Russian television in recent years has produced epic dramas around historical figures including Catherine the Great. These are lavishly funded, immaculately presented. I enjoy them, though I know underneath there is a subtext: such programmes are made by the state in order to convince the public that their country is better off under one, strong ruler. It’s another reminder that not all propaganda is designed to punch you in the face, nor does it always announce its presence openly.
I was initially shocked that Russian television would produce an epic documentary about the Communist revolutionary Trotsky. Ever since he was expelled from the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1929, he has been something of a persona non grata in Russia, a controversial figure at best. Yet, Russian television went all out, going so far as to cast Konstantin Khabensky, one of the great Russian actors of our time, in the title role.
Because I’m aware of Trotsky being a problematic figure, I was immediately alive to the risk that this was going to be a propaganda film. I just wondered what it was going to say. It became obvious fairly soon: it suggested that Trotsky was a lecher, who had numerous affairs, he was an unwilling dupe of the Germans in destabilising Russia, and yet the power of his oratory and his organisational skills made him more key to the success of the October Revolution than Lenin.
This is quite a claim. It’s also untrue. Lenin’s role is severely downplayed, the idea that Trotsky was behind it all is more than a bit ludicrous.
So what was the point? I believe that the state was trying to deliver a number of messages: first, the fact that Trotsky was Jewish was brought up a number of times. It’s mentioned in a particularly unpleasant way: in the course of the film, Trotsky sings a little anti-Semitic ditty in celebration of the fact that the October Revolution has succeeded. Khabensky is a skilled actor, so it sounds like he’s being ironic; there’s little doubt in my mind that the Russian public would have received the message that the Bolshevik revolution was a Jewish plot.
Another heavy-handed message arises from an encounter, likely fictional, between Trotsky and the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin. Ilyin is a favourite thinker of Vladimir Putin’s: he was an advocate of what could best be described as Christian Fascism. Ilyin is shown as a humane man, sad at the fate that has befallen his country.
In the end, this programme is entertaining, well crafted, pernicious nonsense. However, it should show us the dangers that our present period presents. It’s not always easy to look at an article, a film, or a book and see the numbing or inflammatory effect that it intends. If one isn’t armed with context and background, it’s easy to believe that say, Trotsky was more key to Lenin, after all, the film showed typewritten notes signed “Trotsky”! Given this, what will we see on Facebook and YouTube, what news stories will be spun outward, what blame will be assigned, what falsehoods told? Who is watching “Trotsky” and seeing it as a masterclass in manipulating public opinion? And what will they do with that knowledge?
It is unlikely that “Trotsky” will pass the test of time. Once Putin is gone and his regime is replaced with something hopefully more benign, the series will perhaps be lost on a USB stick somewhere in the bowels of Russia’s main broadcaster. It should be remembered, however, as more than a curiosity: it is a lesson in how susceptible history and facts are to being blurred by entertainment.