‘Trotsky’ Is an Icepick to the Heart of Soviet History

The Russian-produced Netflix series is selling worrying myths to the public.

Konstantin Khabensky in Trotsky. (Sreda Production Company
Konstantin Khabensky in Trotsky. (Sreda Production Company

Two years ago, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of November 1917 set off carefully choreographed celebrations in Russia marking the overthrow of the ancien régime. RT, for example, created an entire pantheon of mock historical Twitter accounts to live-tweet the revolution.

But there were some curious omissions from the historical record in this retelling of the rise of the Soviets. Public parades focused on the defeat of Nazism rather than celebrations of Bolshevism. Russian state-run media trotted out tales of the revolution based on revisionist myth-making rather than the historical record. The latest example is now available on Netflix: the 2017 series Trotsky from Russia’s Channel 1.

Leon Trotsky was Joseph Stalin’s biggest rival after the death of Vladimir Lenin. Stalin seized control and banished Trotsky, erasing him from Soviet history. Trotsky, once the revered war commissar of the USSR, was forced to leave Russia altogether in 1929. A Stalinist henchman would later track down the fallen Soviet hero, murdering him with an ice axe in Mexico City in 1940.

The Channel 1 promotional campaign calls Trotsky an “epic biography that depicts the tumultuous life of the Russian revolutionary.” Yet while the show’s eight episodes lay out a dramatic tale of ambition and political power, the story bears little resemblance to reality.

The series reduces the revolutionary leaders to simplistic archetypes, 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 is cast as the Soviet James Cagney, a wise-cracking bantam capable of both epic put-downs and ruthless acts.

But the retelling also asserts two very specific ideas about the revolutionary era, each supporting part of Russia’s modern mythos. This looks like a result of a combination of deliberate propagandizing and the ongoing zeitgeist in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union as the populace struggles with its sense of national identity.

The first of these is the idea of Trotsky as a 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 that Parvus (or Germany) bankrolled Trotsky to any serious degree. Historians who tried to substantiate this claim have failed. In reality, Russia needed little outside provocation to explode with internal conflict. The country’s economy was hobbled by World War I. Tsarist officers 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 so-called organic revolution from within and did so without foreign influences from without. The Trotsky portrayal of Parvus also suggests that Jewish outsiders were manipulating the revolutionaries. This narrative downplays the role of the average Russian in the 1917 revolution, particularly the role of the brave women on the front lines who the real Trotsky said acted “more boldly than men.”

The implication of this revisionist narrative is clear for the modern day. It suggests that 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.

But a trickier narrative turns on Trotsky’s own intentions—and murderousness. 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. But when no less than Maxim Gorky pleaded on behalf of the Romanovs, it was Lenin who famously said, “The revolution does not need historians.” As such, 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.

Putting the blame onto Trotsky serves two purposes. The first is to tip a hat toward modern Communist Party loyalists who still hold sway inside Russia. This takes the pressure off 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 President Vladimir Putin has set for Russia’s new mythos of greatness. It’s a return to Russia’s great-power status of old, leaving behind the dark past.

One other historical inaccuracy is particularly egregious. In a few episodes, there is an onslaught of anti-Semitic language as Trotsky’s family was Jewish. Anti-Semitism was certainly rampant in Russia then—and is hardly rare now—but the deluge of slurs seems gratuitous. The writers seem to imply anti-Semitism was Lenin’s tacit stance on the Jewish question when, in fact, the exact opposite is true; Lenin ardently opposed anti-Semitism, even as a propaganda tool.

What is the moral of the story being told by Channel 1? 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. In other words, Trotsky seems to repaint the mother of all color revolutions as a cautionary tale to younger generations.

The parallels to present-day Russia are evident. The Kremlin often accuses political opponents, such as Alexey Navalny, of being agents of foreign powers. The 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 that 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, the official line is now that these revolutions were not organic but originated 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 Russia’s great-power status, the state uses an “end justifies the means” logic to regain a lost empire.

Trotsky was no saint—he advocated and deployed terror against opponents and ruthlessly crushed popular uprisings that didn’t fit the party line. However, if you’re looking for an “epic biography” of who Trotsky really was, you might want to look elsewhere.

Nicole M. Ford teaches Comparative Politics at the University of Tampa. She specializes in Russia and the post-Soviet sphere.

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