Socialist Worker

Stalin’s death unleashed a comedy of terrors in Russia

by Alistair Farrow
Issue No. 2576

The death of a tyrant becomes a laughing matter

The death of a tyrant becomes a laughing matter

Grisly satire The Death of Stalin shows a state infested with bloodthirsty corruption and a society teetering on the brink, writes Alistair Farrow

Armando Iannucci’s latest film, The Death of Stalin, is a grimly comic testament to the corruption, incompetence and ruthlessness at the top of Stalinist Russia.

The bitter fight between party boss Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) provides the meat of the plot.

The political vacuum and resulting chaos left by Stalin’s death is nicely depicted. Terror is the order of the day—at both the prospects of taking control and of not taking control.

After Stalin’s body is found his mansion is cleared out. People who worked there are lined up and shot or taken to prison to keep them quiet.


But the piles of bodies are out of focus and a background to the main action—Beria’s scheming.

Dread at being bumped off if a rival kills their way to the top is matched by horror at a society teetering on the brink.

And it was on the brink. By 1953 Stalinist Russia was finding it increasingly difficult to compete with other states.

Decades of squeezing workers’ living standards to force through industrialisation could only take Russia’s state capitalist economy so far. There was mass poverty and starvation.

And each member of the Communist Party leadership had clambered to their positions over mountains of bloody corpses. They knew a similar fate could await them if they didn’t consolidate their positions.

This is the contradiction that underlies the terror in The Death of Stalin. And it makes for morbidly funny viewing.


The heavyweight cast rarely play their characters for laughs. Like much good farce the real comedy in the film comes from the tragedy of the situation.

Largely missing from the film are the voices of ordinary people, other than as a cry of “long live Stalin!” before a shot turns them into bodybag filler.

There was an outburst of rebellion after Stalin’s death, which increased the pressure on those at the top.

It would have been interesting to reflect that, but that absence doesn’t make the film worse.

The Death of Stalin brilliantly derobes a tyrant and has ruffled the feathers of Russia’s current rulers.

The Death of Stalin

Directed by Armando Iannucci. On general release

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Mon 16 Oct 2017, 15:41 BST
Issue No. 2576
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