Armando Iannucci's brilliant and hilarious new film, The Death of Stalin, has created fresh interest in one of the greatest villains of the 20th century. It turns us back to Josef Stalin, his astonishing career, his failures and successes, his ego -- and his endless, appalling cruelty.
Stalin was an interesting young man, both a poet and a bank robber. In 1895, aged 17 and studying for the priesthood in Georgia, he wrote old-fashioned romantic verses that were published and admired. Later, he made a strong impression among the revolutionaries by leading a gang of bank robbers to fund violent political action. He planned the Tiflis robbery in which 40 people were killed and a huge sum stolen for the revolution. Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the Bolsheviks, called him "exactly the type I need."
But as it turned out, his talent for management and his passion for power were the true basis of his success. After the revolutionaries gained power in the 1917 October Revolution, he found a place on the governing Politburo and helped form the Soviet Union in 1922. As secretary of the Communist Party he made himself essential. Soon he was Lenin's successor and clearly a dictator.
When he industrialized Russia through a command economy and collectivization, he disrupted food production and contributed to the famines of 1932-33. In the 1930s he organized the "Great Purge," punishing hundreds of thousands with hard labour or execution. Whatever went wrong he blamed on "enemies of the working class."
All dictators demand respect but that wasn't enough for Stalin. He wanted idolatry. Poets under his control wrote poems about him -- poets he didn't like were destroyed or sent off to labour camps. Obsequious hacks wrote that he was a wise philosopher. Others described him as a brilliant scientist. They were competing to feed his voracious ego.
Things may have been going to hell at home, but Stalin spent much of his time and money promoting Marxism-Leninism around the world through the Communist International. He funded every communist party that asked for help and even made a mess out of the Spanish Civil War.
Accusations brought by Stalin against saboteurs and anti-Soviet conspiracies usually turned out to be fanciful. The last one, in 1952, the so-called "Doctors'Plot," was ostensibly a Jewish-dominated scheme to assassinate Soviet leaders. Anti-Semitic stories and attacks on Zionism were planted in the media. Many doctors, both Jews and non-Jews, were arrested. Shortly after Stalin's death in 1953, officials confessed the case was fabricated. In Iannucci's film, someone suggests that a doctor should be called to examine the dead leader's body. But that was impossible, since all the doctors in Moscow had been declared disloyal.
The Death of Stalin is a farce in the worst possible taste, as any farce should be. It's crammed with bathroom jokes, harsh laughter, hysterical outbursts. The cast performs like an old vaudeville team at its best, each one insanely paranoid in a unique way. Collectively, they add up to a fragmented portrait of Stalin -- quite reasonably, since he chose all of them. They have spent years trying to please him; now they don't know whom they should please.
The distinguished English actor, Simon Russell Beale, plays Lavrentiy Beria, the Soviet police chief, who sent armies of convicts to Siberia. Stalin-like, he seems most interested in avoiding blame for his mistakes. He's terrified of what the others might do to him but doesn't want to miss his chance of succeeding Stalin. (His fate is satisfyingly gruesome.) Steve Buscemi, as Nikita Khrushchev, can't help pointing out the mistakes of all the others. He's scared out of his wits while managing to navigate the madness around him.
Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Stalin has remained somewhat popular in Russia. After all, he was a major world figure and a victorious wartime leader against Hitler. Vladimir Putin's government has banned The Death of Stalin from theatres in Russia. He may not see the joke and he may not approve of the way history takes its revenge. Maybe he should remember what Karl Marx said: History occurs twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.