Russia Strikes Back: A Postscript to ‘Is Stalin Really Dead?’

EDITORIAL NOTE: In our printed ‘Individuals and Communities’ edition of last year (no. 21) Deana Davis wrote a review of the film The Death of Stalin. Deana wrote a postscript to her review not long after for publication on our website concerning then-recent developments to the film’s status in Russia, which slipped through the cracks earlier this year but which we are now happy to publish. Reproduced at the bottom of the new postscript, with minor editorial changes to the version in the printed edition, is the original article to which the following is a sequel of sorts.


Written by Deana Davis


On 23 January 2018, Russia took action regarding its relationship to its history. The Ministry of Culture revoked the distribution license of the film The Death of Stalin two days before its Russian release date, further confirming to the world that the Russian government is not above resorting to censorship reminiscent of the not-too-distant Communist past.

The ‘Individuals & Communities’ issue (no. 21) of Retrospect Journal contains my review of the film [Ed: see note above], in which I wrote that Russia was welcoming towards Armando Iannucci’s latest work. In an interview with Radio Times, published 20 October 2017, Iannucci spoke of the favourable reception he had received for his film. Iannucci believed that the positive response he had so far encountered outweighed the criticism, and he mentioned acquiring a Russian distributor. However, the public council of the Ministry of Culture and several notable figures forwarded a letter to Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, after attending a private screening of the film on 22 January along with members of parliament and movie directors. They asked that the film should not be shown until a further judicial analysis is conducted, due to its extremist elements. One of the main detractors of the film was Maria Zhukova, the daughter of Marshal Zhukov, portrayed in the film by Jason Isaacs. She added her name to the letter sent to Medinsky, stating that ‘this is a revolting film and a mockery of our history, our heroes, in particular of my father.’ It has been argued that the film, in advance of the 75th anniversary of Marshal Zhukov’s victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, could offend the feelings of surviving veterans. Consequently, the government made it illegal for theatres to show the movie and imposed a fine on those who do show it. In an article shared by Medinsky on his Twitter account, the journalist Dmitry Steshin wrote that ‘It is possibly the most distasteful (lit. ‘nauseating’) film about the USSR in modern history.’ Steshin adds that the film was made by ‘some unknown comedy director/producer, who is not even favoured with a Wikipedia page…’ and that ‘it benefits the information war.’

In all fairness, Iannucci does actually have a Wikipedia page. However, Zhukova’s comments are understandable, and while Stalin and others in his circle were disparaged, Marshal Zhukov was always respected. The way he is portrayed in the film is rather irreverent, but is that not the point? All heroes and public figures must be mocked for the political order to be deconstructed. While I was studying abroad in Moscow, my teacher of Russian history voiced her criticism of the West. She argued that all respect had been lost for politicians and the government. Yet shouldn’t governments have to earn respect? Are they not made to serve the people? The ways the West and Russia view the government and its purpose are diametrically opposed and constitute one of the main cultural differences.

This is not the first time that the Russian government and public has taken aim at a movie. The film Matilda, directed by the Russian Alexei Uchitel, caused a furore earlier this year. Natalia Poklonskaya, a member of the State Duma, waged a war against the film, claiming that it ‘offends the feelings of the faithful,’ which is a criminal offense according to a law passed in 2013. This is because the film chronicles the affair between the bachelor Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized as a martyr by the Orthodox Church in 2000, and the ballerina Matilda Kschessinskaya. Having been postponed three times, the film finally premiered in late October amidst violent attacks, including those instigated by the terrorist group ‘The Christian State- Holy Rus.’ A recent fiasco also occurred concerning the film Paddington 2, the premiere of which was postponed at the last minute to 1 February by the Ministry of Culture, in order to allow for the premiere of the Russian film Going Vertical, which focuses on the basketball match between the then USSR and the USA in the 1972 Olympic Games. The Ministry of Culture defended its action with patriotic reasons but was more likely influenced by financial concerns.

