The rebirth of Stalin
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, November 29, 2018
We are all caught in the middle. You, you and you and me, too — perhaps especially me, an American-born-Russian caught under the clouds that surround the U.S. and Russia today. Let this piece be an invitation, then, to gain a little perspective.
What is clear is that the new movie, “The Death of Stalin,” is the latest attempt by Western media to portray Russia in only the most negative light. And yes, that is coming from a Westerner.
No doubt my detractors will point to the hateful nature of the characters in the film, and use that as justification for their criticism. Lavrentiy Beria, a sadistic police chief, taken to torturing women, raping young girls, manipulating his “comrades” (the list goes on); Nikita Khrushchev, power-hungry and sly, letting others take the hit so that he can eventually step forward and take control; and the one and only Stalin, so ruthless, he’d be apt to have you shot over a bad joke. The movie depicts the Soviet committee as a pool of sharks just gnashing at one another for power.
Now, please do not take my critique of the movie to be a defense of the whole regime. And before you accuse me of “cozying up to the Russians,” recognize that my own mother has told me stories of how her grandfather was seized in the middle of the night in the winter of 1937 and sent to work in the Siberian Gulag for the next seventeen years.
Of course the Great Purges of the 1930s were hateful. There is not a Russian soul whose family had not been the victim, either directly or tangentially, of search and seizure by Stalinist armies in the ’30s and ’40s, or of Gulag imprisonment in the ’50s and ’60s or of massive population loss from World War II … There was not a Soviet person unaffected by government brainwashing, stifled living conditions, long food lines or a sense of loss.
But does all of this give filmmakers the right to satirize and further demonize Russian history and the Russian condition? Especially Western filmmakers?
Why needlessly provoke a nation that has had a long history of conflict with the U.S.?
Why make something already so hateful, so appalling, and so painful — in the rather lucid words of the famous Russian literary critic V. G. Belinsky — “doubly bad”?!
Would Americans like it if Russians made movies about Japanese internment camps and torture in Guantanamo Bay and drones killing people in the Middle East and the atrocities of Vietnam?
Good for Russia for banning this abominable film. Russian people would be better off forgetting their troubled past for but a brief moment, given that are they still very much inundated with reminders of what life was like in the Soviet Union every day. Indeed, they would be much better off receiving compassion and encouragement from the West in order to throw off the shackles of Putin’s authoritarianism. Sadly, all they receive, at least from America, is more conflicting opinion: first the butt-kissing from our president, followed by the threat of his sanctions.
Politically speaking, how does this movie do anything but incite more confusion in the minds of the American public? A public who, on the one hand, is supposed to feel outrage at Russia for meddling in the presidential election (only the most important democratic process of our nation!). But who, on the other hand, is supposed to let such an event slide, because, well, our president just happens to really admire Putin. A film that so horribly portrays the middle period of Soviet history — the very period in which Putin grew up — does not help shed light on the current situation.
What is clear is that this movie creates a new conception of Stalin and the Soviet regime that is completely and wholly unnecessary. Stalin and his men are reborn in our minds, albeit more hatefully. The subject matter in this movie is far too serious for comedy, let alone satire. The absurdly comical nature of this film is akin to joking about the Holocaust by making light of Hitler’s personality. To my knowledge, the best films about the Nazi Party and WWII (e.g., “Schindler’s List,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”) have done precisely the opposite of making irreverent jokes — they have preserved the seriousness and somberness of the event and have treated it with respect.
Thus if a movie has artistic merit, presents real events in a respectful manner and seeks to preserve the real story in order to have valid political and emotional commentary, then fine. But if the movie is one big farce that draws attention solely from its shock value, and offers little to no insight or solution for the problem it poses, then throw it out.
Armando Iannucci would do well to take the advice of his own movie character, Georgy Malenkov, who, while carrying the funeral casket of Stalin before public proceedings, mouths off to Khrushchev to “shut up and have some respect.”
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.