The Death of Stalin — A comedy of (t)errors

All of us have been there… Browsing the streaming services, muddling through yet another array of mindless programming laid out in front of us neatly arranged like rows of corn, you like the general idea of corn, but not sure which one would be the right one to suit your mood. Anyway, I am determined to seek out the best of the streaming services, and today I wanted to introduce 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩 𝘰𝘧 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘯 available on Netflix. This satirical black comedic film’s title is a dead giveaway (pun intended), and yes there’s no mystery there, but what’s interesting about this film is, it gives us a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Russian communist party and the country as a whole operated under Stalin and what could’ve motivated their behavior and actions.

Churchill once said of Russia “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” It’s a very famous quote used by many in various contexts. This was uttered by Churchill in 1939 and it continued to be the view of the west into Russian enigma up until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The infamous “iron curtain” that divided Europe was not only metaphorical but real in the minds of western politicians and policymakers who interpreted every overture by the Soviets (benign or otherwise) as an act of war or at least espionage. The USSR and its member countries were shrouded in as much mystery as they were shielded from the vicissitudes of the rest of the world. When I watched the film 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘵𝘩 𝘰𝘧 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘪𝘯, more than what’s laid out on the screen what intrigued me were the questions “Why? How?” How does an entire nation behave like a police state, where everyone is suspect yet no one dares to question the status quo. Stalin ran the country not just like a prison camp but as a constant 𝗕𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗹𝗲 𝗥𝗼𝘆𝗮𝗹𝗲 where everyone is engaged in a game of one-upmanship where the ultimate prize is the good graces of Stalin with a bonus of being alive.

To understand the mindset of Stalin’s Soviet Union, we need to understand the ‘cult of personality’ (a term that was brought to prominence by Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor in a secret speech to the communist party). This is a phenomenon that is carefully cultivated using various techniques/strategies including propaganda, lies, media manipulation, organized demonstrations, jingoistic messaging, and a whole lot of other insidious stratagems. Stalin wasn’t the progenitor of this trend and won’t be the last to employ these tactics. Most recent examples include Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim family, and even Trump and Modi are criticized for nurturing a cult of personality. I am not passing any judgment on them yet and will wait for history to do that for me. What fascinates me about Stalin is that, how does someone who was responsible for millions of deaths indirectly with his policies and directly with his orders he sent hundreds if not thousands to Gulags (labor camps where prisoners are worked to death in the most unforgiving conditions) and death sentences in various purges enjoy the kind of popularity that he garnered and maintained even after his death? A single quote from Stalin captures his view on this: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”.

In one of the penultimate scenes in the film, when a woman imprisoned by Stalin is freed, she asks after Stalin and upon hearing that he is dead, she wails uncontrollably leaving you baffled (The film doesn’t tell us whether any of the similarly imprisoned citizens saw any reprieve). The preternatural support of Stalin was not only an idea but a reality observed in the general populace even if they are directly affected by some of his asinine policies. The party’s propaganda posters reflected these ideas of him as a wise father figure; the press referred to him as “Father of nations”. He is often seen with children in pictures and his photographs interacting with children appeared in schools, orphanages and children sang Stalin songs. The deification of Stalin was a replacement to religious symbols which were strictly controlled in the communist soviet union. His cult reached stratospheric levels when a new national anthem was created to celebrate him and countless towns were renamed to honor him. This blanketed approach created the myth of universal support for Stalin and his policies kept not just the politburo in check but the entire nation for the fear of dissent (even in opinion) would earn you a trip to Gulag, or worse a bullet in your head. The engulfing euphoria of this cult encouraged everyone to walk on eggshells around everyone else, not just their co-workers or neighbors but even their own family members. Countless fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, and wives were sent to Gulags tattled on by their own family when they expressed an opinion against the all-powerful, all-knowing leader. The Soviet state was turned into a virtual panopticon, where someone is always watching what you are saying or doing, so better not step out of line. If you think the cult of Stalin is a solipsistic pursuit of his ego alone, you might be wrong because the communist party’s propaganda apparatus used clever semiotics to construct Stalin as a symbol for not only the USSR but Bolshevik ideas, progress, values, and vision and it served it so well leaders in the west started to refer to Stalin as “Uncle Joe”. While he lived, he was the cynosure of all the eyes.