A number of Russian film critics and journalists, nevertheless, argue that there is no justifiable reason to ban The Death of Stalin. Instead, they point out the government’s ulterior motives. In reference to the above-mentioned accusation against the film Matilda, the journalist Andrey Plakhov quips that The Death of Stalin ‘offends the feelings of those in charge.’ In an article titled ‘Don’t Wait for the Death of Stalin’, Irina Prokhorova, the Head of the publishing house New Literary Review, argues that the film has a double-edged sword, in that it ‘dwells on the memory of the victims of repression and mocks the executioners, a dangerous mixture which authoritarian regimes are always afraid of.’ As for the anniversary of Stalingrad, it is also not beneficial to the state for people to realise that the USSR suffered horrendous casualties because of Stalin. Furthermore, Alla Gerber, President of the Holocaust Fund, criticised the Ministry’s clear political motivation due to the coming elections. President Putin, who is expected to win his fourth presidential election this March, has been deliberately constructing and consolidating his centralised power. In this system, the state holds supreme power, and subservience to it is required, regardless of the conditions the governed live in. It is not in Putin’s interests to have his people watch a movie in which such a form of government is mocked.

In the end, the problem still boils down to humour – is this an indication that the Russians cannot laugh at themselves? Certainly not, as programs such as Nasha Russia demonstrate. The real question is whether Russians can laugh at their government. TV programs, such as the popular TV comedy competition KVN, frequently make fun of Putin and his cabinet. However, this is mostly done within respectable limits and Putin can frequently be seen attending KVN shows. The result is a cathartic set of jokes and impersonations at which Putin himself laughs. Besides this, more serious satire and criticism of the government is still relegated to the outskirts of media and society. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the LDPR party, suggested that rather than banning western films, which makes people want to see them even more, Russian directors should make movies about historical events in the West, such as Brexit or the fall of the British Empire. The irony is that these topics would make for a great comedy, and I would be willing to bet American and UK movie producers would queue up for such an opportunity, the box office sales not likely to suffer due to political repercussions. The Death of Stalin is no masterpiece, but it is still of the utmost importance that Russians see it. The film dares to illuminate the issues Russians shy away from confronting.



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Is Stalin Really Dead?

Written by Deana Davis


Armando Iannucci, the director of the new film The Death of Stalin was inspired by a French graphic novel of the same name to give us his own comedic take on the political turmoil after the death of Stalin. The film is essentially a discourse on the power-grabbing tactics of politicians as well as a social commentary of life under Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for over 30 years. However, journalist Peter Hitchens states that it was possibly inadvisable of Iannucci to make light of such serious events. Can we, should we, laugh at such a serious moment in history, the significance of which we can barely relate to or comprehend? Behind the farce lies a very important issue that has yet to be confronted in Russia. This is Stalin’s cult of personality, or in Russian, культ личности. Stalin worked very hard to craft a god-like status, which did not die with him. In the film, Stalin’s daughter is astonished at the multitude of people who come to pay their respects to Stalin, who is lying in state in the House of Unions, and wonders if they have come voluntarily. This did happen. In fact, there are reported cases of people being trampled to death in the flood of people taking to the streets after hearing of Stalin’s passing. Even Andrei Sakharov, an anti-communist activist who was internally exiled in the 1980s, cried upon hearing the news.

The 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 is often heralded as the beginning of ‘ottepel’ (thaw), or destalinization, which is when Khrushchev read Lenin’s Testament, after which it was published for the general public to read. In this letter, Lenin urged that Stalin be removed from the position of General Secretary and not be allowed to power. Damning as this was, a public dismantling of Stalin’s cult of personality never really took place. Consequently and very alarmingly, public approval of Stalin has been on the rise. In 2005 40% of Russians approved of Stalin; in 2017 this number is now 50%. And yet, as Alexander Minkin quips, Stalin has done nothing since 1953. It is obvious that Russia has a difficulty with confronting and understanding its own past. After all, 62% of the 1200 Russians surveyed this past July support the hanging of plaques commemorating the successes of Stalin and 33% were indifferent. When Stalin is mentioned in the West, a totalitarian ruler and the systematic killing of his own people come to mind, whereas in Russia the name is synonymous with the Soviet Union’s WWII victory over the Germans and achievement of Communism. This is not only with Stalin.

