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The Death of Stalin

Not late news, but a film review. The Death of Stalin opened recently across the UK. It is an excellent black comedy, 5 stars. The film opens with a musical performance for Radio Moscow, Stalin likes it, and asks for the recording. There is none, so, in true Soviet style, the recording is ‘faked’ by the terrified producer, who resorts to desperate measures. The backdrop to this is nightly NKVD raids, roaming through apartment blocks with the citizenry knowing what to expect, Beria adds his own touches to the minutiae of the raids. We see Stalin’s inner circle, all desperately keeping track of what they have said, and striving to please their master.

Then Stalin collapses, with a little sub-plot device thrown in. Beria is the first to find him, and gets his head start on the race for power. The others in the Praesidium arrive, and the plotting begins. Efforts to get a doctor for Stalin are complicated by the consequences of the Doctors’ Plot, with the NKVD rounding up whoever they can find instead. But it becomes clear that Stalin is in a terminal condition and he then dies.

It should be noted that the film is by the writers of The Thick of It, something, not having a TV, I have never seen, but it has the flavour of a much coarser version of an Ealing Comedy. Beria’s raping and torturing is a major theme, and anyone who sits through the first 15 minutes should by then be under no illusion about the nature of the Soviet Union and socialism. Another excellent aspect of the film is the use of various accents, Stalin is a cockney (perhaps he should have been Welsh, an outsider, emphasising his Georgian origins). Zhukov a bluff Lancastrian (or Northerner), Malenkov and Khrushchev have American accents.

Malenkov, who behaves more like a Principal at a minor East Coast University, seems blissfully unaware that his revolutionary colleagues are actually real murderers. He is nominally in charge of the country and the plotting begins. Beria wishes to start a liberalisation for his own reasons, Khrushchev is put in charge of transport and is lumbered with the funeral arrangements, much to his disgust. Stalin’s son, Vasili, appears on the scene, coming over as a spoilt lunatic. He plans to make a speech at his father’s funeral, which is reluctantly agreed to. Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, frets over her future. Khrushchev and Beria both promise to protect her. Molotov, played by Michael Palin, is still the Old Bolshevik, totally loyal to the Party, and still regarding his beloved wife as a traitor after Beria gets her released from prison. Eventually, he comes round to support the others against Beria, who has done a Robespierre and shown his hand against his rivals. An excellent Marshal Zhukov plays a decisive role in the final confrontation with Beria, after the competing plans for the funeral arrangements lead to an embarrassing massacre by the NKVD. At the final trial, numerous allegations of sexual abuse are made, a curious echo for our times.

It is hard not to laugh throughout the film, and yet the relentless nature of the evil of the Soviet State is laid bare for all to see, with torture and terror common. It is fairly accurate to what we know of those events, and whilst one might wonder why if the NKVD is so powerful Beria did not simply arrest everyone, it does not and need not show the full picture of the what checks there were on his power, such as the Peoples’ Control, and the Party/NKVD/Army balance. The film credits also acknowledge the tax shelter of the Belgian Federal government.

Every one who voted Democrat, Labour, Green or SNP should watch this film, for a bit of nostalgia and to dream of the future. Everyone who did not support any of them should watch it and be grateful that they are not in total control, for now.

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26 comments to The Death of Stalin

  • Molotov, played by Michael Palin, is still the Old Bolshevik, totally loyal to the Party, and still regarding his beloved wife as a traitor after Beria gets her released from prison.

    Interesting, because I recall Molotov protesting his wife’s imprisonment (although not too strongly, of course). And by the time Stalin died he’d been exiled to Siberia, put in charge of some hydroelectric project, or something. Had Stalin carried on much longer he’d probably have been killed.

    I got a lot of this from William Taubman’s masterly Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, which details how everyone underestimated him from the beginning, dismissing him as a bumbling peasant (a role he played up to suit, and survive Stalin) only to find he’d outflanked them all, got the support, and had Beria shot at point-blank range. People started taking him a little more seriously after that. It’s hard to read that book and come away without having some sort of a soft spot for Khrushchev, despite everything. Interestingly, his son became a US citizen.

