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Film / The Death of Stalin

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Leadership is up for grabs.

"Stalin would be loving this."
Vyacheslav Molotov

The Death of Stalin is a 2017 period comedy-drama directed by Armando Iannucci, based on a French graphic novel.

Russia, 1953. Josef Stalin has ruled the USSR with an iron fist for three decades. The people live in constant fear of his state apparatus, which routinely arrests them in the middle of the night. His minions are ass-kissers out to save their own skin, turning against anyone they need to in order to survive. And then he dies. In the aftermath, a power vacuum opens up and the remaining members of the Presidium (the governing body) aggressively manipulate, backstab, and plot against each other to figure out the Succession Crisis. This includes:

  • Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin's deputy.
  • Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Stalin's advisor.
  • Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin's head of the NKVD, the Russian secret police.
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  • Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Stalin's minister of foreign affairs, recently fallen out of favor.
  • Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi), Minister of Defense.
  • Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), Vice-Premier of the Council of Ministers.
  • Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Minister of Labour.

Also appearing in the film are Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter Svetlana, Rupert Friend as his son Vasily, Olga Kurylenko as a pianist with a grudge against the dictator, Paddy Considine as the director of Radio Moscow, and Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov, Stalin's most victorious general and the man who took Germany.


This film includes examples of:

  • 100% Adoration Rating: Svetlana is beloved by the people; Khrushchev and Beria both hastily attempt to monopolize her to aid their grabs for power.note 
  • Acquitted Too Late: A condemned man is shot in the forehead right as a messenger arrives to announce that today's executions have been cancelled and that the prisoners are to be released. The expression on the prisoner next to him, who was spared from death by a few seconds, cannot be described.
  • Adaptational Name Change: A minor one. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of Vyacheslav Molotov, kept her maiden name and didn't adopt her husband's surname. In the movie, she is refered as Polina Molotova.
  • Adapted Out: In real life, Beria was married to a woman named Nina Gegechkori; she's not seen or mentioned at all in the film.
  • The Alcoholic: Vasily is seldom seen sober, and can be relied upon to make any situation he's in worse. (In Real Life, he drank himself to death, croaking two days before his 41st birthday in 1962.)
  • Alliterative Name: Svetlana Stalina.
  • All There in the Manual: The credits reveal that some extras with no lines are also playing historical characters. For example, the bald guy that helps Zhukov arrest Beria is General Ivan Konev, the Chinese representative at Stalin's funeral is Zhou Enlai, and the man with the impressive eyebrows, seated behind Khrushchev (and eyeing him darkly) in the final shot, is Leonid Brezhnev — who would later stage a coup against Khrushchev and replace him as General Secretary.
  • Almost Dead Guy: Subverted; Stalin says nothing of consequence when he briefly regains consciousness before dying.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: Attempted by Malenkov after being reminded by Khrushchev about Vasily Stalin's erratic behaviors.
  • And Starring: Jeffrey Tambor gets this distinction in the closing credits.
  • Animal Motif: The entire film plays out like a shark feeding frenzy, with Stalin being the dead whale that the Presidium tears into. Even the way Beria is disposed of is similar to such an event: if a shark is injured during a feeding frenzy, the others will swarm and brutally kill it.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Malenkov still insists on giving Beria a fair trial while the latter is being dragged to the Kangaroo Court and subsequent execution. Khrushchev responds with this:
    "What about Tukhachevsky? And Pyatakov? Did they get a fair trial? What about Sokolnikov, who begged [Beria] to look after his elderly mother and what does this monster do? He strangles her in front of him! It's too late! The only choice we have is between his death and his revenge."
  • Artistic License – History: Has its own page.
  • Artistic License – Military: Through the movie, Zhukov is always referred as the Field Marshal, a title which didn't exist in the Soviet Union. The highest rank Zhukov obtained was the Marshal of the Soviet Union.
  • Asshole Victim:
  • The Backwards Я: Stalin's shooting lists at the beginning are written in fake Cyrillic.
  • Badass Boast: Everyone fears Beria, save Zhukov.
    Zhukov: I fucked Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a fucking waistcoat.
  • Bad Boss: Stalin has numerous underlings slaughtered and Beria carries it out, and Beria has no trouble executing his own people on a whim either, the stand-out example being having a man sent to death for stuttering. Everyone else is willing to have subordinates executed to save their own skin as well, but Beria takes the cake, as he shows the least amount of hesitation and is the one who actually organises the executions.
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • The ridiculously indecisive Malenkov choosing his official portrait.
      Malenkov: I want that one... destroyed.
