Luke Johnson is a journalist living in Washington.
At first glance, “Trotsky” is not so different from Netflix’s other foreign acquisitions. This eight-part miniseries, which originally aired on Russia's leading state-run television channel on the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, stars a male anti-hero — Marxist Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky — and features plenty of violence, raunchy sex, special effects and action.
But a closer look at the show’s production and content suggests that it’s something more than the latest binge-watch. Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election have dominated headlines, but the country’s soft-power efforts were underway long before that. “Trotsky” is the latest effort by Russian state-run media to sell its worldview abroad. In building its massive streaming platform, outlets such as Netflix should be explicit about the source of its content to viewers, rather than passing it off as just the latest television series.
Syndicating a miniseries is hardly Russia’s first, or most ambitious, attempt to sell its worldview in the West. The English-language news channel RT, which aims to compete with CNN and the BBC, is so closely tied to the Russian state that it had to register as a foreign agent under U.S. lobbying laws. Multiple investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections have revealed how the Internet Research Agency of St. Petersburg blasted out crude memes on social media channels about American politics, making democracy look messy, divisive and ultimately not worth the trouble.
By contrast, “Trotsky” is much less outwardly propagandistic than these efforts — and much more appealing to a general audience. That doesn’t mean the program lacks an agenda. One of the show’s producers is Konstantin Ernst, the head of Channel One, Russia’s leading state-run channel, which regularly runs flattering coverage of President Vladimir Putin. And “Trotsky” is an attempt to advance Russia’s opposition to any effort to challenge existing regimes and the country’s criticism of Western decadence. The series sent that message first to Russians at home. Now it’s being delivered to foreign Netflix viewers.
Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary who was a leader during the Bolshevik Revolution but later fell out with Joseph Stalin only to be assassinated by a Soviet agent in Mexico in 1940, is a perfect vehicle for this vision. The show depicts him as daring, literate and foreign, reading Freud in Paris and going to a cocaine-fueled soiree, but ultimately violent and destructive. Ernst even promoted the show to potential buyers, including Netflix, in Cannes in October 2017 by jokingly comparing Trotsky’s sexual exploits to Harvey Weinstein’s misconduct.
Trotsky, whose Jewish heritage the show refers to over and over, is not an ethnic Russian like Vladimir Lenin. The message is clear: Revolutionaries may be fun, but watch out — they might destroy everything.
The show, at times, seems to be speaking in the Kremlin's language of contemporary events. In one scene on the day after the October Revolution overthrowing the provisional government, Lenin angrily confronts Trotsky, diminishing his actions of the previous day as a “coup” and rejecting Trotsky’s contention that what he did was actually a revolution. This dialogue seems to echo events in Ukraine in 2014, with Russian state media calling the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych a “coup” and not a revolution. The dialogue is also one of the several instances in which the show distances Lenin, who actually led the Soviet Union that ultimately became a superpower, from Trotsky, who did not become its leader and was later forced into exile by Stalin.
Moreover, in keeping with the contemporary Kremlin theme that revolution is a Western plot, the show includes scenes featuring a prominent Marxist known as Alexander Parvus. Parvus takes an envelope of cash from a person who appears to be a German agent and speaks with the agent about how to promote Trotsky within the Bolshevik party. The show’s writers apparently felt the need to include these scenes to hammer home the idea that revolutionaries consort with Western governments and take their money.
It makes sense why Netflix wanted to run “Trotsky.” The show cleaned up at the Russian equivalent of the Emmys, winning awards including best series, and is a slickly produced historical drama. And it makes even more sense why Ernst, who has been instrumental in shaping the image of Putin’s Russia, would want the show to run on Netflix: The service is effectively laundering the show’s provenance and ideas. Channel One may have a large domestic platform in Russia, but Netflix has a large global platform with 139 million subscribers in more than 190 countries. Western viewers watching the show on Netflix, unless they read Cyrillic or are otherwise familiar with the show, would not be aware that the show is a presentation by Channel One simply by watching it.
Yet “Trotsky” unmistakably aligns with the Kremlin worldview. The show is taking contemporary Russia’s anti-revolutionary ideology global. RT is not CNN. The 2016 Facebook memes from the Internet Research Agency were not ordinary social media content. “Trotsky” is not merely another Netflix show. Audiences should know what they’re watching. And Netflix should think carefully about whether it wants to be in business, however indirectly, with Russia’s propaganda channels.