There are two great compliments that have been paid to “The Death of Stalin”, Armando Iannucci’s black comedy about the struggle within the Politburo to succeed the Soviet dictator. One is that it has been banned in Russia (as if to honour the film’s farcical plot, this happened at the last minute, after a confused and contradictory culture ministry finally made up its mind). The second is the reception it has received in Georgia, where Stalin was born, and where he still casts a shadow.
For the last three weeks the film has been showing at two of Georgia’s seven cinemas and for much of the country’s intelligentsia it has been the reckoning with the past they’ve been looking for. “It was truthful, it was accurate,” says Giorgi Kandelaki, an opposition MP who was once involved in an ill-fated attempt to update the outrageously hagiographic Stalin Museum in the dictator’s hometown of Gori. “The use of black humour really shows what it was like. How mad it was. How the whole thing worked.” Writing on Facebook, Nodar Ladaria, a well-known theologian, said he was expecting a comedy in the Monty Python mode, but instead “I saw a real tragedy – our common tragedy.”
Although the film is set in 1953, it telescopes the Stalin period, with scenes evoking the Great Terror of 1937 and bringing forward the final reckoning over the succession by several months. There are exaggerations: the staff at Stalin’s dacha were not shot after his body was found, and there was no massacre of mourners attempting to get to the funeral. Nonetheless, Iannucci’s flexibility with the facts allows for a kind of emotional verisimilitude that even the most scrupulously researched historical dramas rarely achieve. “It ultimately does capture the situation where you have this overall sense of terror,” says Tim Blauvelt, a historian at Ilia University in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.
The film hits all the harder because of Georgia’s Janus-faced relationship with its most famous son. One the one hand, he is “the former Georgian” who repudiated his homeland before crushing its shortlived independence in 1921. On the other he is the local boy who got to the top, won the war and ruled the Russians.
“One thing the West probably doesn’t understand is how relevant this film is for this part of the world,” says Natalia Antelava, a Georgian journalist whose media start-up, Coda Story, has won awards for exposing the international reach of Russian disinformation. “It’s a really important film for Georgians to see, especially because we are at a point where Stalin is at the core of Georgia’s identity crisis.” Seeing him as a scrawny, urine-stained corpse on the big screen is welcome viewing for Georgians concerned that Russia is using the cult of Stalin to turn Georgia away from its pro-Western course.
In recent years Russia-sponsored xenophobic and homophobic groups have become ever more prominent in Georgia. They tend to rally around Stalin as a symbol of anti-western nationalism. Statues of him have sprung up in several Georgian villages, while a recent march celebrating his birthday drew a bigger – and younger – crowd than usual.
This is not the first time the cinematic cadaver of Stalinism has reared its head in Georgia and Russia. In 1986 “Repentance”, a metaphorical take on the Great Terror by the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze, was finally released after years of suppression. All over the USSR people crowded into cinemas to watch the body of a Stalin-like character exhumed on screen (literally: the hero digs up his corpse again and again). It was a cathartic social moment that was a centrepiece of the perestroika period. But, warns Antelava, “Stalin is much more in vogue today than he was in the Eighties,” and where Gorbachev sponsored the release of “Repentance”, the Putin regime has banned “The Death of Stalin”.
For years the Russian government has been quietly rehabilitating Stalin in the official narrative, part of its attempt to use history – in particular Russia’s game-changing role in the second world war – as a way of bolstering Russian pride, and by extension Putin’s rule. In this context, it’s easy to see how this film poses a threat to the official image of Stalin as a tough-but-wise leader, who had to break a few eggs in the pursuit of a delicious omelette. One advisor to the Russian culture ministry said the film “desecrates our historical symbols”. But Blauvelt points to other reasons it might have felt a little too close to home. “You have this group of oligarchs essentially, with Stalin at the pinnacle of them, and they are all terrified of each other. Then Stalin dies. The pinnacle is gone. What do you do next?” With Vladimir Putin soon to be elected to his fourth (and theoretically final) presidential term, there are bound to be some powerful people in the Kremlin asking themselves the same question.
In Georgia the figure of Stalin isn’t used to legitimise the government, but his ghost haunts any discussion of the country’s future. Those who seek a liberal, European path for Georgia want to exorcise his spirit and learn from his crimes, while the traditionalist, Russia-friendly constituency wants to rehabilitate his memory and re-erect his statues. “We just don’t know what to do with Stalin,” says Antelava. Iannucci’s film provides a convincing answer: laugh at him.