The Red Army Saves the Day in ‘The Death of Stalin’
Can Russia laugh at itself?
The horrors of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s regime are so nightmarish that it’s hard to imagine ever laughing at them, but British writers Armando Iannucci and Ian Martin found a way. Only the minds behind In the Loop and Veep could turn the complicated inner workings of the Soviet government into a film as funny as The Death of Stalin.
The Soviet Union wasn’t in a great place in 1953, unless—of course—you were part of the party elite. Stalin had ruled Russia for 30 years and people both feared and loved him. He had stopped fascism, expanding the Soviet Empire but kept the public in line with show trials, exiles and executions.
The Death of Stalin is a dark comedy that picks up the night of Stalin’s death. He’s drinking with the Politburo, laughing at jokes and watching a John Wayne movie before everyone retires for the evening. Then he has a stroke, lands on the floor, pisses himself, and leaves behind a country so terrified that its afraid to touch him even when he obviously needs its help.
The popular myth is that Stalin had a stroke that night and his guards heard noises but refused to call anyone for help. They worried that, if he was fine, he might execute them for disturbing his evening. It’s a story so absurd it’s funny. That’s The Death of Stalin in a nutshell, a series of events so slapstick and absurd that you have to laugh.
In the hours after Stalin’s death, his attendants have trouble finding a doctor because Stalin had spend the past few years murdering them. In 1953, being a doctor was one of the deadliest professions in Moscow. “I’m exhausted,” Jeffrey Tambor’s ineffectual Georgy Malenkov says after someone reminds him all the docs are dead. “I can’t remember who’s alive and who’s dead.”
This history is funny, but inaccurate and that’s fine. The film never pretends to be a true story. There’s no self-serious message at the beginning of the movie informing the audience that the filmmakers based the story on real events. This is myth making, history as written by satirists in a far away country.
But those inaccuracies, and the film’s tone, have angered Russia’s cultural gatekeepers. The country’s cultural ministry has stopped theaters from showing it and claimed the movie is a British plot to make Russia look ridiculous “The Death of Stalin is aimed at inciting hatred and enmity, violating the dignity of the Russian (Soviet) people, promoting ethnic and social inferiority,” attorneys for the ministry said in a joint statement.
The ministry pointed to the film’s portrayal of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, played with thuggish glory by Jason Isaacs. “Zhukov is portrayed as a militant comedian, while he was actually a prominent commander, a gifted strategist and a marshal of the Soviet Union,” the statement said. Which is true, Zhukov helped win World War II, but the statement is telling.
In the movie, Zhukov is a no-bullshit guy who cuts a path through the scheming Politburo and helps move the USSR from chaos to order in the wake of Stalin’s death. Without Zhukov’s help, Khrushchev’s plots would have completely fallen apart. In the movie’s world, Zhukov is the only good guy in a traditional sense.
When it comes to pointing out the absurdities of government, Iannucci is an equal-opportunity satirist. He’s gone after both the American and British political class with The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep. His The Death of Stalin doesn’t single out Russia so much as it invites them to laugh at themselves the same way we often do in the West.