The patriotic censorship of the Putin era has banned yet another film for Russian moviegoers. ‘The Death of Stalin,’ directed by Italian-born Scottish film director Armando Iannucci, is a dark comedy that stands out only through its topic. The Soviet dictator’s final night and the days leading up to his funeral are seen through the eyes of those close to him, who are faced with the explosive issue of the succession. Banal comedy but well-aimed satire. Because it talks about the “banality of evil” – the highly-inspired term once coined by Hannah Arendt. Because what is more significant is the backdrop of the film’s events. Summary executions, midnight arrests, women requisitioned for rapes, anyone’s fear for any uttered word etc. How could one speak about this apocalyptic inhumanity? It’s not by chance that most Westerns needed a quarter of a century to accept the obvious. Solzhenitsyn had to appear to recount, with the dramatic force of a new Dostoyevsky, the horrors of the Gulag.
The simple accounts of the survivors were not sufficient, nor were the books of historians. In the strategy of the Cold War, espionage novels and cartoons did more for the cause of Western freedom – this film starts off from a graphic novel too. Sometimes, comedy seems more appropriate to recount events that are more than tragic. If it were realistic, a film on the Great Stalinist Terror could only be a horror film. After all, cruelty had become commonplace, and executions were part of Soviet daily life.
But comedy has another virtue in this case: it illustrates the power relations between the Soviet leaders at the end of Stalinism – and then up to the fall of the USSR. Relations between old men who were already seeing power as a luxury pension. A gerontophilia matching the ossification of Soviet society, capable at most to release some of the far too many detainees, but not to truly reform itself. The Russians are right to be cautious with this film. But not in the sense that Russian moviegoers would change their perception of Stalin, who benefits from a quasi-official cult in the Putin era.
Yes, he was a cruel tyrant, but he made the USSR the master of half the globe – this is the message of the current regime. No, Russians will not rethink the shadows of their history. But maybe the Westerners – even today easy to influence by Putin’s propagandists – will. European and American leaders have already become aware of the poison it represents and have started to combat it more systematically. Films such as ‘The Death of Stalin’ will not win the biggest awards at art festivals, but they will probably attain their political goal: they will remind viewers who we are dealing with on the eastern border of the EU and NATO. An inspired tactic in the context of a new Cold War wanted by the Russians. As Pascal Bruckner reminded two days ago at a conference in Cluj, even the Norwegians turned to a reputed crime novelist for a series on the Russians’ infiltrations in their country – a veritable success with the public.
But a political success too, because, compared to Stalin’s era, the difference is that there is no longer an ideological seduction as strong as the communist one was. Putin’s illiberalism, his autocracy and the call for “moral values” – a big rhetorical bluff – attract some, but not enough. More dangerous are the politicians who, especially in search of geopolitical and financial backing, are willing to ally themselves with today’s Russia. Let’s not forget that if Emmanuel Macron hadn’t won the French Presidency, the other two main contenders were allied with Putin. The same could happen in the next elections in Italy, starting with the “comeback” of Silvio Berlusconi, a great friend of the Russian President.
Iannucci’s film also reminds us something. The case of Beria, Stalin’s bloody executioner, is also significant for the option following his death – the film compresses real history, Beria being executed only several months after the burial. Beria wanted to be the most reformist of the successors. Andropov wanted that too, but even Gorbachev had been at the helm of the KGB at one point. Were they more clear-minded about the regime’s failure? Did they want to switch between the carrot and the stick in a savant manner? Or did they simply want to win popularity against some conservative leaders? Whatever the truth, the lesson for us is not to credit such leaders based on our moral criteria. Their cynicism is beyond the limits we take into account.