    • The second conductor is awoken by a loud banging on his door. He looks out the window and sees the NKVD arresting people in the building opposite. He then reassures his wife to cooperate fully and tell them anything they want to hear, along with saying he loves her. Then he opens the door and it's only someone from Radio Moscow telling him that he's needed. He is still uneasy when he sees the NKVD continuing to arrest people.
    • Zhukov, to Khrushchev, when Khrushchev brings him into the plot against Beria — see Troll, below, for the dialogue.
  • Bald of Evil: While none of the prominent characters are good people, Beria may be the most loathsome of the lot, and is completely bald.
  • Bathe Her and Bring Her to Me: When Beria is arresting the staff of Stalin's dacha en masse, he picks out one particularly pretty, blonde, underage maid. In the NKVD dungeons, he tells his mooks to "have her washed." We then see a scene where Beria, the loathsome creep, is bringing flowers to the girl in her cell, although the film mercifully cuts away before he rapes her.
  • Becoming the Mask: Everyone to an extent when it comes to grieving Stalin's death and supporting his tyranny. While some of the overwrought displays of grief are clearly intended for those around them, for some, like Malenkov and especially Molotov, there seems to be a genuine sense of something like Stockholm Syndrome driving them to emotion far beyond what they should feel towards a monster that terrorized them and killed people they loved.
  • Betrayal by Offspring: At the beginning of the film, when the NKVD is rounding up people, an agent asks a teenage boy where his father is, he sheepishly responds that he's in their apartment, and when he's dragged out, the look of pain on his face says it all, not that his son is happy about what he did. Later, when Beria orders a halt to the executions, the man is spared seconds before he's killed and sent home. In their apartment, the look of betrayal is still there, and his son tries not to make eye contact out of shame.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Khrushchev is initially so blatantly awful at his plotting that Beria assumes he's already sitting on the throne. Needless to say, his assumption proves horribly wrong for himself.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Pretty much everyone here is accurately portrayed as a murderous Jerkass and it's just a matter of some being worse than others. However, Beria is the most ruthless and evil of the lot, as he is a bully and Sadist who kills hundreds of people before the film is over and has already killed tens of thousands more as part of Stalin's purges, and on top of that, is clearly shown to be a serial rapist and child molester. He actually is the most pragmatic and efficient player and happily institutes reforms that the Union sorely needs, but it is all to make himself look good and get the country working better, not at all out of genuine kindness, and he is still preparing to kill scores more people to cement and consolidate his power. Khrushchev, for his part, also genunely wants these reforms — and attains them through backdealing, plotting, and, later, outright murder (albeit the murder of a douchebag absolutely no one else liked). note 
  • Black Comedy: Much of the movie, though it recognizes that many of these events are beyond comic territory. The scramble for power in the wake of Stalin's death is played for farcical comedy like some pitch-black version of The Office.
  • Blackmail Backfire: Beria. He basically had everyone on the purge lists, making him too dangerous to be left alive. This was one of the reasons why the rest of the Presidium decided to get rid of Beria, aside from his personal depravity.
  • Blatant Lies: Subverted by Vasili. He claims he is in no way responsible for the hockey team air crash (which he wasn't), but his failed cover-up of the accident just reeks.
  • Body Double: When Beria's men are rounding up Stalin's household staff after Stalin's death, they include a group of body doubles of varying degrees of visual similarity. One officer dryly notes that they're all out of a job now.
  • Bookends: The film begins and ends during a concert at the Radio Moscow theater studio, with Maria Yudina as featured soloist.
  • Boom, Headshot!:
    • A lot of people get killed in this manner, with their last words often being "Long live Stalin!"
    • Beria is killed this way, begging for his lifenote .
  • Brick Joke: The two soldiers who guard Stalin's study remain at their post even after the dear leader is dead. They're finally relieved when the NKVD begins to rapidly take down everything inside the dacha. And then they're shot.
  • Bullying a Dragon: In a scramble to consolidate his power, Beria replaces many of the Red Army's stations with his loyal NKVD agents. This royally pisses off Field Marshal Zhukov, a.k.a. the one man who has enough men and firepower to fight Beria's takeover. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't end well for Beria...
  • By "No", I Mean "Yes":
    • When Stalin's son states he wants to speak at his father's funeral, Malenkov says "No problem". Khrushchev then interjects and Malenkov says he meant "No, problem" as in that doing so would be an issue.
    • Molotov's speech is a masterclass in this.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: In several scenes, such as at Molotov's apartment and in a car, noises are used to drown out discussions between colluding characters so that neither bugs or spies can hear.
