Normally I don’t like historical dramas that don’t follow history to the letter, but this 8-part series, made by Russians for a Russian TV audience, intrigued me. Besides, the reviews seem to be equally split between the ones that thought the series painted too negative a picture of Trotsky and those that thought it was too positive, which suggested that they got things exactly right.
Trotsky is the forgotten man of the Russian revolution, but as this series makes clear, he was an essential part of the troika. Lenin and Stalin might have had better political instincts but Trotsky, an excellent public speaker with a charismatic personality, was better at inspiring people.
The actor playing Trotsky, apparently a well known Russian movie actor, is very good. And his understanding of the character – a man so taken with his own revolutionary worldview that he came to believe that any means he chose. no matter how evil, could eventually be justified by his worthy ends – is spot on. As all good actors playing evil men understand, no man is a monster to himself.
The series begins at the end, with Trotsky in Mexico, having survived Stalin’s first assassination attempt, waiting for the second attempt he knew would come. He passes the time by musing on his life with a young journalist who is interested in his story. The story, told mostly in flashback, jumps all over the place, although they do a good job with title captions showing you when and where you are. The episodic nature of the presentation works well, because it helps to untangle the various threads of Trotsky’s life – a large part of one entire episode is devoted to the fates of Trotsky’s children, all of whom predeceased him. (It comes as a bit of a shock when we are introduced to Trotsky’s adult son later on, since we already know what happened to him.)
A couple of comments about the non-historical events. Trotsky probably didn’t start the October Revolution all by himself. Nor is there any evidence that he ever met Sigmund Freud, but oh what conversations those two quite different revolutionaries might have had. The way the eventual murderer insinuated himself into Trotsky’s household is not quite right, either, although there is evidence that he was trusted by the family.
Some of the reviews suggested the piece was anti-Semitic, apparently because in some early episodes we see proto-Communists being financially supported by rich Jewish bankers. On the contrary, the series makes a point of demonstrating just how much anti-Semitism permeated Czarist Russia, and how little the Communists (despite Lenin’s early openness) did to change that.
The political interplay between Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky seems to me exactly right. Trotsky and Lenin never liked each other, but they understood each other and worked together. Both of them, however, underestimated Stalin.
In fact, however evil Trotsky looks in this production (and it’s very evil) Lenin and Stalin come off as immeasurably worse. Lenin is presented as a weasel, and Stalin as little more than a poorly-educated thug. Stalin, the series makes clear, was motivated by no ideology, no revolutionary dream, but merely a raw drive for power. That’s a surprising and courageous stance in a country where Stalin nostalgia is resurgent, and where the country’s current government is systematically destroying its political opponents much as Stalin did, although perhaps more efficiently. If that’s the message that the filmmakers wanted to get across, I’d say they succeeded.