‘Enthralling, if rudimentary’: A review of Netflix’s ‘The Russian Revolution’

One hundred years after 1917, Netflix’s documentary ‘The Russian Revolution’ assesses the seismic event that dictated international relations for much of the 20th century. Yet the programme does not focus on the political and social causes of the October Revolution. Rather, we are instead drawn into the lives of Nicholas II, the last Romanov ruler, and middle-class university student turned revolutionary, Vladimir Ulyanov (later known by his more famous moniker Lenin). Netflix thus uniquely present the Revolution as a human story, rather than scrutinising its ideological conflict.

The tale, told by a group of historians with styles ranging from intensely narrative to dry regurgitation of the facts, covers a broad sweep of events. It begins with Alexander II’s reforms and eventual assassination, winding through the revolutionary fervour among the intelligentsia of the 1890s. The programme finishes in the tumultuous reign of Nicholas II. Consequently, those looking for an intensive critique of the causes and effects of the revolution will be disappointed.  At only 46 minutes in length, the documentary functions more as an enjoyable introduction. If you want an understanding of Stolypin’s agrarian reforms or the efficacy of the Duma, this is not the programme for you.

What the viewer receives instead, after a rushed summary of the Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 revolution, is a look at the personal struggles of Nicholas and Lenin. The programme accounts childhood issues as the source of Nicholas’s nervous and indecisive manner, highlighting constant bullying and lack of affection from his father. Consequently, the leader was ill-suited to the task of running an effective autocracy when he assumed control of the Russian Empire in 1894. The documentary extends the link between Nicholas’s personal tragedies and his eventual downfall by focussing on his son Alexei’s haemophilia. This unfortunate incident meant the bearded mystic Rasputin was welcomed into court, severely damaging the credibility of the royal family.

Lenin is not given as nuanced a portrait as one might have hoped. One brief anecdote is told to relay a hint of his hypocritical behaviour: ‘so much for Bolshevik egalitarianism’, sneered one historian, over the knowledge that Lenin paid his servant-girl one rouble a month during his exile in Siberia. Interestingly, some connections between events in Lenin’s personal life and his hatred towards the Tsar and Bourgeoisie are illuminated in the show. The execution of Lenin’s brother Aleksandr for a failed attempt on Alexander III’s life, alongside the refusal of the elite in his hometown of Simbirsk to fund his mother’s trip to see Aleksandr during the trial, provide a clearer understanding of the trajectory Lenin would eventually take to become the leader of the world’s first Communist state.

The documentary is by no means in-depth, and it does omit a lot of important information. Little about Trotsky’s instrumental role in the October revolution or the subsequent Red Terror is divulged. The Russian civil war barely registers as a footnote, and a brief glimpse into Lenin’s polarising status in today’s Russia could have been beneficial. What does work well, however, is the blending of historical fact with cinematic embellishment. The sounds of sharp screams and gunshots during the assassination of the royal family; the swelling music of the Russian national anthem, all makes for engaging viewing.

In conclusion, the documentary provides an enjoyable, if brief, introduction to one of the most cataclysmic events in human history. While the personal twist may irritate history-buffs, its subsequent narrative will likely resonate with viewers.

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