Konstantin Khabensky as Trotsky. (Image: Netflix)

One of the unintended effects of the vast growth of Netflix is the sheer demand it has for new product. This is increasingly being sourced from non-US places, and so viewers are exposed to worldviews other than their own, and how the rest of the world thinks. And that is sometimes an amazing and horrifying experience.

Take Trotsky, an eight-part series currently on offer, detailing the rise and fall of the co-leader of the October revolution. Produced in Russia, it is a fervently anti-Bolshevik picture of the era, with even neocon journal Foreign Affairs noting that it reduced Lenin and others to caricatures. When Foreign Affairs thinks that…

Trotsky, who had a genuine wit*, gets the best lines. But what makes the show important is its portrayal of how the October revolution came about, and the central place it gives the shadowy figure of Alexander Parvus-Helphand, the most significant historical figure you’ve never heard of — a Marxist who became a millionaire, and then a German imperial agent. According to Trotsky, the entire October revolution was pretty much his creation, with Trotsky as a willing puppet.

I’ve banged on about Parvus once or twice before here, and in just about every other forum. Here’s the short version: he was a Russian Jewish radical, a trained economist, who became a leading theorist in German Marxism around 1900, a leader in the 1905 Russian revolution, developing the theory of “war and permanent revolution”, which would become the basis of the October revolution.

Convinced that the movement needed money as much as people — and drummed out of the German party on account of women, wine and financial impropriety — he went to Istanbul, became rich off military supply commissions, and a friend of the German ambassador. When World War I broke out, he got his master plan put into action — millions of German marks funneled to a Russian network, which fomented strikes and destabilised the Tsar.

Publicly, Lenin repudiated him; privately, his key Bolshevik lieutenant was part of Parvus’ operation. He organised Lenin’s sealed train, funneled money to the Bolsheviks through a dodgy Danish think tank/export company, and helped pitch the Ottoman empire into the war (knowing it would destroy the sultanate). When the Bolsheviks abandoned Lenin’s brainless “socialism in six months” policy**, and adopted a transitional state capitalist economy in 1921, it was along the lines Parvus had suggested in 1908 (based on Australia, and the Harvester judgment). Oh and he organised a battleship hijack during the Dardanelles campaign. He died in 1924 in his mansion on Peacock Island in Berlin, having been expelled from Switzerland due to rumours of masked orgies. He’s kinda my hero.  

He was thus a man of huge influence (much of it unknown, or denied by official history) in fomenting and facilitating the revolution that defined the 20th century. What he wasn’t was a sinister Jewish puppet master with the revolutionaries on strings, for obscure Judaic purposes, as the Trotsky series appears to suggest (his money did fund Trotsky’s revolutionary newspaper Nashe Slovo, through a Romanian double agent named Rakovsky — better than Le Carre, isn’t it? — which left Trotsky unaware of the source).

Parvus was famous in the West until 1939 — the Nazis loved pointing to a Jewish Bolshevik millionaire who fanned the flames of war — and disappeared thereafter, as official post-war US anti-communism distanced itself from its pre-war anti-Semitism.

But he’s never stopped being notorious in Russia because of, well, anti-Semitism. The notion that the country was pitched into the horrors of Stalinism by a Jewish plot has allowed Russian nationalists to hold the belief that loyal Russians were tricked into deposing their ancient order. Parvus is a hugely visible figure on the Russian right after a series of books wildly overstating his influence became bestsellers in the 2000s.

The paranoid take on Parvus dovetails nicely with the east European appetite for extreme conspiracy — back to the Crusades, if possible, if not Ancient Egypt — of which anti-Semitism is just one element. It also assuages a deep bitterness that several generations of life have been stolen from them (the neoliberal disaster of the ’90s as much as Stalinism) by making it the product of nameable, satanic figures, rather than the chaos of history.  

So the appearance of such a show on Netflix does two things: first it makes clear just how resurgent old-school Christian conservative anti-Semitism is in Europe, and on the right more generally. But secondly, it transmits that by featuring such a farrago of history as part of its global output.

While everyone’s worrying about “fake news” on the “unregulated” internet, the world’s new global screen content behemoth is pumping it out to untold millions of homes for an obvious reason: it needs thousands of hours of watchable TV. Those of us who know the history can snicker at the “Boris Badenov” portrayals; for millions of others it will simply add to what is the most bizarre phenomenon of our time: the resurgence of a literal-minded anti-Semitism as an unremarkable feature of right-wing politics, and the culture more generally, from Belarus to Wollongong.

*to be fair, Lenin was no slouch. When asked what punishment, for anti-leadership organising, the party should visit on extreme-left communist, and famously fractious, couple Alexandra Kollontai and her toyboy lover Dybenko, Lenin suggested they be forced to live together.

**”The trouble with Lenin,” John Mearsham remarked in his “Menshevik” history of the October revolution So Bright an Illusion, “was that he was a complete amateur.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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