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Movie review: the Death of Stalin

Faline Bobier

March 20, 2018

There can hardly be a less likely subject for a comedy than the death of Stalin and the power struggle to see who will be his successor, but Scottish director Armando Iannucci's film takes off from just that point in history. Iannucci is also the person behind the very successful HBO series Veep, which lampoons the US governing class and seems more like a documentary than a satire since Trump took power.

The movie opens in early March 1953 when Stalin was 74. He had consolidated his power since the mid-1920s and the death of Lenin. Trotsky, another leading member of the Bolshevik party, would eventually fall victim to Stalin's bloody reach when he Stalinist agents murdered him in Mexico in 1940. Trotsky understood what Stalin was doing – the show trials, the mass murders, the executions – as the creation of a “river of blood” between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the Russian revolution. It was necessary to stamp out the memory of socialism from below and revolution and therefore necessary to physically eliminate those individuals who had been centrally or even peripherally involved in bringing that revolution to bear. 

Not surprisingly, none of this background is touched on in the film, but what it does convey chillingly is the atmosphere of fear and betrayal created by the constant scapegoating that characterized Stalin's grasp on power.The casual scenes of torture and murder carried out in dingy basements bring to mind the hundreds of thousands who died in this way in Russia, but also countless other revolutionaries who perished in similar situations in Chile, Iran and other places around the globe. The actors who play Stalin and his circle are either British or American (the inimitable Steve Buscemi appears in the role of Nikita Krushchev), with a variety of accents. This has the effect in some ways of creating a distance from the specific 'Russian-ness' of the storyline and making it universal.

Comedy of terrors

The comedy in Iannucci's film comes from his highlighting of the absurd and the bizarre machinations of Stalin's inner circle, both while he's still alive and after his death on March 5, 1953. At one point Krushchev, returning home somewhat drunk after a meeting with Stalin and his henchmen, details with his wife a list of jokes he made during the evening, and Stalin's reaction to each one so he knows which were successful and which to never repeat again.

British actor Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, plays Molotov, first deputy prime minister to Stalin. We learn that his wife was one of the people swept up in Stalin's net and imprisoned for her “crimes.” The way in which Palin's character switches from excoriating his wife's treasonous acts to excoriating those who wrongly imprisoned her, when the winds of change shift after Stalin's death, is worthy of any absurdist Monty Python skit.

Stalin's death early on in the movie launches a full-blooded but at the same time partially hidden struggle for power among the members of his entourage. The two main contenders for this role—Beria (superbly and chillingly played by British actor Simon Russell Beale) and Krushchev—try to outmanoeuvre each other. This involves fawning over Stalin's grown-up children, who bring no one to mind more tellingly than current US President Donald Trump's privileged, corrupt and socially useless appendages.

As history knows, Khruschev is eventually the victor. However, his claim to represent “reforms” is empty rhetoric. The bureaucratic “killing” lists drawn up by the Stalinist bureaucracy are just as arbitrary and unjust as any decisions to be made by Khruschev and have as little to do with real democracy.

Neither Washington nor Moscow

It's interesting the movie is coming out at this particular time in history. The film has been banned inside Russia – no big surprise. But it may be ammunition for politicians such as British Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, who is trying to bang the war drums based on the recent poisoning of a previous Russian spy on British territory. May's government is claiming that current Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind the killing, which seems unlikely. However, given the weakness of May's government, she is trying to use this to stoke anti-Russian sentiment in a kind of throwback to the Cold War era, where the Soviet Union was the main bogeyman of Western imperialism.

In a similar fashion, commentators and late night talk-show hosts in the US (and Democrats) love to focus on Russia's alleged involvement in subverting the 2016 election, which brought Donald Trump to power. The Democratic party need look no further than their own record of war-mongering, consistently ignoring the plight of working class and poor Americans and shoring up racist power structures—even under President Barack Obama—if they want to understand why they were defeated in the election. Focussing on so-called Russian interference only takes the focus away from where it should be: building the movements inside the US that can truly take Trump down: Black Lives Matter, MeToo, the striking West Virginia teachers. and the tradition we stand in has always argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy and the current Russian ruling class have nothing to do with socialism or democracy. There was a complete counter-revolution under Stalin which destroyed the promise of 1917. In addition to revoking progressive measures brought in by the Bolsheviks—such as abortion on demand, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the creation of communal laundries and kitchens to take the burden off women—Stalin turned the revolution on its head by exploiting Russian workers once again, where they had been the creators and lifeblood of workers' democracy.

After the fall of Eastern Europe and the dismantling of the former Soviet Union in 1989-1991 Russia lost some of its formal imperial glory but it is still an imperialist power. Its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and daily bombardments of civilians are far greater crimes than poisoning a spy in Wiltshire.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is perfectly correct in pointing out that the British “intelligence” which claims that Putin is behind the poisoning of the former Russian spy is the same “intelligence” which brought us the war in Iraq. He is pointing to the fact that the Tories are trying to whip up anti-Russian sentiment to shore up their own falling popularity.

The masthead of Socialist Worker used to read “Neither Washington nor Moscow,” when the US and the former USSR were locked in a battle for capitalist supremacy. Russia is much weaker now, but that same weakness is beginning to show in terms of America's economic dominance.

We want to fight for a world in which imperialism no longer distorts and destroys people's lives, at home and abroad. To do that we need to focus on our own rulers, not on some new bogeyman that they want to throw up in front of us. The Death of Stalin is a movie worth seeing, but for the real history of revolution that Stalin distorted and destroyed you will need to look elsewhere.

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