Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río assassinated Trotsky. With his action he not only made Lenin’s great intellectual and close friend disappear, but represented the apex of one of the longest dramas of 20th century history: the laconic and enigmatic Russian Revolution consuming itself. This is his story.
This is the parable of the depersonalization of a human being who blindly and unconditionally followed a doctrine, becoming the walking stick of the bureaucracy that led him. His fable is about manufacturing the most obedient Soviet individual of all, and his understanding, which in the terms of Hannah Arendt, does in no way symbolize the justification for his criminal acts.
For Arendt, the phrase “understand what happened” only means “rationalize what happened,” since the work of the intellectual is to think as objectively as possible, moving away from reproducing discourses that deny the reality of the facts and that process the ideas of forgiveness or forgetfulness
The theoretical company that Arendt manages tries to clarify the institutional circumstances of the depersonalization of those who commit crimes sponsored by purely administrative consortiums and who effectively detach themselves, after a process of extreme ideologization, from the executor’s own conscience. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem the author deploys the controversial notion of banality of evil that, in the case that concerns the German philosopher, does not excuse the acts of extreme cruelty carried out by Nazi engineer Adolf Eichmann to the detriment of the Jewish people, but that falls into an abyss to list the ideological genesis of intervening individuals with their particular psychology, arriving at the conclusion that Eichmann was not an evil and ruthless man by nature, but that he was really trapped in an ideological jail that did not allow him to stop to think about the consequences of his actions.
Arendt allows herself to thus specify the analysis of what a simple operator who follows orders within a bureaucratized system based on acts of liquidation means. For her Eichmann was guilty, and he was a criminal, but many of the events in which he was involved did not depend on him as an individual with the ability to individually distinguish between good and evil, because he was a simple bureaucrat.
Thinking of Ramón Mercader del Río, it was not difficult to break down the effigy of anonymity, which always has the same face and which, more than being veiled, often doesn’t even exist. I took as a starting point the idea that says that the greatest evils in history are those committed by highly bureaucratized anonymous people, since these, even when leaving signs of transgression and crime, know how to abandon all traces of guilt with their inscrutable and very dark trails of silence.
Anonymity leaves suspicion and suspicion becomes the fictional story of institutionalized actions, whose literary virtues are stronger than the very meaning of those invisible waves that, in the Braudelian sense, are the ones that move total history. In this way, there are always things that are stronger than the human being and one of them is ideology.
María Eustaquia Caridad del Río Hernández was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1892. The education she received, in addition to following a strong aristocratic line, was fervently Catholic. At the beginning of the century her family moved to Barcelona looking for a more promising future. There her religious education would continue at the same time as she started discovering an intimate spirit of insurrection that would determine her whole life.
With spirit and willpower to contradict her father, at 16 she married Pablo Mercader, son of a textile industry bourgeois of the Catalan city of Badalona. Caridad gave birth to four men and a woman: Jorge, Monserrat, Pablo, Ramón and Luis.
Of all her children, Ramón would be the only one who would inherit the rebellious disposition and the insubstantial personality that so much identified her. He was born on February 7, 1913 into a well-off family, and spent much of his childhood involved in a dynamic adjusted to conservative values represented by his father and openly rejected by his mother.
The privileges of his family would allow little Ramón to get where he wanted. These dynamics of stability and security would bore Caridad, prompting her to discover that Barcelona outside bohemian world full of drugs, culture, intelligentsia, discourses and workers’ struggles; a context where the rise of anarchism has an extensive leading role: propaganda, dynamite, autonomy….
After a while and after participating in several attacks, her husband hospitalizes her in the psychiatric hospital in Sant Boi, from which she was able to escape with the help of some of her libertarian friends, and return home only for her children, thus rebelling against that static life of subjection and domesticity that overwhelmed her.
Quickly and with her children, Caridad was smuggled to the south of France, where she met firsthand influential figures of the French communist scene. It seems that it is here where her indocility acquires a true sense fostered by the fanaticism that the communist struggle aroused in the circles that welcomed her and that would become the adoptive family of both her and her children.
In 1931 the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed and Caridad went with her children to a Barcelona full of jubilation and it is there where she can put into practice all her revolutionary wisdom. Her son Ramón is no stranger to this reality and with the generous communist teachings received in France he would come into contact with Soviet agents and supporters who worked keenly on the ideological penetration of Russian Marxism into Spain. Ramón turns out to be a convinced communist, as well as a polyglot with a very sophisticated culture. The Spanish civil war begins to take shape gradually within a fiery atmosphere of ideological provocations between the different factions of the political spectrum.