Leaders of Stalin’s ilk use a hidden moral framework that is buttressed by human beings’ soft spot for family to drive our political viewpoints. To prove this theory, many social psychologists include George Lakoff (UC Berkeley), Marti Gonzales (Univ. of Minn.) conducted multiple studies into political messaging and ads going back to multiple decades and found that the concept of addressing the nation as a family (you can see references to leaders who address the public as brothers, sisters, even children) and portraying themselves as a strict parent who showers love onto them while has no compunctions to whip out the belt when necessary. In multiple national surveys, conservatives leaned towards the metaphor of parenting as a model of leadership. This is understandable because parents who adhere to these conceptions of an ideal family (read nation) make these tough decisions because they firmly believe it’s for the good of the family and what they are doing is out of love. Of course, the real world is much more complex and nuanced, because parents can be both strict and empathetic depending on the situation, but when it comes to national issues, we tend to see things in black and white with no room to negotiate. Stalin and other leaders like him took full advantage of this strict parent metaphor and exercised their monstrous policies on the nation. This kind of police state approach obviously requires a retinue of ruthless power brokers and blind followers and such people were drawn to the ambit of the leader.

Apart from future leaders like Khruschev, Stalin’s citadel of power included characters like Lavrentiy Beria who served as Stalin’s whip, as it were. He is one of the most sadistic psychopaths in history, who personally raped and killed hundreds of children, women and sent countless men and women to Gulags and firing squads. As the chief of NKVD (the secret police), he was directly responsible for one of the horrifying mass executions during WWII in the Katyn forest when 22,000 polish officer corps were murdered (Ironically the Nazis investigated this after they occupied Poland and shed light on this massacre, go figure). Apart from Beria’s overtly violent tactics, others in the politburo either encouraged Stalin’s policies or concealed their opinions for fear of retribution (to wit: Polina Molotova, wife of Vyacheslav Molotov was confined at Stalin’s orders while Molotov was still part of Stalin’s inner circle). For Beria and his NKVD, the populace can be categorized as those who toe the party line and the rest are flotsam and jetsam to be sorted out. The problem was anyone can fall out of favor at any time and join the rest of expendables, as new “lists” are handed out by the leader every day. People used to dread the 3 AM (a favored time for the secret police raids) knock on the door, whose very din carried with it a promise of a one-way trip to the Gulag or worse.

Going back to the film, the film opens with Stalin listening to a radio concert and orders the recording of it delivered to him, and the director of the radio station realizes to his horror that the concert wasn’t recorded. What follows is a mad scramble where the station director tries to repeat the concert performance by bringing the orchestra back, rousing a conductor with the dreaded knock on the door, and arranging an ersatz audience to record it. Whilst the order to bring back the recording traverses from security guards to the military police to the radio station and so on, we can see the palpable fear permeating throughout the chain of command because an act of disappointing the leader is met with deadly consequences, and lest a mere utterance of a statement of dissent that is overheard. The untoward pianist of the concert Maria Yudina hides a scathing note to Stalin in the sleeve of the record. As Stalin receives the recording and reads the note that says he ruined the country and wished he would drop dead, he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and falls down paralyzed. What follows this can only be termed as a comedy of (t)errors only if the entire proceedings aren’t laced with ambiguity and fright. At one point someone says, “should we call a doctor?” And another answers “but we put all the best doctors in the Gulag”.

They say in communism everyone is equal but as George Orwell noted “some are more equal than the others”. In the film, we can see one of Stalin’s kibitzing sessions with his power circle where the pugnacious bunch is quick to please the leader while trying to sabotage each other all the while wearing sardonic yet attentive expressions. At one point, the garrulous conversation turns serious when someone says something about a certain Polnikov (who was assassinated and erased from existence), the room grows quiet and chill until the corpulent Beria leans over Malenkov menacingly to issue a warning to side-step the crisis. This moment is an example of how the malefactors don’t just enjoy impunity but the truth is amorphous is shaped by the say-so of these people in the room. The moment it’s confirmed that Stalin is dead, the entire dacha is raided by the NKVD to clear the papers, pack away the objet d’art, and every staff member is shot including the doctors who attended him and we see someone even packing away the remnants of tomatoes in the kitchen. The cleaning crew is shot by another set of soldiers and it gives us an insight into the brutal efficiency and heartlessness of the NKVD.

