Go and see Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy The Death of Stalin, if you can. And if you think blood-drenched dictators and their henchmen are beyond parody, think again.
Iannucci’s satirical eye, cast so effectively over Westminster in The Thick of It and Washington in Veep, focuses in The Death of Stalin on the Soviet (“Communist”) party and state leaders as they struggled with the fallout from the dictator’s demise in March 1953.
Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lavrenty Beria, who headed Stalin’s secret police, stole the film, in my eyes. Playing a psychotic,
sadistic mass murderer and rapist for laughs isn’t easy, and he shifts through the gears – menacing to manipulating to cynical – in fractions of a second.
If Malcolm Tucker, the deranged Alistair-Campbell-esque The Thick of It character played by Peter Capaldi, said he was going to gouge someone’s eyes out, you’d know he could not do, and never had done, such a thing. When Russell Beale’s Beria says it, you know he could, and has, done it. And not just once.
There are many strong performances in The Death of Stalin. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually rose to succeed Stalin as general secretary: not as stupid as he seems. Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy: hollowed-out, gaunt and guileless. Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter: on the edge of a nervous breakdown (and Rupert Friend as her brother Vasily, who had one long ago.) Jason Isaacs as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who rose to power and popularity after leading the Soviet army in the second world war: myth-rich hero played as swashbuckling Yorkshireman.
Iannucci’s humour works because there is a serious thread in it. When Beria reminds Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (played by Michael Palin) of the hypocrisy and complicity that binds all Stalin’s successors together, you know the script isn’t joking. When do you stop denouncing loved ones as “enemies of the people”? Beria knows. The others struggle to keep up.
The ghastly gap between reality and rhetoric, played for laughs by so much political comedy, is shifting shape very fast in this film. Distribute lists of those to be executed in the morning; pardon them, to gain political advantage, in the afternoon.
It’s a matter of historical fact that Beria, the most bloodthirsty of all Stalin’s lieutenants, was the first proponent of liberalisation after the dictator’s death. Khrushchev and the others appropriated the idea, and turned its author’s own methods on him.
Beria was arrested at a joint meeting of leading committees in July 1953, four months after Stalin’s death. One of Iannucci’s many departures from historical accuracy is to compress that period into a few days. But he is not pretending to precision. There are period costumes and scenergy combined with ersatz cyrillic script and English idioms.
One of the themes is that some qualities in politicians – pusillanimity, small-mindedness, cowardice, opportunism and all the rest of it
– are timeless, shared between bureaucrats in rich democracies and regimes ruling by terror and torture. The farcical performances portraying such second-rank political leaders as Nikolai Bulganin and Lazar Kaganovich helped to make that point.
Other qualities are more specifically late Stalinist. In the opening scene, a symphony concert, with Olga Kurylenko playing the pianist Maria Yudina, has to be repeated to an audience dragged in off the street, because the great leader has called up and asked for a recording to be made. A conductor is dragged from his bed to replace one who has fainted – while others are dragged off to the security police basements to be shot. A mad, mad world.
The Death of Stalin hasn’t yet been released in Russia, but Stalinist “Communists”, nationalists and moral conservatives are already making complaints about it.
Sergei Obukhov, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, ranted that the film was part of a “campaign against our country, to discredit Russia”. A decision allowing it to be released would be “an obscenity of the highest order”. (The CPRF is a party of Stalinists, proto-Stalinists and post-Stalinists, one of the biggest such parties in the world.)
Obukhov has convinced himself that Iannucci’s film is part of a western war on the Russian state. “Even in Soviet times they didn’t allow themselves to sink this low”, he said. Obviously he doesn’t get the joke. …
The authorities are not deaf to such complaints. Pavel Pozhigailo, head of the ministry of culture’s civic council asked to view the film before its release. “Experts, who can say whether there is an attempt to incite national hatred or insult feelings” should decide whether “danger” lurked, he said, adding that the film was “a planned provocation” against the Communist party.
These are not idle threats. “Incitement of national hatred” has become a standard charge on which to prosecute protesters and civil society organisations – although not so often the many openly fascist and anti-migrant organisations in Russia that actually do incite national hatred. (And yes, a political satirist could do a thing or two with that.)
