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The film implicitly dismisses Stalin as a wartime leader by the simple expedient of making Zhukov a hero (albeit one caricatured beyond, I would imagine, the patience of his many admirers). The most-quoted line in the film is Zhukov’s: “I fucked Germany. I think I can take on a flesh lump in a waistcoat” (which is dubbed in the Russian trailer as: “I took Berlin; somehow I’ll manage with a fatty in a pince-nez”). We see Stalin only in the last days of his life, at which time even disciples such as Molotov admitted that he was “not completely in control of himself”. It has even been suggested that he had a stroke in 1948, which led to a personality change, and to the increasingly contemptuous treatment of his Politburo of which Khrushchev so vividly complains.

But we hardly even see this; we hardly see him at all. We get little sense of the man who would call his colleagues to the Kremlin when he rose in the afternoon, conduct state business in the intervals of films that he would put them through, drag them to boozy all-night suppers at his dacha, then send them to their morning’s work. If Khrushchev was self-serving in representing Stalin as the perverter of a system, and he and his colleagues as his victims (“the abuses of Stalin’s rule were not committed by the Party but were inflicted on the Party”), then the film, which otherwise owes so much to his memories, is having none of it.

Malenkov, Khrushchev, Beria, Mikoyan et al are represented as facilitators and confrères, whose careerism (a major sin in the Soviet catechism) and collusion in moral and intellectual madness becomes painfully exposed when their lynchpin is removed. Their lack of unity is indicated by their crazy range of accents: Khrushchev has a Brooklyn accent, Malenkov a Californian one, Mikoyan and Stalin are Cockney, while Zhukov is a Yorkshireman; this is in no way intended to represent the actual range of accents on the Politburo. So Iannucci takes the system at its own word. In theory there was no King or President, merely the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In that case, he suggests, the responsibility was collective. As Molotov lamented of A. Avtokhanov’s (Paris-bought) book Enigma of Stalin’s Death, which his interviewer had given him to read and comment on: “He depicts us all as a gang of brigands!” So does this film.

Admittedly, the most clearly evil character is Beria. He is shown about to rape a woman arrested for the purpose (though not in the act, unlike the novel, which shows him raping a child over his desk). But he is merely the nastiest. He is not shown as having the peculiarly close relationship to Stalin that existed during the preceding years (Khrushchev recalls: “When Beria and Stalin fought, Beria could always pretend it was just a lovers’ quarrel. When two Georgians fight, they’re just amusing themselves. They’ll always make up in the end.”) Beria’s colleagues are not shown as shocked — as they were, and as was Svetlana — by the way in which Beria spoke contemptuously of Stalin while he was unconscious after his haemorrhage, then fell to kiss his hand the moment he revived. They are shown as colluding in Beria’s crimes — and in that the film is right, even if the full extent of their horror, including the rape of more than a hundred girls and women, only emerged after he was arrested.
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