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The Politburo and visiting Communist dignitaries on the platform at Stalin’s funeral; the speaker is Malenkov (©Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)



I was intrigued to see Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death Of Stalin. It had been called “revolting” by the Russian Communist Party, and “disgraceful” by the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens. According to some it reflected on Vladimir Putin, while according to David Cameron it reflected on Theresa May. It was praised as Iannucci’s deepest work, and condemned as a gross lapse from form. As I write, it has not yet received a Russian licence, and it grossed twice in its opening weekend what In the Loop did in 2009. I went fully prepared to hate it and walk out. In the event, I stayed in my Everyman armchair to the credits’ end, so may now toss my own ha’pennyworth into the furore.

First the facts. Insofar as they are known about such a fact-averse period, this stylised comedy is surprisingly close to them. This is largely thanks to the graphic novel on which it is based — La mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin (2010). This writer-illustrator duo had clearly read the eyewitness accounts, such as Khrushchev’s 1960s memoirs and Svetlana Alliluyeva’s Twenty Letters to a Friend.

Khrushchev’s recollection that the doctor eventually summoned to Stalin’s deathbed touched his hand gingerly, before being roughly ordered by Beria to take it properly, is reproduced exactly in a couple of the comic’s frames. The novel’s madly-   orthodox Molotov is a fair reconstruction from the interviews that Molotov himself gave to Soviet journalist Felix Chuev between his forced retirement in 1962 and his death in 1986, in which he castigated Khrushchev and Beria as non-Communists, praised Stalin for his terror (“of the three who spoke at the funeral, I was the only one who spoke from the heart”), and described the Cheka leader Felix Dzerzhinsky as “a radiant, spotless personality”. These interviews were published in the Soviet Union in 1991, just in time to give inspiration, if not success, to the coup plotters of August 199l — and in plenty of time to give inspiration to this novel.

That said, the novel’s relative fidelity to its sources has not bound Iannucci with equal fidelity to the novel. The latter’s mild liberty of portraying Marshal Zhukov as young (which he was not) as well as lantern-jawed and large (which he was), is magnified many times by the casting of a swaggering Jason Isaacs with chest padding and a Yorkshire accent. In fact, Zhukov had been exiled to the provinces by Stalin out of jealousy at his post-war popularity, but was summoned by Khrushchev and his co-conspirators to be one of the military leaders led by air defence commander General Moskalenko to arrest Beria. Khrushchev recalls that he was the first to enter the room at Malenkov’s pre-arranged signal: “‘Hands up!’, Zhukov commanded Beria”. In the film, he is the commander of the Red Army and leads the plot.
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