Podzhigailo also said that consideration should be given to whether The Death of Stalin is “as provocative as Matilda”. That’s a film, released this year, about an affair between the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya and the last tsar, Nikolai II.
The Russian Orthodox Church has canonised Nikolai, who was executed in 1918 by Red forces during the Russian civil war, and right-wing conservatives targeted the film – made in a state-financed studio by a politically middle-of-the-road director, Alexei Uchitel – with a campaign of threats. One of the initiators of the witch-hunt was Natalia Polonskaya, the Russian state prosecutor in Crimea, which was occupied by Russian forces in 2014. (The film has been widely shown, despite the campaign, which the authorities, after hesitation, opposed. There are good articles in English on the background here and here.)
This conservatism – that has spread under the protective wing of president Putin’s authoritarianism – tends to look to Stalin as a historical figure to be admired, as he held the Russian state together against its European enemies.
A good example appeared in the Russian press this month, in an article by Natalia Narochnitskaya, former parliamentary deputy and director of the European Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, on the centenary of the Russian revolution. The west and Russian pro-westerners especially hate Stalin, she wrote,
not in the least because of his crimes which, of course, were committed. The real issue is that Stalin in no way bowed his head before western history. He saw right through all the plans of his western partners, he could outwit them. Therefore in the west he is demonised, not for the repression he carried out – a field in which he was far from being the first – but for founding, in the place of a broken-up Russia, a new great power. He made the country a geopolitical force as great as the west, able to stand in the west’s way.
Stalin’s war on the peasantry, on the working class, on the intelligentsia … all that counts for little in this version of history. The strong Russian state is the axis around which everything turns.
Narochnitskaya – who was in her time was an outspoken supporter of the Yeltsin government’s bloodbath in Chechnya and knows a thing or two about repression – made the ridiculous claim that Stalin’s terror had fewer victims than the Soviet government in Lenin’s time:
My father told me […] that Lenin’s time was far more dreadful than Stalin’s. In the Red terror of 1922-24 far more people died, without investigation or trial, than in the Stalinist camps.
The Red terror in the early 1920s certainly had a substantial number of victims, counted in thousands, or tens of thousands. But after the “great break” of 1929, the implementation of forced industrialisation and collectivisation, and the consolidation of the Stalinist system, the numbers went up to hundreds of thousands, and then millions. No serious historian doubts this.
Narochnitskaya’s absurd fantasy is typical of the way that history is now being rewritten by sections of the Russian intelligentsia closest to the establishment. The Russian revolution was bad because it undermined and weakened the state, they say; Stalin was good because he restored it. It’s a sad sign of the times that this falsification could be published in the tabloid-but-serious newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, whose fact-checkers might have rejected it in times gone by.
I’d like to recommend – as a complement to Iannucci’s film – another film about the aftermath of Stalin’s death: The Cold Summer of 53, directed by Aleksandr Proshkin.
The Cold Summer of 53 – on You Tube with decent English subtitles here – was one of the Soviet Union’s two biggest cinema hits in 1988. That was early enough for it to carry on the wonderful traditions of late Soviet popular cinema, and late enough for it to be possible – thanks to the “glasnost” (“transparency”) reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev – for artists to comment meaningfully on Soviet history.
The film is set in a remote village, and stars Valery Priyomykhov and Anatoly Papanov who have been sent there as political exiles. They are the “goodies”; the “baddies” are a gang of criminal prisoners, released from a nearby camp in the general amnesty that followed Stalin’s death, who are now rampaging across the countryside terrorising the local population. In the middle are the local police chief and administrative officials, representative of all the cowardly bureaucrats who did Stalin’s will.
The Cold Summer of 53 opens with the news of Beria’s arrest arriving in the village. It’s a beautiful story of humanity asserting and reasserting itself in bleak circumstances, told in a direct way that spoke directly to the 40 million Russians who saw it in the weeks after its release. GL, 21 November 2018.
More about Soviet history
■ Read about Yuri Dmitriev, a historian being victimised by the state under Putin, for his work in uncovering Stalin’s crimes, on a new English-language campaigning site here, and the Russian Reader here.