego ceased to be a Trotskyite. Soon, the couples grew apart, although the Trotskys remained in Mexico, they moved out of the Blue House.

Frida, though, remained friends with Trotsky. She painted a self-portrait for him. The painting shows her standing between two curtains, holding a piece of paper that says in Spanish,

‘To Trotsky with great affection, I dedicate this painting November 7, 1937. Frida Kahlo, in San Angel, Mexico.’ The date was significant because it was both Trotsky’s birthday and the anniversary of the October Revolution, according to the Gregorian calendar.” (2)

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky Between the Curtains," by Frida Kahlo, 1937

"Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky Between the Curtains," by Frida Kahlo, 1937

Less than three years later, Trotsky was dead. On August 20, 1940, he was attacked in his home by an assassin sent by Stalin named Ramón Mercader, who buried the pick of an ice axe into Trotsky’s skull. Trotsky died the next day.

Leon Trotsky on his Deathbed, August 21, 1940

Leon Trotsky on his Deathbed, August 21, 1940

Frida was distraught. She called Diego in San Francisco to tell him the news.

“They killed old Trotsky this morning,” she cried. “Estupido! It’s your fault that they killed him. Why did you bring him?” (1)

Frida had met the assassin once in Paris and had invited him to her house in Coyoacan to dine, which placed her under suspicion. She was picked up by the Mexican police and interrogated for 12 hours, before being released, two days later, without charge.

(1) Herrera, Hayden. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1983.
(2)Zamora, Martha. Frida Kahlo: The Brush of Anguish. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1990.

READERS: For more posts on Frida Kahlo, click here.

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