Andy Stowe is impressed by Armando Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin.
In 1956 Nikita Kruschchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) addressed the party’s congress saying this about Stalin:
“Stalin put the Party and the NKVD  up to the use of mass terror when the exploiting classes had been liquidated in our country and when there were no serious reasons for the use of extraordinary mass terror.
This terror was actually directed not at the remnants of the defeated exploiting classes but against the honest workers of the Party and of the Soviet state; against them were made lying, slanderous and absurd accusations concerning “two-facedness,” “espionage,” “sabotage,” preparation of fictitious “plots,” etc.”
And he didn’t limit his crimes to torturing and murdering tens of thousands of innocent people. He collectively punished whole nationalities. Khrushchev told the congress:
“In March, 1944, all the Chechens and Ingushi were deported and the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic was liquidated. In April, 1944, all Balkars were deported from the territory of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Republic to faraway places and their Republic itself was renamed the Autonomous Kabardian Republic.”
This is unpromising material for a comedy, but Armando Iannucci has made a comic masterpiece out of the events immediately following the old butcher’s death.
Stalin was found on the floor of his office following a stroke and the inner leadership scuttles around panic stricken and scheming in the hours before he dies and in the days after the happy event. Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi in a sweary New York accent emerges rather well from it.
Inevitably Iannucci is obliged to play fast and loose with the real events, but Kruschchev’s first reaction was to use the transition to liberalise the Soviet Union. Even the people at the top of the Soviet bureaucracy were liable to be tortured and summarily executed. Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich all knew that on a whim they could be put on a list, declared an “enemy of the people” and there was no appeal against the executioner’s bullet. It’s not too hard to understand how after twenty years of not knowing if you’d be in a torture chamber the next morning you’d be keen to return to something that resembled the rule of law.
The real strength of the film is how it conveys the random, generalised brutality of Stalin’s regime. Citizens have no rights and the army and NKVD secret police are more of less free to murder at will. Iannucci translates this primal panic into moments that recall the variable frenetic comedy of the Carry On series of films but with a much a sharper sense of danger. The laughs come from the fear.
The film will have a particular resonance for readers of this site. Socialist Resistance is the section of the Fourth International in the British State. Our political tradition began in the revolutionary Marxist struggle against everything that Stalin and the CPSU bureaucracy represented.
Trotsky and many of his early followers were murdered, tortured and imprisoned by Stalin’s supporters. It won’t have been intentional, but the film is a reminder that there was always a Marxist alternative to Stalinism, one which insisted on dealing with political differences by debate, which defended a socialist morality and explained that the Soviet state was in the hands of a bureaucracy which was principally interested in defending its own privileges.
Read Khrushchev’s speech before you watch the film. It’ll help you enjoy all the more the scene where Beria, head of the NKVD, gets what he deserves.
“Beria was unmasked by the Party’s Central Committee shortly after Stalin’s death. As a result of particularly detailed legal proceedings, it was established that Beria had committed monstrous crimes and Beria was shot.”
Perhaps Khrushchev was allowing himself a private joke with the reference to “detailed legal proceedings.”
 The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del), abbreviated NKVD , was the leading Soviet secret police organization from 1934 to 1946.