Tuesday 18 September 2018

Stalin's Favourite Stalin

The actor Mikheil Gelovani as Stalin in the film The Fall of Berlin (1950)

At school, I run a film club, and our most recent film was The Death of Stalin. The text that follows is from my introduction to the movie:

As chance would have it, I was just the other night at the first performance of Welsh National Opera’s new production of Sergei Prokofiev’sepic opera War and Peace. War and Peace caused Prokofiev no end of trouble: he had been lured back to the USSR in 1936, after almost two decades away in Europe, with the promise of artistic freedom and of a position as the Soviet Union’s leading composer. But in reality he found he was not free at all, and he spent the last 13 years of his life trying to get his mega-opera staged in its entirety. He thought he’d hit upon a winner: Tolstoy’s story of heroic Russian victory against Napoleon seemed totally right for the 1940s, just when the USSR was taking on Hitler’s army in the greatest war in history. It was potentially tricky, because the book and the opera commemorated one of the great triumphs of Tsarist Russia, but history was too important a weapon in the propaganda war to be ignored entirely. The audience could forget about the Tsar and instead focus on the great military hero of 1812, General Kutuzov, and make the obvious connection with their leader and teacher, Joseph Stalin. The Soviet government, though changed its mind very often about what was acceptable and what was not, and Prokofiev’s opera never quite made the cut. A second, much sadder occurrence of chance was that Prokofiev and Stalin died on the same day in 1953. Apparently, there were no flowers at Prokofiev’s memorial, because they had all been taken for Stalin’s funeral. But Stalin had, after all, spent two decades terrorising the Soviet people, liquidating millions of them in his slave labour camps and deliberate famines. Even in death, the fear lived on. No one was brave enough to steal so much as a rose from Stalin to offer to a mere composer.

It’s difficult for us now to imagine how powerful Stalin was, or what it would have been like to live under his rule. One well-known musician, who grew up in those days, told me that it is simply not possible for westerners to understand. You cannot imagine, he said. In the 1930s, Stalin had terrorised his population with arbitrary executions and deportations to Siberia. It didn’t really matter who died; Stalin wanted to eliminate his opponents, but he worked out that you could just kill anyone and the effect was the same. City authorities were instructed to round up and kill so-many thousands of people, regardless of their identity. If you introduced enough fear into people’s minds, they just stayed in line. Husbands or wives would be taken in the night by the secret police, and at work the next day, the remaining partner would have to make sure they smiled. To shed a tear for your disappeared spouse was to cry for an enemy of the people.

Terror was only one tool of the tyrant, however. Stalin controlled all information. Had you visited Moscow in the middle of the last century, you would have seen giant banners of the gods of Communism: Marx, Lenin and Joseph himself. The food on your table was put there by Stalin. The wage in your pocket, the school where you studied; thank you, Stalin. He may as well have been the sun in the sky. The films in the cinema celebrated all the wonderful things about Soviet life. They told you that Stalin had brought order to the chaos of Tsarist Russia. They told you that Stalin had led the nation against the greatest evil in history, and won. They didn’t have to tell you this; they showed you. More than one actor played Stalin on screen, but he had a favourite. Mikheil Gelovani was so good at it that he wasn’t allowed to play anyone else. Once you’ve played a god, you don’t act the part of mere mortals. European history was rewritten for the epic propaganda film The Fall of Berlin in 1950, which shows the saintly Stalin (dressed in white) leading the good fight while his supposed allies scheme and plot. It’s actually a lot like Prokofiev’s War and Peace, which the composer was still fiddling with at the time, though it was Shostakovich who got to write the music for the film. There’s a love story, the lovers are separated by war, and then Stalin leads his Soviet people to victory. At the end of the film, Gelovani’s Stalin flies into Berlin to give a speech to the Russian victors. It didn’t happen, but Stalin liked the scene so much that he regretted not having done it for real.

A lot of people smile in The Fall of Berlin, but the smiles were only for the camera. When the film was released, Stalin was in the middle of unleashing a fresh wave of terror, which culminated in the supposed Doctor’s Plot, a fake conspiracy which was used to purge Jews from the medical profession. All of this was carried out by Stalin’s right-hand man and secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, who in his spare time liked to cruise round Moscow in his limousine in the small hours and pick up young ladies to drug, rape and bury in the garden. But the terror and fear and executions finally did it for Stalin. When he fell ill, in 1953, it took hours before anyone was brave enough to enter his bedroom. There weren’t any doctors left; they were all in prison. And without the boss to tell them what to do, his deputies ran around frantically, suspicious of each other and trying to stay alive. It would have been funny had it not been so awful.

There’s a fine line, though, between funny and awful. Armando Iannucci saw as much in Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel La mort de Staline, and he’s made it into a funny and horrible film. If, at the end, you wonder how much of it is true, the answer is: the broad strokes. They’ve compressed the timeframe; what appears to take days in reality took longer. We don’t really know all the details, and that suits the storytellers just fine. It works as a comedy, because the way in which people behave in awful situations is often so absurd. Not everyone saw the funny side – one leading historian wrote a rather po-faced article, counting the historical errors and referring to the film as “Carry On Up the Kremlin”.

Jason Issacs in The Death of Stalin

But the joke really fell flat in Moscow, where The Death of Stalin has the dubious honour of being the first film to be banned since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Public figures called the film “vile, repugnant and insulting”, and although the banning was partly an attempt by the Russian government to put behind it an embarrassing episode involving the release of Paddington 2, it was also clear that the film did not fit a particular version of history which Putin’s government is keen to impose. Like General Kutuzov before him, Stalin is a figure who suits the aspirations of the current leader of Russia. In Stalin, if you ignore the killings and the torture, rests the image of strong leader who, if you tell the story right, united the Soviet state behind the single purpose of defeating fascism. Stalin was not the only person who could cherry-pick from history. And so, the Russian film industry is very busy producing sumptuous films which glorify the Second World War and the heroism of the Russians who fought in it. A notable example is Panfilov’s 28 Men, a 2016 war film telling the story of a group of Russian soldiers who held out against overwhelming German forces during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. At the time, the Soviet newspaper Pravda carried a report detailing the noble self-sacrifice of the troops; the problem was, it was only partly true. It happened over 70 years ago, but when the distance between the legend and the reality was brought up recently, the Russian culture minister retorted angrily that the story was “a sacred legend that shouldn’t be interfered with. People that do that are filthy scum.”

Of course, it’s easy to point out the holes in other people’s national myths. We certainly could ask where all the successful British films are that properly interrogate the complex legacy of colonialism. And it is true that Putin is no Stalin. There are no untold millions languishing in secret prison camps in Russia today. There aren’t long lists of names being issued by the Kremlin for immediate liquidation, though here in Wiltshire, we know they’re dabbling. But Putin’s government demonstrates the familiar irritation that authoritarians usually show for those who fail to treat the useful bits of history with the required respect. 

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