The murder of Leon Sedov on 16th February 1938 in a Parisian clinic was a massive personal and political blow to Trotsky and the movement he created. Sedov was a key leader of the international movement and, as a consequence, was singled out by the Stalinist murder machine for assassination.
"Leon entered the revolution as a child", wrote his mother Natalya Sedov, "and never left it to the end of his days." As a small boy of twelve, Leon, known affectionately as Lyova, witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917. He had attended all the demonstrations, got into fights at school over politics, including with Kerensky's son. Apparently, fights were a daily occurrence. He had visited his father in prison following the July witch-hunts against the Bolsheviks. On this basis, his future took shape. As with many of the new generation, he quickly joined the Young Communist League and threw his energies into the Communist movement and the defence of the young Soviet state. In 1923, as a fully conscious revolutionary, he devoted his efforts to building the Left Opposition. He had no time for bureaucratic privileges and energetically took the ideas of the Opposition into the ranks of the Communist youth.
As a student, Sedov developed an exceptional ability in mathematics and studied in the Superior Technical Academy. However, his heart and soul were with the revolution.
In 1927, with the repression and expulsion of the Left Opposition, Trotsky was subsequently banished by Stalin. Leon Sedov's fate was tied to Trotsky's. He therefore decided to leave his young family in Moscow and join his mother and father in Soviet Central Asia. Here, in Alma Ata, the main city in Kazakhstan, he energetically assisted Trotsky with his work in maintaining the clandestine links with the Opposition in Moscow. At twenty-two years of age, he was, says Trotsky, "our minister of foreign affairs, minister of police, and minister of communications". The Trotsky household was under constant surveillance by the secret police and it was Leon's responsibility to break through the cordon.
To begin with huge amounts of correspondence arrived from all over. Between April and October 1928, they received some 1,000 political letters and documents and around 700 telegrams, which needed replying to. Without Sedov's work, not half of this would have been accomplished. However, Stalin's secret police would virtually destroy these links by 1932. In February 1929, Trotsky, Natatia and Leon Sedov had been further exiled by Stalin to Turkey (Prinkipo).
These years were exceptionally difficult and there were strains in relations, as Trotsky admits. "People closest to me often had a very hard time. And inasmuch as the closest to me of all the youth was my son, he usually had the hardest time of all." However, Trotsky explained that despite these inevitable frictions, there were inseparable ties. "Beneath the surface there glowed a deep mutual attachment based upon something immeasurably greater than bonds of blood - a solidarity of views and appraisals, of sympathies and antipathies, of joys and sorrows experienced together, of great hopes we had in common."
It was a period of relearning foreign languages and close literary collaboration with his father. Trotsky's archives and library were in Leon's hands. He worked tirelessly in the public libraries, first in Turkey, then Berlin and later in Paris, assembling and researching quotes and statistics for Trotsky's monumental ‘History of the Russian Revolution'. The same went for Trotsky's ‘Revolution Betrayed'. Trotsky went so far as to say, "My son's name should rightly be placed next to mine on almost all my books written since 1928."
Urged by his parents Leon resumed his scientific studies and went to live in Berlin in early 1931. Of course, Leon Sedov threw himself into the work of the International Left Opposition, and soon became the Russian representative on the International Secretariat. He had become the de facto editor of the ‘Biulletien Oppozitsii' in Prinkipo, but was put completely in charge on his arrival in Berlin, which continued right through until his death. Each issue was regarded as a major triumph, which he supervised meticulously, which they attempted to smuggle in different ways into Russia.
Stalin was determined to silence Trotsky and the Opposition. Leon Sedov was on their hit list. According to Ignace Reiss, who was a secret agent who broke with Stalin and came over to Trotsky (for which he paid for his life) the Stalinist GPU stated many times "The Little Son [Leon] does his work cleverly. The Old Man [Trotsky] wouldn't find it so easy without him." This was true. It was the reason why the Stalinists surrounded Leon Sedov with agents, stooges who wormed their way into the Opposition.
On Hitler's coming to power, the ‘Biulleten' was banned and Leon was forced to move to Paris. Here he continued his revolutionary work, although he did also manage to pass his scientific exams. However, the Stalinist net closed in. His letters were opened, his phone was tapped and GPU agents lived in the flats next to his. Even when he went for a short break, they followed him. They were the same agents who murdered Ignace Reiss. He however refused to take too many precautions, especially if they got in the way of work. As Trotsky explained, "As a genuine revolutionist he placed value on life only to the extent that it served the struggle of the proletariat for liberation."
In 1933, Trotsky was forced to seek refuge in France, which brought him closer to Leon Sedov. Leon brought him books from Paris, especially Russian ones. Trotsky also made trips to Paris. It was in December 1934, that the twenty-one year old South African Trotskyist, Ted Grant, arrived in Paris and had discussions with Leon Sedov before finally arriving in England. "Leon Sedov discussed a number of things with us, including the ‘French turn' and the situation in France and England", recalled Ted later.
