What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Death of Stalin?


Comedy, it’s been said, is nothing more than tragedy plus time. Looks like the magic number in that equation is 55, as in the precise number of years since the event setting off Armando Iannucci’s lacerating new satire The Death of Stalin took place. The riotous and remorselessly dark film clocks the days following the dictator’s unexpected croaking, mining the chaotic, grim, and violent transfer of power for laughs. An unlikely starting point for humor, perhaps, but the rigidity and hypocrisy of fascism has a way of breeding absurdity.

Case in point: One of the upper-level flunkies Georgy Malenkov (portrayed in the film by Jeffrey Tambor) wants to restage a famed photo of the former General Secretary with a little girl. A grunt brings him a suitable tot, but Malenkov demands the original girl be retrieved. She’s located and brought before him, except she’s grown a foot in the years since the photo was taken, and he declares that she won’t do either — back to square one. Fascists are monsters, but sometimes, they behave more like maddeningly incompetent office managers.

There’s no historical record of this particular diva moment, but most of this grim situational comedy came to Iannucci ready-made. He took his liberties, mostly where the timeline is concerned, but a shocking amount of material went from the social-studies textbooks right to the silver screen with minimal tinkering. After some digging into the fascinating, bizarre, disturbing world of Soviet history (whatever you do, don’t Google “Ivanov’s humanzee”), Vulture has compiled a rundown of the fact and fiction in The Death of Stalin. All laughter stemming from unsubstantiated material will be promptly stricken from the record, and the error will be noted.

Did the whole orchestra brouhaha really happen?
Probably. Like so many pieces of Russian history, it’s possibly apocryphal, but composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs provided the film with the sort of contained comic set piece Iannucci has gotten down to a science. (Though he bumped it up from 1944 to Stalin’s final hours for the sake of dramatic compactness.) The head of Russian radio (Paddy Considine) receives a call from Stalin requesting a copy of that night’s rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, to which the comrade says sure, because that’s the only thing a person says to Stalin. The trouble is that nobody recorded the evening’s show, and so the musicians must rush back to the auditorium for a singularly nervous immediate repeat performance.

So nervous, in fact, that the night’s conductor passed out. Iannucci spins this into a sublime sight gag, with the conductor smacking his head right on an unfortunately placed bucket, but his biggest change actually tamped down the ridiculousness of the predicament. Iannucci mentioned on a radio interview that the panicked radio director had to find a second replacement conductor when the last-minute substitute showed up drunk. Iannucci, by his own admission, didn’t want to lean too far into farce — the truth can sometimes play like overwritten fiction.

So the pianist, she’s real, too?
Indeed. Olga Kurylenko steps in to portray Maria Yudina, the piano virtuoso who performed Mozart’s concerto on that nerve-racking night. She figures a bit more prominently into the film than her fellow musicians, slipping a harsh denunciation into the album sleeve on its way to Stalin that later lands her in hot water. The real Yudina never acted quite so recklessly (she never gave piano lessons to Nikita Khrushchev’s niece, either, as the film states), but she did remain outspoken against Stalin and his policies her entire life. Her vocal criticisms got her ejected from not one but two different conservatories, and she would eventually be barred first from recording her music, then from performing at all. She spent her later years on the lecture circuit, remaining staunchly committed to her core principles, refusing to be cowed by censorship or state-sponsored intimidation.

Did Stalin’s fatal stroke really cause him to soil himself?
Iannucci loves mixing the stuffy with the sophomoric, perfectly evident in a running gag that involves various Committee members accidentally kneeling in their fallen leader’s urine. It’s not uncommon for cerebral hemorrhages to result in the patient evacuating their bladder, and Oleg Khlevniuk’s biography states that Stalin was lying in what the film refers to as a “puddle of indignity” when the housekeeper found his body.

