The Death of Stalin – 2017

Director Armando Iannucci
Screenplay Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows based on the book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin
Starring  Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor

I have little desire to learn the inner workings of failed experiments. Soviet Russia and Kurt Cobain top the list of undesirable ways to spend one’s time pondering. Thankfully I have Armando Iannucci to decipher the former into bite sized chunks of comedic horror.

The Death of Stalin covers just that time period when Premier murderer Joseph Stalin finally died and the Politburo scrambled to take his place whilst simultaneously covering their collective asses.

Starting off with a concert being recreated at the threat of death, we get the idea that no one in Soviet Russia is really there for their own enjoyment or fulfillment. Meanwhile, the Stalin’s inner circle is gathered to just drink and avoid saying the wrong thing to the leader. One person, Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria is comfortable with this situation as it stands. For decades, he’s been torturing, murdering and raping under the shadow of Stalin. Things show no sign of slowing down.

Then it happens.

Immediately we see the group scramble together and apart, looking to press the advantage with whoever can give it to them.  From what appears, history has chosen to point out the wrongs of the ones who lose.

When one thinks of the ideal portrayer of murderous opportunist, Steve Buscemi has to be in at least the top five. One thing I never could picture, though, is Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, heading down to the United Nations, pounding on the desk and announcing “We will bury you!” to the U.S. in 1960. Somehow, Iannucci gets around this by allowing Buscemi to just play within his character and figuring it will all sort itself out.

There are several other memorable performances here, including Isaacs as the real power behind the throne, being that his General Georgy Zhukov has the most mobile force behind him.

The collateral damage is every common citizen who suffers the wrath of their moves and counter moves. Their can be no illusion that the power of the Soviet Union is rotten from the time they kill Czar Nicholas through today. Like all socialist enterprises, they feed off of the will of the people to work more and receive less. This is a time when they have more resources to waste, and waste them, they  do.

The comedy is in the fact that the citizens understand that the idiots who control the guns have little idea what they are doing, in the grand scheme of things. They are angling for whatever helps them survive the day, just like anyone else.

A good example of this occurs early on, when we see a son turn his father over to the NKVD for a randomly decided crime. Just before his father is put to death, a reversal of fortune occurs through political scheming. For no reason other than this, he is released and goes back to his family. He exchanges no words with his son. They both know the score.

I understood the humor of this film, but I can’t say I remember laughing. I barely remember smirking. Somehow Tambor’s ineffectuality is funnier when people won’t be put to death because of it.

Still, I can’t deny the skill with which this story is constructed, in its typically abbreviated cinematic version. Months turn to days and trials turn to verdicts.

Isaacs and Buscemi give great performances, but no one can touch the authority with which Beale portrays the sinister Beria. His movements bespeak evil in the shadows, but his face makes him seem quite congenial.

That this movie has been banned in Russia should give some indication how things go currently there for the time being. Everything is fine. Just go about your business until they tell you to get in the back of the wagon.

Hopefully the film gives the movement Democratic Socialism some amount of pause here in the U.S.. The idea, from what I am told, has never reached its full potential. Some people want to keep giving it a shot to see if they can help perfect the experiment. It’s that few hundred million dead and all the names and pictures redacted from history that keeps me from wanting to try. Maybe watching this film will start these enthusiasts down the road towards thinking.

(**** out of *****)


  1. It has always amused me whenever I encounter one of those folks who aren’t politically-oriented yet simultaneously enthusiastic of said science. Frankly I feel like I’ve once again witnessed the subject of a knee-slapper; I find it a bit silly when people are taken for granted whenever they make an invalid claim with a normative premise. Firstly, I can’t believe one would liken and analogize democratic-socialism (a vast and abstract hypernym that ranges from capitalism with a welfare state all the way to Marxists and anarchists too scared of admit they’re as such) with the likes of Marxism-Leninism (a Blanquist miscreation of orthodox Marxist theory that hasn’t even abolished wage slavery, nor capital accumulation, nor the profit motive and is hyper-authoritarian and bureaucratic with its vanguard party and central planning), it’s absolutely absurd, how can one look at democratic socialist movements, which are mostly composed of social-democrats and possibilistic reformists, with Stalinism? These two ideologies are almost inimical towards each other and more often than not their followers berate and contend with each other to the point of bellicose aggression. This is so unhinged that I can’t even comprehend how one could affirm this. I never concurred with the methodology used by political compasses but they’re always handy in providing the politically-illiterate a vague and abstract generalization of the different ideologies, and I’ll tell you myself that democratic-socialism ain’t stereotypically nor theoretically associated with Marxism-Leninism.

