Leon Trotsky – Signed Autobiography – 1930 – Istanbul

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An interesting volume I discovered in an archive of communist literature, a first printing of Leon Trotsky’s autobiography “My Life” (NY, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930) signed and inscribed by Trotsky himself on the half-title page.

The inscription reads…

“This book, among the very few saved from the fire on Prinkipo, and bearing its traces, for happy remembrance, to dear comrade Louis   – L. Trotsky 30/I 1934, France.”

Trotsky was banished from Russia by Stalin in 1929 and found exile in Turkey, the only country that would grant him asylum. There he lived in several locations, including in one of Istanbul’s grand wooden mansions on the Island of Prinkipo. During his first year in Istanbul Trotsky wrote his autobiography, “My Life.” Pictured here is Trotskys’ personal copy of that publication which narrowly survived a fire believed to have been set by Russian agents working for Stalin. It is known through CIA reports that teams from the Soviet consulate were sent to monitor the house where Trotsky stayed and attempt to destroy his personal library and archives through arson. Trotsky’s description of one such event, taken from a letter he wrote, was published in Dimitri Volkogonov’s biography “Trotsky: The Eternal Revolutionary” (NY, Free Press, 1996)…

As soon as Trotsky had settled on Prinkipo, he was put under Soviet surveillance, and strangers, who were neither journalists nor supporters, started appearing in the little village a few hundred meters from his house. On one occasion a certain Valentin Olberg urged Trotsky to take him on as a secretary, but was turned away after warnings came from friends in Paris. Olberg later gave evidence in the Moscow trials against Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. Others offered their services as bodyguards, but Trotsky politely turned them all away. One night in March of 1931, the house burned down. Trotsky wrote to Max Eastman’s wife, Yelena, in Paris: “Along with the house, everything we had with us and on us also burned. The fire happened in the dead of night … Everything, from our hats to our boots went up in smoke, including my entire library, although by chance my archive was saved, or at least the most important part of it.” Later on, when he was in Mexico, Trotsky concluded that the fire had been deliberately set.

Another account of the incident, described by Esteban Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson, was published by the “International Marxist Tendency.”

“I also recall the fire which broke out in the house. This made a great impression upon me at the time. It happened during the night [of February 28th to March 1st 1931]. I was sleeping and was dragged out of my bed when the fire was discovered. Unfortunately, a considerable number of books and part of Trotsky’s archives were consumed in the flames. A Russian encyclopaedia which was damaged in this fire can still be seen in the house Trotsky lived in later on, in Mexico. Years later, in that same house in Mexico, I lived through a similar experience when [on May 24th 1940] GPU agents, after having tried to kill us with machine-gun fire, threw incendiary bombs with the specific aim of destroying the archives.”

This book eventually made its way back home to Istanbul after I sold it to a client with plans to open a Trotsky museum on Prinkipo Island.

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