It is the revolutionary side to which Caridad and Ramón belong, a band where they would establish friendship with intellectuals, romantics, artists and notable personalities of the Second Republic fighting together against the Franco regime and the allies of the emerging European fascisms.
On February 16, 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. The country was deeply divided in an endless series of opposed dramas between the national army ―representative of the reactionary and right-wing phalanxes― and the republican army that somehow summoned almost all the country’s workers, peasants and popular left. Madrid was besieged and the Franco regime resisted sowing terror with implausible procedures for the ordinary imagination.
Ramón is 23 years old and ideologically and methodically hardened, as well as professing an unconditional, let’s say religious, following of the Bolshevik revolution.
It is in this warlike and social framework that the Stalinist USSR volunteers to receive the children who have lost their parents in the war, and even all those who don’t want to witness the horrors of this civil war, guaranteeing thus a future that Spain could never give them.
Initially, the foster care plan lasted three months, but for many of these thousands of children, these months became decades. The “war children” ―as they were called at the time― lived in a context of exacerbated but very circumspect ideology. The idea was that on returning to Spain these new Spanish-Soviet beings would serve as focuses of the structuring and pedagogy in the political philosophical torsion between Marxism and Stalinism.
Ramón Mercader is immersed in this group of children. Although already being a young man he is sent strategically to the USSR because the Kremlin knew about him and his mother, and their respective roles in the Spanish revolutionary tribunes. As expected, Ramón stands out for his partisan experience and his discursive audacity. He is quickly put at the disposal of a much more rigorous training than that imparted to his little compatriots. Here he would be taught to be another. To stop being himself.
His mother had been conferred the Lenin Order ―a medal given for Soviet courage and heroism― and with this she had bequeathed a responsibility or a sort of appointment to her son. He was being trained to be a red spy. In a few months he became commander of the Soviet special services and the People’s Commissariat for internal affairs (NKVD) and to carry out some research and surveillance missions in Western Europe.
The NKVD would eventually become the famous Russian intelligence agency for state security, the KGB.
At the end of 1937 Ramón arrives in France with a Belgian passport bearing his new name: Jacques Mornard. The mission is polished and imparted by Stalin himself, who was already suspicious of the activities of his counterpart at the head of the Soviet: Leon Trotsky.
Ramón or now Jacques must infiltrate the Trotskyite circles in France. In Paris he is reunited with his mother, Caridad, who also by Soviet mandate followed very closely the movements of the French Communist Party. Mother and child, and despite closeness, do not have much contact, according to the NKVD for national security issues.
In his Parisian work, Jacques meets New Yorker Sylvia Ageloff, a Trotskyite activist who maintained contact with people very close to the leader. He didn’t take long to strike up a relationship and go live with her. This is the means used by Jacques to start carrying out his mission.
Surrounded by a life of facilities financed by the Kremlin and being a cosmopolitan personality who impeccably spoke flawless French, English, Russian and Spanish, his mission should soon yield important information to keep Trotskyism’s movements on the radar.
Jacques is the real gentleman and nobody ever heard of his Spanish ancestry or his recent Soviet past: he was just the wealthy son of a Belgian diplomat.
Stalin had sent Leon Trotsky to Kazakhstan to an incomprehensible exile. The old leader of the October Bolshevik Revolution, the visionary protected by Lenin, the founder of the Red Army is a stateless person who exists in a world without approval, completely deprived and persecuted.
Trotsky, the man destined to succeed Lenin, was expelled from the USSR in 1929 by his sole and strict enemy, forcing him to wander under certain anonymity through different European countries. However, he made this exile one of the most productive periods of his life, he wrote and judiciously theorized his Permanent Revolution and had the time to organize and carry out the Fourth International held in 1938 in Paris, with the peculiarity of not being present. No one intended to challenge the mighty Stalin by giving refuge to the discredited Trotsky, who represented the foundation of the progressive Soviet intelligentsia to the detriment of Stalin’s incontestable megalomaniac impetus.
In 1937, Mexico decided to grant political asylum to Trotsky with the backing of President Lázaro Cárdenas and the determining influence of painter and muralist Diego Rivera. In January of that year, Trotsky arrives at the port of Tampico in northeastern Mexico where he is received by Frida Kahlo, then Rivera’s wife. Immediately he is transferred to the Federal District on the presidential train.
Curiously and in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Caridad del Río arrives in Mexico seeking support to buy weapons for the Spanish Republican factions. This coincidence supposes for many historians the first Stalinist movement to assassinate Trotsky, who lives in the house of Diego and Frida in the neighborhood of Coyoacán, during a short period, before moving to the house ―now museum― located at 410 Río Churubusco Avenue.
