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23 October 2017

Russia’s reaction to The Death of Stalin shows its changing attitudes towards him

The country is becoming increasingly positive about the memory of its brutal dictator.

By Aliide Naylor

The Soviet era and Russians are usually portrayed in the west through generic and alienating clichés. With their fur hats and large coats, thick accents, and a strong penchant for vodka, atrocities committed behind the Iron Curtain can dissolve into disconnected fiction.

Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin steers clear of lazy ridicule and effectively conveys the fact that the Soviet leaders were people as opposed to stereotypes, while simultaneously being far less hilariously nerve-shredding than The Thick of It – showing the “banality of evil” to great effect.

The initial, most striking aspect of the film, is the absence of silly accents. On top of that, characters make occasional attempts at addressing one another by their first name and patronymics – as opposed to their last names.

The tiny clot of people arguing like a family, who constituted the small epicentre that was the central committee, helps to illustrate the importance of connections and informal friendships – and that, combined with one quiet subplot of family betrayal – show how localised mass grief can be.

Human life is disposable. Lists are made, people are shot, and others are saved by sheer chance. It isn’t shocking; it’s just reality.

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However, it doesn’t sufficiently address the pain of living. Fear of authority falls flat – its chaotic psychological pervasiveness remains surface-level and a practical inconvenience at best as opposed to the daily dread dictatorships can impose.

The eponymous hero, Joseph Stalin, has minimal dialogue. Panic generated by his aloof – yet clearly enraged – silence makes him a foil of the characters who have lines, and who impose their own interpretations on his silence, exacerbating its effects.

He attains a god-like status – yet has the counterpoint of derision towards all other religion. The central committee frantically ponders “who invited the bishops?!” at a public commemorative service. But Stalin has no personality beyond being an idol to fear.

This status allowed him to dodge the question of why he had this impact, and absolved him of responsibility for Soviet atrocities in the process. Even after his death, officials still consider his wishes.

This, combined with the acts of betrayal that see Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria and Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev seize power, sees one of the most notorious figures in the history of the Soviet Union fade into the background. It really is the death of Stalin.

> Ryan Gilbey review: The Death of Stalin is The Thick of It in Communist Party clothing

Beria is the obvious villain, as opposed to the dictator. In the early 1990s, naked corpses of young women were unearthed from the building in which Beria once lived in Moscow (which has been the Tunisian Embassy since the late 1950s). He recycles bunches of wilting flowers for underage girls and describes one woman as having a “talent for fellatio” (which generates some sickening male audience laughter). He also places a plump red tomato in Khrushchev’s pocket – unsettlingly invasive.

Yet you never see him commit any atrocities on screen. The closest you come is a point-of-view camera angle looking through the eyes of Vyacheslav Molotov’s wife at the man who held her captive for several years, and who told her husband that she died.

The imagination is a powerful tool, and Beria’s character serves as a reminder that assaults and harassments always happen beyond the public eye, and can be perpetrated by men who have a circle of friends, a public persona, and a dynamic – albeit aggressive – personality.

Initially, the film seemed like it would have a poor reception in Russia. The country considered banning The Death of Stalin, and it has been labelled a “provocation” and part of an “anti-Russian information war” by the communist party and fringe nationalist politicians who probably have yet to see it, and neglect the fact that Iannucci has created two series and a film (The Thick of It, Veep, and In the Loop) satirising both the British and American political establishments.

Now that it has been released, the intimate tone works in the film’s favour. “I have done a series of interviews with the Russian press and they loved the film and they are pleased we haven’t done fake Russian accents because they can’t stand that,” Iannucci told the Radio Times. “We’ve got a Russian distributor and the idea is that we’re releasing it sometime next year.”

The film is not mocking or dismissive, and that works in its favour – especially in a Russia now in the process of being conditioned to receive Stalin not as evil but rather a saviour-type figure.

Positive views of Stalin, who is increasingly portrayed as a World War II hero rather than a murderous dictator in Russia, reached a 16-year high among Russians, according to Levada polling in February; 46 per cent said they felt “respect”, “sympathy”, or “admiration” for him.

At the same time, negative attitudes have declined. In April 2001, 43 per cent of poll respondents personally related to Stalin with either “distaste, annoyance”, “fear”, or “disgust, hatred”. By March 2016, this number had fallen to 17 per cent. In both cases, “disgust, hatred” was the lowest option out of the three most negative.

I remember taking a trip to Khoroshevo, a tiny village in Rzhev Obolast – about 400km from the Latvian border – in 2015. In the locality, a museum dedicated to Stalin was opening. One woman there told me that “before the war, 5,000 people lived here – after the war – 300”.

Even a 12-year-old boy believed the museum was a positive sign. “It’s a mark of victory – a lot of people died,” he said. Stalin’s image, while still tainted in large parts of Russia is that of a hero and a victor to people in the borderlands.

The Stalin museum. Photo: Aliide Naylor

We see this love in the film too. “Nobody makes them do this?” Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, asks, confused, as mourners pay their respects.

The writing of history is itself addressed. Khrushchev reads out counts of rape towards the chief villain at the end, before Beria’s inanimate corpse is set on fire. Despite his actions, Beria never actually stood accused of rape. He was accused of terrorism, treason and participation in a counter-revolutionary group.

Khrushchev vengefully spits at him, “I will bury you in history.” Iannucci explicitly shows that which he has been suggesting throughout – while Beria was bad, Khrushchev’s Thaw was a product of his own manipulation too. He is as disposable as the rest, we see, as Leonid Brezhnev looms over his right shoulder at the end.

In steering clear of stereotyping, alienation and tired tropes, Iannucci has made The Death of Stalin accessible to westerners and Russians alike. And while it is mellower, with less side-splitting one-liners, than The Thick of It, the chaos, this time, does not need to be displayed as even more chaotic for dramatic effect. The tepid, slightly flat and twisted reality of The Death of Stalin is enough.

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