Russian state-run TV marks revolution's centenary with surprise series recounting rise and fall of Leon Trotsky

Channel One rehabilitates Bolshevik leader who was famously murdered in exile after opposition to Joseph Stalin with glossy new series – but some suspect politics at work

Oliver Carroll
Monday 16 October 2017 10:14 BST
World premiere of Trotsky trailer released

On Friday, Russians were granted a glimpse of the way the Russian state intends to play next month’s 100-year anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution.

The two-minute trailer for Trotsky is enough to leave a lasting impression. It contains the ridiculous – an oversized armoured train that dwarfs the cast – as well as the shocking, ending with mass murder in a graveyard.

But it is the choice of Leon Trotsky as the central focus of the eight-part series to be screened on state TV that will have struck Russians as the most incongruent aspect.

Trotsky has a fanatical following among Western leftists – down in great part to his prolific writing and opposition to Joseph Stalin. In Russia, however, he is seen, at best, as a pitiful curiosity.

The Soviet machine at first demonised Trotsky. Then, following his untimely death by ice pick in 1940, he was airbrushed from history. By the time Gorbachev pardoned the old revolutionary in 1986, most Russians had stopped paying attention.

TV producers hope to change that with a glossy serialisation, the first ever to be aired in Russia. The assembled cast is an A-list of celebrities. The country’s most famous actor, Konstantin Khabensky (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Night Watch), plays the lead role.

As befits a product designed for the the flagship Channel One, the production is expensive, sets are expansive (too expansive, in the case of the train), and subtlety is generally expendable.

In early scripts seen by The Independent, the storyline is peppered with heavily dramatised scenes of sex and violence. Great attention is paid to Trotsky’s sex life and his interest in the teachings of Freud.

The episodes paint a conflicted picture of the revolutionary. On the one hand, Trotsky is shown as the brilliant performer of his age, winning over men, women and children with his oratory skills.

But the main takeaways are negative. Trotsky is at once cocky and savage, shooting unarmed citizens and proclaiming the virtue of “cleansing [ranks] with blood”. He is also cosmopolitan, a Jew, foreign. Much is made of his friendship with the revolutionary turned German agent Alexander Parvus.

Konstantin Khabensky as Leon Trotsky in Channel One’s new prestige biopic

The dramatisation is not without historical basis. But critics are already voicing concern by the timing of the series and by what they see as a politicised rendition of the leading Bolshevik.

“I’m not surprised that they have chosen Trotsky instead of, say, Stalin,” says Alexander Reznik, a historian at Russia’s Higher School of Economics. “In the current political atmosphere, Trotsky is the perfect anti-hero for Russia. He is a disgusting character, both physically and morally.”

For Mr Reznik, the show draws intentional parallels with contemporary Russia and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Last December, Mr Navalny announced an improbable presidential campaign, but is unlikely to be granted permission to run. He currently sits in jail for his attempts to organise “unsanctioned” rallies.

“Navalny is the only guy you’ve got out there,” Reznik tells The Independent. “So the message for young Russians is obvious: your Navalny might be charismatic and speak well but, like Trotsky, he is destructive, savage, unpatriotic and probably working for foreign governments.”

Mr Reznik said that he did not believe the show was written from the Kremlin, but that its writers had “picked up signals”.

Russia’s last remaining Trotskyists are also angry, but for different reasons. At a meeting in Moscow’s northern suburbs the day after the trailer was released, members of the Revolutionary Workers Party (membership: 300 across 90 cities nationwide) told The Independent they believed Channel One was “playing a Stalinist agenda”. The Georgian was being rehabilitated in the public consciousness at the expense of their man – again – they said.

“Watch the trailer and you see Trotsky shooting an unarmed old grandmother at a graveyard,” said Ivan Morozov, 21. “It’s complete fiction and it’s obvious they have decided to make Trotsky the enemy once more.”

Fellow card-holder Mikhail Komrakov, 20, agreed. “In a world so dominated by bourgeois sensibility, a TV series a priori cannot praise a revolutionary leader,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Channel One’s influential head, Konstantin Ernst, told The Independent that Trotsky had been chosen “for the simple reason that he produced the revolution”. A request for comment from Mr Ernst went unanswered.

Whatever process lay behind the decision to commission the series, the impending anniversary of the revolution has placed the Kremlin in an obvious quandary.

Many difficult questions are being asked of it at the same time. Does it continue to embrace Soviet nostalgia and, with that, the idea of a popular uprising? How to square that with the idea of conservatism and stability, on which the regime is basing its 18 years of rule? Perhaps more significantly: how can you capture the hopes and fears of a nation fundamentally split on the issue?

“This isn’t a pleasant conversation for the Kremlin,” says Boris Kolonitsky, Professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “There are too many points of conflict: You can’t bring society together on this.”

Last December, President Putin gave the closest indication of his thinking, when he used an annual speech at the Federal Assembly to call for “respect” and “objective and honest analysis” of the country’s “common history”. Thus far, the government has stayed true to those sentiments, abstaining from issuing any clear diktat. It seems likely centenary events will go ahead in an understated way, and without any real flourish.

“The Kremlin has decided not to use the revolution as a political instrument,” says Kolonitsky. “In fact, I imagine it would prefer that the year to be ended as quickly as possible.”

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