The Death of Stalin



Armando Iannucci’s incredibly droll “The Death of Stalin” is a wry but realistic take on the final demise of one of history’s great mass murderers. Despite many on the Left excusing his crimes and madness in the name of establishing the first Marxist state, he was an ideologue who would stop at nothing to protect his position of power. He murdered or imprisoned his opponents. He starved millions in his crusade against the so called Rich Kulaks (peasants with stock and land), in the name of Collectivism. He purged the Intellectuals and early Bolsheviks including Trotsky. He purged the Army. He literally left the Soviet Union without military leadership in the face of Hitler’s Invasion, “Operation Barbarossa.” After winning the war with the financial support of the West and the sacrifice of millions of Russians, he then proceeded to initiate the so called “Doctors’ Plot” (mostly Jewish Russians) and set out to eliminate the Medical community.

“The Death of Stalin” story begins in 1953, in the aftermath of WWII. Iannucci’s Stalin is a short ugly narcissist with a crude sense of humour, barely covering an unlimited capacity for violence. His henchmen and fellow travellers are terrified of what he can do to them, even after great victory, and he has enabled his NKVD executioner Lavrentiy Beria to continue his ugly work in the name of preserving the Union. The McGuffin of the movie is a note sent to him in a concert recording case where a pianist accuses Stalin of the crime of murdering her family. He has a massive stroke as a result. Of course, even in death his personality looms over such stalwarts as Molotov (his poodle), Georgy Malenkov, portrayed as weak and querulous, Khrushchev, wily and political, and Beria, mad, devious and sadistic. They are terrified of the comatose Stalin. They are terrified of each other. They must make a decision in the event of his death. They must find a doctor to treat him. But as they intone, he has had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and there is no hope. And so he dies. The Deputy Leader, Malenkov, frightened and weak has not the guts or ego to assume the role of Supreme Leader and so the fun begins. Should there be reform? How do you deal with Beria who is conniving and competing for the leadership? What does a consummate politician like Nikita Khrushchev do to control Stalin’s son Vasily and daughter Svetlana? He calls in Georgy Zhukov, the Great Military Leader of the USSR Army (though his claim to have organised the tank battle of Kursk has its critics) to help him to deal with Vasily, drunk and disorderly played by Rupert Friend and Svetlana, insecure and imperious. Most of all, what to do with Beria played to the hilt by Simon Russell Beale. Zhukov, portrayed brilliantly by Jason Isaacs in a most convincing and amusing way, cuts the Gordian Knot. Zhukov is not a bright light, but he is tough as nails and knows his worth. His medals gleam and his uber masculinity dazzles. If he wasn’t so scary you would want to hug him.

Beria is eliminated, hoist literally by his own petard, the children are despatched. Khrushchev, brilliantly played by Steve Buscemi, becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. This is history in a nutshell with an almost satisfying conclusion.

Kaaren Hale



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