The film follows the venal politburo and its wanton power plays, backstabbing, impromptu teams of conveyance, while everyone tries to cement their position in their party and fill the void left by Stalin. While in real life, the events played out over a period of 6 months, it all happens in the film at lightning-fast speed, but it’s to be expected from a film. The film not only captures the coldness of the governing bodies of that era but also the aloofness and the general apathy of people who are inured to the machinations of the party. The impetuous betrayals of the inner circle and a coup d’état culminates in a kangaroo court that orders the immediate execution of Beria. The poetic justice will sure to be met with aplomb by the viewers. Our schadenfreude at the fate of Beria is short-lived because we know that the “rule by induction of violence” didn’t start with him in USSR nor it ever stopped, Beria’s counterpart Mielke of the East German Stasi and others continued his tactics up until the bitter-sweet ending of fall of Berlin Wall in 1989.

We do get brief glimpses into the lives of Stalin’s children but like many others, they were lost to history. I don’t want to give away the entire story, even if you know the history, I am sure you haven’t seen it through the eyes of Armando Iannucci’s writing team, so I will let you enjoy that.

Though the film is based on real history, it blends some fictional elements to convey the message… think of it as hyper-reality where a guard at Stalin’s door is a symbol for the military and the radio station director stands for the apparatchik (a communist party functionary). The film, as I said, is written by Armando Iannucci aided by David Schneider and Ian Martin. They based their screenplay on a French graphic novel and like many other Iannucci’s political satires this film is carried by its dialogue and writing. Armando Iannucci has a knack for turning political commentary into satire and black comedy(eg: 𝘐𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘓𝘰𝘰𝘱, 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘤𝘬 𝘰𝘧 𝘐𝘵, 𝘝𝘦𝘦𝘱) where you are able to understand how politics and bureaucracy stifle nations if not sympathize with the perpetrators. The film boasts an excellent cast including Steve Buscemi (in a role that’s tailor-made for him as Khruschev, his inexhaustible nervous energy flowing through the character), Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, and Olga Kurylenko (yes, the “Bond Girl” from 𝘘𝘶𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘶𝘮 𝘰𝘧 𝘚𝘰𝘭𝘢𝘤𝘦). The story is mostly set in Moscow and its surroundings during one of Russia’s perpetual winters (March-September 1953) and the color and tone of the film reflect the grim nature of the state of affairs. While we see many colorful historical characters including Georgy Zhukov, Vasily Stalin (Stalin’s son), we are enraptured by Khruschev, Beria, Malenkov, and others in the politburo for they hold the future of the USSR in their hands. The power struggle in the aftermath of Stalin put Khrushchev in the office of the premier, and while his domestic policies were less repressive than the Stalin era, his national defense policies only exacerbated the rift between the USSR and the west. We can see in the film, Khrushchev being visibly disgusted with violence and Stalin and Beria’s fear-mongering, yet he couldn’t change anything while he was in charge. For all his talk of “Destalinization”, Nikita Khruschev’s and his successors’ reign wasn’t an anodyne to the previous era and didn’t improve anything until Gorbachev took the reins of the dissipated nation and the party. The recent rise of popularity for Stalin throughout Russia and former Soviet nations such as Georgia tells us that while the atrocities of Stalin’s era is alchemized into memory, Stalin himself is still regarded as a great “leader”, this can be said of another benefactor of the cult of personality, Mao Zedong.

The film is an amazing piece of historical fiction that needs to be perused if not for history at least for its black humor. This film has prompted many discussions on the Internet, Twitter, and on general responses to critics that only implores its importance as a film to be reckoned with. The film faced the same criticisms as 𝘑𝘰𝘫𝘰 𝘙𝘢𝘣𝘣𝘪𝘵 where Hitler is played for laughs. I think Stalin is as much responsible for many deaths as Hitler but some critics have suggested that using humor to trivialize the death of such a despot is an insult to the millions who died because of him. While I enjoyed the comedic writing throughout the film, I don’t think it trivializes, but if anything, draws our attention to the farcical yet deadly environment that Stalin created and the dregs of which live on to this day in Russia albeit brief abeyance of such tactics after the end of the cold war. I will say that this film engages in gallows humor to succor those who say ‘what’s so funny about Stalin?’ Nothing, but if I had to survive in such State, I would’ve surely resorted to some rueful humor now and then at least to protect my sanity.

Written On Sep 20, 2020

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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