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The Provocative Brilliance of The Death of Stalin

Why is Armando Iannucci’s new film effectively banned in Russia?

IFC Films

Judging from the index of my encyclopedia of Soviet jokes, Stalin was the greatest source of humor in Soviet history. His fatal progress is charted by jokes about him purging the Politburo, perverting Communism, tearing down churches, causing food shortages, sending people to prison and the Gulag, and, of course, ordering executions. Terror and humor are not incompatible; fear often explodes in laughter. Countless people were sent to the Gulag for a joke made in the wrong company.

In Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin, which depicts the frantic struggle for succession after Stalin died suddenly in 1953, jokes are a matter of life and death, and vice versa. In one early scene, the nervous, tipsy members of the Central Committee vie to make Stalin laugh, whatever the cost to their dignity. Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi) carries tomatoes in his pockets as props for a gag, and every night before bed he has his wife note which of his jokes landed with the great leader. Too many bombs and he might end up on one of secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria’s lists for arrest, torture, and execution.

Stalin himself collapses while guffawing at a piece of hate mail sent by a pianist whose family and friends were lost to his purges. This is his last episode of sadistic laughter. He lies in a pool of his own urine for hours before being discovered; no one calls a doctor until the full Central Committee has been assembled, because even when he’s visibly close to death they’re afraid of making a mistake that could prove fatal—to them.  

While The Death of Stalin takes much artistic license with historical facts, it is true that Stalin liked to laugh, just as he enjoyed Hollywood westerns and encouraged the development of Soviet musical comedies. The Death of Stalin shows the Central Committee yawning through a cowboy movie; Stalin held obligatory movie screenings at his specially built theater in the Kremlin, since he viewed film as an important ideological tool. He argued that there was political value to films that were “exciting, cheerful, and fun,” adding, “don’t drive everyone into depression, into a labyrinth of psychology. There’s no need for people to engage in pointless philosophizing.” When he saw Jolly Fellows, a Soviet musical comedy that became a smash hit in 1935, he especially enjoyed a scene of a jazz orchestra’s fight over how to play a song: totalitarian slapstick. In his memoirs, Leonid Utesov, star of Jolly Fellows, recalled how he brought comedy to the front during World War II, saying, “Laughter kills.” He meant that laughter would give the soldiers the strength and energy they needed to beat the Nazis.

Western audiences are accustomed to images of Stalin as a terrifying despot and mass murderer; now that his reputation has been rehabilitated under Putin, Russian audiences are used to seeing Stalin as an almighty leader who brought the USSR to victory over the Nazis. The idea of presenting a comedy about Stalin to either of these audiences is startling. Critics on both sides of the crumpled Iron Curtain have expressed disgust at its willingness to laugh at such a dark subject, but many viewers have been delighted. In considering the laughter that The Death of Stalin produces and portrays, it’s important to remember that laughter comes in many varieties: giddy, aggressive, delighted, sycophantic, relieved, sadistic, mirthful, embarrassed, subversive. Laughter is a sophisticated tool that can convey meanings unavailable to the strictly serious-minded. 

As I watched The Death of Stalin, I thought of Soviet literary critic Viktor Shklovsky’s famous theory of ostranenie, or “enstrangement,” the artistic device that gives us a new understanding of the familiar by making us see it as if for the first time. By disrupting habits of perception that have become automatic, ostranenie allows us to reach a new understanding, a sharper feeling. I saw The Death of Stalin with a friend, a Jewish refugee from Soviet Moscow, and together we alternated between hysterical laughter and gasps of horror at the scenes of people being taken away in the night or summarily shot. The laughter made the horror seem new. 

In his shows The Thick of It and Veep, Iannucci satirized the British and American political machines, showing how the desperate jockeying for immediate advantage produces convoluted paths to the stupidest possible decisions. The stakes are very different in The Death of Stalin, but the craven power struggles are recognizable, because, like laughter, these are behaviors that cut across cultures. Even dictators are only human; to portray them as perfect avatars of evil is to make them seem more invulnerable than they ever were, and thus to play into the myth of power that helps sustain dictatorships. There’s a reason that dictators ban political humor.

The best of all the excellent performances in The Death of Stalin is Simon Russell Beale’s Beria, the serial murderer and rapist who headed Stalin’s secret police from 1939 until his death. Beale’s portly, bald, diminutive Beria titters at his victims, his eyes sparkling with hatred as he rushes through his prison, delighting in the invention of new forms of torture. But when the rest of the Committee turns against Beria, having him tied up and gagged in the men’s bathroom, he’s transformed from a beady-eyed sadist to a trussed-up pig in a pince-nez, ready for slaughter. The loss of the aura of power makes him almost unrecognizable.

The Death of Stalin was effectively banned in Russia in January, when the Russian Culture Ministry withdrew the film’s license. The notorious Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky—himself a profoundly ridiculous person—claimed that many people viewed the movie as a “mockery of the entire Soviet past,” and even of the victims of Stalinism. Victory in World War II is the cornerstone of national identity in Putin-era Russia, and to make fun of Stalin, Marshal Zhukov (played with hilarious vulgarity by Jason Isaacs) and other Politburo members who presided over this victory is even worse than pointing out the crimes these men committed. As we have been reminded by recent events, the Russian government quite likes to be feared; what it can’t bear is to be treated as a joke.     

Satire is a way of showing a system’s weaknesses, the chinks in its armor. Many non-violent protest movements (including in Russia) have used humor as a tool. Angry, aggressive protesters often risk escalation into violent confrontation, and photos of furious protesters fighting with police or with counter-protesters often serve the ends of those seeking to discredit protest movements. On the other hand, clowning can be an effective way to ruin a neo-Nazi photo-op. A sense of the absurd corrodes the myth of power.

Moscow’s Pioneer Theater screened The Death of Stalin after its license was revoked; all the showings sold out in advance. Police arrived at one of the first screenings to indicate that the authorities would not turn a blind eye to this insubordination. As ultranationalist clown and perennial presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky explained in the Duma, by banning The Death of Stalin the government was only ensuring that everyone would download and watch it—even him. Russia is often criticized for its failure to commemorate the crimes committed by the Soviet state, to come to terms with the many gruesome episodes in its history; instead, the state glorifies even Stalin and harasses activists who attempt commemoration of the Gulag, the purges, the deportations and the famines.

The urge to celebrate rather than lament history has significant support among the general population; part of Putin’s success has been his promotion of a positive national identity, and many Russians would genuinely prefer to forget about the Gulag—it’s just so depressing. The high-profile debate about The Death of Stalin in Russia, and the enthusiasm demonstrated for the illicit showings at the Pioneer Theater, make me wonder whether satire might have success where somber public memory has not.