Visiting Mexico City's Trotsky House and Museum

Leon Trotsky may have been an intellectual giant, who played a pivotal role in the rise of Communism, but he had short man's syndrome.

The doorways of Museo Casa De Leon Trotsky in the Coyoacan neighbourhood of Mexico City are so low-slung that helmets ought to be handed to visitors.

We've barely crossed the threshold of the Trotsky Museum – its facade painted a socialist shade of red – and parted with the entrance fee of 40 pesos ($2.75) before heads collide with door frames.

"Careful there are small doors," warns tour guide Manuel, who sounds like the Count from Sesame Street, rather too late to spare a headache.

But it is worth the pain to hear Manuel's half-hour saunter through the Bolshevik Revolution, the early days of communism and Trotsky's extraordinary life on the run from Joseph Stalin's assassins.

Trotsky House may not be as popular as the nearby Blue House, the home of the famed artist Frida Kahlo that is also a museum, or Coyoacan's elegant colonial architecture, but it is worth a visit.

Trotsky was a member of the Politburo that assumed power following the revolution that brought Lenin to power in 1917. But a falling out with Stalin, who admittedly couldn't maintain friendships, led to his exile across Europe before he was granted asylum in Mexico in 1937 thanks to the efforts of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who was in New York painting the Rockefeller mural when he heard of Trotsky's plight.

Manuel mentions these tantalising insights plus Trotsky's affair with Kahlo as he leads us through a narrow passage into a walled garden.

It is filled with tropical flowers, the rare cacti Trotsky collected and a stone column containing his ashes and adorned with a Soviet flag.

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Manuel also points out bullet holes in the high walls from one of the assassination attempts made against Trotsky.

Ducking under another low-slung doorway, possibly built as an added security measure given Stalin's determination to kill him, Manuel leads us into a room filled with grainy black and white photos of notorious Soviet figures.

Standing in front of this Socialist hall of fame, Manuel details Trotsky's childhood, early forays into politics and marriage to Aleksandra Sokolovskaya, who apparently persuaded him of the virtues of Marxism. 

Trotsky was born in Ukraine in 1879. Like Elton John and George Michael, he adopted a stage name. His real name was Lev Davidovitch Bronstein.

He points to Trotsky dressed as a rabbi and his mugshot when he was arrested by the tsar's police and pictures of his exile in the frozen wastelands of Siberia. 

"They were given 400 grams of bread daily and when they were punished, this was reduced by half," Manuel says. "And because of the harsh weather of Siberia this was pretty much the difference between death and life."

The catering might have been poor but Trotsky spent his imprisonment productively studying philosophy and siring two daughters until he escaped by hiding in a load of hay on a wagon.

Manuel, who was not alive when the Soviet Union collapsed, reels off dates and historical figures with unpronounceable names at head-spinning speed, listing Trotsky's frosty relationships with Lenin ("too radical") and Stalin ("too paranoid").

Manuel gallops through episodes of political backstabbing (often literally) and horrific violence perpetrated by Stalin who soon decided that Trotsky was public enemy No.1.

He also points out a picture of Trotsky's daughter Zinaida – who committed suicide in 1933 - and his grandson Esteban Volkov, now 92 and the current owner of the Trotsky House.

Esteban, a retired professor, is the only person still alive who has met Trotsky, and occasionally drops by to meet visitors.

He is, Manuel assures us, "a socialist, a communist, he doesn't even own a car".

Manuel's history lesson is enthralling but pales in comparison to Trotsky's personal shenanigans.

Trotsky was exiled to Kazakhstan, then Turkey, France and Norway where he was under house arrest and prevented from engaging in political activity.

Trotsky arrived in Mexico in 1937 after Rivera sung his praises to the Mexican president who granted him asylum. He then went to live in the Blue House for two years with Rivera and Kahlo.

Trotsky's communist ideals extended to the bedroom –marriage to his second wife Natalia Sedova did not stop him carrying on a long-term affair with Kahlo.

The two men, not surprisingly, fell out and Trotsky was given his marching orders in 1939. 

Trotsky was no Donald Trump when it comes to interior decorating – the rooms of his house on Avenida Viena are rather gloomy and austere, in part because of the bars and steel shutters on windows to deter attackers. 

It is also hard not to feel like an intruder so well-preserved is the kitchen with its pots and pans or Trotsky's study with his typewriter, books, papers and trademark glasses left as if he had gone out to stroll Coyoacan's tree-lined streets. Beds are covered in frayed Mexican textiles, while sunlight shines through bullet holes. 

Trotsky survived an attempt on his life by fellow artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, who machine-gunned the house in May 1940, shooting Esteban in the foot and abducting a guard, but somehow missing his target.

A few months later, Ramon Mercader attacked Trotsky in his study, later testifying at his trial: "The moment Trotsky began reading the article, he gave me my chance; I took out the ice axe from the raincoat, gripped it in my hand and, with my eyes closed, dealt him a terrible blow on the head."

Trotsky died in hospital the next day. Mercader's murderous act was rewarded with 20 years in prison in Mexico, hero status in the Soviet Union and his last years in Cuba.

Yet it didn't dim Trotsky's attraction to younger generations such as Manuel. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/mexico

visitmexico.com

FLY

Qantas and Virgin Australia fly from Melbourne and Sydney to Mexico City via the United States.

STAY

Airbnb lists a number of properties to rent in Mexico City. Prices in the neighbourhood of Coyoacan start from about $30 a night for an apartment. See airbnb.com

The Smart Traveller website advises travellers to exercise a high degree of caution when visiting Mexico. See smartraveller.gov.au 

Andrew Taylor travelled at his own expense.

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