If the history of the Russian Revolution is something that tickles your fancy and you’re not afraid of subtitles, Netflix is currently streaming the 8-episode Russian mini-series, Trotsky, about the life and times of – you guessed it: Leon Trotsky. The infamous Jewish leader of the communist revolution. Most of us learned the basic story as such:
Lenin was the head honcho, political leader of the Bolsheviks, Father of the Revolution. Trotsky, was the brainy scholar. Stalin was the strongman. Together their Red Army overthrew the Tsar, conquered Russia, formed the USSR. Lenin got sick and endorsed Trotsky to replace him as the leader – but a conniving Stalin usurped power and drove Trotsky into exile. Trotsky lived in exile in Mexico until one of Stalin’s assassin’s put an end to comrade Trotsky by subtly placing the pointy end of an ice-pick through his skull and into his brain.
Spoiler Alert: Trotsky dies.
We know this.
What I didn’t know was how was it Stalin took over so quickly if Lenin himself supported Trotsky? How did a Jew in Russia, a country renowned for its rabid antisemitism, become the number-two man in the government? What type of person would he have had to be? How complicit was Trotsky in the atrocities committed by the Bolsheviks and Red Army and oppressive policies of the regime to come? And is there an easier way to learn this stuff without having to read dense, confusing history books full of hard names to pronounce?
Netflix has the answer… an entertaining one at least. I’m no scholar, but from what I do know, events seem historically accurate for the most part. And while the mini-series certainly venerates the legend of Leon Trotsky – his persona, role in the revolution, and effect on history, the show does not ignore his part in the atrocities, cruelty, and corruption that engulfed Russia.
We are taken from the early romance of pre-revolution diatribes about equality and justice, to the unforgivable ugliness that comes with war, corruption, power struggles, and megalomaniacal possession. Trotsky may have been branded the ideological purist of the group, but did that just make him a more effective mass murdering war criminal? Is it okay to enjoy him as a character, knowing the level of barbarity he oversaw?
The creators also do an effective job of weaving in the many flavors of antisemitism, and just how deep it is imbedded in Russian culture at the time. From the gut-wrenching scene where Trotsky’s young nieces & father (an orthodox grain merchant) are tormented by an ornery mob, to the comments of Trotsky’s oafish \bodyguard who praises him saying, you’re my favorite leader! Even if you are a Jew! (I think that’s a microaggression now) – the show doesn’t let you forget that Trotsky is a Jew, though he himself thinks it is of no consequence. He believed that in a post-revolution world, there would be no Christians and no Jews, only Soviets. Of course, he was wrong and his Jewish heritage would be used effectively by Stalin to turn Russians against him. He could forget he was a Jew, but the rest of the world never would, and certainly not in Russia.
The series Trotsky give much food for thought on a multitude of issues. And it’s just plain good cinema. They give us cameos for historical figures such as Freud, Freida Kahlo, and Gorka – all very smartly written. I’ll be curious to find out just how true to history the series stayed. That’s to me the mark of good historical cinema: It makes me want to learn more.