From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.2, Spring 1962, pp.46-47.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
MY REMINISCENSES of Natalia Sedov Trotsky cover the period since 1948, when we first went to visit her in Mexico.
I was rather nervous at the prospect of meeting a person who to me was a legendary, historical character. I had read Trotsky’s My Life and knew of Natalia’s role in the Russian Revolution.
Besides her extraordinary life as a revolutionist, there was the appalling fact of the tragedies that had befallen her. Her two sons killed, her husband assassinated, her life now in exile in a strange country – I felt inadequate to meet such a woman. I could not have believed at that time that we were to become friends.
At that time, the street in front of the stone fortress where Natalia lived and where Trotsky was murdered, was rough and unpaved. On one side of the street there were little huts belonging to poor Mexicans. The stone house is set behind a high wall, and cannot be seen from the street.
We rang the bell in a heavy metal door and were admitted. We walked through a beautiful garden, in the center of which was a startlingly white, stark tombstone on which a hammer and sickle were carved. A beautiful red flag flew bravely from a pole. It was a stunning monument set in the midst of a well-tended and perfectly laid out garden.
Natalia met us at the steps of the house. She was a little person, dressed in black, with white hair and a rather grim, serious expression. When I knew her better, I realized that her formality was an old-world courtesy of manner. For she never thought of herself as a famous person.
She was biased in advance in favor of anyone from the Trotskyist movement and deeply appreciated our visit.
We entered a high-ceilinged stone room, containing a huge roll-top desk, bookcases and shelves with newspapers and reference works. We sat around a small wooden table on gaily painted Mexican chairs and there we talked. This was the first of the many, many visits, which always started with conversation around the little table.
After a while we were taken into a long, narrow dining room and Natalia brought in tea, which she made in a tiny pot, then poured hot water in each cup. With it we had a tough kind of jelly called membrilla, and bread. At tea time, Natalia relaxed and told us pleasant stories.
The truth of the matter is, in her presence it was hard to remember that she had lost both her sons, that her husband had been assassinated and that she was living in exile.
Here was a woman who had no self-pity. It was extraordinary; especially, since many of her old friends who lived in New York would get very emotional about her plight, living in what they called “that horrible, cold house,” and would weep at her lonely state.
It was true that the house was uncomfortable and cold, with only the most rudimentary bathrooms. And there was a time when she was alone, when Seva had to live at the university.
Once we were in Natalia’s bedroom and I noticed a pearl revolver next to her bed. She laughed and said, “I don’t think I could ever use it. But anyway, I just have it there.” There was no hint of complaint. She seemed to find the revolver amusing.
In his Diary, Trotsky observes:
“Natalia is fixing up our living quarters [this was in Norway – C.W.] How many times she has done this! There are no wardrobes here, and many other things are lacking. She is hammering nails in by herself, stringing cords, hanging things up and changing them around; the cords break; she sighs to herself and begins all over again. She is guided in this by two considerations: cleanliness and attractiveness. I remember with what heartfelt sympathy – almost tenderness – she told me in 1905 about a certain fellow prisoner, a common criminal, who had ‘understood’ cleanliness and helped N. to clean up their cell. How many ‘furnishings’ we have changed in 33 years of living together: a Geneva mansarde, flats in the working-class districts of Vienna and Paris, and the Kremlin and Arkhangelskoe, a peasant hut near Alma-Ata, a villa in Prinkipo, and much more modest villas in France .... N. has never been indifferent to her surroundings, but always independent of them. I easily ‘let down’ under difficult conditions: that is, become reconciled to the dirt and disorder around me, but Natalia – never. She raises every environment to a certain level of cleanliness and orderliness, and does not allow it to fall below that level. But how much energy, inventiveness, and vital forces it requires!”
It seemed to me that the greatest force in her life was her capacity for affection for comrades and friends. Here was where she suffered in Mexico, especially after the party here was no longer able to send comrades to live in the house with her. It was this desire to be with her own that gave her the prodigious energy she put forth in going twice to Europe and once to the US.
She suffered from a vascular condition which made her rather unsteady on her feet. But she always wore high wedge shoes and said she could never get used to low heels. Sometimes when she got up after sitting for a while, as on a car journey, she would stagger fearfully. But if you put out your arm to help her, she would say, “No. If I take your arm, what will I do when you are not here?”