Just how ironic were Stalin’s final hours?
Stalin didn’t have to die that night in 1953. With proper medical attention delivered in a timely manner, he could have perhaps been treated and continued his megalomaniacal agenda for years. The film’s most satisfying bit of poetic justice is that it is pretty much entirely Stalin’s fault that that is not what happened. Thoroughly henpecked and petrified of touching his body, Stalin’s gathered underlings bicker over what to do as the man’s health continues to deteriorate. It’s true that the Committee members present spent seven hours deliberating as to the safest course of action before they even agreed that calling a doctor would be the right move. To make matters even more difficult, Stalin had already sent all of Russia’s finest doctors to the gulags on anti-Semitic suspicions of a conspiracy (this purge is known as the Doctors’ Plot), leaving himself no qualified physicians in his hour of need.

Was Beria actually a pedophile?
Lavrentiy Beria, the chief of the secret police portrayed with blackhearted haughtiness by Simon Russell Beale, is the most contemptible figure in Iannucci’s pack of bastards. With no shortage of sick glee, he orchestrated the regime’s various murders with drawn-up enemies lists, as numerous as they were cruelly arbitrary. If the film’s got a villain relative to the rest of these amoral connivers, it’s Beria, and his predilection for underage girls ultimately proves his undoing. (Though Beria’s trial took months, as opposed to the brief kangaroo-court session that seals his fate in the film.) There are no written records of such activity, which is to be expected in Stalin’s opacity-obsessed junta, but Beria’s pedophilia was something of an open secret in Russia.

Is it true that Vasily Stalin destroyed and hastily rebuilt the Russian hockey team?
When Soviet officers go to notify Stalin’s estranged son Vasily (Rupert Friend) that his father has kicked the bucket, before anyone can say anything, the chronic boozehound starts babbling about how he had nothing to do with the plane. He realizes that they’re not on the same page after a drunken minute, but not before alluding to one of the strangest and saddest chapters in sport. Vasily had been put in charge of the Russian Air Force’s prestigious hockey squad to keep the dysfunctional alcoholic busy, but in 1950, all but two players perished in a plane crash attributed to Vasily’s insistence on the team traveling exclusively by shoddy Russian-built aircraft. (Vsevolod Bobrov overslept and decided to take the train, in what has to be one of life’s more aggressive wake-up calls.) Terrified that his father would be furious if he caught wind of the tragedy, Vasily quickly hired second-stringers to replace his all-stars, leaving him with the gaggle of “flattering fannies” he’s screaming at when the film first joins him.

What was the reunion between Molotov and his wife really like?
Monty Python’s Michael Palin makes a welcome appearance as Vyacheslav Molotov, and while he’s not a power player on par with Beria or Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev, he gets one of the standout scenes. The real Molotov married a woman named Polina Zhemchuzhina, a faithful Stalinist baselessly accused of treason and sent to a work camp in 1949 as a passive punishment to Molotov. Hoping to curry favor with Molotov, Beria frees the woman after four long years of back-breaking labor, and the bit in which she makes her trembling return single-handedly redeems the played-out “[person I’m talking about] is standing right behind me, aren’t they?” gag. Just as Molotov emphatically disowns his wife to prove his loyalty to Stalin, the woman walks back through the door, and Beria informs him that she’s not a perfidious viper after all. Cue exquisite awkwardness. Per Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography, the conversation wasn’t quite so strained. Zhemchuzhina didn’t let the hell she was put through break her faith in her beloved tyrant, and the first question upon her return was “How’s Stalin?” Reportedly, when Molotov told her of his passing, she immediately fainted.

Was Malenkov’s hair a dye job?
In a film with no shortage of cutting one-liners, General Zhukov asking a freshly coiffed Malenkov, “Did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?” takes the cake. Tambor’s Malenkov, under the belief that he’s about to assume power and should look the part, gets a spiffy new hairdo complete with a heinous dark-brown recoloring. While Malenkov was known for his vanity, and photographic evidence confirms that he did have weird hair, whether or not it came from a bottle has been lost to the ages.

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Death of Stalin?