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Stalin’s acolytes line up beside his body as it lies in state: from left to right, Molotov, Voroshilov, Beria and Malenkov (© PhotoQuest/Getty Images)



The result is that Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi) comes out of the film rather less well than the novel, let alone Khrushchev’s own memoirs; the film will do little to revive his reputation from the low point at which it has stood — in Russia as well as outside it — ever since his displacement by Brezhnev in 1964. If T.S. Eliot refused to publish Animal Farm on the grounds that it was Trotskyist, this film could not similarly be called Khrushchevite.

Having said that, given the alternatives, the audience is pleased to learn from the film’s concluding surtitles that Khrushchev finally wins the power struggle in 1957. He is shown as sincere in his desire to liberalise, in clear contrast to Beria. But the film does not give him his due to the extent of noting that, when Brezhnev ousted him in his turn, he was not imprisoned or killed — in large part because of the culture change that he himself had brought about. He had broken a tradition of conducting Russian power struggles stretching back centuries. When in 1957 Molotov and Malenkov launched a Stalinist coup which failed, they were expelled from the Politburo, and a few years later from the party, but were not otherwise hurt. No Russian leader has lost his life with his office since then.

So much for fact. Now for value. Peter Hitchens, in his sharp formulation of a point made by many, argues: “We are so free and safe that we can hardly begin to imagine a despot so wholly terrifying that his subordinates are even afraid of his corpse. This trivial and inaccurate squib does not help us to do so . . . misery, pain, fear and mass murder are milked for feeble giggles.”

Certainly, the film is guilty of misusing humour on occasions, although not quite as Hitchens suggests. The woman who sparked the “Doctor’s Plot” conspiracy theory by denouncing her Jewish colleagues is referred to by Beria — who has just described her previous fellatio of him and others — as “Lady Suck-Suck”. This elicits a knee-jerk laugh, but it is Beria’s joke, and in laughing the audience is sharing his humour. An orchestra member, when told of the need to dampen the acoustics for a music recording demanded by Stalin at short notice, suggests inviting his wife because she is “so fat”; this is a surprisingly lumpen and passé form of humour. “I don’t think any of these people have heard of Mozart”, comments the music director about the proletarians hauled in off the streets to be audience members. Yet, since Soviet education had been in existence for three decades by this point, the claim is unlikely. Indeed, the conductor dragged from his bed to make the recording in his dressing-gown provides an unintentional visual metaphor for the Soviet Union’s imposition of high culture on the mass of the people, however crudely dressed.

The swearing for which Iannucci’s characters are famous, and which I find tiring even when at its exuberant wittiest, has here degenerated into “fucks” spread across all characters indiscriminately. This is not just unfunny, but an unjustified lapse from fact. Tony Blair may have imported bad language into Downing Street and thus into Iannucci’s oeuvre, but 1990s London is not 1950s Moscow; Russian taboo language is far stronger than its English equivalent and consequently less used, as the Russian translation of Zhukov’s boast indicates. Stalin swore on occasion, because he could, but in this he was the exception. As a result, the film’s Politburo members appear cruder and less educated than they were, and the important differences between them are eliminated (Khrushchev was palpably less educated than his peers, and always painfully aware of it).
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