Review time! with ‘The Death of Stalin’

“Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out, come and keep your comrade warm”

Whenever one reads anything about life in the Soviet Union, one wonders how exactly the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did. I mean, yes, of course it was a dictatorship, and dictatorships have a frustrating habit of lasting long after everyone thinks they should have been extirpated (Robert Mugabe was just recently removed from power, at least 40 years after everyone in Zimbabwe realized it was a really bad idea to have him in control), but with regard to the U.S.S.R., it’s almost surreal how the Communists managed to stay in power, because the Soviet Union was a dictatorship by oligarchy, so one would think the cult of personality embodied by Lenin and then Stalin would have died with Stalin in 1953. Yet under increasingly feckless leaders, the Soviet Union managed to last another 35 years, and the fulcrum upon which that legacy rested, Stalin’s death, is the subject of this book (I mean, duh, right?). Fabien Nury, who’s been writing for over 15 years but whose only work I’ve read (I think) is I Am Legion (partly because it was actually translated into English and partly because John Cassaday drew it), writes this, with Thierry Robin drawing it and providing colors, along with Lorien Aureyre (inexplicably, as the book was originally published in French, no translator is listed, unless of course Nury translated it himself?). Titan published this and it costs $24.99 for the nice hardcover. A $20-softcover is going to be out soon, so there is that, too.

The book starts with an author’s note about the historical veracity of the events. The usual caveats about “artistic license” are trotted out, but the second half of the note is fun: “[T]he 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 anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.” I hope everything in this book is true, at least in a broad sense (I imagine the dialogue isn’t, because who can know what was really said?), because the note is right: This is insane. The book itself isn’t that action-packed – it’s gripping, to be sure, as a bunch of old men jockey for position as they try to seize power – but given that we know what happened – Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin – it might seem not terribly interesting, but as usual with some stories, knowing the end isn’t the only reason for being there. What Nury does is give us a fascinating glimpse into the way dictatorships are run and what happens when the dictator dies. In many dictatorships, the end of the dictator leads to unrest and revolution. The Soviet Union is fascinating because it actually provided a system by which dictatorships could continue. It was messy, of course, but for several decades, it was effective.

Stalin’s death is the central event of the book, of course, and Nury imbues it with some mythic elements. Stalin is listening to a concert on the radio, and he calls the director to request a recording of it. The concert is not being recorded, and the director panics, finally telling the musicians they have to repeat the performance so it can be recorded. The pianist refuses, saying she doesn’t play for him. She extorts money out of the director, but then the conductor collapses in terror from the pressure. A worse conductor is dragged in, the recording is made, and the pianist slips a note into the record for Stalin himself. It’s not too inflammatory – she says she will ask the Lord to forgive him – but upon reading it he collapses. The idea of a man being confronted with his sins and it affecting him is the stuff of legends. We see the pianist only twice more, once when she’s smiling at Stalin’s funeral and then on the final page of the book, when she feels comfortable telling ghoulish jokes about the Politburo. Is it an indication that Stalin’s grip on the country cannot be replicated by the weaker men he left behind? Perhaps. Maybe it’s just a sick joke.

The opening sequence is notable because it introduces the odd contradiction of Russian society into the equation. The director is terrified that he won’t be able to appease Stalin, as even something as small as not being able to provide a recording could get him thrown in jail. When the pianist refuses to play, one of the radio station managers tells her that Stalin is “the greatest man to ever grace this planet!” Much later, a delegation of peasants comes to Moscow to pay homage to Stalin, even though they know they could be sent to the gulag at any moment. Everyone is scared of Stalin, as they all know they will be imprisoned if they “betray” the revolution, but they still hold him in high regard. One peasant woman tells her son that they’re all Stalin’s “children,” and perhaps that explains it. Despite his cruelty, Stalin positioned himself as the “father” of the country, and it’s difficult for children to find fault in their parents. So the terror that everyone feels and the almost nonchalant way they accept that terror is bizarre but not completely inexplicable. It makes daily living in the Soviet Union seem awful, but the people do have to live, so they accommodate it as best they can.

