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The novel observes the three months that elapsed between Stalin’s death and Beria’s arrest; the film comically exaggerates the Politburo’s competitive disarray by having this take place in a matter of days. Rather than being tried by a military court, as he probably was, Beria is lynched and burned by his colleagues, which he certainly wasn’t. The film makes comic capital out of the Orthodox priests’ presence at Stalin’s funeral by Beria’s invitation; the novel rightly does no such thing. As Khrushchev recalls, after Stalin’s cerebral haemorrhage two days before his death, the Orthodox Patriarch and Chief Rabbi of Russia were ordered to say prayers for him. After all, it had been Stalin himself who had re-permitted religion in Soviet life.

The film also exaggerates the role of the Christian anti-Stalinist pianist Maria Yudina, to the point of making her write a note to Stalin denouncing his crimes, and making this the cause of Stalin’s stroke. This makes no sense on its own terms; a character intended to be positive should not risk the lives of her innocent employers. Nor did she play at Stalin’s funeral; Richter did. I suspect that her role was exaggerated in order to include one person of moral backbone; but Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, whom the film makes a cracked comic counterpart to her dissolute brother, might have played this role more realistically. 

The film, not the novel, implies that Khrushchev was given a raw deal in being asked to organise Stalin’s funeral; on the contrary, it was an honour. Stalin had organised and spoken at Lenin’s funeral, as he reminded people throughout his life.

As far as the film’s interpretation of Stalin is concerned, it is worth recalling the fraught history of his reputation. Non-Soviet Communists, as well as anti-Communists, had denounced his crimes well before his death, as Orwell’s 1945 Animal Farm exemplifies. Inside the USSR, Khrushchev led the way with his (not very) secret speech to the 1956 20th Party Congress, which expanded the blame for the crimes of the Terror and Gulag beyond Beria — on whom it had been concentrated since 1953 — to include Stalin himself. This speech denied him a significant role in the Soviet victory over Nazism, leaving the military to claim this as its own. Thereafter, however, renewed claims have been made for Stalin’s significance as a wartime leader — in Britain by historians such as Geoffrey Roberts; in the Soviet Union with the effect of provoking Khrushchev to write his memoirs as a counter. In the West, Stalin has remained a source of debate between some left- and right-leaning people over his equivalence or otherwise to Hitler. (Peter Hitchens asked, in response to this film, “whether anyone would think the final days of Hitler, the other great European mass-killer, torturer and tyrant, would make a good comedy, with Goebbels, Himmler and the rest of the Nazi elite played for laughs. No, of course not.”) In Russia during the 1990s, Stalin became the focus of patriotic nostalgia for some of those who were suffering most at that terrible time, even while testimony to his crimes was encouraged by NGOs such as Memorial, and an increasingly powerful Orthodox Church. He is now a focus of admiration particularly among Communists (the largest opposition party by far), the elderly, and Georgians. The many Stalin monuments restored in the post-Soviet period, and the very few built new, are predominantly local initiatives by elderly people, or are in Georgia. Stalin’s image in Russian society as a whole is therefore in the balance between Communism-saving defeater of Hitler, and monster. At the same time, a less fraught version of this dispute rumbles on in the West.
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