"Trotsky" is an icepick to the heart of Soviet history
Konstantin Khabensky in Trotsky. (Sreda Production Company) (a version of this blog post appeared here in Foreign Policy in 2018-- this was the unedited version. I am updating my blog! I am behind!)
The100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of November 1917 has set off carefully choreographed ‘celebrations’ in Russia, marking the overthrow of the ancien régime. Russia Today, for example, created an entire pantheon of mock historical Twitter accounts to “live tweet” the revolution.
But there are also some curious discrepancies in this new retelling of the rise of the Soviets. Public parades have focused on the defeat of Nazism, rather than celebrations of Bolshevism. And Russian state-run media have trotted out tales of the revolution that seem based on revisionist myth-making rather than the historical record. The latest example is Trotsky: an 8 part series from Russia’s Channel 1, now available on Netflix.
Leon Trotsky was Stalin’s biggest rival after the death of Lenin. Stalin seized control and banished Trotsky, erasing him from Soviet history. Trotsky, once the revered War Commissar of the U.S.S.R., was forced to leave Russia altogether in 1929. A Stalinist henchman would later track down the fallen Soviet hero, murdering him with an ice pick in Mexico City in 1940.
Russia’s Channel 1 promotional campaign calls Trotsky an “epic biography that depicts the tumultuous life of the Russian revolutionary”. While the 8 episodes lay out a dramatic tale of ambition and political power, the story which unfolds bears little resemblance to the real story of Trotsky.
The historical inaccuracies in Trotsky are so numerous it would be impossible to address them all here. It is as if the point of the series was not to consult history but rather to confirm some broader bias smacking of offense. In a few episodes, there is an onslaught of anti-Semitic language as Trotsky’s family was Jewish. The writers do little to let you forget this fact and seem to imply anti-Semitism was Lenin’s tacit stance on the Jewish question when it was in fact, the exact opposite is true. Further, while it’s accurate anti-Semitism was rampant in Russia at the time and Trotsky was a victim of it throughout his life, the deluge was simply not necessary to advance the narrative.
Trotsky does more than present a history with “alternative facts”. The series reduces the revolutionary leaders to simplistic archetypes, seemingly drawn from the golden age of Hollywood gangsters. Lenin is the Edward G. Robinson of this melodrama- short in stature but filled with megalomaniacal menace. Stalin is the seething George Raft, taciturn and cold-blooded. And Trotsky himself seems cast as the Soviet James Cagney, a wise-cracking bantam capable of both epic put-downs and ruthless acts. But these black and white renderings don’t shed any light on the real motivations that drove these three very different men. So one might ask: how does this retelling of Trotsky’s roll in the Great Russian Revolution to the Russian masses fit into the new Russian mythos?
There are two main themes each with their own “moral of the story” for the modern-day viewer in a political context.
Mikhail Porechenkov as Alexandr Parvus and onstantin Khabensky in Trotsky. (Sreda Production Company)
Trotsky: pawn of foreign powers.
The real life Belarusian-born social democrat Alexander Parvus is presented in the series as Trotsky’s wealthy ‘Jewish sponsor’, pitting Trotsky against Lenin in a play for the soul of the Revolutionary movement. Trotsky depicts Parvus as a scheming agent of German conspirators, armed with a printing press and enough money to convince Trotsky he is a necessary evil.
However, there is no evidence Parvus (or Germany) bankrolled Trotsky to any serious degree. Historians who tried to substantiate this claim have failed to do so. The reality is Russia needed little outside provocation to explode with internal conflict. The country’s economy was hobbled by the Great War. Tsarist officers, dogged by allegations of incompetence, routinely sent poorly-equipped troops to their doom. And behind the lines, urban workers had grown angry over dangerous working conditions and starvation wages. This perfect storm of social ills had already sparked recent reforms and “organic” revolution from within, and did so without foreign influences from without. The Trotsky portrayal of Parvus also suggests Jewish outsiders were manipulating the revolutionaries. This narrative downplays the role of the average Russian in the February Revolution of 1917, particularly the role of brave women on the front lines the real Trotsky called “more bold than the men”.
The implication of this modern day revisionist narrative is clear. It suggests foreign powers have always had designs on Russia’s destiny, and if misguided Russian leaders hadn’t allowed themselves to be used as pawns, much of the revolutionary bloodshed and civil strife could have been avoided.
Trotsky: the end justifies the means.
Trotsky unfolds through a series of contentious interviews between the titular revolutionary, now in his sunset years and living in exile in Mexico City, and a young journalist named “Jackson”; the latter concedes he’s a loyal admirer of Trotsky’s archrival Stalin.
Jackson confronts Trotsky, accusing him of embracing “the end justifies the means” tactics. In one flashback scene, an uncertain Stalin opposes the return of the death penalty, only to be convinced by Trotsky. This sequence of events implies Stalin’s Purges might not have happened BUT for Trotsky. Another scene suggests that Trotsky, not Lenin, was responsible for the deaths of the Tsar and his family. However, the historical record shows, when no less than Maxim Gorky pleaded on behalf of the Romanovs, it was Lenin who famously said, “The Revolution does not need historians.” Thus, Trotsky is equated with the bloody cost of the Revolution in Russian lives, the Purges, and with the loss of territory that followed the fall of the Empire in 1917 and ultimately in 1991.
These tropes seem to serve two purposes: to tip their hat towards modern Communist Party loyalists who still hold significant political sway inside Russia. This takes the pressure off of Lenin (in a state where love for the Tsar and his family has returned) and exalts Stalin by conveniently scapegoating the man who was once Stalin’s greatest philosophical and political rival. It also serves to recast all three leaders, Nicholas II, Lenin, and Stalin together into the shiny mold Putin has set to recreate Russia’s new mythos of greatness. It’s a return to Russia’s great power status of old, leaving behind the dark past.
What is the moral of the story? Foreign powers lurk behind the rising stars of Russian politics, Furthermore, revolution is costly; we will pay in the form of lives, territory, and world standing.
The parallels to present day Russia are evident. The Kremlin often accuse political opponents, such as Alexey Navalny of being agents of foreign powers. Outspoken Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, a vocal supporter of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, was assassinated just steps from the Kremlin in 2015. Groups close to Putin implied Nemtsov was manipulated by his “American curators.” The fear of revolution looms not far from Putin’s psyche, as he himself witnessed other modern color revolutions in the former Soviet client states after the fall of the USSR. What’s more, it’s the official line these revolutions were not organic, but originating in the West. Putin’s actions clearly show he believes a stable Russia, feared by neighbors, will secure his future. However, in the name of reviving Russian’s great power status, the state uses an “ends justify the means” logic to regain Empire ‘lost.’
Trotsky was no saint. However, if you’re looking for an “epic biographical account,” of who Trotsky really was, you might want to look elsewhere. Trotsky repaints the mother of all color revolutions as a warning; the opiate of the people is no longer religion but… revolution?