  • I hope the film includes the comically newspeak-style events after Beria was killed. Guests in the Moscow Metropole hotel woke one morning to see that the picture of Stalin and colleagues in the hallway had what looked (very appropriately 🙂 ) like a ghostly exhalation where Beria had been hastily scrubbed out overnight. They went out into the streets and wondered who was that smiling man standing next to Stalin in the huge poster – and then realised a new head had been painted onto Beria’s neck. Walking on, they saw another poster and wondered who was the woman in the large hat standing next to Stalin, celebrating socialist achievements in the, uh, trans-Berian region. 🙂 The soviet large encyclopaedia in the library had a new article on the Bering Sea – exactly the same length as a now missing article that also began ‘Beri’ – and unlike the missing article it contained a number of true facts.

    The film sounds like a strange mix of the hilarious and the horrible (but then, reading sober communist history often comes across like that). If it doesn’t use the above, it definitely missed a trick.

  • Mr Ed

    Tim,

    In the film, Molotov loves his wife and is delighted to be reunited. He is perhaps playing the fool a bit out of caution about Beria. In the film, Molotov is closer to the action. Dramatic licence perhaps, but he is ‘on the list’.

    Niall,

    The film stops (not much of a SPOILER ALERT look away now!) after Beria is killed, with Khrushchev in power, and a hint of what is to come. It does not go so far as to talk about the stability of the cadre, the unwritten rule that there will be no more massacres of factions, Khrushchev’s innovation.

  • lucklucky

    Lenine before Stalin

    March 1922: “It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must)carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy. Precisely at this moment we must give battle to [the clergy] in the most decisive and merciless manner and crush its resistance with such brutality that it will not forget it for decades to come. The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and reactionary bourgeoisie we succeed in executing for this reason, the better.”

    https://www.amazon.com/Lenin-Secret-Archive-Annals-Communism/dp/0300076622/

  • bobby b

    Interesting that it appears that Russia may ban this film as being disrespectful.

    To the extent that the USA press pays any attention to this film, I’m guessing that they’ll draw parallels with the Trump administration, and completely ignore the communist aspects.

    Going to have to find this and watch. Looks hilarious, with a great cast.

  • In the film, Molotov loves his wife and is delighted to be reunited. He is perhaps playing the fool a bit out of caution about Beria.

    Sorry, I should have been more clear: Khrushchev was the master at playing the fool, not Molotov.

  • RRS

    Here on our bit of the North American continent the fat lady has sung, but we are faced with waiting for the skinny one to complete her rehearsals.

    Sexual predation has been “farmed out” much as was “tax farming” in the past.

  • RRS

    As to Russia:

    They are all dead now and the maggots their demises bred now rule.

  • jmcc

    Talking of excising Beria. The greatest film made at the behest of Stalin, The Fall of Berlin, has a bizarre lacuna at a key plot point. One moment the hero steel worker is talking to Stalin and heading inside a house the next moment the worker-hero is walking in a wheat field. Because the intervening scene was a lunch scene in which the Beria character takes a leading part. Once Beria was shot ever single print of the film had the Beria scene removed. None surviving.

    The Fall of Berlin is to Stalinism what Triumph of the Will was to Nazism. The finale scene, the arrival of Stalin in Berlin, is the single best encapsulation of the iconography of Totalitarianism in film I have seen anywhere. Saying that, like all Soviet films, The Fall of Berlin is a stolid heavy handed propaganda film with as much subtlety as a sledgehammer. Completely lacking the finesse of the German equivalents. Films like Kolberg are actually quite watchable.

  • Paul Marks

    “The Death of Stalin” is indeed a good film – and no it does not play the Trump-is-Stalin nonsense. The target is clearly the Marxists – their socialist system, the system that such people as Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the British Labour Party) and John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor) believe in.

    People need to see this film – and the film “Bitter Harvest” about the forced collectivisation of farming and the confiscation of food that deliberately starved millions of people to death.

  • […] a lighter note, here’s a review of The Death of Stalin from […]

  • Bruce

    Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore is worth a read.

    Stalinism as a mode of politics is coming back in style globally it seems. The accompanying slaughter and terror will be a little more refined, but at least as extensive this time, not that there is much consolation in that.

    The Russians will probably avoid the horror, knowing, as they do, EXACTLY what went on, but were too afraid (or complicit, or both) to do anything about it.

  • Derek Buxton

    It should then be featured on most BBC programmes in the very near future, they seem to have a week or three of communism on at present. The evil regime will never die whilst the BBC is alive and kicking.
    I think that instead, there should have been a Memorial to the White Russians that were sent off at gunpoint to be murdered in Russia. Not our finest hour!

