Film: The Death of Stalin

It’s bad history and bad art, but Armando Iannucci’s film has put the wind up bourgeois critics for quite other reasons than those.

Last year’s release of the film The Death of Stalin, directed by British comedian and satirist Armando Iannucci, was accompanied by accolades and tributes by some in the bourgeois media who praised it for having bravely taking a pop at the eternal bogeyman, and with it the very notion of dictatorship itself.

However, the film also received criticism from many reviewers who felt that the lampooning of such a sombre subject – connected as it is with Stalin’s ‘great terror’ – was in bad taste and belittled that ‘terrible time’ for cheap laughs.

The film itself, a pastiche of anti-Soviet mythology seemingly borrowed from the works of Robert Conquest, does not actually offer many laughs – whether cheap or otherwise. Given Iannucci’s writing on well-loved TV comedies such as Alan Partridge, The Day Today, and The Thick of It, this does seem out of character.

The reason appears to be that the script, while co-written by Iannucci, is based on the French graphic novel La Mort De Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and so the source material for the film was already limited to the interpretation of events set out in this comic strip.

In interview, Nury responded to Iannucci’s claims that the events depicted in the film “all really happened” saying: “I don’t know what really happened, I wasn’t there. But I can tell you that from all accounts, from every testimony that I’ve read, I didn’t invent anything. I could never invent something that insane.” (The Death of Stalin graphic novel inspires film, makes Russia nervous by Alex Dueben, CBR, 2 October 2017)

Earlier in the interview Nury had explained that his source material came from the books he inherited from his grandfather, amongst which were several focusing on Stalin’s last days and on the aftermath of his death.

Given the volume of work produced by bourgeois historians since the 1950s on Stalin and the USSR, it’s highly probable that Nury’s sources would be both revisionist and anti-Soviet.

And so, while we know Iannucci for the wry and well-observed political satire of The Thick of It and its US counterpart Veep, this film does not present anything like that previous level of intelligence or humour.

Nury may not have fabricated anything himself, but it is evident that the sources he used for his research contain plenty of material fabricated by others.

It is no surprise that a film produced by British and French companies and timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, should have slandered the revolutionary history of the Bolshevik party and its accomplishments. And the Russophobic sentiment currently being promoted in imperialist countries would guarantee the film an audience, and provide another platform from which to repeat Russian caricatures to the population.

What is much more interesting than the film itself, however, is the reactions it drew from bourgeois critics.

Some of these insisted that the film was a hilarious masterpiece of black comedy – perhaps persuaded by the all-star cast and the pedigree of the writer – but others, such as Peter Hitchens and Matthew Norman, took issue with many aspects of the film and of its presentation of people and events.

Matthew Norman’s criticisms in the Evening Standard, like most, were along the lines that Stalin’s crimes were just too terrible to be treated comically.

He pointed out that, while the figure of Stalin means different things to different people (admitting that in Georgia he is still regarded as a national hero), “one thing Stalin has never been, until now, is a slightly fey, senescent, Kray-style hood. This is how director and co-writer Iannucci presents him in The Death of Stalin. ‘You wanna know what f***ing broken is?’ he menaces quivering associates in his ‘Beffnal Green’ brogue. ‘You wanna go there?’”

Airing his dislike of the use of British and American regional accents as a character-establishing device, he continued: “That jars, and so at times does the script. In The Thick of It, Iannucci melded laser-like observational precision with sharp, sparse dialogue to illuminate the grubby smallness of the supposedly mighty. Here, he uses a blunt instrument to batter the point home rather than the surgeon’s scalpel to carve it out.” (The Death of Stalin review: Carry on Kremlin, 20 October 2017)

Peter Hitchens, a bourgeois journalist with a knack for winding up liberals, wrote extensively on the reasons he felt the film to be in poor taste, but these were – again – centred around the notion that Stalin’s crimes were at least equivalent to those of Hitler, and that treating the subject in such a trivial way was tantamount to trivialising the deaths of Stalin’s many victims. He also proclaimed that he, “as a Trotskyist … grasped long before most people that Stalin was a grotesque mass murderer”.

