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I sympathise with Hitchens’s implied irritation at those responses to the film which demonstrate the modern servility towards comedy. According to the forelock-tuggers, everything is appropriate material for humour, everyone should be able to take a joke, the only criterion on which funny things should be judged is their funniness, and comedy has sacred rights but no duties. For those who feel Stalin’s crimes the most strongly and personally, this comic film might be painful watching, best avoided.

Where I part company with Hitchens is on his claims that the film is useless to those with no prior understanding of these crimes, and that Iannucci milks the horror itself for cheap laughs. This is because I perceive something that he, in common with those who have praised the film as comedy gold, seem to have missed. The gold is mixed with the blackest tar — such as ran through the Lubyanka, the construction sites of the White Sea Canal, the Kolyma Gulag, and Moscow’s House on the Embankment, where NKVD staff regularly called at four in the morning.

It is acceptable to mix comedy with such terror and pain because, the film persuasively suggests, there was a terrible comedy intrinsic to the insanity of Stalin’s system. As long as the comedy is intrinsic to the terror, rather than being a varnishing and obfuscation of it, it is not only acceptable but points to a truth. The preface to the graphic novel, after the usual disclaimer of artistic licence, ends: “Having said this, the authors would like to make clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation of this story, since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.”

Take, for example, Khrushchev’s account of Beria’s arrest. It was planned that Malenkov, who chaired the Presidium of the Council of Ministers at which it took place, would call first on Khrushchev and then on other members to speak. They would all accuse Beria in turn, Malenkov would propose a motion to arrest him, this would be carried, Malenkov would press a button, Zhukov and his fellow marshals and generals would enter the room, and Malenkov would order them to arrest Beria. In the event, the last person to speak was Mikoyan, who suggested that Beria would surely appreciate the comradely criticism offered, reform his ways, and continue to be useful. During the perplexed silence which followed, Malenkov lost his nerve. So Khrushchev took the floor to propose the vote, at which Malenkov, panicking, and without waiting for the vote, pushed the button, and ordered the arrest in the tiniest of voices. At this point the conspirators realised that they didn’t know where to put Beria, since all the prisons were under his control (he was eventually transferred to a bunker at Moskalenko’s headquarters). It seems incredible that the planning would be so lax, but Khrushchev had nothing to gain from making this up.
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