The Art of the Communist Museum: The Leon Trotsky House in Coyoacán

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery. Villa Coyoacán, Mexico, home to El Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky, is now a posh ...

This is the latest installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.

Villa Coyoacán, Mexico, home to El Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky, is now a posh neighborhood in the south of Mexico City, but it was hardly more than a provincial town on the outskirts of the capital when Trotsky lived there, in 1939–40, before the mega-metropolis to the north subsumed it. The Trotsky House Museum, which now abuts a highway, feels somehow removed from the cobblestone streets, quaint Catholic churches, and ornate fountains of Coyoacán. However, as one approaches the home of a Russian Marxist, it feels fitting that colonial beauty should give way to the steel-barricaded utilitarianism of the Río Churubusco highway.

We forget that Trotsky was a pragmatist. We associate him with the ultimate idealism of permanent revolution—the idea that the working classes would unite across national lines to create a permanent revolution, an idealism disproved most recently by the xenophobia that motivated the Brexit vote. But Trotsky had his practical side as well, choosing to live just a few streets over from his reputed lover, Frida Kahlo. In 1937, Kahlo and her husband, the famed muralist Diego Rivera, used their influence with the Mexican government to secure political asylum for Trotsky, who had been exiled after leading a failed coup against Stalin. When they first arrived, Trotsky and his wife, Natalia, lived in Kahlo’s home, but after a falling out with Rivera (some say over ideology, some say over Kahlo), he moved to the house where the museum is now located.

<i>Trotskys study</i>. Photograph by the author

Trotskys study. Photograph by the author

In keeping with Trotsky’s political philosophy, the events program of the Trotsky House Museum tends to link global struggles with social issues specific to Mexico City. In this light, the journey to the museum really begins a few blocks away, as one passes a mural featuring African American activist Mumia Abu-Jamal and community leader Nestora Salgado, the driving force behind an armed rebellion against the drug cartels and corrupt narcotics officers of Mexico City; both figures are believed by their supporters to have been unlawfully imprisoned. The museum also regularly hosts conferences, movie screenings, and other events dedicated to not only political but also aesthetic revolutionaries. As I walked into the museum one spring day in 2016, a poster advertised a film series honoring the recently deceased David Bowie. The museum also has its own library, which houses the museum’s archives as well as Marxist periodicals and books on Trotsky and the Russian Revolution. In the museum’s archives I found a flyer for a Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) writing contest, in which young students were asked by the museum to submit satirical poetic obituaries—works in a traditional Mexican genre known as “literary skulls” (calaveras literarias)—on any theme related to “Trotsky, communism, or the Soviet Union.”

Trotsky’s house and its museum have none of the overwhelming physical beauty of Kahlo’s Casa Azul, which boasts lush gardens and brightly painted terracotta walls. His home itself is drab, with unpainted wood interiors; the furniture looks uncomfortable. The only real pop in the landscape comes from a neon green ice cream vending machine in the interior courtyard. The museum’s permanent exhibition (housed in the building next to Trotsky’s home) is oddly arranged: there’s one wall with different portraits of Trotsky arranged in a circle; it looks like something the Penguin character from the Batman movies would use to hypnotize you. It might seem unfair, however, to expect beauty from a Trotsky museum; Trotsky was, after all, not an artist but the leader of the Red Army. Still, the Russian Revolution had style, and none of the constructivist dynamism of, say, the Mayakovsky Museum in Moscow can be found in Trotsky’s Mexico City hideaway.

<i>Frida Kahlo earrings</i>. Photograph by the author

Frida Kahlo earrings. Photograph by the author

Visitors to his museum presumably aren’t looking for an aesthetic experience, though. Trotsky’s home is first and foremost an archive of anger. Whereas Diego Rivera painted the walls of his city to celebrate the Mexican worker, Trotsky burrowed away in his study, writing a biography of his sworn enemy, Joseph Stalin, for more than 10 hours a day. His study is, unsurprisingly, full of books, though none as impressive as the 86-volume Brockhaus and Efron Russian encyclopedia; there’s also an Edison dictation machine, on whose synthetic wax cylinders he recorded his notes. Trotsky’s study is the key attraction of the Trotsky museum, for it was there that Trotsky finally met his end, killed with an ice ax by Ramón Mercader, a Spanish Communist and Stalinist agent who seduced Trotsky’s secretary, Sylvia Ageloff, in order to get closer to his target. This was the second assassination attempt on Trotsky at his home. Just a few months earlier, in May 1940, Stalinist agents disguised as police officers burst past Trotsky’s guards and fired machine guns from the outside courtyard into the house. You can still see the bullet holes in the front door today. In that same courtyard, there is a large stone stela with a hammer and sickle carved into it, marking the spot in the ground where Trotsky’s ashes are interred.

Although Trotsky might not have appreciated the irony of a gift shop in his home, proceeds benefit the museum’s nonprofit arm, which provides assistance to those who, like its original owner, are seeking political asylum in Mexico. I bought two pairs of earrings, one featuring Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the Mexican Revolution; the other pair pictures Frida Kahlo holding a joint to her mouth, with gemstones swirling up instead of smoke. How typical of Kahlo to make something as turbulent as chemical combustion beautiful, a talent neither Trotsky nor his museum ever displayed, and maybe never even wanted. icon

Featured image: Entrance to the museum. Photograph by the author