The bulk of the book, of course, is not concerned with the common people, but the people who pull the levers of power. Lavrentiy Beria is basically the protagonist, as he’s the first on the scene after Stalin collapses (he’s not dead yet!) and so he can gather his allies and information before anyone else knows what’s happening. Beria is a typical politician, but what makes the book fraught is that unlike politicians in free countries, a misstep in the U.S.S.R. leads to the firing squad. We don’t root for Beria at all, because he’s a vile human being, but watching him pull the right strings for most of the book before overreaching himself (he was executed 8 months after Stalin died) is fascinating. He uses all the evil tricks one can use in an oppressive bureaucracy, as, in one instance, he skillfully manipulates Stalin’s louche son into betraying himself rather than attacking him directly. Beria’s fall comes about partly because he is shown as a man incapable of love, so when he tries to manipulate Vyacheslav Molotov by reuniting him with his wife, whom Molotov believed had been killed on Stalin’s orders, he missteps because the love of a husband and wife is beyond his experience. Beria kept Molotov’s wife alive as a bargaining chip, never understanding the Molotov would see through that because he loved his wife and knew she had been mistreated by Beria. In the Politburo, a sentimentalist like the way Molotov is portrayed in the book might look weak, but he can see things that the more brutally practical Beria fails to.

Nury also does a nice job showing us the surreal absurdity of living under a sprawling, oligarchic dictatorship. The humorous parts of the book – black humor, to be sure, but still humorous – ring true because they confirm what we’ve heard or read about the Soviet Union, that it was almost a medieval society because anyone who might have dragged it into the 20th century had been killed. The Politburo meets to decide how to treat Stalin, but all the best doctors around are already dead, denounced by a female colleague who claimed they were part of a Zionist plot to assassinate the premier. Of course, Beria knows that the woman denounced them simply because they wouldn’t promote her, not because they were assassins, and he tells her she has to come up with a suitable doctor to see Stalin or he’ll denounce her. The idiocy of paranoia and recriminations is humorous but also horrifying, because the consequences of one’s actions can’t be foreseen. When the doctors give Stalin an electrocardiogram, one of the Central Committee’s members thinks they’re trying to kill him with the strange machine because he has no idea what it is. Later, they get a ventilator (after Stalin recovers slightly), but it’s American, so the voltage is different and they can’t plug it in. The ramshackle nature of the Soviet state isn’t overdone, but it is evident, and it makes the Committee members’ attempts to seize power a bit funnier and pathetic, as they’re trying to gain the captaincy of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. Nury does a nice job not making this too obvious, but it’s still part of the book. Of course, the general hypocrisy of the Soviet elite is on display, not only in Stalin’s dissolute son but even in the old-school hard-liners, but that’s always going to be a part of a book about politics – politicians tend to be hypocrites, no matter what kind of system they rule.

Robin’s art is slightly cartoonish, as his angular work gives everyone hard edges and exaggerated features, and overall, the art is pretty strong. He does a nice job showing the contrast between the ideal and reality of Soviet Russia, as the men wear severe clothing that shows they aren’t ostentatious, but the grandiosity of their homes argues against that. Again, the hypocrisy isn’t hard to find in any political situation, but Robin follows Nury’s lead by not making it too obvious, just a part of life in the U.S.S.R. The contrast between the elite and the peasants is also there, despite the relative lack of the common people in the book. Robin doesn’t get to draw too much action, but a scene near the end where Soviet troops fire on peasants is choreographed well, as Robin’s panels lose their staunchly regular shapes and crash into each other as the cacophony of guns grows louder. He places the Committee members in the shadows often, implying their secret machinations, while Stalin’s son resolutely stands in the light often, which means its baleful gaze can find him. It’s an interesting book, visually, even though Robin doesn’t get to show off a lot. He does a good job putting us into the topsy-turvy world of 1950s Russia, which is what he needs to do.

The Death of Stalin is fascinating, and I can see why someone wanted to make it into a movie. It gives serious actors serious stuff to say while they’re making serious facial expressions (although it’s by Armando Ianucci, who loves him some black humor, so I can see why he was attracted to this). It’s 119 pages, so it might be a bit expensive as a hardcover, but you can get it cheaper at the link below. Isn’t that handy?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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