She had a great deal of pride and did not think of herself as old. She told her age only once, as far as I know. Even Seva did not know her age. The one time she told it happened when we brought a little girl of six, daughter of a comrade, to visit her. The child asked her mother, “How old is Natalia?” Natalia asked what the child had said, for she did not understand English. The mother was quite embarrassed. “She wants to know how old you are,” she said. Natalia laughed. “Tell her that I am 72.” The little girl was relieved. “That’s not old,” she said. “My grandfather is 72.”
For Natalia adored children. Once on a trip to Taxco, a tiny boy approached her and asked for a peso. Natalia sat right down on the curb between him and his even tinier sister and talked to them. She laughed and kidded with them and asked him why she should give him a peso. “Because it’s Sunday,” he replied. “Well then,” said Natalia, “should I give every child a peso?”
“No, just me,” he answered. Natalia laughed and gave him half a peso. You could see that children accepted her completely.
Often when we were in Mexico we took Natalia on trips outside of the city. We would plan to visit all the sights and at first, expected Natalia to stay in the hotel and rest. But when we got to the car, there would be Natalia waiting for us. She would scramble up the steep pyramids and scare us to death. She loved to walk up the mountains, too, and had more stamina than either of us. She loved the countryside and could become completely absorbed in her surroundings.
She was a botanist so well versed that she could recognize every plant. When we kept pressing her to let us do something for her, she finally asked us to take her to buy some black earth for her garden. Otherwise, it was always difficult to give her anything. It was she who gave.
We learned that she could not resist an appeal for help from a comrade, or as it usually was, from ex-comrades, and out of her meager funds would send them money.
Natalia greatly admired women who were athletes, who were strong and sturdy. We took her to see an Ingrid Bergman movie and she said the actress reminded her of the young women in Russia who were in revolt against the traditional manners. She said they wore plain peasant clothes, refused to make themselves beautiful and sometimes it seemed to her they were smoking two cigarettes at once. “How I loved those girls” she said.
When she came to New York in 1957 and stayed with us, it was a peculiar situation. Actually, she wanted to live in the US because she was so isolated in Mexico. A string attached to the permission for the visit was for her to have a conversation with Rep. Walter of the House Un-American Activities Committee. She had been assured that there would be no publicity.
She honestly didn’t believe that it would matter two pins what she said, because she did not think of herself as a world famous figure. We were very worried about her projected appearance, and tried to dissuade her. But if she didn’t appear, it meant she had to return immediately to Mexico.
She arrived in the US in very bad shape. The trip was a nightmare. Her plane ran into the edge of a hurricane and she was so sick that they thought she was going to die. They landed in the Midwest and tried to make her get off. She refused and arrived in exhausted condition. But after a while here in New York she revived and immediately took on the job of getting our backyard into shape. Every morning she would bundle up in a woolen wrapper and hat to dig and water the plants which she set in for us.
She was an ideal guest. She was always trying to do the dishes. Once, George said to her, “Natalia, we have a division of labor here,” meaning that I cooked and he did the dishes. Natalia, said, “Yes, I know, Connie cooks and you eat.”
Another time, when my mother-in-law was coming to visit, she did me a great favor. We had an invasion of giant cockroaches, and I found Natalia chasing them around the sink and squashing them. She whispered to me, “It will never do to have your mother-in-law see these.”
Meantime, we tried to keep her whereabouts a secret because of the reporters who had already published stories about her forthcoming testimony. One day she asked me, “Do you really think it makes any difference what I say?” I answered that I did indeed, because it would be a blow to the socialist movement. She was very upset because she did not want to go back to Mexico. She said, “What will I say when they ask me questions?” A leader of the SWP said, “Just say ‘no.’”
And this is exactly what she did. She came back from the meeting with Walter’s intermediary and said, “To everything I replied, ‘nyet, nyet, nyet.’”
Then sadly she got ready to leave and within 24 hours she was ordered onto a plane to Mexico.
Of course, the best descriptions of Natalia are in Trotsky’s Diary. I would like to close by quoting this paragraph by the Old Man:
“The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves. Natalia and I have been together for almost 33 years (a third of a century!) and in tragic hours I am always amazed at the reserves of her character ...”
Last updated on 22 May 2009