A Stalin Comedy: How Totalitarians Corrupt Language And Torture Free Speech
Two guards outside the private room of Josef Stalin hear a thump, as if a body has hit the floor inside. “Should we investigate?” one guard asks the other. “Should you shut the fuck up before you get us both killed?” replies his terrified compatriot.
The next morning, faced with an unconscious Stalin still on the floor, the Central Committee of the USSR quakes in fear at calling a doctor. “What if the old man wakes up?” asks Malenkov. He could get mad and have them all shot. But if he’s really sick, he needs a doctor.
Nikita Khrushchev says, “I propose we call a doctor.” The panicked group quickly takes a vote to call a doctor. Small problem, says Kaganovich: “All the best doctors are in the gulag, or dead.” Beria had rounded up or shot them the year before in a purge of Jewish elements threatening the Revolution.
Now imagine this played for laughs.
Josef Stalin was either was the most evil, murderous figure of the 20th century. Or he’s tied with Mao. So naturally he’s an unlikely subject for a side-splitting farce called The Death of Stalin. With so many land mines of sensitivity over an estimated hundred million who perished in his regime, who could possibly get away with such an outrageous gambit?
That would be Scottish film maker/ TV producer Armando Iannucci. If these Trumpian times have a muse it would be the irreverent, profane and prolific satirist of The Death of Stalin and the brilliant HBO satire Veep. At the risk of saying zeitgeist, if anyone can capture the time of Trump in the White House, it is Iannucci.
After cutting his teeth on the BBC with his various Alan Partridge TV series (starring Steve Coogan), Iannucci created a political satire The Thick Of It, featuring a ruthless, foul-mouthed political fixer named Malcolm Tucker, played by a former Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi (who grew up near Iannucci in Glasgow).
The TV show spun off a 2009 movie, In The Loop, with the Tucker character immersed in the paranoid world of a British/ U.S. ramp-up to war (meant to suggest Tony Blair’s joining George W. Bush’s Iraq expedition). That’s when HBO gave him the license to create the collective political insanity of Veep, a series that has won scads of Emmys and the undying loyalty of TV viewers everywhere.
Following a hyper-partisan Hillary Clinton character trying to become America’s first woman president, Veep charbroils the egos, ambitions and moral failings of everyone in her orbit. Played at a frantic clip, marinated in profanity, the show’s energy comes from the pathetic desperation of its characters, who measure their prospects by the minute, switching loyalties like switching their socks.
The venality and moral turpitude of Selena Meyer, the lead character in Veep (played by Hollywood liberal Julia Louis Dreyfus), prefigured the spectacular implosion of Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. Her retinue of salty Hill veterans, sycophantic handlers and eager things looking for a career in politics is the perfect encapsulation of Clinton World.
Iannucci’s lethal humour is the antidote to the nightly inanities of cable news’ Trump obsessions. While media figures only play peripheral roles in Selena’s Grand Guignol, their judgments are craved by the power brokers and fixers. While power is the desired result from their contortions, it’s really the approval of the media that animates everyone.
Even as he distilled the American political process in Veep, Iannucci was turning his eye to the demise of Stalin, a passion play for socialist/ Marxist devotees. How can one find laughs in the blackness of Stalin and his vicious henchman Lavrentiy Beria (head of the NKVD, forerunner to the KGB)?
Iannucci solves the problem by casting them and their fellow politburo pals as the Marx Brothers, a troupe of grasping, morally bankrupt monsters whose only skill is plotting and covering their asses to avoid execution. Mixing America actors Steve Buscemi (Kruschev) and Jeffery Tambor (Malenkov) with Michael Palin (Molotov) and some lesser-known British veterans of theatre and film, the murderous mob morphs into timorous twits.
The characters in The Death of Stalin understand that honesty is one-way trip to the Gulag or two behind the ear. The evil triumph of Soviet communism was having people intimidated into voicing opinions they knew to be untrue. Molotov’s bitter denunciation of his wife, even as she is then restored to him from the Gulag, captures this pathos.
Watching the thugs desperately parsing their lies lest an unconscious Stalin revive to find them holding counter-revolutionary thoughts is the bleakest of comic gold. But The Death of Stalin is more than historical farce. It’s a reminder that the first step in the totalitarian playbook is corruption of language and thought, the willing suspension of free speech in service of group think.
It’s also a timely reminder that, even Stalin and his successors continued the unspeakable crimes catalogued by Solzhenitsyn, there was an army of useful idiots in the American cultural industry who denied the reality of the USSR and Mao’s China. Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and a host of others were still denying the realities on the ground in the USSR as Stalin, Kruschev and Brezhnev murdered or imprisoned millions.
Famously, Bernie Sanders, the avuncular avatar of new socialism, was honeymooning in Moscow in 1968, even as Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia
Following the 1960s there was a new spasm of sympathy for communism as anti-Americans Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, Sean Penn, and many more (often cheered by Canada’s left) cozied up to totalitarian dictators across the globe. In the foggy notion that their homeland was beyond redemption, they made common cause with the descendants of Stalin and his henchmen.
Puffed-up with self-importance, they may not understand that Iannucci is writing their historical epitaph in Death of Stalin and Veep. Vanity animates their fluffy righteousness. Exposing them might be his most lasting gift to viewers.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand will be available this fall.