In 1935, Trotsky, under pressure from the French government, moved to Norway where the Norwegian Labour Party had won the elections. In August 1936, the Moscow Trials broke out, accusing old Bolsheviks like Zinoviev and Kamenev, together with Trotsky and his son of counter-revolutionary activity, being in league with Hitler, and so on. The whole show trial was based on false confessions extracted from the accused. These slanders had to be answered immediately. But the Norwegian government gagged Trotsky. Leon Sedov rose to the occasion to answer the grotesque charges of the Stalin regime. While Trotsky was isolated in Norway, paralysed and gagged by the ‘socialist' government, Leon exposed the trials as a horrendous fraud in his excellent book, the ‘Red Book on the Moscow Trial'. It was the first thorough-going exposure of the frame-ups and was published in many languages. Trotsky described it as a "priceless gift... the first crushing reply to the Kremlin falsifiers." Within a few months, Trotsky had managed to obtain asylum in Mexico, temporarily out of reach from Stalin's clutches.
These years opened a torrent of slanders, lies and calumnies against the Trotskyist movement. They were nightmare years. Both Trotsky and Leon Sedov were the chief defendants in the Moscow Trials in absence, accused of all kinds of heinous crimes. These macabre spectacles were used to murder all those who had any link with the October Revolution. Millions perished in the camps and gulags. Many were shot without trial or simply disappeared. Leon's sister Zina was driven to suicide by the Stalinists and he was forced to care for her son, the six year-old Esteban Volkov. His younger brother Sergei was arrested in Russia and accused of "poisoning workers". He was shot in a labour camp.
A counter-trial was established by John Dewey to investigate the allegations made in the Moscow Trials. After examinations and cross examinations, including of Trotsky, their deliberations concluded that "we therefore find the Moscow Trials to be a frame-up. We therefore find Trotsky and Sedov not guilty." But it was only a faint glimmer of light amid the horrors of Stalin's holocaust.
Stalinist agents and assassins were closing in around Trotsky and his family. GPU agent Krivitsky warned Sedov that there was an agent provocateur in the Paris centre, but was unable to name the man. He was however able to give a description. His name turned out to be Mark Zborowski, a Stalinist police agent, who had infiltrated the Trotskyist movement and befriended Leon.
Leon rejected advice to join his father in Mexico, saying that work in Paris was too important. At this time, he was under extreme pressure and suffered from bouts of depression and insomnia. In early February 1938, Leon, suffering from abdominal pain, was urged by Zborowski (known as Etienne) to enter a Russian clinic in Paris, He left a note with his wife which she was to open only if an ‘accident' should happen. Leon was given a routine operation to relieve the pain, which was successful. He began to recover. Then he began to suffer pains and loss of consciousness. He died on 16th February.
As it turned out the hospital was owned by Dr Boris Girmounski, who formerly served with the Russian secret police. Zborowski, who had worked in the notorious Society for the Repatriation of Russian Emigres, had also been a GPU agent since 1934, to which he confessed after the war. He met with officials from the Soviet Embassy and reported on Sedov's and Trotsky's activities. There is little doubt that Sedov had been murdered by the Stalinists, probably through poisoning. The next step in the plan was Trotsky's assassination.
Leon Sedov was second only to his father in importance as an organiser of the international revolutionary movement. He showed colossal personal courage in face of the tragedies unfolding around him. He was prepared to make whatever sacrifices were needed to develop the revolutionary movement that could bring about the emancipation of the working class, the only thing worth living and fighting for. His work, sacrifice and courage remain an outstanding example to the revolutionary youth of today.
Trotsky wrote an obituary to his fallen son and comrade:
Every year on August 20th a meeting is held at the graveside of Leon Sedov to commemorate the murder of Leon Trotsky. Today we remember both these martyrs and pay tribute to their revolutionary courage, sacrifice and inspiration.
"The old generation with whom ... we once embarked upon the road of revolution ... has been swept off the stage. What Tsarist deportations, prisons, and katorga (Siberian exile), what the privations of life in exile, what civil war, and what illness had not done, Stalin, the worst scourge of the revolution, has accomplished in these last few years... The better part of the middle generation, those... whom the year 1917 awakened and who received their training in twenty-four armies on the revolutionary front, have also been exterminated. The best part of the younger generation, Lyova's contemporaries... has also been trampled down and crushed... In these years of exile we have made new friends, some of whom have become... like members of our family. But we first met all of them ... when we were approaching old age. Lyova alone knew us when we were young; he participated in our life from the moment he acquired self-awareness. Remaining young, he became almost like our contemporaries...
"Goodbye, Leon, goodbye, dear and incomparable friend. Your mother and I never thought, never expected that destiny would impose on us this terrible task of writing your obituary. We lived in firm conviction that long after we were gone you would be the continuator of our common cause. But we were not able to protect you. Goodbye, Leon! We bequeath your irreproachable memory to the younger generation of the workers of the world. You will rightly live in the hearts of all those who work, suffer, and struggle for a better world. Revolutionary youth of all countries! Accept from us the memory of our Leon, adopt him as your son - he is worthy of it - and let him henceforth participate invisibly in your battles, since destiny has denied him the happiness of participating in your final victory."