The attempted murder last week in the United Kingdom of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal by means of a nerve agent immediately called to mind the fatal poisoning of another former officer of the Russian security services, Alexander Litvinenko, victim of a polonium attack in London in 2006. The Russian government denies any involvement, of course, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed outrage that anyone would suggest otherwise.
British Prime Minister Theresa May told the House of Commons on Monday that it was “highly likely” Russia was responsible for the poisoning. A warning uttered by a Russian TV presenter in the context of the Skripal affair struck a resonant chord: “The profession of a traitor is one of the most dangerous in the world. Don’t choose Britain as a place to live.”
Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, proudly traces its lineage back to the 1917 revolution and the formation of the first Soviet secret police, the Cheka. For decades the statue of the Cheka’s founding leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky, dominated Dzerzhinsky Square, site of the headquarters of the KGB, a successor to the Cheka.
Russian President Vladimir Putin served in the KGB as a foreign intelligence officer and became head of the FSB in the late 1990s. Dzerzhinsky Square is now Lubyanka Square and the statue is gone, but “Iron Felix” is still venerated within Putin’s establishment.
The Soviet intelligence services made the elimination of “traitors” and other political heretics on foreign soil something of a hallmark. Given the FSB’s insistence on lines of continuity back to the early Bolshevik Red Terror, it seems safe to assume that the fulfillment of such “special tasks,” in security service parlance, is built into the FSB’s DNA.
The most notorious Soviet-era political assassination was that of Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City in 1940. Trotsky had been a central figure in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and he then organized and led the Red Army to victory in the Russian Civil War.
As the heir apparent to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, Trotsky was the archenemy of Joseph Stalin, who routed him in the succession struggle that began before Lenin’s death in 1924. In 1929 Trotsky was expelled from the USSR. He began his exile in Turkey, before moving to France and then Norway, and finally, after no European country would grant him entry, to Mexico, where he arrived in 1937.
Trotsky’s Mexico sojourn began as the spectacular Moscow show trials were under way. The veteran Bolsheviks in the dock were accused of the most extravagant crimes, such as treason, conspiracy, assassination, wrecking and sabotage.
Trotsky, living abroad, was portrayed as the mastermind of the conspiracy. In the USSR, “Trotskyism” now became the ultimate heresy, as phrases like “Trotskyist wreckers and spies” haunted Soviet newspaper headlines. Most of the alleged “enemies of the people” convicted at the Moscow trials were executed for their crimes, but Trotsky was as yet out of reach.
Trotsky’s villa in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City, was defended by fortress-like walls and guarded by young American Trotskyists. The first serious attempt on Trotsky’s life was a nighttime commando raid on the villa in May 1940, when 20 men, most of them Mexican Communists, dressed in police and military uniforms and armed with machine guns, entered the grounds and the home and unleashed a barrage of machine gun fire, but somehow managed to miss their target.
In the wake of the failed attack, the NKVD, as the Soviet secret police was called at the time, decided to rely on a lone operative who had managed to penetrate Trotsky’s inner circle.
His name was Ramón Mercader, a 27-year-old Barcelona native recruited by the NKVD during the Spanish Civil War. In Paris in the summer of 1938, Mercader, disguised as a Belgian student using the alias Jacques Mornard, seduced a Brooklyn Trotskyist by the name of Sylvia Ageloff, sister of one of Trotsky’s former assistants. Mercader followed Sylvia to New York in the fall of 1939. From there he maneuvered her down to Mexico City and used her to insinuate himself into Trotsky’s household.
He was presented to Trotsky as Frank Jacson, a Canadian businessman bankrolling the French Trotskyists back in Paris — and of course by the summer of 1940 there was no way to verify this information with the French Trotskyists, who were on the run from the invading Germans.
Late in the afternoon of August 20, 1940, Mercader was able to arrange to be alone with Trotsky. He entered Trotsky’s study carrying a trench coat that concealed a dagger, a pistol, and an ice ax, not an ice pick, as is commonly believed: One end was pointed, like an ice pick, the other was flat and wide; the handle, about a foot long, had been cut down for concealment.
As Trotsky sat at his desk and began to read an article Mercader had written as a ruse, Mercader pulled out the ice ax and struck him on the head. Trotsky screamed and threw himself at his attacker, as his bodyguards rushed to his side. The single blow, which penetrated Trotsky’s skull, proved fatal, and he died in a hospital the next evening.
Mercader would sit in a Mexican prison for nearly 20 years. After his release he eventually settled in the Soviet Union.
On June 8, 1961, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev received Mercader in the Kremlin and, in a secret ceremony, awarded him the title Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. The award citation praised Trotsky’s assassin for displaying “heroism and bravery” in carrying out a “special task.”