  • Matthew McConnagay

    Pace Mr. Ed…

    …anyone who sits through the first 15 minutes should by then be under no illusion about the nature of the Soviet Union and socialism.

    […]

    Every one who voted Democrat, Labour, Green or SNP should watch this film, for a bit of nostalgia and to dream of the future.

    …and Paul Marks…

    “The Death of Stalin” is indeed a good film – and no it does not play the Trump-is-Stalin nonsense. The target is clearly the Marxists – their socialist system, the system that such people as Jeremy Corbyn (leader of the British Labour Party) and John McDonnell (Shadow Chancellor) believe in.

    …but while idly browsing wikipedia I discovered that one of the writers of the movie actually quite approves of Jeremy Corbyn.

    I’m not sure how he manages to square that circle, but it just goes to show that not everybody is going to be able to connect the dots between the Soviet Union and, say, Venezuela.

    Or perhaps I should say that not everybody would agree that there are dots connecting those two things.

    Still, I think it’s a great thing that there’s a movie out there clearly showing the horrors of socialism. (Between this and Bridge of Spies and Hail, Caesar!, is there something of a trend happening? Has a dam finally burst?) I look forward to seeing it.

  • Alisa

    ‘Connecting the dots’ means doing logic – socialists and ideologues in general don’t do logic.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa: “…ideologues don’t do logic.” Exactly-precisely!

    As far as I’m concerned, a philosophy is a system of understandings whose proponents are concerned to keep the thing both logically consistent and true to our observations of reality. Whereas an ideology is merely a clutch of beliefs or positions, and an ideologue is one who holds fast to some belief without bothering about logical consistency nor about contrary evidence.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Mr Ed, I am seeing this film tonight with my wife so I will weigh in later on. Thanks for the article; it encourages me to go.

  • Alisa

    Indeed, Julie.

    And thanks to Mr. Ed for the review, I will make sure to go see it.

  • Mr Ed

    JP/Alisa,

    I am as certain as I can be that you will enjoy it.

    Matthew,

    Socialists reject reason, or rather they end up contorting themselves and asserting things such as ‘economic and social polylogism’, the belief that class (or if pushed, class interest) determines thought. So bourgeois logic is to be deprecated as serving the interests of the bourgeoisie, and not being ‘true’ logic. Nowadays this has been adapted by feminists and the racial polylogists for their own ends. I believe that the main plan is to discredit reason itself, so people cannot or will not link socialism with starvation. A lot of socialist agitation is really a war against reason, perhaps most evident in practically any Western University.

    Another device that Marxists have is the ‘Trotsky Escape Valve’, whereby, confronted with the enormous piles of frozen corpses from the GULAG, and all the ‘Com-boasts’ and ‘Com-lies’ – as Lenin put it 😉 – the Marxists resort to the argument that it would have been different under Trotsky, whose exile and murder gives them (in their own twisted minds) a bit of wriggle-room when the evidence tightens its grip on their minds. If Trotsky had been in charge, it would have worked, been nicer etc. It is counter-factual crap, of course, but it cannot be refuted by example, excepting Trotsky’s many atrocities, but that was in the ‘necessary’ (to them) Revolution, Civil War and aftermath.

    As for Mr Corbyn, no one seems to have asked him if he is a Communist, or, if he is not a Communist, why he seems to resemble one so closely and to have enjoyed their company for so many decades, including a motorcycle holiday in the noted fun park of 1970s East Germany. However, despite this Mr Corbyn did, in 1988, support the following Early Day Motion in the House of Commons:

    “That this House of Commons, in the light of the special conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in one week’s time, and of the judicial rehabilitation of Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek and Pyatakov, demands that the Russian Government goes further and gives complete rehabilitation to Leon Trotsky, Leon Sedov the chief in defendants in the Moscow frame-up trials, and all those innocent people murdered by the Stalin regime.”

    Someone really should ask Mr Corbyn if he is, or would have been, a Zinoviev-Kamenev Deviationist. And if not, why not?

  • bobby b

    ” . . . one of the writers of the movie actually quite approves of Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not sure how he manages to square that circle . . .”

    Easy. The Soviets got it all wrong, which is why it all imploded, and Corbyn will get it right.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Okay, I saw the film with my wife yesterday evening and to start with, I concur 100 per cent with Mr Ed’s review. I particularly liked the casting; the use of different accents, including the American one for the guy playing Khruschev, was a stroke of genius.

