The Death of Stalin: first as tragedy, then as farce

Estelle Cooch reviews Armando Iannucci’s latest film, The Death of Stalin

Human beings get drunk and shit, and when they die, they lose control of their bowels and piss themselves. It will happen to the best – and the worst – of us.

And yet, in reminding us of this seemingly obvious fact, Armando Iannucci does what previous, more “serious”, films have not – he humanises Stalin and the sycophants around him, all the while laying bare their corruption, greed – and ineptitude.

The Death of Stalin tracks the period leading up to and immediately following Stalin’s death. The average school textbook will tell you that Stalin died in March 1953 and the next leader of the USSR was Nikita Khrushchev, who was leader by the time Hungary rebelled in 1956. Yet, during these three years Soviet leaders were forced to grapple with the social and economic impacts of Stalinism and were immersed in a power struggle between Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov and (until his execution) Lavrentiy Beria.

There are numerous historical inaccuracies in the film, usefully outlined by historian Richard Overy in the Guardian.

A key one for me was the impression that the film gives that Beria was murdered within days of Stalin’s death. In reality Beria was murdered in December 1953- eight months after Stalin’s death. During this time he made extensive changes to the MVD – (Ministry of Internal Affairs, also incorrectly implied to be the NKVD – an old name –  in the film). Beria reformed the MVD partly to calm the fears of his rivals who assumed that he would use the MVD against them – as Stalin had. These reforms also came, however, as result of brave uprisings in the gulags themselves – the most famous at Kolyma and Vorkuta. Beria also recognised a nationalist resurgence in the USSR and in June 1953 introduced a measure requiring all party officials to speak the language of the republic they worked in.

The absence of any sense of resistance to the regime is perhaps the most disappointing omission. The film alludes to the stampede that asphyxiated hundreds of people queuing to see Stalin’s body. But this only serves to shore up the Stalinist narrative that those in the USSR blindly adored him and were devastated at his death.

Within months of Stalin’s death over a million East Germans were taking part in strikes and protests against the catastrophic economic situation. These protests sparked Bertolt Brecht to write his poem “The Solution” with the famous closing lines “Would it not be easier, In that case for the government, To dissolve the people, And elect another?”

There is a sense in The Death of Stalin that Beria’s desire to reform the MVD or Khrushchev’s calls for a shift away from personal rule and towards a duumvirate rule with Malenkov came from the goodness of their hearts. While Beria’s reforms were welcomed, he was known to have been the key figure behind the industrialisation of the gulag system in the 1940s. By 1953 Soviet rulers knew that long term competition with the west could not simply rely on terror – leading ultimately to the contradictions of destalinisation.

The extent to which these oversights take away from the film is up to the viewer to decide. Needless to say, the film is witty and the acting brilliant. Iannucci’s decision to allow the actors to choose their character’s accent, rather than encouraging faux Russian ones was an excellent call. Actor Jason Isaac’s decision to give Marshall Zhukov a thick Yorkshire accent is hilarious. As Isaacs notes in a recent interview: “Zhukov was the only person who was able to speak bluntly to Stalin…So, I thought, well, who are the bluntest people I’ve ever met in my life? They’re all from Yorkshire. The accent is shorthand for: no fucking around, I’m going to tell you what’s what.”

One of my favourite parts of the film was when Khrushchev – or “Nicky” as he is referred to throughout – is given the task of organising Stalin’s funeral. Within minutes he swings from debates over executions to indifference over whether the red curtains at the funeral should be ruched or not ruched.

These intricacies reminded me of the moment in Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the Ku Klux Klan assemble for a lynching, only to discover that the man in charge of cutting eye holes in their white masks, has cut the eye holes too high. Both The Death of Stalin and Tarantino’s Django Unchained highlight what Hannah Arendt called in her seminal book on Nazi Adolf Eichmann, “the banality of evil”. Banality, in this sense, is not to say that Beria or Khrushchev’s actions were banal – but rather that their actions were those of unthinking and unexceptional individuals. This is an important ballast to the lazy histories which simply resort to defining historical figures as “psychopathic”, rather than attempting to understanding the context that allowed for such individuals to rule.

This level of detail is a necessary counterweight to Stalinist conceptions of history. Ultimately, whatever their power, status or wealth, it is ordinary people who act upon and change the world – albeit not in circumstances which they choose.

The achievement of The Death of Stalin is to normalise men who did the abnormal. In doing so it serves the useful task of reminding us, that while those who rule us may seem worlds away from the lives we lead, they too will piss themselves when they die. Our task – is to make them piss themselves sooner.


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