In August 1940, a Russian expatriate worked in his well-sheltered garden in Mexico City. He surrounded himself with chickens, rabbits, and peaceful trees. But the man was no vacationing grandpa—he was one of the most famous political exiles in the world, and his home in Coyoacan was surrounded by armed guards and fortress-like walls.
Leon Trotsky had been a political liability in Russia for years before his hasty expulsion. Though he had helped lead the Communist Party to power in Russia during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Trotsky quickly became persona non grata to Joseph Stalin. Trotsky’s opposition to Stalin's bloated bureaucracy and his publicly-stated belief that Stalinism wasn’t taking Communism far enough toward permanent world revolution cost him everything.
When Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, it was thought that Trotsky, who had endured a long marriage of political convenience with Lenin, might come to power. But Stalin helped drum up and took advantage of anti-Trotsky sentiment to seize Soviet control instead. Stalin acted swiftly against the former hero, and he swept Trotsky out of his political positions, the Communist Party, and eventually the USSR itself.
As Trotsky looked for a new state to call home, Stalin scrubbed him from photographs and published texts, but Trotsky was more concerned about preserving his actual life. Though he managed to find political asylum in Mexico, he survived multiple assassination attempts over the years and a raid on his compound.
However, on August 20, 1940, Trotsky’s luck ran out. A man who called himself Jacques Mornard had become friends with Trotsky and his armed guards. They exchanged sympathetic political views and chatted about trivial matters, but Mornard was actually Ramón Mercader, a Soviet agent.
After drinking tea with Trotsky, Mercader found his chance. He used an ice axe intended for mountaineering to hack a hole into Trotsky’s skull. But the revolutionary wouldn’t die without a fight. He apparently grappled with Mercader, shouted for help, and even spat in his face and bit his hand during their altercation. Mercader was beaten by Trotsky’s guards and taken to prison.
Trotsky was removed from the scene of the crime and operated on, but he died some 25 hours after the attack. Mercader (as "Mornard") was swiftly arrested and tried, claiming he had murdered Trotsky because he would not allow "Mornard" to marry a woman he loved. He served 20 years in prison under his assumed identity, though a secret counterintelligence project finally revealed his real name. While the Soviet Union denied any involvement in the murder of Trotsky, Mercader moved to Russia after his release and was eventually given an award for being a “Hero of the Soviet Union.” And as for Trotsky, the leader who fell from national hero to axed-down exile? He was buried in his own backyard.