Writer: I’ve got this script for an historical drama about Leon Trotsky.
Producer: Is that the guy who was a rootless cosmopolitan responsible for the Hitlerite-Trotskyite conspiracy against the Soviet Union.
Writer: He did used to get a pretty bad press under Stalin.
Producer: Well, what’s your angle?
Writer: I’m glad you asked. I want to examine the debates in early 20th century Russian Marxism about the theory of revolution and the nature of the party.
Producer: Will there be much nudity?
Writer: Not really, though I’ve got some great dialogue when he’s making the case for setting up the Fourth International.
Producer: What about sex? Will it have lots of sex scenes?
Writer: Erm, no. But I could add something about his writings on dialectics.
Producer: Look, forget about that permanent revolution stuff and the rest of it. Chuck a couple of nude scenes into each episode and some shagging on trains. Here’s a wheelbarrow full of cash and a second division football team in Murmansk.
Writer: It’s a deal.
See the trailer here.
Trotsky is at the heart of two major drama series currently available on Netflix. Most viewers of the critically acclaimed German production Berlin Babylon might have wondered what the exiled Russian revolutionaries meant when they shouted “long live the Fourth International” after pulling off the train heist around which the plot develops in 1929. A small minority would have harumphed that the International wasn’t established until 1938. Trotsky doesn’t appear in that, but he is the subject of a lavish eponymous Russian drama about his life.
It’s charitable to say that the writers have taken certain liberties with the history. No biography of either man mentions the episode where Lenin almost threw Trotsky off a roof in Paris. Stalin didn’t eventually have Trotsky, his sons and most of his followers murdered because he was a disappointed fan boy. There is no record of Trotsky humiliating Freud in public in Vienna. And so on. Moreover, some scenes are so absurd they are funny. In the first couple of minutes of the first episode Trotsky and the poet Larissa Reissner have sex on the train which was his mobile headquarters during the Civil War with frequent cuts between the speeding locomotive and Trotsky’s sex face. This is frequently revolutionary history for Game of Thrones fans. We should be grateful that flying dragons weren’t used in the seizure of the Winter Palace, but the last couple of episodes do engage seriously with the Civil War and the Stalinist usurpation of the revolution.
Trotsky is viewed through a Freudian prism in this version of his life. He has conversations with the ghosts of Freud and his father. It’s staggeringly sexist too. A single episode has him say to his wife: “The masses have a female psychology. You (women)are passive by nature” and tell a conference of Russian Marxists: “revolution is a woman, she needs a real man. Be men! Inseminate her.” Squirm and carry on watching.
On the other hand the deep antisemitism of Tsarist society at the time is a constant theme, something which might be uncomfortable viewing for a Russian audience. It utterly twists reality to include a scene in which Lenin too is depicted as antisemitic as he argues with Trotsky. In a break from previous Russian and Soviet dramas about the period Lenin is a frequently malevolent and villainous character. More accurately, Stalin too is shown as a mediocrity skulking in the shadows.
Trotsky is presented as the only essential leader of the October Revolution. On the eve of seizure of power, as actually happened, Bolshevik leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev panicked. Lenin was in hiding and Stalin was marginal. Trotsky was the mass leader with the support and political clarity to appreciate that it was possible for the Russian working class to take power. More surprisingly, considering that Putin’s Russia spend more energy commemorating the toppled imperial dynasty than the Revolution, that event is shown to have been the work of ordinary people and as something to be proud of. Viewers are left with the impression that the Bolsheviks had no choice but to execute them. That was a lesson they’d learned from the French Revolution and they were right.
Stalin is the real villain of the series. Trotsky calls him “an ex-con. A petty criminal with the psychology of a shopkeeper”. Lenin and Trotsky are shown discussing how to get rid of Stalin to end his consolidation of the bureaucracy’s power. Thirty or forty years ago even saying that out loud would have been enough to get a Soviet citizen locked up, so dominant was the lying Stalinist mythology.
Given that the series was made as prime time Russian TV entertainment for a mass audience there is no point in griping about the fact that it doesn’t refer to what are Trotsky’s most significant intellectual legacies – the theory of permanent revolution, his writings on fascism and his insistence on keeping revolutionary Marxism organised in the Fourth International when international politics were dominated by Hitler and Stalin.
Get in a few beers and some popcorn. Watch it with low expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised. It gets better towards the end.