In one of the opening scenes of Trotsky, the 2017 television mini-series produced by Russian state television and directed by Alexander Kott and Konstantin Statsky,1 Trotsky is travelling on his armoured train in the midst of the Civil War of 1918-21, accompanied by the Bolshevik fighter Larissa Reisner. They are speeding towards Svyazhsk, where soldiers of the Red Army have retreated in disarray and are at the point of mutiny. Trotsky and Reisner have sex on the train, their sexual thrusting and groans interspersed with pictures and noise of the pistons of the train. The train arrives at Svyazhsk, towering threateningly over the tiny human beings at the siding. Both the overwhelming power of the machine, dwarfing the human beings beneath it, and its sexualisation, are images drawn from fascist iconography.
Trotsky defuses the mutiny by gifting his wristwatch to a delighted soldier (we are shown that he has a drawer full of watches on the train for this purpose), then, after looking for the nod of approval from Reisner, calls out every tenth soldier from the ranks and has them shot – the ancient Roman punishment of decimation.
The characters Trotsky and Reisner are both real historic figures. The event is real: Svyazhsk was where in 1918 Trotsky arrived aboard his armoured train and intervened to halt a rout of the Red Army after the fall of Kazan to the Whites, restored discipline and a fighting spirit into the ranks, and after a heroic defence of Svyazhsk against all odds, managed to turn back the White armies and re-take the key city of Kazan.
But apart from this tip of the hat to real historical persons and events, everything in this scene in Trotsky is reactionary fantasy. As leader of the Red Army, Trotsky held the political and military leadership responsible for acts of cowardice, desertions and mutinies by the troops; the means used to curb them were sometimes harsh, and included the death penalty. But decimation, an arbitrary method of inducing terror in the ranks of the army, without, moreover, even a semblance of a trial – never. Let alone the crude bribery with the wristwatch. How could Trotsky possibly have built a revolutionary army using such methods, when the masses, who had endured exactly these methods for years in the tsarist army, had just overthrown them? The cynicism and prejudices of the makers of this series come oozing out in the very first minutes.
The most slanderous falsehood in this scene is of Larissa Reisner, who is portrayed as a bourgeois seductress dressed in Parisian fashions. In reality, this woman was a Red Army soldier – she would have been dressed in a ragged and lice-infested army uniform, like all those who took part in the desperate defence of Svyazhsk. She joined the Red Navy (sailing warships on the great rivers of Russia) at a time when the presence of female sailors was feared as a curse by the men, and her arrival on board a ship was often greeted with a volley of verbal abuse, obscenities and threats. She won the respect of these soldiers and sailors by her deeds of extraordinary courage and daring, including scouting in White-held territory on horseback. After the fall of Kazan, she re-entered the White-held city, posing as the wife of a White officer, to try and discover the fate of some Bolshevik leaders who had been captured. She herself was captured on this mission, and escaped certain execution only by a moment of exceptional good luck and her own resourcefulness. She then took part (along with both Trotsky and her partner Fyodor Raskolnikov) in an attack by a torpedo boat which sneaked past the hilltop artillery defences and destroyed the White Navy’s Volga flotilla berthed at Kazan. None of this is mentioned in Trotsky, however – instead, we are presented with a sordid and completely fabricated sexual affair with Trotsky. (See the end of this post for an excerpt from Reisner’s own account of the defence of Svyazhsk – it is one of the finest and most poignant pieces of writing about war you will ever read. Reisner’s full article on Svyazhsk can be found here.)2
It is difficult to describe how distasteful it is to watch the travesty that is this series, for anyone who has even a passing interest in the greatest event of the twentieth century, the Russian revolution. Undeniably, the directors convey a certain sense of the scene – whether it be mutinous troops in the Civil War, gatherings of revolutionary Russian exiles in a Parisian club, the ambushing of a tsarist coach, or steam trains powering through the snow-bound forests of Siberia – and have a superficial knowledge of the actual events. They have gone to some lengths to find actors bearing a physical resemblance to the historic persons they portray. Through the liberal use of name-dropping, they introduce historic figures about which we would like to know more. These things captivate us and draw us in, disarming our suspicions. But then the ludicrous, cliché-riddled dialogues, idiotic contrivances, and ridiculous historical fabrications leave us gasping at the utter stupidity of it all.
Let me give you a taste. It’s more entertaining if the dialogue is separated from the spectacle, and it might save you the agony of watching the series itself.
[Discussions between Trotsky and Lenin in 1903]
Lenin: “The people are a tool. Our task is to make them want a revolution.”
[Discussing leadership] Lenin: “I am the head, you are the instrument. I command, you obey. No doubts, no questions, no girlish snivel!” [He then takes Trotsky by the lapels and threatens to throw him off a rooftop to convince him of the correctness of this idea.]
Trotsky: “I’ll be the leader. One day, you’ll come and beg me for an alliance!”
[Russian revolutionary Alexander Parvus approaches Trotsky, who calls him a ‘slick opportunist.’]
Parvus: “Making people famous is my job. … A revolutionist…has to go and take the audience, control them. It’s a lot like… sex. No, it is sex. I will make you the most powerful revolutionary of your time.”
Trotsky: “I agree. Where do we start?”
[Parvus in a secret discussion with German agent Herr Kobert]
Parvus: “… we make this Trotsky into our pocket revolutionary…”
Kobert: “How much money do you think we need to disintegrate Russia with a revolution?… [then, a minute later] … “Are you ashamed of your Jewish background?” [Just in case you didn’t quite get that this is a Jewish conspiracy.]
