The Death of Stalin: Socialist History as Opera Buffa

By Jarek Ervin

There’s only one major problem with Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film Death of Stalin: it isn’t about Stalin, dead or alive.

Of course, on one level, the movie is obviously about Stalin. The topic is a power struggle that ensued following the dictator’s death in 1953, eventually culminating in the military coup that brought Nikita Khrushchev to power. Given that this prickly subject matter is presented as comedy, it’s also generally well-executed (though the hamfisted finale suggests reports of Iannucci’s virtuosity are exaggerated).

In a more general sense, Death of Stalin is also about the way the man’s ghost has haunted the Soviet Union since his demise. The film implies throughout that Stalin’s fearsome cult of personality allowed him to live beyond the grave. There are constant reminders of now-familiar stories: gulags and purges, daily lists of people to be executed, shocking excesses of power, etc. We are to take it for granted that life in the USSR was a farce: endless calculating paranoia, coupled with sheer irrationality.

This context is made clear immediately, in a lengthy opening prelude that juxtaposes a brutal nighttime raid by the secret police (NKVD) with a live concert of a graceful piano concerto by Mozart. Performed by Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), the vignette evokes a real pianist who, like many musicians in the USSR, was persecuted for her religious and artistic commitments.

Even as his henchmen carry out their horrific orders, the soon-to-be late Stalin delights in a live radio broadcast of the moving piece, calling the station to request a copy. Instructed to expect the dictator’s staff posthaste, the station manager discovers to his horror that he did not bother to record the concert.

Realizing that failure may not be an option, the man frantically decides to encore the entire concerto. With an audience dragged in off the street and a conductor pulled out of bed to lead the ensemble in his pajamas, the orchestra frantically trots through a reading of the work. They know more than artistry is on the line.

It’s a striking episode. The demur elegance of Mozart stands as a dramatic foil to lived reality; at every moment, terror behind a thin veil.

There’s just one small issue with the scene: it is based on an anecdote from Solomon Volkov’s Testimony (1979), a memoir allegedly authorized at the deathbed of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (himself a recurrent victim of Stalinist persecution). It’s a fun read, but many historians have asserted that much content in the book falls somewhere between impressionistic guesswork and outright forgery.

Indeed, critics have detected numerous historical inaccuracies in Death of Stalin, the most obvious of which might be the way in which nine months of real-time history is compressed into a few short days. Like a lot that happens in the film, it doesn’t matter whether or not the details are true.

Simply put: history is not what is at stake. For the film to work, Stalin’s Russia need only form a generally grotesque stage on which to present a show. It’s a backdrop that won’t be a hard sell for the average American or British viewer, and so it doesn’t really require too much depth.

Really, Death of Stalin is about laughs, plain and simple. History is merely garb for a (mostly) well-scripted black comedy.

The past is a perennial trope in theatre. Ancient Greek and Roman figures—Orpheus, Julius Caesar, and so on—regularly appeared on Italian opera stages during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987) even uses almost-current politics to explore the operatic character latent in an age of televised political spectacle.

At times, period drama offers a medium for political critique. Think of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, an allegory which uses the Salem Witch Trials as a thinly veiled stand-in for McCarthyite purges.

But Death of Stalin has perhaps more in common with Sophia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette.

Iannucci has resorted to political satire before, poking at American electoralism in his beloved HBO series, Veep, and casting a somewhat darker hue in his critically-acclaimed Iraq War farce, In the Loop (2009). His latest is merely the next iteration, here presented in the olive drab uniforms of the mid-century USSR.

Despite its topic, Death of Stalin is opera buffa at heart—comedic opera, a genre that often poked fun at the power-hungry blowhards who lord over our world. Representative is another of Mozart’s works, Marriage of Figaro (1786). It’s a deep commentary on privilege, class, and even sexual politics: throughout, the daft philanderer Count Almaviva is repeatedly made to look like a dupe by his servants and wife, failing in his attempts to seduce Susanna, bride-to-be of the title character.

Stalin’s potential heirs are pure buffa, eager to fill their predecessor’s shoes, tripping and stumbling as they push each other aside. There’s even a gem of a slapstick scene in which Central Committee members Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) fight over how to lift up their comatose leader, falling into bed with him because of their inability to cooperate.

It’s hardly worth pointing out that some historians have questioned the notion that clownish fools led the Soviet Union, a common trope in anti-Left propaganda. Deutscher’s 1967 Stalin: A Political Biography, for example, emerges as forceful critique precisely because it regards the country’s leader as rationally as possible.

Hardly worth pointing out, that is, because Death of Stalin isn’t even really a commentary on the failings of Actually Existing Socialism.

Rather, it is Lavrentiy Beria, director of the NKVD, who is the film’s Count Almaviva. Unlike Stalin, a kind-eyed fellow who enjoys watching Westernsand even unlike the other Central Committee members, frightened buffoons who are merely trying to surviveBeria takes personal pleasure in the excess and violence of his station.

It’s a fair charge against one of history’s true monsters, a man who reportedly used his position to rape and murder numerous women—often teenagers. When the film’s conclusion rolls round and he is hastily executed to make room for Khrushchev, one cannot help but feel he had it coming.

The hurried pace of the scene also makes me wonder whether Iannucci has a sense of humor after all. Enchanted by costumes after all, the film suddenly casts off buffa wit for a short bout of good old fashioned Cold War-style hand-waving.

Certainly, then, Death of Stalin is no model of leftist social critique. Further, it is mildly troubling that the film reproduces many of the most shopworn tales of anti-Communist hysteria. It suggests there is no need to regard Stalin’s life as subject to dispute, the plot-points as clearly defined as Orpheus’s path into the Underworld.

One silver lining, at least, is that Death of Stalin is mostly free of the overwrought moralism that so often accompanies its subject matter. Stalin is treated like the stuff of mythology, joining Caesar and Louis XVI in the pantheon of historical figures who reside in a realm of tropes and half-remembered anecdotes.

At long last, Stalin’s ghost is finally coming to rest. Maybe soon, it will cease to haunt socialism as it did in the previous century.

Jarek Ervin is a writer, teacher, and editor based in Philadelphia and a Co-Editor for Arts & Culture with this publication.

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