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Stalin

What's On? 08.10.17

I was a Twentieth-Century boy – before later updating to this Twenty-First Century woman. Born in 1975, I grew up with the dying of the Cold War: a Soviet Union whose danger I didn't countenance, and a USA whose glamour and glitz bewitched me. How could it not? I started on a diet of Disney and Hannah-Barbara – not to mention Warner Bros – before graduating to The Cosby Show and Cheers. I fell in love with American football. I dreamed a lot, and all of my dreams led to America.

But in adolescence, as the darkness settled and the disappointments and failures began to accumulate, other countries emerged with an alternative kind of fascination. At 14-16, it was Nazi German. Then you studied the USSR and the Bolshevik Revolution. Studying the political systems of the USSR is like studying Lacan: you're aware that some of it is just posturing, but somewhere in there is the kernel of insight. Their democratic bodies were top down rubber-stamp artifice, the fear they injected into citizens far more real: you lived in a cult and kept your head down and feigned loyalty to the face on the posters on the wall. The grocery store shelves were often empty, and on the other side of the Berlin wall, you heard that they had everything. All this I imagined with my Western perspective. But still, I fantasized what it was to be at the court of Stalin, to be privy to the late night meals and drinking sessions; to hear one of Trotsky's speeches, or watch Zinoviev and Kamenev help Stalin plot the destruction of one Communist star, before realizing too late they were inevitably, unstoppably next. It's the little details that remain: Trotsky's wife remembering how his bedsheets would be soaking wet from the stress, or Bukharin waiting for the telephone call, reduced to the frayed ends of sanity. A photograph of a smiling Beria, his arm around a partner he was planning to liquidate by torture.

I'm not, of course, the only one to have been mesmerized by this history of a revolution gone badly wrong. This week sees the release of The Death of Stalin, a historical black comedy conceived by Armando Iannuci and featuring a Who's Who of comedy actors, including Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Jeremy Isaacs. The trailer alone deserves an Oscar. It's rare that I nominate a film this strongly, but The Death of Stalin is a film the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century versions of me I think will savour.
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