  • The Caligula: Stalin.
  • Call-Forward: Khrushchev gets one for his most famous quote upon watching Beria's burning corpse:
    Khrushchev: I will bury you in history! You hear me, you fat fucker?
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Malenkov. When Stalin's inner circle is clowning around during dinner for Stalin's amusement, Beria stuffs a tomato in Kruschev's pocket, leading to a performative chest-bumping match while the other men laugh and clap. Malenkov, trying to get in on the fun, swipes a tomato, says, "Take this, you bastards!" and pretends to take a bite of it. The lingering laughter dies.
  • Cape Swish: General Zhukov, the last major character introduced in the film, appears about halfway through, ostentatiously throwing off his greatcoat in a slow motion shot accompanied by a crescendo of dramatic music.
  • Chest of Medals: Zhukov has a lot of medals, all well-earned.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Vasily's drinking problem leads him to a vast conspiracy theory and yells at the foreign delegation that the Americans are behind it. Until Zhukov punches him.
  • Compressed Adaptation: In real life, the power struggles and purges that erupted after Stalin's death played out over several months, whereas in the film, they appear to take place over a week at most. Lampshaded in one of the film's last lines of dialogue, where one of the characters remarks that it's been a very busy week and he's exhausted.
  • The Coats Are Off: Zhukov sheds his coat, in Slow Motion no less, upon arriving at Stalin’s funeral.
  • Credits Gag: The teenage girl that Malenkov compares to an ostrich is credited as "Teenage Ostrich Girl".
  • Deadly Decadent Court: Even before Stalin's death, the circle that made up his regime has been known to betray and eliminate any rivals for their own cause. Of course, with his death, it turned Up to Eleven.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Several characters, among them Khrushchev, Kaganovich, even Svetlana, but especially Zhukov, who makes jabs and jibes to basically everyone:
    • To Malenkov, after seeing his new hairstyle: "Did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?"
    • He expresses his distaste for the NKVD by telling one of them that he’s so handsome Zhukov would consider banging him if he wore a dress. When the NKVD guy awkwardly replies that he'll take that as a compliment, Zhukov sneers, "Yeah, don’t."
    • To the other funeral attendees: "I'm off to represent the entire Red Army at the buffet, you girls enjoy yourselves."
  • Destroy the Evidence: Before the other committee members arrive, Beria goes through Stalin's safe to destroy the departed leader's execution lists and replace them with Beria's own.
  • Die Laughing: Not the cause of death, but Stalin suffers a hemorrhage as he reads the note Maria Yudina put in the record.
  • Dirty Commies: Lots of scheming and in-fighting by members of the Soviet Presidium.
  • The Ditherer: Malenkov is spineless, agreeing with whoever's leaned on him most recently, and even when nobody is leaning on him, frequently second-guesses his own decisions.
  • The Ditz: Malenkov.
  • Doomed New Clothes: Mikoyan complains bitterly about getting Stalin's urine all over his new suit — which had required three fittings — as they carry Stalin to his bedroom.
  • Dramatic Drop: Svetlana drops Vasily's flask when Beria tells her that Aleksei is dead.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Beria's first scene is him in the middle of a purge — he shows Stalin a list and then goes to work torturing and overseeing raids.
    • Malenkov's scene is him mentioning an Un-person to Stalin.
    • Khrushchev spends his initial scenes making jokes and keeping Stalin entertained. Then when he gets home, he is making a list with his wife of all the jokes and comments that were made in the night, especially noting whether Stalin laughed or not. This shows him to be a nervy fellow with a calculating will to survive.
    • The first time we see Vasily, he's drunkenly trying to coach a hockey game, denying that he had anything to do with the demise of the national team and panicking about it when officers come in to inform him of his father's condition. Then, as he's being escorted away, he loudly screams that his father will have them sent to to Siberia.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Svetlana's relationship with her father is... complicated. He loves her, she loves him, but she also knows he's a monster.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • The main cast are morally bankrupt, self-serving, and responsible for the deaths of who knows how many people, but even they are disgusted by Beria's numerous instances of raping women and sexually abusing children. As it happens, during the approximately one-minute "trial" in which Khrushchev is reading off the charges against Beria, he puts special stress on Beria's habit of raping children as young as seven years old.
    • On a more personal level to the Soviet Leadership, while each of them are willing to back-stab and betray each other for more power and influence, only Beria is noted to go out of his way to have his rivals and their families tortured and killed (by him personally in some cases), whereas the others are content with rivals being demoted and/or humiliated. This is implied to be what ultimately drives them to have him killed, both to avenge their former friends/rivals and to ensure he can never take revenge on them.