Hitchens went on to describe how plainly unfunny the film was: “The film got a few laughs (an annoying woman with an especially loud cackle began by laughing at absolutely everything, but eventually fell into line … and laughed as seldom as anyone else). I wish now I’d made a note of what they did laugh at, and how often. But it wasn’t very much, and I would judge that the f-word (the failed comedian’s standby when all else has failed) was the thing that got most of the laughter.” (Why I still refuse to praise the film The Death of Stalin, 23 October 2017)

Historian Richard Overy, writing in the Guardian, took the opportunity to point out some of the film’s many historical inaccuracies – such as the fact that Molotov was not foreign minister when Stalin died, Marshal Zhukov was not head of the Red Army, and Beria was not head of the NKVD – before falling into line with the other critics, wailing that to ‘ham up’ the death of such a tyrant is simply not acceptable. (Carry on up the Kremlin: how The Death of Stalin plays Russian roulette with the truth, 18 October 2018)

Samuel Goff, writing for the rather more obscure Calvert Journal on a subject that he evidently considers himself something of an expert, wrote that the film ‘misses the mark’ simply because of its sloppy research and unfamiliarity with the Soviet politics, remarking: “First of all, there is the irony that this liberal critique of the historical falsification associated with Stalinism – the end credits play out over a montage of blacked-out photos – leans heavily on a raft of historical inaccuracies.

“At the time of Stalin’s death, Molotov had long been sacked and Zhukov demoted to the provinces; Beria’s eventual downfall, which the film squeezes into a few days, actually took several months and was prompted in part by events in East Germany (as always with Iannucci, the concern is with several shouty men in a room, rather than any wider context).

“More worryingly, the deaths of about 1,500 people in crushes around Stalin’s funeral are casually attributed to trigger-happy NKVD officers in order to make a point about the rivalry between Beria and Khrushchev, an unnecessary, even callous addendum.”

And while Goff was more careful than other critics to present his argument as one against ‘Stalinism’ itself (obviously in his opinion a perverse and violent deviation from Marxism), he was at least gracious enough to draw attention to the unfettered ignorance of the director when it came to the film’s establishing scenes.

“Why make a cheap gag about gormless peasants forced to sit through a recording of a Mozart concerto when the Soviet Union of the 1950s was perhaps the most culturally egalitarian state in the world?” (The Death of Stalin: a black comic masterpiece? Don’t make me laugh, 23 October 2017)

The answer is, of course, that such prejudices, totally adrift from historical reality, are accepted by ‘well-educated’ Britons without question. All clever people know that any material showing the Soviet Union in a positive light can simply be dismissed as ‘Stalinist propaganda’.

This particular example – where, at the opening of the film, a group of nonplussed Moscow proletarians and peasants are ushered into a concert hall in order to provide the applause for an orchestra recital that is being repeated so that Stalin can be provided with the recording of the concert he has requested – is an apt representation of the film’s sloppiness in general.

But why, when so many critics seem to agree that the film itself isn’t very good, have they got so wound up about it?

As strange as it may seem, a film that seeks to poke fun at the USSR at a momentous point in the history not just of that country but of the whole world – and that reduces to knockabout pantomime clowns historical figures who have been carefully built up into monstrous caricatures by persistent bourgeois historical falsification, is – in the eyes of these critics and the class interests they represent – playing a very dangerous game indeed.

What if people start poking holes in the narrative expressed in the film? If Iannucci insists that everything that happens in the film did indeed happen in real life, and people dig further, will they find that many of the events and conversations depicted are based on the flimsiest evidence (or no evidence at all)?

Claims, rumour, and anecdotal remarks uttered years after the period in question (and in a drastically different political climate, where loyalty to the cause of Marxism Leninism and the memory of Comrade Stalin would have been a huge hindrance to gaining any position of influence within the Soviet government), along with the spurious writings of Soviet dissidents encouraged by the CIA to inflate and embellish their charges against the Soviet state – mixed in with the bulky body of western-produced anti-communist literature – all flow through the veins of bourgeois culture like a low-level electrical current, quietly buzzing away but never turned off at the mains.

It seems, then, that the differences of opinion as to whether the film is good or bad, smart or sloppy, or even why the film is bad, reveal the differences between critics such as Tim Robey – who, writing for the Telegraph, found that he had nothing to complain about and that the depiction of Soviet society differed little from his own imagined ‘truth’ about the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) under Stalin – and those who believe that the standard anti-Stalin propaganda shouldn’t be tampered with. (The Death of Stalin review: Armando Iannucci makes a delicious mockery of Russian history, 19 October 2017)

A further aspect of bourgeois reaction became apparent shortly after the film was banned in the Russian Federation, best encapsulated in an article by David Aaronovitch.