    I saw the film in Victoria, central London, and most of the audience as far as I could see, apart from a couple of youngish Chinese-looking men (I wonder what they must have thought of this?) were middle-aged couples like ourselves. The film might appeal to “arty” types who are fed up with the usual diet of Marvel Comic knockoffs, and such folk tend, overall, to tilt liberal-left in their views. With that in mind I wonder if the underlying messages of the film, including the sheer evil of where socialism, at its fullest extent, leads, hit home? And I wonder how many in the cinema might have cast a vote for Labour at the latest election? Bear in mind that Seamus Milne, Corbyn’s main media advisor, has written somewhat in defence of Stalin; several others in and around the top levels of the party are communists or, pretty much the same.

    This is definitely a film to recommend. It is superbly acted, not over-long, and has its moments of comedy. Some of the incidents got the audience to laugh out loud, but the laughter had a catch to it – I could feel that there was horror mixed in. Rather like the Kubrick Cold War film, Dr Strangelove, in fact.

    There haven’t been all that many films in English that I know of that really say what happened in the Soviet Union and its empire, although there are a few series and films I can recommend, such as The Lives Of Others, which is set in East Germany during the 70s and early 80s, and is in German (with subtitles); Deutscheland 83, the TV series (German, with subtitles); Child 44, starring Tom Hardy (English). Burnt by The Sun, a Russian film, is recommended (dunno about subtitles).

    Compare and contrast this with films made in English about WW2, and other eras, where National Socialist Germany was the key theme. Part of this is due to the fact that because West Germany, as it was, became part of the Western alliance and under Western supervision, it was a lot easier to get at the truth of the horrors that happened there, and also because, because “Uncle Joe”, as Stalin was fatuously called by some in the West, was on the Allied side after 1941, his previous non-aggression pact and brutal behaviour in central/eastern Europe was forgiven. And never underestimate the continued malign influence of the Left in universities and media and the “no true Scotsman” fallacy that is constantly used to excuse or play down the disgusting the nature of totalitarian regimes generally.

    To repeat, this is an excellent film. That it got made in the first place is encouraging.

  • Paul Marks

    No I do not know how any socialist could square-the-circle and still support socialism having been involved in this film.

    Do they not even watch what they help make? After all the “good” socialist, Nikita Khrushechev, is also shown as a man with a long history of murder in the film – and that his coming to power is the replacement of one criminal by another (although much less bad) criminal, till he (Khrushechev) is in-turn overthrown by another criminal in 1964 (the very end of the film is very clear about this).

    Bernie Sanders style appeals to “democratic” socialism do not alter the fact that if the state is to decide such things as the price of bread, dictatorship is inevitable.

    And, yes, such things as the decline and fall of the Roman Republic (the redefining of the word “libertas” to mean free or cheap bread) and American “Food Stamps” do occur to me.

  • Matthew McConnagay

    ‘Trotsky Escape Valve’ – nice

  • Otto Kring

    Alas, people seem to have forgotten an hilarious play on ITV from the early 1980s called Red Monarch, starring Colin Blakeley as Stalin, David Suchet as Beria and Brian Glover as Nikita. It features a side splitting conference with Mao, who only says one word, which is repeated as an entire speech by the interpreter and Stalin’s death, where his corpse comes back to life and has to be killed by Khruschev.
    There everyone had wonky accents too, with Stalin as an Ulsterman. I have yet to see this new film and wonder how much it borrows from the very funny presecessor

  • Runcie Balspune

    I’m not sure how he manages to square that circle, but it just goes to show that not everybody is going to be able to connect the dots between the Soviet Union and, say, Venezuela.

    May I refer my learn’ed friend to the trope “but that wasn’t _proper_ socialism”.

    Ultimately, Venezuela will become “not _proper_ socialism”, but it still has a few hundred thousand body count to achieve that, Corbyn has yet to embark on his “not _proper_ socialism” journey, but he’ll get there in the end.

  • Runcie Balspune (November 6, 2017 at 11:28 am), a lot of them are on record. Venezuela was being praised by lefties here till a very few years ago. They were on the hook with Chavez until death did them part. They may now claim Madulro is an unworthy successor but IIRC they were slow off the mark with that.

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