The woman who killed Trotsky (yes, really!)

Leon Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940 at his armed compound in Mexico City. A Soviet spy called Ramón Mercader covertly wove his way into Trotsky’s political staff and at an opportune moment, stuck an ice pick in his head. Trotsky survived the immediate assault but died the following day of his wounds in hospital.

In 2014, I visited the Leon Trotsky museum in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City. The museum is basically Trotsky’s house as it looked on the day he died. You can even see bullet marks in the walls of his study from a previous failed assassination attempt. And rather touchingly, in the garden there are still the hutches for the rabbits he kept.

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I didn’t know much about Trotsky’s killer, Ramón Mercader, because frankly he’d never interested me. Another fame seeking loser. Most assassins are small men with big chips on their shoulder – think Lee Harvey Oswald or Mark Chapman. But one detail from my guide struck me and that was the involvement of Mercader’s mother on the fateful day as the getaway driver parked outside.

Señora Mercader and the death of Leon Trotsky

In a rather sexist way, I assumed that Ramón had roped his doting Mum into his destructive plot. In fact, it was very much the other way round. Caridad Mercader was a well known Communist activist in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and a diehard Stalinist. Her loyalty to Moscow was unquestioning, even as Stalin’s purges swept the country and led to old Bolsheviks being executed.

When she was injured as a result of a bomb attack during the civil war, her hospital convalescence was covered in glowing terms by the left-wing Spanish media. She had already made a name for herself touring the United States and Mexico to garner support for the Republican cause in Spain against Franco’s fascist rebels (who eventually won the civil war).

Her life was like something out of a Netflix series. Born in 1892 in Spanish ruled Cuba. Moved to Barcelona and married a wealthy Catalan industrialist. It seems to have been an abusive relationship with her husband even forcing her to undergo electric shock treatment because of her mental state. Unsurprisingly, she left him and also became implacably hostile to his social class.

According to a Life magazine article in 1959, during the civil war in Barcelona she “led mobs against some machine-gun posts and thus played a big part in breaking the resistance of the city’s pro-Franco military element”. Caridad Mercader and her son Ramón were both injured during the conflict.

At this time, she found a new love. Leonid Eitingon (one of his noms de guerre) was a general in the Soviet State Security. The USSR was deeply involved in the Spanish Civil War. On the one hand, directing its Communist supporters against the fascists but on the other hand, attempting to suppress anti-fascists (Trotskyists and anarchists) who were hostile to Stalin and the bureaucracy in Moscow.

Eitingon was part of a unit directed by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) that organised assassinations of anti-Stalinists around the world. Top of their list was Leon Trotsky, who by 1940 had found his way to Mexico. His literary outpourings against Stalin evidenced the power of the pen against the sword. Eitingon began grooming the Mercaders, mother and son, for the task ahead.

Caridad Mercader at the Trotsky compound

Eitingon accompanied Caridad and Ramón Mercader on the day of the assassination and sat with Caridad in the getaway car outside Trotsky’s compound. Ramón botched the killing although Trotsky did eventually die. He was caught by Trotsky’s bodyguards and taken into police custody. Caridad and Eitingon fled the country realising Ramón was not going to join them.

There is an interesting epilogue to all of this. Ramón was imprisoned for the next twenty years and estranged from his mother. He died in 1978 in Havana, Cuba and is buried in Moscow. His last words were reputedly (in reference to Trotsky): “I hear it always. I hear the scream. I know he’s waiting for me on the other side.”

Eitingon was implicated in the Doctors’ Plot in 1951. This was the final act in Stalin’s paranoid life when the severely ill dictator became convinced that Jewish doctors were planning to poison the leadership of the USSR. Eitingon, coming from a Russian Jewish background, was locked up and tortured along with his sister. His name was only fully cleared by the Russian Supreme Court in 1992, over ten years after his death.

Caridad Mercader died in Paris in 1975 and her funeral plot was paid for by the Soviet embassy. In the decades after the assassination of Trotsky, she lived on a Soviet pension in the French capital.

In 2007, it was reported that payments had not been maintained for her cemetery plot and therefore Caridad’s bones would be exhumed and placed in an urn. The embassy that had once funded the plot no longer existed as the USSR had collapsed seventeen years earlier.

The Mercader plot against Trotsky in a movie

Back in 1972, the actor Richard Burton played Trotsky in the rather leaden movie The Assassination of Trotsky. Though the scene where Mercador does the deed is gripping. It’s a bit of a mess as a movie. You can view it below.

Categories: History, Philosophy

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