Joseph Stalin already had a dreadful reputation as a ruthless tyrant and mass murderer of his own people long before the Soviet Union fell and the Russians opened up the archives for historians to explore and lay bare the true extent of his cruelty.
One detail stuck in my mind from a biography published in the nineties: Stalin had ordered the arrest of one of his henchman, and according to an eyewitness, when it was reported to him that the hapless man had blubbered and begged for mercy as he was being hauled off to be shot, his feet dragging along the ground, Stalin ‘laughed like a drain’.
There’s another story that towards the end of his life, when Stalin was up late, sleepless and drinking heavily as usual, he would gaze out his window and if he saw the light on in the office of one of the Politburo members, he would ring them up and say ‘Are you still alive?!’
Yet another story emerged that during another late-night drinking session, Stalin and Molotov got to arguing about a particular constellation in the sky. Stalin ordered his men to go and fetch an eminent astronomer to personally settle the argument. When this man saw the dreaded black car pull up in front of his house in the middle of the night, he kissed his wife and family goodbye and shot himself. When they went to the home of a second astronomer, this man threw himself out the window to his death. Before they went to the home of a third eminent astronomer, Stalin’s minions took the precaution of phoning in advance to say they were coming and not to worry; he was only required to settle an argument between the high-ranking comrades. By the time they arrived at the Kremlin with their nervous passenger, Stalin and Molotov had both fallen asleep, dead drunk.
This last story has an echo in the opening scenes of The Death of Stalin, when Stalin calls the state radio station to say he’s enjoying the live Mozart concert being broadcast and wants a recording of it sent round ASAP. No recording has been made and the orchestra, the pianist and the audience are all packing up to go home. The producer desperately tries to persuade them all to stay and do the concert again, but first he must find a new conductor as the previous one has collapsed, and to add to his panic the pianist is refusing to co-operate because she hates Stalin, who murdered her family. The record is finally delivered to Stalin in his dacha outside Moscow. As he opens it, a note secreted by the pianist falls out, accusing him of being a tyrant who has ruined her country. As he reads it he has a stroke which leaves him lying in a pool of his own piss.
The Death Of Stalin details the events that follow over the next few days and weeks: the panicky ass-covering among his inner circle, the furious jockeying for power. All of them – Molotov, Khrushchev, Malenkov, the dreaded Lavrenti Beria – have lived in constant anxiety that any day, any hour, any minute, Stalin’s gimlet eye would fall on them and they too would be taken out and murdered on his whim.
Director Armando Iannucci has chosen to tell this dreadful story as black comedy. He’s a master of the art, famous for the TV series The Thick of It and the movie spin-off In The Loop, coal-black comedies about British politics. But he’s been criticised for his choice of tone. To be sure, there are comical elements in the story, but I have to agree with those who say that treating the ghastliness of Stalin’s regime as farce trivialises the terror and suffering visited by that deranged despot on his countless thousands of victims, especially in the minds of viewers who have only a sketchy knowledge of the events and characters in question, a point made by David Stratton and one with which I also agree.
This review was first published in April 2018.