Jim Denham reviews The Death of Stalin, released 20 October.
Stalinism, that murderous negation of Marx’s humanism and the emancipatory ideals of October 1917, seems to be making a minor comeback in British politics. It’s no secret that at least two of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers are dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists. Since most present-day Stalinists and would-be Stalinists are (in my experience) not particularly interested in either Marxist theory or serious history, perhaps farce is the best way to begin to educate them.
The Death of Stalin bills itself as “loosely based on a true story” and it’s certainly the case that director Armando Iannucci has taken plenty of liberties with the facts surrounding the death of the mass-murdering tyrant in March 1953: as historian Richard Overy has pointed out, Vyacheslav Molotov was not foreign minister when Stalin died; Marshal Zhukov did not command the Red Army at the time, having been exiled to the provinces; Khrushchev, not Malenkov chaired the meeting to re-organise the government; and Beria had ceased to be head of security in 1946.
But all this is really beside the point: the film is a caricature, and like all the best caricatures, it tells a fundamental truth: that the danse macabre of these apparatchiks as they jostled for position following the monster’s death was as grotesque, absurd and cynical as anything Iannucci has previously satirised in his depictions of contemporary bourgeois politics (The Thick of It, In the Loop and ‘Veep), but more deadly. And, of course, it is all a million miles from the ideals of the Bolshevik revolution that these gargoyles had strangled.
The scenes immediately following the apparent contain at least two real truths: that the apparatchiks dithered over whether to call a doctor for several interconnected reasons: fear of being seen as disloyal, the wish to see Stalin gone in order to succeed him, and secondly, the fact that many doctors had been murdered, imprisoned or ceased practicing as a result of the so-called Doctors’ Plot, an antisemitic campaign in which senior medics were accused, preposterously, of belonging to a “Zionist terror gang” (today’s leftist “anti-Zionists” take note).
Though the film is genuinely very funny, the laughs are frequently brought to a sudden end with the sounds of pistol-shots as prisoners are summarily dispatched, a body rolls down the stairs as a torture session is briefly revealed, and the sadist, mass murderer and rapist Lavrentiy Beria casually orders a soldier to “shoot her before him – but make sure he sees it.”
In fact, it is Russell Beale’s extraordinary performance as Beria that is, simultaneously, the film’s greatest strength and its central weakness: so satanically malevolent is he, that the other apparatchiks seem almost likeable – or, at least, pitiable. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) comes over as a nervous, failed stand-up comedian, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor ) is weak, vain and pathetic, while Molotov (Michael Palin) is simply a tragic, broken man, not least when Beria tricks him into denouncing his own wife, in her presence. So this is not definitive history, and makes no pretence of being so. But it tells a real truth: that Stalin and his courtiers were at least as venal and corrupt as the very worst bourgeois politician, and a thousand times more murderous.
They, and the regime they created out of the ruins of the October revolution, had nothing to do with socialism or communism – not, that is, if like Marx, you believe that communism must be “fully-developed naturalism [and] humanism.” It’s a tragedy that a new generation of would-be socialists (some not even born when the workers of Eastern Europe overthrew Stalinism in 1989-90) are going to have to learn this lesson from scratch.