While I was on my year abroad in Moscow, I visited the library of the old campus building of Moscow State University next to the Red Square. A glass case displayed Russian books of a series called ‘Geniuses of Power,’ with several titled ‘The Great Churchill’ and ‘The Great Kennedy.’ Included was ‘The Great Beria.’ The problem lies not in awareness; most Russians are aware of the mass killings and imprisonment during Stalin’s totalitarian reign. The frustrating dilemma is that many consider all of this necessary for the success of the Soviet Union. Minkin suggests another possibility: that most of those who lived under Stalin have died and the present population simply does not know history as well as they should. This seems logical. After all, one can never quite out rule the power of propaganda. With the rise of nationalism in Russia and the worsening relationship between the east and west, one thing is for certain. Stalin is still not quite dead in Russia.  

Considering this, is it still wise to make a comedy about the serious political transitional process and make light of a figure, who even now poses as a roadblock on Russia’s path to being a democratic country? Comedy can still ask the same serious questions. After all, late-night comedians have demonstrated this in the past year of Trump’s administration. Laughter may more often than not invite broader discussion and independent research than a dry, 2-hour long biopic. Russian history, at least for much of the 20th century, is ripe for black humour. The Russians are quite good at laughing at themselves. One recalls a skit from a long-running Russian comedy show that has Stalin calling someone at night, announcing that there will be a car waiting for them in 10 minutes, hanging up, and saying ‘Just kidding!’ The style of The Death of Stalin is reminiscent of Iannucci’s earlier work, such as The Thick of It and Veep and reception of the film in Russia has so far been quite good; the film is to be released in Russia next year.

The movie follows the members of the Council of Ministers Malenkov, Beria, Molotov, and Khrushchev as they vie for power in the wake of Stalin’s death. As can be imagined, they are depicted, with the exception of Beria, as scheming buffoons, contradictory as this seems, and who constantly bicker with each other. The film, overall, packs a powerful lesson on how destructive and demoralising totalitarian regimes are. It includes many sights of Moscow and uses accurate locations for the events, such as Stalin’s green dacha. The only fault that can be found with the actors is that they come off as too British (except for Khrushchev and Malenkov, who are portrayed by the American actors Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor). Their lines do not correspond with what Russians would say, because Russians tend to be subtler. A case in point is the joke that Jason Isaac’s Marshal Zhukov plays with Khrushchev, where Zhukov acts as if he is going to report Khrushchev’s treasonous plan, but then laughs and says ‘Look at your face!’ Meanwhile, Simon Russell Beale marvellously plays Lavrentiy Beria, a repulsive villain made positively unnerving by his omnipresence. His character is definitely one of the less comedic roles. While Hitler had his Himmler, Stalin’s right-hand man in the extermination of his own people was Beria. He represents Stalin’s regime, which is inevitably fading away in the wake of the Council’s decision to distance itself from terror tactics and its release of prisoners from Gulags, as well as those imprisoned in the Doctors’ plot. Though the release of petty criminals from Gulags was hardly done out of humanitarian reasons (but rather out of the need to lessen a drain on resources) it stands in stark contrast to all the evidence pointing to Stalin’s intention, had he lived, to begin a new round of terror, similar to that of the late 1930s.

In all, the facts presented in the movie (despite theatrical exaggeration) such as the Ministers themselves carrying Stalin’s body onto a bed or Stalin’s son giving a speech at his father’s funeral, are mostly accurate. The facts in themselves are absurd enough to warrant laughter and hopefully this movie will invite public interest in Russian history and culture, further breaking down the East-West divide and the negative stereotypes of Russia. As regards Stalin, the issue is more problematic. Jason Isaacs, asked in an interview about the viability of making a similar comedy about Trump, provides a perfect answer: ‘someone needs to remove him from office, and then we can laugh.’ Considering the revitalization and rehabilitation of Stalin’s image in Russia, it is difficult to imagine comedy having any power at all. Perhaps that is a reason as to why such a comedy is acceptable even among Russians. Besides comedy, it is difficult to say what can be done on this issue. All there is to do now is simply wait and watch, preferably with stake in hand, in case Stalin rises again.



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