A deep hatred of women permeates this script, reflected in formulations like ‘girlish snivel’ but expressed most directly in a kind of pop Freudianism that reaches truly comical levels of absurdity.
At one point, Trotsky attends a lecture by Freud in Vienna and speaks with him afterwards. This meeting never happened in reality as far as I know, however it is not beyond the bounds of possibility – Trotsky certainly took a serious interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. Such artistic contrivances would be permissible, if only they bore the slightest resemblance to the truth in their content. Alas, here is Trotsky’s Freud:
Freud: “Sex is the only motivation for all activity… Sex is revolution… The struggle for power is the struggle for a woman…”
(Clearly, heterosexual women who are revolutionaries don’t fit so well into this theory, hence the embarrassingly false portrayals of Larissa Reisner, Natalya Sedova – as a vacuous, coquettish artist, and Aleksandra Sokolovskaya – the woman who won Trotsky to Marxism, and who remained a leader of the Bolshevik Party and of the Left Opposition for forty years, until she was exiled and murdered by the Stalinist thugs in 1938, makes a brief appearance in Trotsky as a naïve peasant. Bolshevik women are an enigma, beyond the comprehension of the makers of this series.)[Trotsky questions Freud and embarrasses him]
Freud responds: “You are a rare type of sexual aggressor… Your psyche type is known to kill at once, but something keeps you from finishing your victim. May it be weakness? [on coming closer to Trotsky:] How quickly your pupils contract. I’ve seen that in only two types – serial killers and religious zealots…”
[Fired up by these Freudian insights, Trotsky speaks at a revolutionary workers congress]
Trotsky: “Revolution is a woman. She needs a true man. Be men! Inseminate her! Long live the cleansing through blood!”
(This speech, let us note in passing, is more akin to fascist demagogy than to revolutionary socialism.)
[Trotsky continues in conversation with Sedova:] “That’s what the nation is, a weak girl. The masses have a female psychology. You are passive by nature…”
The creators of this garbage have no original ideas, not even reactionary ones. The inventions and frame-ups cooked up to dramatize this TV show are nothing but a regurgitation of the old slanders used against the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and the civil war years (the Bolsheviks are paid agents of the German government sent to weaken and demoralise Russia; Lenin and Trotsky are bloodthirsty murderers, desecrators of the churches and cemeteries of good Christians; the revolution is nothing but a conspiracy of Jews) overlaid with the lies and mythology of the Stalinist epoch (the Stalin-Trotsky split was merely a clash of personalities; Stalin the proletarian defeated Trotsky the petty-bourgeois intellectual; Stalin stood for the revolution while Trotsky recoiled against it; the frame-ups and murders of the 1930s were the inevitable consequence of the revolution; and so on.)
Anti-Semitic conspiracy is their stock-in-trade. It is somehow shocking how shamelessly that card is laid on the table in the very first episode. But we should not be shocked. This is the way these people think, and they are not ashamed of it in the least.
Similarly with the misogynist venom. This series is produced by a tentacle of the same state that recently decriminalised ‘moderate’ forms of domestic violence, in a country where the Ministry of Internal Affairs has estimated that each year 14,000 women die from injuries inflicted by their partners. It reflects the thinking of these rulers.
The problem with this TV series is not the deliberate falsification of history, such as there was in the Stalin epoch; the problem is that the stunted imagination of the bourgeoisie in its senile phase cannot conceive of revolution in any other terms than they present here.
They simply cannot imagine such a thing as a woman who is a revolutionary, who thinks for herself, or a Jew who is an honest fighter, or a worker who is anything other than a vile brute, an ‘instrument’ who needs to be ‘controlled.’ They cannot conceive of a revolutionary leader who is anything other than a sexual aggressor and a megalomaniacal egotist. They cannot understand the process of the working class finding and testing its revolutionary leadership as anything other than the machinations of backroom promoters and moneyed gangsters. All they can do is to project onto these historical figures their own thuggish methods and chauvinist prejudices, their own lies, their own lust for ‘cleansing through blood,’ and their own raging egos and brutish stupidity. This really is the best they can do.
Even in advance of any catastrophic economic collapse, the political and cultural crisis of capitalism is accelerating today.
One aspect of their political crisis – where ideological and political differences between the bourgeois parties have dwindled to insignificance, yet the parties themselves have become more fractured and factional than ever – is the tendency of politics to reduce itself to scandal-mongering. Allegations of corruption and illegal activity, digging the dirt on sex scandals involving this or that political figure, all manner of accusations unsupported by evidence – these things move to centre stage of political discourse. Police and spy agencies play an increasing political role in politics. The ultra-right thrives on it, decrying in salacious terms the decadence of the ruling stratum. As far back as the early 1990s this tendency was described by US socialist leader Jack Barnes as the pornographication of politics.3
With Trotsky, the disease of pornographication spreads from politics to infect historical drama, for history is, as always, an extension of politics. This cultural product is the story of the Russian bourgeoisie brought back from the dead, its obscene history of itself.
Watching Trotsky will yield no insights about the revolution of 1917, nor about Trotsky’s life. One would have a better chance of learning the truth about the dispossession of the native Americans by watching Hollywood westerns. As a window on the mentality of the Russian ruling class, it might have a little more value. If you can stomach it.
- The series is now available on Netflix with English subtitles
- There is an account of the torpedo boat attack in Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life. Reisner’s participation in it, and a wealth of other biographical detail and excerpts from her letters and writings, can be found in Larissa Reisner, a biography by Cathy Porter, Virago 1988 – unfortunately out of print now.
- See Capitalism’s World Disorder, by Jack Barnes, Pathfinder, 1999