The Death of Stalin

I’d heard a lot of positive talk about the film The Death of Stalin when it first came out. It’s a satire taking place during Stalin’s death and the immediate aftermath as his closest aides run around in confusion trying to figure out what to do now the vozhd has expired, and I thought it would be something I’d either love or hate. I got a chance to watch it on the flight out to Thailand, and loved it.

Now I’ve read two very good books which cover Stalin’s inner circle – Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar and William Taubman’s Khrushchev: The Man And His Era – and I was somewhat chuffed to have identified the main characters before their names were displayed on the screen. I knew who each man was, what their background was, and what became of them which I believe made me enjoy the film all the more because I wasn’t confused over who was who. There were plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, many of which ought not to have been because of the deadly serious subject matter. Far from detracting from the horrors Stalin and his men visited on the Soviet Union, the film does a splendid job of letting the audience know how callously brutal they were and what a horrific era it was for people, even those with connections. There are scenes, and sometimes a mere phrase, which will make your blood run cold, and it’s a testament to the skill of the writers that a minute later you’re laughing again. This is black comedy at it’s finest, but anyone who thinks this film downplays the horrors of Stalin’s rule is sorely mistaken.

The time frame in which the main events take place has been shortened considerably from reality in order to make the film work and there are probably several other liberties taken by the writers which I’ve not spotted. However, there are other things which suggest the writers know their history and any deviations are deliberate rather than a result of ignorance. In the early scenes we learn that Vyacheslav Molotov’s wife has been arrested and he himself is shortly to be arrested and probably executed: this is true, and his life was almost certainly saved by Stalin’s sudden death. There is also a scene in which a KGB (strictly speaking, MGB) guard hands a man and woman a bunch of flowers outside the gates of the ministry: this too is accurate, but I’ll let you watch the film to understand its significance.

Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia, in part because they believed Marshall Zhukov was portrayed as an idiot. I suspect his portrayal was inaccurate, but I didn’t see him as an idiot in the slightest: his arrival in the plot is hilarious and his presence one of the highlights of the whole film. In hindsight, it is surprising it’s taken this long to make a satire of Stalin’s inner court because there is no shortage of surreal elements. The film captures several of these, but the two books I mention contain dozens more. One I remember is Stalin’s habit of forcing everyone to eat huge quantities of food late at night, then make them dance immediately afterwards. Nikita Khrushchev, being nominally Ukrainian, was often required to dance a hopak: being a portly fellow in his late 60s and full of food and drink, it was a bizarre spectacle which Stalin, and no doubt others too, found highly amusing. These ritual humiliations of the USSR’s most feared and powerful men were a regular feature of Stalin’s regime hence the film has no need to exaggerate, even if a viewer unfamiliar with the period might think it so.

The acting is superb, and most actors look like the historical figures they’re portraying. Steve Buscemi is probably a little tall and thin for Khrushchev but his performance allows you to overlook that with ease; Michael Palin is also a bit too slim to play Molotov, and I thought his character was too nervous and indecisive, but these are mere quibbles. In summary, I can highly recommend it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I might watch it again shortly.

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20 thoughts on “The Death of Stalin

  1. I also highly recommend the Taubman bio.

    Also an interesting read is A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes, which starts by doing a very good job of putting the Russian Revolution and Civil War in context by looking at the state of the country under the tsars, then moves on to the events themselves and their aftermath. I don’t think the Taubman book would have made so much sense to me if I hadn’t read this one first.

  2. About comrade Stalin biographies….take them with grain of salt. Actually very few people had access to Stalin and they lie like mainstream media to show themselves as innocent victims.They had also decades to purge all archives.And of course they needed propaganda to run country after Stalin death.

    I like the Simon book too but almost everything there is based of the words of few lifetime liars. And patriots who feel the need to cover up that war was not started by Germany but by USSR. This is the hot issue in Russia now. Some people demand historical truth and other people tell them that look what collective quilt made to western societies. The patriots tell that Russia can not turn back it,s history but Russia can very well follow the same suicidal pattern as quilt ridden West.

  3. The 1983 made for tv film “Red Monarch” starring Colin Blakeley as Stalin and David Suchet as Beria covering the same period was amusng and disturbing in equal measure.

  4. I liked the film, and particularly admired how ‘The Death of Stalin’ slowly sank from what might be seen as light comedy to darkness.

    Was it accurate? Maybe mostly, but we go to watch movies for entertainment. Given that even documentaries have a slant or an objective, anything like this is going to have some sort of a point of view. As such, the maker’s or writer’s or actor’s PoV is there to be accepted or ignored.

    One pays one’s money and takes one’s choice.

  5. I only ask that historical films not be wildly ahistorical. I don’t watch many historical films as a result.

  6. I had an opportunity to interact with one of the Russians who was integral to the Soviet atomic bomb program. At one point he had made a disparaging remark about Lysenko who was a favorite of Stalin.

    Normally it would have resulted in a death sentence, but he was allowed to continue his work. His comment on it, “if it works I’ll be a dead man soon after, if it doesn’t I’ll be a dead man anyway.” He laughed when he told the story.

