Watching ‘Trotsky’, a 2017 mini-series produced by Russia’s Channel One and directed by Aleksander Kott and Konstantin Statsky, I assumed all viewers would approach it in a similarly satirical mindset as my own. The series, now available on Netflix, focuses on the life of disgraced revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky. Given the recent centenary of the Russian Revolution and the boom in interest in the topic which it provoked, the appearance of the series on the streaming platform makes sense. From the very beginning when we are shown Trotsky and his female companion, the revolutionary Larissa Reisner, engaged in passionate sex aboard the Bolshevik propaganda train, it would seem that the show was intentionally playing into the stereotypes around Russia, creating a rollicking and raunchy satire on the perception of Russian politics and history. Unfortunately, continued watching and research showed only an almost worryingly straight-edged approach to this retelling of history by cast and creators alike; a retelling which, if taken as gospel truth, cast some worrying aspersions about the Russian Revolution and Trotsky’s participation on it.
The set-up to the show is surprisingly historically accurate. An older Trotsky, now living in Mexico, tells his life story to a young lawyer, a newcomer to the household as the fiancé of Trotsky’s secretary and a Stalin supporter. Any pretence that this is not Ramón Mercarder, Trotsky’s eventual assassin is wisely abandoned early on. As it moved between the moral conundrums of avenging angel and deluded destroyer (but which is which?), the show could really have inspired interesting conversation on this, arguably fairly polemic aspect of Russia’s recent history.
Unfortunately for all these potential discussions, the show didn’t exactly follow through on an unbiased retelling. Certain characters received a rather worrying make-up in this retelling of the oft-forgotten tale. For example, right from the beginning, the unfortunate Larissa Reisner has been dumbed-down and sexed-up. A revolutionary in her own right, she worked as a Commissar and intelligence agent during the Civil War, and went on to champion Russian poets of the era against the increasingly dystopian onrush of Socialist Realism and government crackdown on . Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Osip Mandelstam, believed that had Reisner been aware of the danger, she would have prevented both the shooting of Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova’s husband (and Reisner’s once lover), and the internment and death of Mandelstam. Sadly, this disparaging depiction of the role of women in the Revolution continues throughout the show. Aleksandra Sokolovskaia, Trotsky’s first wife, also features – briefly, and primarily in the role of the wife abandoned in favour of the Revolution. In reality, Sokolovskaia was a Marxist when Trotsky still resisted reading his texts. Trotsky himself may once have proclaimed that the women of the Revolution acted even “more boldly than the men”, but this show does not seem to wish to acknowledge that fact.
What it does choose to acknowledge in terms of historical accuracy is almost more worrying however, as is how it does it chooses to treat the issue. Rarely does an episode end without some form of antisemitic violence making an appearance. Yet, while antisemitism was a tragic historical fact in Russia, its appearance in the show does not always seem to be for the purpose of educating those who may, in our modern world, not be aware of such awful treatment. There may have been an obvious visual metaphor about the destruction of innocence by the harsh reality of pre-Revolutionary Russia in the attack on an old Jewish man in front of his two young granddaughters, but with a lack of warning or any following relevance to the actual plot of the series, its inclusion becomes little more than gratuitous violence for the sake of shock.
It also does not do very much to counteract the rather dubious treatment of other, more plot-pertinent, Jewish characters. Trotsky’s initiation into the social milieu of revolutionaries-in-exile in Paris is shown as the result of the machinations of Alexander Parvus, a Jewish Marxist intellectual. Forced into exile from his homeland of Russia, in the show he becomes crony of German agents, scheming for chaos in the name of profit. Following the scandal of American President Donald Trump’s comments implying Jewish citizens have split loyalties, the antisemitic implications of implying this Jewish intellectual lacked national loyalty seem fairly obvious. This has nothing on the treatment of Trotsky himself, whose Jewish heritage is pointed out unsubtly to the audience whenever he seems to be getting too grand for himself. At points the ghost of his long dead Jewish father is even wheeled out to warn him against the dangers of his aspirations, somehow drawing a line between is atheist Communist aspirations and his Jewish heritage, as if such a thing were ever so straightforward.
The October Revolution, and Russian history in general, is almost impossible to explain without expressing some form of bias, Trotsky’s story even less so. That a Russian TV channel’s attempt at creating a biopic of his life – one specifically created in order to be appealing to audiences – might not abide by the exact word of history is not terribly surprising. But while I sincerely doubt this show is part of some great Russian conspiracy against the West, the attitude this show demonstrates towards the historical facts of the revolution, and the damage this does to minorities does not meld pleasantly at all with the description of this show as “entertainment”. Would it be too much to ask audiences to do their own research before they take anything shown on this series as gospel? Or better yet, to ask Netflix to provide a little more context to the entertaining nonsense we are watching when it actively promotes false information?
 Robert Service, Trotsky, A Biography, London, Macmillan. 2009. P.44