    • Malenkov, while no saint, wants Beria to have a fair and decent trial before having him executed. He is very uneasy with the Kangaroo Court the others are ready to arrange to get rid of Beria.
  • Evil Chancellor: Pretty much everyone, but especially Beria.
  • Evil Is Petty: The Presidium members will do almost anything to show their dominance or insult people they don't like. However, special mention goes to Beria, who executes a minion for stuttering.
    Malenkov: I like making eye contact with an officer when I'm taking a piss. It completely ruins their day.
    Beria: I like to piss on them.
  • Evil Power Vacuum: The Movie. Khrushchev and Beria's efforts to outplay the other in the wake of Stalin's untimely death composes the crux of the plot.
  • Evil Wears Black: Beria wears a black suit for the majority of the film.
  • Fatal Flaw: Beria's is his Pride over running the NKVD. Had he just bit the bullet and allowed his men to be the scapegoats in the civilian massacres, the rest of the Soviet Presidium might not have turned against him. The fact that he was using information on their crimes to try and blackmail them didn't help, either.
  • Fat Bastard: Beria is a very portly man and extremely unpleasant.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the period will know that Khrushchev becomes the next leader of the Soviet Union.
  • Four-Star Badass: Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov.
    Zhukov: I fucked Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a fucking waistcoat.
  • The "Fun" in "Funeral": Stalin's grand funeral includes political infighting, a clumsy attempt to move position at the coffin in order to question other people being ignominiously rebuffed, a failed photo op, a disagreement over who the hell invited the bishops, and 1500 ordinary civilians killed when they tried to pay their respects.
  • Funny Background Event:
    • Averted at face value. All of the background events are horrific, as they are either beatings or just straight-up executions. The iteration and inherent black comedy of its outlandish-yet-plausible nature makes for a very dark Running Gag.
    • Played straight in the scene where an NKVD officer brings over a little girl for Malenkov's photo op, who then has to awkwardly stand there as the Presidium shouts and insults each other. When Malenkov says "All of you can kiss my Russian ass", the officer is seen covering her eyes in the background.
  • Genre Blind: Malenkov really has no self-preservation skills whatsoever. His Establishing Character Moment is mentioning Polnikov to Stalin — someone who's been Unpersoned. He then spends the movie not even aware that he's being played like a fiddle by Beria and Khrushcev.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: With the exception of Beria's execution, most of the Boom Headshots happen offscreen.
  • Gray and Grey Morality: Everyone not Beria.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: Malenkov, Khrushchev, Beria, and Molotov have some very forced laughter whenever Stalin makes a joke. Khrushchev goes so far as to keep a running diary of all the jokes and stories Stalin laughed at, versus all the ones he didn't like.
  • Hate Sink: Everyone in the movie is either 1) a very bad man but with some redeeming qualities, 2) working for very bad men, or 3) trying to steal a very bad man's job and power and then have him killed, so it's very hard to dismiss anyone completely as totally evil, and certainly hard to root for anyone. Then there's Beria, who is a loathsome, sociopathic, and disgusting rapist and thus is the one person we can take great pleasure in seeing arrested, tortured, sentenced without a fair trial, and destroyed. This is not an exaggeration by the filmmakers, he really was that loathsome and unpopular in real life (and the film actually toned down his vileness). note 
  • Here We Go Again!: As Beria's corpse burns, Khrushchev both has Stalin's daughter sent away (not far from Stalin deporting people) and thus breaking up yet another family (also what Stalin and Beria did), and after that's done, immediately starts plotting to remove Malenkov. And at the end of the film, long after Khrushchev becomes supreme leader, Leonid Brezhnev is watching him closely during a concert...
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade: For the most part, the cast is as average-looking as the aging diplomats they play, but there are a few examples. Zhukov was a rather plain man who is a far cry from the dashingly handsome Jason Isaacs. Maria Yudina was also fairly average and nowhere close to the ravishing Olga Kurylenko.
  • Historical Domain Character: Most of the Soviet politicians in the movie are real people. Pianist Maria Yudina was also a real person.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Khrushchev's infamous mood swings that contrasted with his jovialnessnote  are removed, save for his well-justified angry ranting at Beria during his "trial" and execution.
  • Historical In-Joke:
    • After Beria is shot, Khrushchev proclaims "I will bury you!", the same phrase he said to Western ambassadors in 1956.
