The Death of Stalin (review)
Titan Comics, 2017
Writer: Fabian Nury
A motion picture based upon this comic is due for release in 2018. It is billed as a comedy, and has a wonderful cast of comedic actors including Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buschemi, and Michael Palin. Those wishing to read the source material and enjoy the humour of the film will be in for a jolting shock.
The Death of Stalin is anything but comedy. In this stand-alone, 119 page comic, Fabian Nury has taken the story of the aftermath of the death of the Soviet tyrant and mass-murderer Joseph Stalin and captured it with stark, horrible clarity.
It begins with Stalin listening to a radio broadcast of a Mozart concerto, and telephoning Radio Moscow to require a copy of the performance. But no one has recorded it. Petrified by the prospect and consequences of disappointing the absolute dictator of Russia, the orchestra, the radio station managers, and the conductor perform the concerto again in a frantic effort to save their own lives. The pianist, Maria Yudina, initially refuses to assist because her family have all been imprisoned by Stalin in a gulag, and is bribed into performing. The conductor has a panic attack, and so a replacement is literally dragged out of bed by the secret police, and coerced into leading the orchestra while still wearing his pyjamas. Agents of the NKVD arrive the next morning to collect the vinyl record. The radio station’s managers have worked all night to make the record and hand it over, but not before Maria Yudena has placed a note inside the cover.
Improbably, the note makes its way to Stalin. It reads,
Dear Comrade Stalin
I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive you for your sins against the people and the nation. The Lord is merciful; he will forgive you. As for the money you gave me, I will donate it to my parish, for restoration work.
Stalin contemptuously screws up the note. He places the record on a phonogram player. As Stalin listens to the performance, the creative outcome of mortal fear, he suffers a massive heart attack and falls into a coma from which he never fully recovers.
Sparse, tight, and crisp dialogue conveys a rising, palpable sense of tension and panic amongst the characters. So much effort, fuelled by terror, is poured into appeasing Stalin’s whim, a mere sound recording, manifesting with the players shouting at each other, cajoling, pleading for their lives in order to meet his command. Yudena’s message to Stalin escalates this: her ridiculously rash behaviour would surely lead to Stalin ordering her execution. The juxtaposition is well-plotted in that the spectre of death visits Stalin rather than the angry, helpless pianist. It is a surreal and magnificent opening sequence.
The lapse of the dictator into a coma sets afoot a Byzantine protocol of dealing with Stalin’s health. The men around Stalin- those who have survived the dictator’s regular purging of his inner circle – begin to circle each other, and plot for power. These hard and cunning men each forming the inner sanctum of Stalin’s world are all aware that they are being monitored, and none sure of the rigour of their alliances.
The first of these that we are introduced to is Beria, the head of the secret police. The first image we have of Beria is his rape of a woman over his office desk. This nameless woman is given no dialogue and her eyes are wide and staring forward. Silence and the passage of time in the sexual assault are her only means of survival at the hands of this notorious and evil figure from Russian history. Beria is entirely beyond reproach, for the police are his accomplices and possibly his procurers. After being told of Stalin’s heart attack, we read Mr Nury’s most chilling exchange in the entire comic:
Guard: “And the girl?”
Beria: “Take her home. Arrest her father.”
On a whim, Beria has destroyed a family and framed a man for raping his own daughter. It is utterly horrible, and immediately defines the character as something somehow worse than a rapist. All of the other interactions and emotions involving Beria throughout the story, from fear to hatred to, finally, Yudena’s effervescent joy at having witnessed both Stalin and Beria enter the grave, have their roots in these early pages. And the reader, too, because of the skill with which Mr Nury captures Beria’s animalistic and amoral lusts, cannot help but also rejoice in Beria’s execution.
Some of the players survive to become premiers of the Soviet Union. The formidable Leonid Khrushchev, the man ultimately behind Beria’s demise, is revealed here to have barely survived Stalin’s death. Andropov, another premier of the USSR, lost his wife when Stalin ordered her execution. He then learns that his wife has actually been hidden away in a dank prison by Beria, and that Beria expects loyalty in exchange for the delivery of Andropov’s wife from the dungeon. The opposite occurs: Andropov is wrathful. The tension between the characters is masterfully spelt out.
Setting side the bleak characterisation of the men and woman and their manoeuvring for both survival and power, the other overwhelming message of the story is how the entire state was complicit in the maintenance of outrageous lies. Stalin’s son is a spoilt man-child who participates in orgies with libertines who otherwise would be deemed to be enemies of the state. He and his friends are revealed to become drunk and on a whim flown fighter planes over Moscow. One of the drunk pilots crashes and kills dozens of people. The entire episode is covered up. We only learn of it because he and his friends watch it on a film recording, laughing at their own antics.
There are no consequences. But the Soviet army hate him, and the price to pay for the army’s support of the successor to Stalin is the son’s execution. This is delivered.
The actual protocol over Stalin’s death is surreal. (Readers of Robert Harris’ book Archangel will be familiar with some of the details.) Stalin is not treated by a doctor for hours because only a trustworthy doctor can attend to him, and most competent doctors have been killed in a recent purge ordered by Stalin himself. No one is allowed to be with Stalin unaccompanied. When Stalin finally dies, his last act is to point a finger at each of his inner circle, apparently in contempt. The man is portrayed as a victim of his own evil and paranoia. Stalin’s daughter, the only person portrayed as a genuine communist ideologue, is horrified to learn that she is not attending Stalin’s funeral but instead is in the midst of dress rehearsal, her father’s body laid out as no more than a decorative arrangement.
This is a confronting, remarkable story told with excellent pacing and very solid dialogue. But there is not a jot of humour to it. Readers expecting the comic to mirror the motion picture should brace themselves.