Allow me to raise a tumbler of vodka to Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, recently released here in the US about six months following its UK release. It completed filming in August 2016 (shooting locations included Kyiv, Ukraine; London; and Oxford), several months before the US elections, so it can’t be said to be a comment on the contemporary American political scene. Where it is relevant, however, is that the film satirizes what happens when a charismatic, nationalistic leader dies or falls, leading to a power vacuum in which various toadies, sycophants, and hangers-on jostle for position and power. We have no shortage these days of such leaders, both in Europe and at home, and the film fires a warning shot across the bow: there’s always the possibility that the disappearance of such leaders will lead to further suffering and oppression.
Among the most significant toadies in The Death of Stalin is the Soviet Union’s Central Committee. Its members include Nikolai (Nicky) Khrushchev, played with a shaved head, ill-fitting suits, and unreconstructed Brooklyn accent by Steve Buscemi. It’s been no secret among the Committee members that Stalin’s bloody, vicious reign has turned the entire country into a prison camp, torture chambers and all (many of them run by Laventri Beria, chief of Stalin’s secret police — a paunchy, phlegmatic Simon Russell Beale); the question is what comes next. Khrushchev and Beria emerge as the chief competitors for the leadership of the country. In a violent dictatorship, there’s no question that whoever wins, the loser will have no future.
Despite the lip service paid to ideology, the power struggle takes place in the arena of Realpolitik. The only true believer on the Central Committee, Vyacheslav Molotov (depicted as a genial idiot by Michael Palin), believes whatever Stalin and Das Kapital tell him regardless of the evidence of his own eyes, even to the details of his personal and private life, and as a result he’s easily manipulated by both Khrushchev and Beria. (The historical Molotov would continue to believe in the rightness of Stalin’s cause until his death in 1986; he is one of the few characters of the film to have died of old age.) As each character becomes consumed by his own lust for power and fear of death (a lust and fear intimately related), common sense and skepticism fall to the only women characters in the film, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), Khrushchev’s wife Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel), and the concert pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), whose family was eliminated by Stalin and who may or may not have sparked the cerebral hemorrhage that kills the supreme leader; she opens and closes the film with performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a touch of civilization in a barbaric world.
The film is not, strictly speaking, historically accurate all the way down the line. It’s not a documentary; it’s a fantasia and political meditation based on history, not unlike Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon. But any comparison with Stone’s work must end there; this is politics as bloody farce, not conspiratorial tragedy. Indeed, its true precursor is the 1980s BBC comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister; these also dealt with schemers in the corridors of power whose actions belied their rhetoric, and The Death of Stalin‘s director, Armando Iannucci, has paid due respect to these brilliant series. But the Yes Minister series was set in a Western liberal democracy, not a nationalist authoritarian state; the stakes, for its characters, were not life-and-death but ego-and-livelihood. Back in those days, Western liberal democracy seemed secure, not on the road to the grave. Let’s hope that The Death of Stalin remains a farce about an ugly past, and not a prediction about an ugly future.
The trailer for the film is below. The Death of Stalin is now playing, as they say, at a theater near you (though not, significantly, in Russia).