    But then you seem to corroborate your claims with Stéphane Courtois’ Le Livre Noir du Communisme, the magnum opus accredited for divulging the 100 million death toll, which is beyond me how you would use this to besmirch socialism. Firstly, three of Courtois’ coauthors, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Margolin as well as Karel Bartosek, publicly disassociated themselves from Courtois’ statements in the introduction and criticized his editorial conduct. Werth and Margolin stated that Courtois was obsessed with arriving at a total of 100 death toll which resulted in a biased methodology. These capitalist historians faulted Courtois and doubled-down by accusing Courtois of exaggerating the death toll. Furthermore, Courtois’ book even amalgamates the victims of Marxism-Leninism with those of Nazism and added dead Nazi soldiers to the death toll of “victims under communism”, and as if that wasn’t lunatic enough it proceeds to add the fall of birthrates in the USSR as victims of starvation, so under that logic any decline in a population having less babies either because of sexual education or socioeconomic advancement is tantamount to starvation, with that rationale then socialism and communism are blameworthy for the deaths of infinite amounts of people due to the fact those children not born didn’t have children of their own and neither did they have grandchildren and so on. But let’s add some academic substance, Amartya Sen, an economist, philosopher and researcher on hunger and its effects, studied the effects of famines and hunger in Bangladesh and India, and while India’s democratic institutions prevented famines, its excess of mortality over China (which is potentially attributable to China’s more equal distribution of resources) was nonetheless close to 4 million per year for non-famine years, supposing we now apply the methodology of the Black Book to India, a democratic capitalist experiment, then therefore India has caused more deaths than in the entire history of communism worldwide since 1917, over 100 million deaths by 1979 and tens of millions more since, and keep in mind this is just India, a world of millions more and possibly even billions lies abroad, not to speak about those that died since the conception of capitalism and the moment it phased mercantilism.

    But hypothetically for the sake of it, let’s assume that somehow a hundred million people died under the various Marxist-Leninist experiments, how does this correlate to socialism or communism? One could even argue that since Marxist-Leninist experiments lacked the abolition of private property, workers’ self-management, the abolition of class or state, a fair representation of social ownership of the means of production, the abolition of the profit motive and capital accumulation, and since they exhibited callous planned centralization and a dominant vanguard party then ergo they weren’t neither communist nor socialist. And since Courtois’ text is title the “The Black Book of Communism” and not the “The Black Book of Totalitarianism” I am inclined to dismiss these whoppers, after all, the war crimes attributed solely to an authoritarian regime often lack any association with their economic system, which is why the Holocaust is not the blame of capitalism but rather of Nazi Germany, which was a capitalist since it possessed the privatization of the means of production in order to accumulate capital since it provided a profit incentive but nonetheless the Holocaust was no capitalist genocide, even though plenty of those exist on other parts of the world. I don’t know how you could watch a movie you admitted lacks corroboration and a proper narration of the events and proceed to suggest any kind of socialism, and for that matter any betterment of workers’ autonomy over their workplace, and then to continue on to make a normative claim that because Marxist-Leninist experiments, which weren’t socialist nor communist, killed 100 million people, which again is false, then therefore all flavors and shades of socialism will inexorably end with those same results. A bit biased shall I say? Perhaps those crimes, if they were documentable and proveable, were a byproduct, a direct epiphenomenon, of totalitarianism and authoritarianism and not the economics of Marx and Engels, just saying.

    • Wow. That is a lot of 10 cent words. If you like this review, just wait until I cover “The Lives of Others.” Lots of good coverage of Socialism there, too.

      Thank you for reading!

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