This house is remodeled in the style of a bunker with the purpose of providing all security measures for the new guest, who thousands of kilometers from his frigid home doesn’t stop feeling cornered.
Trotsky knows that Stalin will not stop and that he alone can’t oppose the designs of an entire State.
Jacques Mornard arrives in New York at the end of 1938 with the identity of a Canadian engineer named Frank Jackson. The apparent motive of his trip is to meet with Sylvia Ageloff to resume the relationship they had started in Paris and work in the administration of a local industry.
He explains the change of identity to Sylvia with the argument that Jacques Mornard had been militarized in view that World War II was about to break out and Americans would greatly distrust any European who came to the country with certain comforts.
However, the reality and the true objective of his arrival in the United States was to follow Trotsky’s exile very closely and coordinate certain communist lines in that country.
On May 24, 1940 at 4 in the morning Mexican painter and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros entered the house where Trotsky was staying accompanied by a score of armed men who broke into his room and fired with high-powered machine guns, but, inexplicably, and apparently thanks to the darkness, Leon and his wife were unharmed after hiding behind an old piece of furniture.
When the now Frank Jackson found out about the failed attempt against Trotsky in Mexico City, he was in New York waiting for the order to carry out the mission of annihilating Stalin’s enemy for the benefit of the world communist cause.
Stalin would not delay in realizing that the best way to eliminate his antipode was no longer the forces coming from outside the house on Coyoacán, but that it was necessary to penetrate Trotsky’s most intimate social circles.
Frank Jackson was the only trained agent in the entire USSR to carry out this delicate task. And everyone knew it.
Jackson quickly moved to Mexico with the excuse of heading a series of foreign investments in that country, and once installed there starts designing his plan. In a short time, he becomes a friend of the family and gains their trust. He enters the house with Trotsky’s comrades.
Sylvia Ageloff accompanies him on his trip to Mexico, with the intention of seeing her sister Rita, one of Trotsky’s private secretaries, in addition to planning, through her sister, a visit with her leader.
This framework was skillfully exploited by Jackson. During several evenings and meetings in which he was with he who would be his victim, Trotsky had learned to recognize him within the landscape of his intimate relationships as a very affable and cultured Canadian, but without becoming openly friendly with him.
On August 20, 1940, Frank Jackson arrives at Trotsky’s house and is attended by Rita, who easily gets rid of the bodyguards and takes him to the garden of the house where Trotsky was.
In a moment the two are alone. Jackson asks Trotsky to read some manuscripts signed by him so he would give his opinion, to which Leon agrees inviting him to his private office. Once there, Jackson removes three weapons from his purse: a revolver, a dagger and an ice pick, and deciding on the latter tool for his homicide, he struck Trotsky’s head with it.
Why an ice pick, an instrument so far off, so mean and surreal to kill, shining before the most sinister Soviet tactics? Nobody will know. After the cry, Jacques is neutralized and beaten violently by the bodyguard of the dying victim, who asks that they not kill him, but that they make him talk.
Jackson responds to the succession of interrogations as a deeply disappointed Trotskyite.
On August 21, Leon Trotsky died.
Sylvia was completely unaware of the intentions of her lover Mornard-Jackson. From Paris she was used to infiltrate Trotskyite circles. Feeling betrayed days after the murder, Sylvia tried to commit suicide, but was unsuccessful.
Jackson, now in the hands of the Mexican police, just as he had known how to kill, had to be silent. Only in this way would he be quickly taken out of the jam. Although the assassin never met Stalin directly, he did follow his orders as a divine mission and wouldn’t dare betray the regime. He, as a tiny part, would not betray his convictions either. Mornard-Jackson could never accept his true identity under any circumstances. Finally, he had been trained not to be himself and, if discovered, to simulate.
Jackson became a man with no name, no past and no history. His identity was known as Jacques Mornard and this complicated his defense. Nobody knew who he was. Maybe not even himself, a faceless man who isn’t called Jacques, or Frank, or Ramón; an anonymous man persecuted by the cry of his victim and the cheers of a frivolous and deranged dictator. In his heart he was Ramón Mercader, but on the outside it only earned him a radical silence.
Jackson-Mornard was imprisoned in Mexico to spend an indefinite time of denial of his own true person.
The mission had been fulfilled: an old man attacked by the back and after the thunderous cry of farewell of the victim, would come the real silence of the victimizer in his cell in the Lecumberri prison.