  7. Has Michael Palin ever played a character who wasn’t “nervous and indecisive”? I suspect that there might be a feedback loop between expectations and performance here, in which Palin tends to get hired to play nervous and indecisive characters so he interprets every character in that way because that’s what he assumes they want, which in turn means he is most likely to be cast as similar characters in the future.

    You should look out for this phenomenon in your new career in HR. You will encounter workers who are getting typecast in the same way as some actors do. Some will get pushed into very narrow specialisations because they have done one thing well once before so they keep getting given similar tasks over and over again. But that might be driving them into a career dead-end and wasting their real talents. Some will be seen as high-fliers because they did well on one project early in their careers and as a result got a position on a prestigious project that was likely to succeed no matter what they did, which in turn got them a role on another good project, and so on. Others will be seen as failures because they were once involved in a doomed project, which meant they subsequently could only get a position on less promising projects, and so on.

    TLDR: Never forget path dependence

  8. This was comrade Stalin one great fun. He appreciated and highly rewarded those few who dared to argue with him after millions of dead.Stalin highly respected personal courage.

    Stalin practice with his army commanders was to give medal for military success and Soviet Hero Gold Star for personal courage. One of the first recipients was Konstantin Rokossovsky who after prison and torture said to Stalin in his own office at the presence of all others that Stalin makes mistake.

    The others kicked Rokossovsky out and Stalin screamed that he must think better. After hour he was called back in and asked one more time. Rokossovsky repeated that he still thinks that Stalin is wrong.

    Hitler did not had such commanders and that because he lost the war. Now west doesn,t have ether. That is why homosexuality is important. When military commanders agree with this, they agreed already with many other wrong things and this is the reason, why those ass lickers keep losing. Agree with wrong equipment, wrong plans, save your career and lose the war.

  9. I watched it on a plane recently as well and thoroughly enjoyed it and would also recommend it.

  10. AndrewZ
    “You should look out for this phenomenon in your new career in HR. You will encounter workers who are getting typecast in the same way as some actors do. ”

    This is actually quite a well known thing, people change behavour when assigned to roles that ‘expect’ it. It takes a huge amount of work to get people to not behave the way they perceive they are expected to in a given role.

  11. Juri’s point about Stalin preparing for war with Germany has been known by me for a long while. Initially, Germany achieved astonishing success. Hitler struck at an army and a country prepared for an offensive, not defensive, war and the tactics, materiel and defences did not exist to effectively resist the invasion.

    More recently I acquired via the internet a copy of Vladimir Bogdanovitch Resun (under the pen name of Victor Suvorov) book Icebreaker. It is a long but extremely detailed analysis of the condition of the Soviet army and the events leading up to June 22nd 1941 and he backs it up with meticulously researched evidence. Had Mussolini not cocked up his Balkan campaign and Hitler invading the Balkans and Greece in support of Il Duce during the spring of 1941 but had used the time and resources to invade Russia, the war might well have taken a different turn. The scenario outlined in Len Deightons “Fatherland” might well have been close to reality.

    For those interested, a copy of Icebreaker can be downloaded here:

    https://web.archive.org/web/20160913134313/http://www.jrbooksonline.com/pdf_books/icebreaker.pdf

  12. “For those interested, a copy of Icebreaker can be downloaded here:”

    Thanks, looks like an interesting read.

  13. ” outlined in Len Deightons “Fatherland” ”

    Um. Fatherland was Robert Harris. Deighton’s novel on the same alternate history was SS-GB.
    Both excellent.

    “It is an offence under the German military code for which you can be shot. It is also an offence under your British law for which you can be hanged!”

    “Will I be hanged and then shot, or shot and then hanged?”

    “We must leave something for your English court to decide!”

  14. I also watched Death of Stalin over the weekend and was as impressed as Tim, for the same reasons.

    Reading Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar was an unusual experience for me. Many times, I found some character so loathsome that I just had to look him up in the index to confirm his fate. Should I feel shame at the pleasure of seeing (almost always) “executed”?

  15. @Tim the Coder – Oops! Thanks for the correction. It was indeed Harris that wrote Fatherland … I must be going senile in my old age!

  16. Stalin has just scribbled Phil’s name in red pencil onto tomorrows list, with an added note to say that they should make sure that his son sees him being taken away.

  17. Al Stewart was once bet he couldn’t write a funny song about Stalin.
    So he did: Joe the Georgian.
    As I understand it, the main refrain is the lament of one party in the Faustian pact between Stalin and the Devil. And it isn’t Stalin complaining.

    On similar vein, anyone read Turtledove’s Joe Steele ?
    Pretty much the same story as our history, with a twist.

  18. You should look out for this phenomenon in your new career in HR. You will encounter workers who are getting typecast in the same way as some actors do.

    That’s an interesting comment, thanks!

  19. They barely touch upon the depravity of Beria. I suspect they have to cut it back to fit into the context of a comedy. But let’s just say Svetlana got off easy because she was Stalin’s favorite child and thus off Beria’s potential victim list. Still did her no good with her lover in gulag.

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