The Death of Stalin (2017) is loosely based on the events surrounding the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Loosely by necessity and not in a demeaning sense, given the highly controlled release of information in totalitarian regimes. Thus, we will never know the exact facts surrounding the death of an absolute leader. Unlike the assassination of JFK in Dallas ten years later while the cameras rolled, Stalin died in his Kuntsevo dacha in a remote suburb of Moscow, far from the public eye. In these circumstances, Amando Iannucci’s film is rather daring as it attempts to make sense of the hours leading up to Stalin’s death, the intricate strategies of the members of the central committee to get the upper hand in the time between the death and the funeral, and the consolidation of power around the new leader after the funeral.
In a regime ruled by fear, dissimulation and make-believe are an integral part of daily life both in the public and private spheres, to the point that nothing of what you see is real. A renowned pianist attempts to send a note of love and admiration to the great leader. A husband publicly condemns the behavior of his wife taken hostage by the regime to prevent his defection. A tortured and incarcerated political prisoner cries convulsively when informed of the death of the tyrant responsible for his fate. It is crucial that one’s actions be seen and, hopefully, believed. The death of any absolute leader ensues a period of confusion and disturbs business as usual. The achievement of a new equilibrium, more or less cynical, depends on the power struggle between the top figures of the regime, especially if there was no designated successor.
The historical facts tell us that Stalin had a stroke on the 1st of March of 1953 and died four days later. His passing was announced on the 6th of March and he lied in state for three days until the funeral, held in Red Square on the 9th before a crowd of tens of thousands. We also know that both of Stalin’s children, Svetlana and Vasily were present at the funeral and that Vasily struggled with alcoholism. Finally, we know that Nikita Khrushchev assumed a leading role in post-Stalinist Russia rising above Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and especially Lavrentiy Beria, whose downfall closely followed the death of Stalin ending with his execution later in 1953.
The film is pretty accurate on the facts and provides a convincing story of the power struggle once Stalin was gone. The concealment of everyone’s true motives gives rise to truly comedic moments throughout the film, which is nevertheless not a parody. The rise of Khrushchev above all other characters, and his potentially well intended de-Stalinization process, were still based on personal leadership and the elimination of opponents, rather than institutional quality. What could we expect? A dictator dictates… that’s what he does.