One of my heroes, Armando Iannucci, a modern political satirist (Veep and In The Thick of It) has made a film about one of my historical obsessions, Stalin. I had to comment.
Most reviews cannot decide if the film is comedy, tragedy or farce and thereby flatter its historical accuracy. The real court of Stalin was all three. Death of Stalin is Animal Farm with humans and George Orwell would love it. If anything, the comedy is played down in Death of Stalin since you do not, for example, see the Stalin’s fellow political magnates trying to blow cigarette ash across the table with drunken farts, which they did. The film captures perfectly that the magnates pretended they liked and respected Stalin, whereas they really just feared him. Thus, the Orwellian farce of Stalin’s life was amplified by his death because some magnates, like Beria, were immediately exuberant while others, like Malenkov, feared him even in death.
I did not know about the concert fiasco portrayed in the film, in which Stalin demands a recording of a live concert. This fiasco launches a series of terrified people into a chain of comic events. The fear of ordinary people around Stalin was natural given that the lists of those to be liquidated contained the entirely innocent selected to fulfill arbitrary quotas. It was dangerous to simply be noticed. The concert fiasco also rings true since after a long evening of drinking Stalin would often politely ask the exhausted magnates if they would like to watch a film of Stalin’s choosing. They would then troop along to the Kremlin cinema where there was a projectionist who, inevitably, feared for his life lest the chosen film offended Stalin. His job was to remove offensive elements such kissing because Stalin was prudish about sex and morals.
Stalin died in 1953 while the so called Jewish Doctors plot was being investigated even though the plot was largely invented by secret policeman Beria. The rationale for inventing the plot was that Jews had an identity beyond party control which, in paranoid Stalin’s mind, connected them to the USA. In addition, any doctor suggesting Stalin needed rest or perhaps even retirement, encouraged aspirant successors and was therefore a threat. It was a perfect storm of prejudices, but the investigation led to arrests all over the Soviet Union and included non-Jewish doctors wholly unconnected with Stalin. The investigation was paranoid and anti-semitic but does explain the slowness of house keepers, guards and magnates to actually call a doctor when Stalin was found collapsed at the start of the film. The NKVD who were already torturing Stalin’s doctor Aberkumov, suddenly changed their questions from seeking the names of supposed co-conspirators, to politely asking advice about ‘an uncle’s’ condition.
The only detail which did not ring true was what happened to Beria. Avoiding spoilers, in reality he was arrested by the generals and denounced for among other things being a British spy. This remains intriguing even though (probably!) wholly untrue. Moscow largely ignored reports from its main British spy, Kim Philby, after the latter truthfully reported that London had no plans to assassinate Stalin. Indeed some in Moscow thought Philby, formerly openly a Communist, was too good to be true and therefore a double agent. Latterly of course, Philby was run by people who reported to Beria and by the low standards of the time all this was sufficient basis for an accusation. Beria was tried and sentenced to death a few months later. He wrote letters furiously begging for his life until he was executed with a towel stuffed in his mouth to deaden his howling. This is not what happens in the film.
The characters are all strong and contain lots of familiar faces in the background. For example, Rupert Friend, The Homeland renegade CIA agent, is Stalin’s drunken son and excellent in that role. Steve Buscemi is outstanding as the rough Ukrainian metal worker, Khrushchev and, of course, ends up succeeding Stalin. Khrushchev gains the support of the generals as portrayed in the film because he, almost alone amongst the magnates, had a frontline-war as a political commissar in war time Stalingrad.
General Zhukov is credibly played by Jason Isaac albeit with a broad Yorkshire accent. Zhukov was very popular at the end of the war and Stalin moved against him, presciently seeing him as politically influential. However, Stalin was not strong enough to eliminate Zhukov who survived to play the king maker role, coincidently returning to Moscow from semi exile in Odessa just days before Stalin died. Perhaps the most confusing character was Malenkov, who as Stalin’s nominal deputy was the immediate obvious successor. He is played by Jeffrey Tambor as hopeless, weak and vain which rings true. Stalin used to call him Malenka Ie Mrs Malenkov which may have influenced the casting of Jeffrey Tambor’s who has recent transgender roles. Simon Russel-Beale is wholly convincing as Beria being charming, clever, menacing and vile.
Compelling satire has to be relevant. There is no doubt that Stalin and his magnates got things done. Modern Russians’ attitude to Stalin is mixed but acknowledges his success at modernising Russia and then defeating Germany which were both astonishing achievements. Is there a way for modern governments get things done which does not involve Stalinist abuse?
The logic of socialism is authoritarian and has to be because state owned economies are necessarily centrally directed. Socialists then have no choice but to enforce decisions, precisely because socialism denies citizens their human instinct to progress personally. Modern socialism faces the same structural imperative, even if its enforcement methods are more moderate.
If he had taken over the leadership, Beria is correctly shown as wanting liberalisation and an end to the terror. Indeed, he wanted his daughter to attend Oxford University, a dangerous bourgeoise aspiration although not as offensive to the other magnates as his aspiration to liberate East Germany. Wind the clock forward to the 1980s and it was in fact Andropov, formerly KGB head, who started glasnost and perestroika. He realised from the KGB’s raw economic data that socialism was not working. He then initiated the reforms which spun out of control a few years later under Gorbachev. In both cases it was the agents of suppression, perhaps weary of their task, who were the first to see socialism was not working.
The film is true satire: a blade so sharp you do not realise it has cut you until much later. The watching is fun but the walk home thoughtful.
For more on Stalin buy the audiobook by author, Simon Seabag Montefiori. Stalin: Court of the Red Czar brilliantly read by Bergerac’s John Nettles. Or read anything by Robert Conquest. On Russia generally try Richard Pipes.