It’s been a hard few weeks for me, hard for me to face the blank page and (in my own mind, at least) provide some wit or wisdom to anyone who might read this blog.
Me? I, myself, am fine. The news has been deplorable, even more than usual. People in my social circles, including close friends, have been suffering terribly.
But, I remember I promised reviews of my summer reading, and remember that writing for you always makes me feel better.
With that said, let’s talk about violence.
Since Monday was the anniversary of Trotsky’s death (by ice ax, not by ice pick, see Fig. 1) he gets to go to the front of the review backlog line.
The story of his murder is one for the ages. I should feature it some time.
Fig. 1–Know your weapons. This will be on the quiz.
Ice ax. Similar to weapon used to kill Trotsky. (Wikipedia)
Ice pick. Still deadly, but not used on Trotsky. (Wikipedia)
Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
Kenneth D. Ackerman
Even before the book begins, you can tell Ackerman is not a historian or political scientist.
And, for the most part, it works well.
Ackerman is a New York lawyer who has set his hand to retelling that great city’s history. Trotsky is his second work, chronicling the ten weeks the Russian radical, expelled from war-torn Europe for anti-war writings, lived in the Bronx with his common-law wife and their two children.
I sort this as relevant to true-crime fans because 90% of what Trotsky and his comrades had done in their lives up to this point was illegal. There is also plenty of spy intrigue and conspiracy going on separate from their plan to overthrow the capitalist order.
For “serious” historians of the Russian Revolution, (and trust me, I’ve read them) this period of time gets maybe two pages in a 900-page book. To see so much effort put into a generally-ignored period is like seeing your favorite canon characters in a spin-off movie of the best kind.
For anyone not familiar with Trotsky, Ackerman’s book is a gentle introduction in a novelistic tone.
For anyone not partial to Trotsky, the book is still enjoyable for its portrait of Gilded-Age New York, a time of optimism and social ferment. As the Russian Marxist exiles write and argue, separated from the horrors of WWI by an ocean, oblivious to the wars they will soon begin, even the most cynical reader has to admit there is at least a slight charm to their idealism.
Ackerman’s passion for the project shows even from the dedication, which is to his grandparents, who “fled Poland for America as a result of the 1920 Soviet Russian invasion…led by the then Soviet people’s commissar for military and naval affairs, Leon Trotsky.”
Yeah, spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks win. Next spoiler: Trotsky still ends up losing (see Fig. 1 above).
But passion does not save Ackerman from some egregious factual, or editing, mistakes. One of these, which still makes my eye twitch thinking about it, comes early in the book. Introducing Lenin to readers on page seventeen, Ackerman includes a quote from a contemporary…a quote about Trotsky.
A quote about Trotsky that is a fairly well-known quote about Trotsky.
(For clarity’s sake, this quote is the one that describes Trotsky as stalking around the speakers’ dais like “a bird of prey.”)
I forgive Ackerman these few…infuriating…slips because of his genuine commitment to the book, which shows forth in a novelistic, bubbly style.
3/5 stars: a nice popular history…the errors in which make this thesis survivor histrionic.
1/5 ‘fraidy cats: This is the Downton Abbey of my summer reading.
1/5 ick-factor: I suppose it depends on your political leanings.
Update: Mr. Ackerman reached out to me in the comments to very graciously thank me for catching the error with the quote. He says it will be corrected in the next edition of the book. I thought his thoroughness deserved recognition immediately after my initial critique.
7 thoughts on “Ackerman’s “Trotsky” Enjoyable…Except for the Errors”
Thank you for the review of Trotsky in New York 1917. Seeing your comment on the error in the “bird of prey” quote made me quickly drop what I was doing to go check my footnote and source for it (in this case, the well-known Isaac Deutscher biography THE PROPHET ARMED). And, yes, your point is well taken. A lot of effort goes into proper sourcing and fact-checking a book like this, but this was a clear mistake. Thanks for catching it, and I can assure you it will be corrected in the next edition. I’m glad you liked the book otherwise, and I appreciate your giving it a low “ick-factor” and “fraidy cat” rating. All the best. –Ken Ackerman
I am glad to have helped you; I look forward to the next edition. I will be sure to amend my review to note your gracious response.
The thing I loved most about “Trotsky in New York 1917” is that you take the subject seriously without taking it “too seriously” as some more academic writers do. Such authors end up burdening readers with ponderous prose and a good deal of finger-wagging; this is not the case with your book.
As to why your “ick factor” was low: many of the other books I read for this blog involve serial murder and postmortem dismemberment. I include that rating to warn readers who have sensitive stomachs. Trotsky and Bukharin discussing ideas is positively genteel by comparison, and I welcome the break.
Allison Shely, aka “The Librarian”