The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin coverA true Soviet Story by Fabien Nury et Thierry Robin (Titan Comics, 2017) (Original pub. France: Dargand, 2012) Now a film directed by Armando Iannucci.

Fiction?  Non-fiction? The difficulty of telling the stories of the Soviet Union.

“Although inspired by real events, this book is nonetheless as work of fiction..having said this, the authors would like to make it clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation…since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events.”

In this novel as in the authors’ statement and as in the Soviet Union, it is difficult to separate truth from fiction.  By writing “fiction” Nury and Robin avoid the need to decide what is true. There is almost no other way to go, as they pull this “true” story from “historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial, and often contradictory.”  As always, it is tough for an outsider to know how convoluted and dangerous life was in both the government of the U.S.S.R. and in the opposition. I have written about The Yidanother fictional and satiric take on the Stalin’s death.

Strong (a derogatory word) leaders always leave a huge hole when they depart, and this version of the story focuses on the jockeying for position as a hole is opening. The shadowy world is drawn in shades of brown and grey, just occasionally punctuated by a red highlights: a dress, a pillow, the fabric around Stalin’s coffin.

The story is framed by a classical radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, featuring the soloist, Maria Yudina. Stalin calls the radio station asking for a recording of the performance, which had gone out live and was not taped.  Quickly, the orchestra is detained in the studio, and when they are asked to record the piece, Yudina refuses to play for Stalin.  She is bribed with 20,000 rubles, and then the conductor collapses too scared to carry on.  A second conductor is forcibly brought in by the police, in the middle of the night, and when the recording is done, Yudina, forces a note into the package with the record that the NKVD have come to collect. Stalin gets the note, reads it, and it tells him that Yudina will “pray for him” and that she will “donate” the money she was paid “to her parish for restoration work.” Immediately after he reads the note, Stalin has a massive heart attack.

The rest of the story is the negotiations and underhand manipulations that the Central Committee go through to figure out who succeeds the Georgian as Party Secretary.

It’s well written and dramatic and revealing of how decisions are made when there is no centre of power. But the idea of what is true, is central. The final image is a two-page spread of two parallel scenes. Beria is being executed,. He wonders if anyone will believe that he is guilty of the murders he is accused of, while at the same time, Yudina tells a joke about him, where a NKVD officer is crying in front of the mausoleum, and his colleague asks him if he is OK. The crying man asks, “Is it true that they arrested Beria?” The other man replies that it’s true, and the crying man says, “He raped, my daughter.” The other man replies, “Your’s too.” Beria is on the left-hand page, Yudina on the right, and at the bottom, across both pages a brick wall and a cloud of dust, and speech bubbles, presumably from Beria, say, “They’ve washed their hands in my blood…and now…they want to start afresh, to look ahead.”  The final bubble alone in the cloud of dust from the bullets that kill him, “towards a glorious future!”

Read it.  See the film.

It may seem distant in geography and in time, but these are the ways of our species.

In Russia, nobody’s laughing at Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin

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