In 1944, the mother of the aggressor, Caridad, traveled to Mexico from the USSR with the purpose of getting her son out of prison by making some Stalinist contacts in the Mexican Communist Party. Although Stalin’s order was not to let Caridad out of the USSR, she violated this mandate and after creating a scandal, she learned that Russian intelligence (NKVD) was working to get her son out of Mexico.
Faced by the confusion created by the arrival of his mother to Mexico and clandestine meetings and proceedings, the authorities were able to find out the true identity of the murderer. Neither Jacques Mornard nor Frank Jackson: he was Ramón Mercader del Río.
This situation affected the advances of the NKVD to get him out of prison and, on the contrary, submerged him in a cell for 16 more years.
A hero of the future promise of Soviet Marxism or an assassin for good reasons, victim of the mixture of patriotism and religious spirit, he spent two decades in a silence that was worth gold for the USSR, but nothing for him.
Nobody knew who was behind the assassination except him. Stalin did not exist for him beyond his recondite blind hope, whose genesis was catechized as the heaviest burden of his life and as the misfortune of his idealism. However, it must be said that his imprisonment was always monitored from the Kremlin, and although he suffered certain pressures from local communists and even long interrogations and torture by infiltrated agents, his stay was not that of any ordinary prisoner.
In Lecumberri he would devote time to reading and to the theoretical training of his faith. He shared a cell with Mexican Siqueiros, who was also there serving a sentence for the attempted murder of Trotsky. Siqueiros was released soon thanks to the diplomatic intervention of his friends such as Pablo Neruda, Álvaro Mutis and the leader of the U.S. beat generation, William S. Burroughs.
During the mediations of his sentence, Ramón falls in love with a folkloric dancer named Roquelia, daughter of a prison worker and with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
On May 6, 1960, Ramón Mercader left Lecumberri and that same day he caught a plane to Havana, where he was received by the Cuba of Fidel a year before declaring himself a socialist.
After a couple of months on the island, Mercader left for Moscow, with the new name of Ramón Ivanovich López. Already back in the USSR, he received, at the behest of the late Stalin, the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union or Lenin Order ―the same one that his mother had received― for his contribution to the loyal support of the Communist-Soviet flags in the world, or what was the same: for having killed Trotsky.
However, in what was his country of ideological adoption, Ramón was banned from any contact with intelligence agencies, apart from the Party and given a publishing job in the reconstruction of the history of the Spanish Communist Party.
The USSR had reduced all his memories and actions to a medal, and had he been a true hero, his greatness should be revealed on that shiny metal. Neither his loyalty nor his silence had served this man in his 50s, overwhelmed by a crime and an abject surrender of himself to a cause that had already buried him long ago, but whose abandonment he was just beginning to experience.
Thanks to his decoration he had all the freedoms of a hero, except the most important for any person: that of being himself. Ramón Mercader del Río was again another, called Ramón Ivanovich López.
In May 1974 he wrote a letter to Fidel Castro asking if he could go to live in Cuba. The answer was affirmative and in August of that year, completely skeptical and disillusioned by the process of de-Stalinization to which the USSR was subjected, he embarked with his family to Cuba, a place where he would arrive identified with his last name in life, Ramón Ivanovich López.
This fact shows that he was the victim of many animosities and that his name, for his own safety and even for shady international political interests, could never be revealed again. His mission continued being that of silence.
In 1977 a clearly ill Ramón contacted a Spanish friend in Moscow, letting him know of his desire to return to his native Catalonia and spend his last living months there. He was willing to help him, but he had put a condition: that he write some memoirs clarifying the identity of the person who had given the order to assassinate Trotsky. As expected, Ramón would decline his request, portraying perhaps one of the scenes of greatest consideration or reverence that a subject has offered his leader throughout the official history: not betraying his dogma and redeeming the memory of his champion as the most faithful of the Stalinists. However, deep down he knew that with his anachronistic adhesions the only thing he achieved was to diminish himself more and more.
All the secretiveness caused by the mysterious figure and the enveloping story of Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río, came out only after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Only 51 years after having given the final blow to Trotsky.
On October 18, 1978, Ramón Ivanovich López had died in the country where his mother was born and from which she was taken away at an early age. His remains were repatriated to his adoptive home that same year to be buried in the Muscovite cemetery of Kuntsevo, reserved for heroes of the Soviet Union. His tomb says: Ramón Mercader del Río. Barcelona 1913-Havana 1978.
That is how the USSR settled this debt it had with one of its Spanish adopted sons: giving him back, after his death, his true identity. In the central corridor of the KGB museum his picture rests immutable like that of an idol who does not know his greatness, while on his glasses the flash of the camera can be seen, as if it were a trick, to hide his true gaze.