The Death of Stalin

March 30, 2018
What do we do now? The fallen idol & his disciples

It’s conservatively estimated that 20 million people were murdered during Joseph Stalin’s reign.“So why were they all killed?” asks Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his devastating book, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Nadezhda Mandelstam, who lost her poet husband, Osip, gave a succinct answer: “for nothing”.

Montefiore suggests that under Stalin the supreme offence was to lose faith. People were imprisoned, tortured and executed not for their crimes, but for potential crimes. The slightest doubt about the Soviet Union’s status as a utopian state ruled by a wise and benevolent leader, was considered treasonous.

Entire groups of people were implicated in the web of suspicion. Anyone with potentially divided loyalties, such as the Jews, were viewed as enemies in waiting. For slaughter on an industrial scale a quota system was devised, based on the idea that it was better to kill a few innocent people than to miss a single traitor. It was common for a condemned prisoner’s entire family to be liquidated.

For director, Armando Iannucci, comedy was the only way to capture the essence of such a monstrous regime. Iannucci, known for TV political satires such as Veep and The Thick of It, has assembled a first-class cast of British and American actors to portray the members of Stalin’s inner circle during the brief, chaotic interlude that ensued after the dictator suffered a stroke and died in March, 1953.

One key to the film’s unlikely success is that Iannucci avoided that dreadful Hollywood convention whereby English-speaking actors playing foreigners should all have ridiculous accents. (Look, for instance, at the preposterous Red Sparrow).

Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin is the first surprise. He sounds like an elderly cockney. Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev is a jolt with both his weedy Brooklyn accent and his scrawniness. The real Krushchev was the shape of a beach ball. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov comes across as a peevish, slightly effete undertaker.

Almost everything in this story is based on fact, allowing for a scrambled chronology and a degree of poetic licence. All the truly bizarre stuff is taken from the history books not from a scriptwriter’s fevered imagination. Stalin actually made his Central Committee members watch westerns after meetings. He dragged them to late night dinner parties where they clowned around like naughty shoolboys. Every activity was fraught with danger, with the penalty for a faux pas being demotion or death.

When the tyrant suffers a stroke and falls heavily on the floor, his guards are too terrified to go and investigate. His henchmen hesitate to call a doctor, partly because all the best doctors in Moscow have been arrested as part of a trumped-up plot, and are currently being tortured in the Lubyanka.

If his cronies don’t want Stalin to recover, they are just as petrified by the thought of his disappearance. When the entire government is centred on one domineering personality his sudden loss creates a power vacuum. As the Committee men overcome their shock, the jockeying for position begins, with Beria setting the pace.

Although he held many posts under Stalin, Lavrenti Beria will forever be known as the head of the internal security forces, the NKVD, and as chief architect of the Terror. Beria was no mere bureaucrat: he took a hands-on role, torturing and killing suspects, raping women and girls – some as young as 7 years old. He was the most brilliant mind in Stalin’s inner circle, and the most depraved. When Stalin died he was the first to espouse a more liberal policy.

In this movie Beria is played by Simon Russell Beale, a great Shakespearean known for his portrayals of villains such as Iago and Malvoglio. Beale captures Beria’s intelligence and his cold-blooded cynicism. Glancing at the lists for the night’s executions, he issues instructions on the run: “Kill her first, but make sure he sees it.”

It’s funny but it must also be close to the truth. The sheer scale of such bloodshed could only be managed with dispassionate efficiency.

If Beria remains focused on his own advantage, Michael Palin’s Molotov is the ideologue who has absorbed the Bolshevik ethos so completely that he is prepared to excuse his wife’s imprisonment, and potentially his own arrest, from which he is rescued only by Stalin’s demise. “Oh, I must have done something to offend him!” he says.

It is Buscemi’s wise-cracking Krushchev who comes through the middle of the pack. Although he initially appears ineffectual, he is the first to recognise the threat Beria poses for the rest of the group.

Add Rupert Friend’s rendition of Stalin’s drunken, imbecilic son, Vasily; Andrea Riseborough’s embittered Svetlana, the dictator’s daughter; and Jason Isaacs’s barnstorming General Zhukov, and story takes on the overtones of a sinister pantomime.

It’s no surprise that The Death of Stalin has been banned in Russia. Although there are still Russians that hold Stalin’s name sacred the real reason for the ban probably lies in the present, as Vladimir Putin cultivates his own cult of personality. It would be unthinkable for Putin’s retainers, who are mainly faceless men to the West, to be as buffoonish as Stalin’s crew. If the boss were to be hit by a bus tomorrow, would we see the same power vacuum, the same mad scramble for the spoils? In Russia today, as in Stalin’s era, it’s permissable for the leadership to inspire fear, but never laughter.

The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin & Peter Fellows, after a comic book by Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin
Starring Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambour, Michael Palin, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse
UK/Canada/France/Belgium, rated MA 15+, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 31 March, 2018