As someone who always seems to be in a perpetual snotty rebellion against the memory of his old Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) supporting parents, Aaronovitch had very high praise for the film, pointing out that “the awful truth about Stalin shown in the movie is essentially the one revealed by Khrushchev in his famous de-Stalinisation speech to the Communist Party congress in 1956.”

Indeed, the historical inaccuracies in the film echo the lies with which Khrushchev filled his famous speech – which, for anticommunists like Aaronovitch, provides the moral foundation of their political worldview.

Anyone familiar with the research carried out by US academic Grover Furr will be aware of how the many assertions about Stalin contained in Khrushchev’s 1956 ‘secret speech’ fail to stand up to scrutiny. (Khrushchev lied : the evidence that every ‘revelation’ of Stalin’s (and Beria’s) ‘crimes’ in Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous ‘secret speech’ to the 20th party congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956, is provably false, 2011)

And research by Russian scholars since the dissolution of the USSR reveals some of the complexities involved in dealing with counter-revolutionary activity during the 1930s and 1940s, demonstrating a reality far more complicated and dangerous for the Soviet people and their leadership than any bourgeois hack could bear to admit.

For Aaronovitch, however, the fact that Russia’s ministry for culture withdrew the distribution licence for the film is another chance to characterise its government as a gang of authoritarian bullies only concerned with restricting free speech, lest a satirical film undermine the ‘iron grip’ of Putin’s ‘regime’.

Referencing recent Russian TV dramas about Sofya, the wife of 15th-century ruler Ivan III, and Catherine, wife of Tsar Peter III (in order to show us how all Russian narratives revolve around characters under attack from nefarious foreign forces), he asked:

“Why was Stalin so careful? Why are Russia’s censors so careful now? Because in their minds, powerful traitors and foreign enemies surrounded him and surround them now. One big dissident breath and the whole fragile edifice might come crashing down.” (Tyrannies can’t stand being laughed at, The Times, 25 January 2018)

It can’t have escaped Aaronovitch’s attention that the USSR no longer exists, although the idea that its collapse was as a result of “one big dissident breath” is simplistic to say the least.

With vast hordes of Soviet wealth looted by Yeltsin-era oligarchs (and squirrelled away in the west), ever-increasing sanctions and Nato encirclement, all supplemented by manufactured and hysterical Russophobic sentiment in the west, it is difficult to see how the current administration in Russia could fail to appreciate the threats posed by the “powerful traitors and foreign enemies” surrounding the country.

Aaronovitch complains: “Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 … Russian nationalism has become far more strident. And a principal beneficiary of this is the memory of Stalin. Last summer one poll asked respondents to name the greatest person in the world of all time. The poet Pushkin was third, Vladimir Putin was second and Stalin was top.”

The uncomfortable truth here, as far as Aaronovitch and his ilk are concerned, is that the attitudes towards Stalin and his role in Russian history, while they may vary in their level of approval or criticism, are far from those the imperialist intelligentsia would wish the Russian population to hold.

During marches in Russia marking the centenary of the October Revolution, Stalin placards were as ubiquitous as placards of Lenin. And when the annual Victory Day celebrations are held on 9 May to commemorate the end of the Great Patriotic War, huge images of Stalin are regularly seen emblazoned on the side of buses.

Local organisations, with the support of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), have erected humble but symbolic busts of Stalin on plinths, paying tribute to a leader whose legacy the Khrushchevites began attempting to destroy in the 1950s.

However complicated the views of Russia’s workers may be towards Stalin today, and however unfathomable they may be to the bourgeois journalists of western media, it is evident that many of those who belong to the generations that remember the war and its aftermath hold Stalin in high regard.

The younger generations, for whom the painful processes of decay wrought by revisionist policy impact more heavily on their views, are increasingly motivated to re-evaluate the figure of Stalin themselves, and this with the added experience of having also lived through the decades since capitalist restoration.

The Russian leadership quite rightly see it as their responsibility to make a decision as to whether a comedy film made and financed by the imperialist enemies of the former Soviet Union and of the present Russian state is suitable for public consumption. And even if their criteria were limited to whether the film was funny enough to warrant a license, we imagine this offering would not have made the grade.

Far from the ‘fragile edifice’ of Stalin’s legacy having crashed down at the huffing and puffing of the dissidents lionised by Aaronovitch and co, respect and admiration for Stalin and the Soviet Union remains a reality not just in Russia but over much of the territory of the former USSR.

This is the reality that neither those who loved The Death of Stalin nor those who were offended by it can face up to.