In Russia, nobody's laughing at Iannucci's The Death of Stalin

In the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, Veep creator’s feted satire on the Soviet leader faces a hostile reaction

In Britain, early reviews of Armando Iannucci’s dark satire on the aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s death have been glowing. In Russia, nobody is laughing.

The Death of Stalin, which chronicles the Kremlin infighting in the aftermath of the Soviet leader’s death in 1953, stars Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually succeeds Stalin, and Simon Russell-Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s odious secret police chief. Beria is referred to as a “sneaky little shit” in one scene featured in the trailer by Georgy Zhukov, the commander of Soviet troops in the second world war, played in the film by Jason Isaacs, representative of the jokey tone of the film.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said The Death of Stalin was the film of the year and gave it five stars. Many in Russia are less amused, however, as the film threatens to reopen heated Russian debates about the role of Stalin as the centenary of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power approaches.

“The death of any person is not a subject for comedy, and even more so the death of a head of state and a great leader,” said Nikolai Starikov, a politician who leads a fringe nationalist party and has written a series of bestselling books on Russian history, including one glorifying Stalin. “He was the leader of a state that was an ally of Great Britain during the war. Could you imagine the Russians making a film mocking the death of a British king?”

Starikov said the film was an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” and said it was very clear that the film was part of an “anti-Russian information war” aimed at discrediting the figure of Stalin.

A spokeswoman for Russia’s culture ministry said she could not comment on whether the film might be banned in Russia, as no application for a licence had yet been made. A representative of Volga Films, the Russian distributor of The Death of Stalin, confirmed that the company had yet to submit an official request to the culture ministry for a licence for the film, saying this would take place after the UK premiere on 20 October. She said any public commentary about a potential ban was “simply speculation”.

It is clear, however, that the prospect of the film being screened is already causing uproar among nationalists.

The pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad recommended the film should not be screened in Russia, calling it “a nasty sendup by outsiders who know nothing of our history”. Pavel Pozhigailo, an adviser to Russia’s culture ministry, said the film was a “planned provocation” aimed at angering Communists in Russia and had the potential to “incite hatred”.

In the centenary year of the two revolutions, the official Kremlin narrative of Russian history avoids criticism of leaders and instead focuses on “Russian greatness”, whether under the tsars, the Soviets or President Vladimir Putin. The relentless focus on this has led to popular anger that the Kremlin itself sometimes finds hard to control. Matilda, an upcoming film featuring an affair between the last tsar, Nicholas II, and a ballerina, has led to protests and threats to attack cinemas which show it.

Iannucci, who has satirised the US political system with Veep and the British system with The Thick of It, might find that Russians are a more sensitive target.

“Modern Russia is very neurotic about its past – much more neurotic than the Soviet Union ever was,” said Roman Volobuev, a Russian film-maker. “In the USSR we had comedies about World War II and the October Revolution. Now, suddenly, it’s too sacred, ‘the wounds are too fresh’ and so on. Period films have to be either fuzzy and nostalgic, or gung-ho heroic.”

Putin has calibrated his rare words about Stalin carefully, making sure not to praise the Soviet leader outright, but he has also refrained from direct criticism. Under Putin, victory in the second world war has become a sacred event that is portrayed as the main foundation block of the Russian state, and as a side-effect of this, positive views of Stalin have increased, due to his role as wartime leader.

In June, Russia’s Levada Centre polled the country’s citizens on who they believed to be “the greatest person of all nations and all eras”, and Stalin came in first place. Putin came second, and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin third.

According to Levada’s Denis Volkov, Stalin’s popularity rose sharply in spring 2014, around the time of the annexation of Crimea, when nationalist rhetoric from the Kremlin increased. Since then, the polls have found more than twice the number of Russians assess Stalin positively than those who view him negatively.

“This is not a coincidence. The [Crimea] events were taken by the population as a sign of the restoration of the country’s greatness – the same greatness which many people feel was created during Stalin’s rule and lost after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Volkov wrote in a column for the newspaper RBC.

The bitter reaction to Matilda has served as a further warning to Russian arts figures of the dangers of straying from the Kremlin-approved version of history. Volobuev said the long tradition of biting Russian satire had not died, but that film professionals were aware that satire was now unmarketable.

“Every TV producer I know wants to do a political comedy; one of them literally has a picture of Armando Iannucci above his desk, right next to Putin’s portrait,” he said. “They just don’t want to lose money making something no network will run.”


Shaun Walker Moscow correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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