The Cactus Communist

I am currently working on a book of the unlikely hobbies and skills and interests of history’s great and good, with a working title of 100 Hidden Talents. Here, for example, is the plant collecting world of Leon Trotsky, founder of the Red Army and passionate advocate of world communism and Mexican cacti.

The Cactus Communist

Leon Trotsky, ever a Marxist revolutionary, spent the last few years of his life collecting cacti and caring for rabbits, before he was murdered with an ice pick in August 1940. To the end the communist born Lev Davidovich Bronstein in 1879, remained a committed advocate of world-wide socialism, forced into exile in 1929 by arch enemy Stalin, who considered Trotsky a threat. The final three-year stay inside a small, fortified community near Mexico City reflected Trotsky’s hopes as a utopian model of his dreams that Communism might thrive everywhere. Who’d have thought that the founder and head of the Russian Red Army from 1918-1923 would one day set up shop in such a smallholding.

‘Trotsky had left the Soviet Union first to Turkey, then France and finally Norway. Stalin’s 1930s show trials declared him guilty of plotting to kill the dictator, and he was sentenced to death in absentia. Trotsky described the trials as ‘one of the greatest frauds in political history’. Ultimately Norway yielded to Soviet pressure in case Trotsky proved the accusations false, and so the Scandinavian country ejected him and his family. 

Only Mexico, as members of the International Communist League, welcomed the Trotskys, and in January 1937, an oil tanker, sailing from Norway, arrived at the Mexican port of Tampico. Trotsky set up near Mexico City, in a property defended by high walls to halt any Stalinist attack. A visiting grandchild described the house as “a small community, a front line to socialism. Around my grandfather there was an atmosphere of solidarity, partnership and enthusiasm for work, as in the number of tasks, like house chores. There were no privileges nor distinctions. My grandfather irradiated great dynamism and a firm faith on socialist future in humanity.”

Trotsky lived to a routine, starting the day around six in the morning to feed chickens and rabbits. “The chore of caring for them he performed too, with methodology and precision,” his secretary Charles Cornell testified.3 “The animal feed was prepared to the most scientific formula he could come up with. The amount of food was carefully measured. He inspected the animals regularly for any signs of sickness or parasites. The chicken yards and pens were kept scrupulously clean.” 

Trotsky took trips with his coterie of supporters into the Mexican countryside. It was there that he found and dug up cacti. He would unearth them with a spade or pick to plant them later in his yard. Cacti weighing anything from 50-80lbs were collected from different places, wrapped in newspaper and taken to a large patio in his fortress, with extra soil brought back in sacks. Cacti seemed to interest Trotsky with its endurance and for being exotic. None of the younger people on a foraging trip could go faster than him, and even at his age, he was considered tireless. “Where did he get all his energy, all this physical strength? He walked with his cacti, heavy as lead, and not even the rigorous sun, nor the hard-to-climb mountains could decrease his speed,” one acquaintance said. According to Bertrand Batenaude, writing for the Hoover Digest in 2010, cactus hunting became Trotsky’s chief form of exercise. ‘It was something of an obsession,’ he wrote. Trotsky’s wife, Natalia, joked that his cacti collecting was a form of ‘penal labor’, Trotsky adding that it was the next best thing to hunting. 

The trips into the mountains were photographed and filmed by the American camera enthusiast, Alexander Buchman in 1940, six months before Trotsky’s assassination. Trotsky can be seen in the film digging out one after another cactus, wearing heavy gloves and swinging a pickaxe. The 58-year-old Communist would badger anyone who leered at the physical exhaustion of the expeditions. ‘At one point,’ wrote Batenaude, ‘he turns and accuses the cameraman of loafing.’

‘He seemed hypnotized by the goal to be reached. ‘The change in occupation was a sort of relief. He found in the work a compensation for all the hard blows that ripped him up inside and the harder the test, the more passionately did he forget it. He never did anything slowly or half-way, laziness and depression were unknown to him.’ Trotsky was described as being affable and affectionate, but very strict in discipline and work. The old Communist participated in any tasks, often the first to find a solution and use a shovel or pick.

Of course, it was with a short-handled ice pick that he was killed in August by Stalin’s Spanish agent, Ramon Mercader, who gained access by pretending to be interested in Trotskyism. Mercader wanted a document to be discussed, and while Trotsky was sitting at a desk he took the pick from his raincoat and struck from the back. Blood poured out of a wound, Trotsky screaming and then taken to the dining room table supported by his wife. Guards hit Mercader violently, but Trotsky asked them not to kill him but to force him to confess. Trotsky was taken to hospital, but having refused brain surgery, died a day later, aged 60, declaring to the end his certainty that international Communism would be victorious.


Neurally Speaking

Last week was my first talk for a while, this time at Sopworth, Gloucestershire (photo by Ray Bird Photography). It went well, I think, with the audience intrigued by the idea of neuroplasticity, and the focus on the lazy and the noisy brain. Of course, my attempted escapes from Intensive Care were, as ever, the points that caught imaginations best. Audiences always laugh when I tell them how I resented my father not bringing my cordless drill so that I could unscrew one of the windows in my room. I had already removed one with the handle of a spoon, and wanted to extract the other five.

I have come to realise that the two most significant symptoms of my brain injury are that my brain is either lazy or noisy. The use-it-or-lose-it effect influences the lazy brain, in the does-he-take-sugar way. Not being able to drive is a critical component; the continual sense of being patronised. Neurosurgeons call this Learned Non-Use. Unwittingly it was this potential for atrophy that I feared most leaving hospital, worried that my fit brain, which was used to the exercise of editing and publishing magazines, would go to sleep. I think that has indeed happened, and writing this blog is one attempt to overcome the problem. Learning French is good. Giving talks also pushes my brain as public speaking appears to have become my new means of communication now that magazine editing has stopped.

However, experimenting with too many projects and ideas can cause chaos within the brain, and force it to become noisy. The front lobes, which have been damaged in my brain, do much of the organisation and management of other skills and activities. These are termed as executive functions. They kick-start neural energies, like a spark plug in an engine. If the plugs have lost the piston they used to spark, they will search for other projects to enthuse. In my case this has led to working in so many ways and constantly looking for change and new approaches to life. It is this sort of thing that fascinates audiences so much.