What can be scarier and stronger than the feeling of impending death?
— Larisa Reisner, Trotsky (2017)
I hung around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain…
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
— “Sympathy For The Devil,” Jagger/Richards
Revolutionary Russia, 1918 — a time of civil war….
It starts with rough sex on an armored train.
Russian journalist and poet Larisa Reisner is the Seductress, the Angel of … what? Death? Revolution? Revolutionary Death? Her long fingers dig into the black leather-clad back of Lev Bronstein, nom de guerre Leon Trotsky, leader of the Bolshevik Red Army; she leaps upon him like a succubus, demanding to be taken. And Trotsky does, as Reisner declaims her revolutionary poetry in a voiceover that rises to a crescendo over her cries of sexual ecstasy:
Where darkness of unruly power is gurgling grumbling and screaming, the darkness of an unrestrained power, the Archangel’s wing is hovering over. Inumerable roads make way to Rome that lies in ruins. But if the February Rome falls and howls with a crowd’s shout, the Angel, show benevolence. The Demon, show them all no mercy.
Trotsky pounds into her, his hand around her throat — just as it clenched around the throat of Revolutionary Russia.
Trotsky (2017) is weird like that.
It’s safe to say that without Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle. Counter-revolutionary “White” forces had the upper hand in the civil war that erupted in 1918, and appeared poised to crush the Red Army between pincers moving from east, south and west. A powerful orator and a ferociously capable organizer, Trotsky whipped the Red Army into shape in the face of disaster and won the Russian Civil War. He was not gentle about it.
But when the game of thrones began after the death of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, Trotsky, the charismatic revolutionary, was outmaneuvered by Stalin the bureaucratic thug. He was forced into exile in 1929, and was assassinated in Mexico in August 1940, by a Stalinist agent.
The eight-episode Russian miniseries recently dropped on Netflix. It’s a fascinating fable of Revolution — historically suspect, but a compelling drama and a window into the current Russian state’s ambiguous relationship with the Bolshevik Revolution 100 years after the events. For Trotsky was the state TV centerpiece of Russia’s rather muted acknowledgement of the centenary and while it’s an oversimplification to say it’s a propaganda piece, it certainly conveys certain messages that serve the Putin regime.
Putin’s Russian cannot but have a fraught relationship with the Revolution. On the one hand, it gave birth to the Soviet State, which gave birth to Putin. On the other hand, it destroyed the old Romanov regime and smothered the Orthodox Church, both of which are enjoying a revival of esteem under Putin’s neo-Tsarist hand. Putin and his cronies cannot and will not endorse the kind of revolutionary action that might readily be turned on them. But the sacred Power of the State — that they cherish.
In an insightful piece in The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa recalls Putin’s take on the Bolsheviks:
“Someone decided to shake Russia from inside, and rocked things so much that the Russian state crumbled. A complete betrayal of national interests! We have such people today as well.”
Trotsky makes much of the long-standing early 20th Century covert German support for Russian radicalism, aimed at weakening the Russian state. Putin sees any protest against his regime as generated in exactly this way — as outside “interference,” not as authentic dissatisfaction with his rule. And a scene in the very first episode of Trotsky serves up a dark philosophy that seems to both counter any idea of revolutionary idealism and to justify rule with an iron fist: In 1898, Trotsky languishes in prison due to his radical activities. His jailer tells him over a game of chess that “every order is based on fear.” It is a lesson that Comrade Trotsky would learn well.
Trotsky has been criticized for playing fast and loose with history — which is fair enough, though I think the point is moot in a tale that also features ghosts (or hallucinations). Trotsky is historical in the way that Shakespeare’s tragedies were historical — mining a historic tale for its drama while using it to legitimize the contemporary powers that be.
The series is a mythic and sometimes deliberately surreal take on events that were uncoupled from any factual reality even as they were happening. The Bolshevik “Revolution” is itself a myth, since it was actually a coup d’e’tat by a small, militant minority that hijacked a revolution they did not make. The Soviet Union was founded on a lie, built upon lies with a mortar of bloody corpses, and collapsed when the lie could no longer sustain itself. Another persistent myth is that the “good” revolution was derailed by Stalin; that if Trotsky had prevailed in the power struggle things might have been different. But Leon Trotsky was no less a murderer than Joseph Stalin. In Trotsky, the exiled communist defends himself as a monster made by force of circumstance, revolutionary necessity, while Stalin was a monster because he liked being a monster. A distinction lost upon their dead.
It is instructive and entertaining to engage the Trotsky myth, and at the same time to analyze its construction. It’s especially worthwhile, since the totalitarian myths of the 20th century have proven harder to kill than we might have expected. There’s some alluring power even yet to the great secular faiths of Communism and National Socialism that plunged the world into darkness and a storm of blood unprecedented in human history.