    • Stalin’s funeral opens with an uncharacteristically (at least for Armando Iannucci) opulent montage of the event's set-up. The montage was pioneered by early Soviet filmmakers.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Invoked, as people who are executed are either scapegoated or outright framed for crimes to justify their deaths.
    • Very slightly played straight in regards to how Molotov treats his wife. The real Molotov was very upset about his wife's arrest and exile, but knew he couldn't do anything about it. As a reminder of her fate, he would have his servants cook two meals each night, and gaze forlornly at the second one while muttering to himself that Polina's situation was all his fault. He was also genuinely delighted to have her back, though he still held a deep grudge against Beria for arresting her in the first place. In the film, while estatic to have her back, he later happily and mindlessly slanders her as a traitor to the party cause when Khrushchev manages to turn him against Beria, despite no one caring about the party line.
      • In the comic, Molotov is even more downright villainous, as he has a Villainous BSoD upon seeing Polina. While at first Molotov becomes part of Beria's faction, he later is incensed that Beria spared Polina and used her as a bargaining chip. He calls himself 'weak' for being held to sentimentality and urges the somewhat reluctant Khrushchev and Malenkov to orchestrate a purge similar to the one committed during the Great Terror to expel all allies of Beria.
    • Averted with Beria; despite what some viewers thought, he really was that heinous in real life.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: Beria is a slight example: if anything, the film's portrayal is too generous to him. In real life, he openly gloated over Stalin's body while the other politburo members were weeping, and even had a habit of gloating to fellow party members that he had killed Stalin (he almost certainly did not; scientists did find traces of poison in Stalin's body, but whether it actually caused his death is disputed, and even if it did, it's not all that likely Beria was responsible). Likewise, his rapist tendencies are, if anything, toned down. It also omits the fact that he showed up to Stalin's funeral absolutely blasted drunk and gave a mocking, upbeat speech about how Stalin was "merely sleeping."
  • Hollywood Atheist: Played for laughs, mostly — the Russian Orthodox bishops keep asking to come to the funeral, and absolutely no one likes them (as is standard for the officially atheist Soviet Union), and only tolerate their presence to both appease the populace and annoy Beria (or Khrushchev) with it, with all the Soviet leaders desperately switching location during the funeral to avoid them. Later, however, in a conversation with Maria, an annoyed Khrushchev dismisses the idea of an afterlife with "Who the fuck would want an everlasting life? The endless conversation..."
  • Hope Spot: Inverted. Stalin briefly wakes up from his coma, much to the feigned joy of the committee members. All of them, especially Beria, were secretly shitting their pants over the possibility of Stalin actually recovering — they all knew they'd be purged if he did.
  • Hypocrite Has a Point: Beria is in no position to condemn the Kangaroo Court he is subjected to, as he is an unrepentant monster whose crimes undoubtedly warrant capital punishment, but that doesn't change the fact that it is a Kangaroo Court; his accusers are bad people who've committed terrible crimes as well, and despite expressing genuine disgust at his more perverse misdeeds, it's clear that their primary reason for wanting to get rid of him is so he can't kill them first.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: By having Beria executed, the Presidium most likely prevented the events after the death of Lenin reoccurring and a new tyrant taking the helm. Of the all members of the Presidium, Beria was most like Stalin.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: When the Radio Moscow orchestra is asked to repeat their performance of the piano concerto specially for Stalin, the pianist declares that she will not do it because she hates Stalin for what he's done to her family and friends. Comrade Andreyev attempts to talk her around, but only succeeds in driving her to declare, with God as her witness, that nothing on Earth could make her agree to perform. Desperate, he offers her a large bribe — and she immediately responds that if he doubles his offer, he's got a deal.
  • Incoming Ham: Zhukov's arrival is marked with a bellowed "Right, what’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?" This is followed by an epic coat throw and slow-mo.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: A rattled Malenkov says "I need a vodka" after all the gang manage to awkwardly pick up Stalin, carry him into his bedroom, and heave him onto the bed.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Beria provokes a conflict between the Red Army and NKVD when he transfers city security duties in Moscow to NKVD and confines the Red Army soldiers to their barracks. Needless to say, Zhukov and other Soviet generals don't take it well and later become major participants in the coup against Beria.
  • It's Probably Nothing: Stalin's guards at the door hear a thud. One of them asks if they should investigate, but the other says no before they both get killed. Truth in Television. Stalin left explicit orders not to disturb him during his sleep, which is why no one dared to check on him when he didn't get up at the usual timenote .
  • Jitter Cam: Similar to The Thick of It, the film is presented as if it were a documentary at times.
  • Jurisdiction Friction: Suffice it to say that the NKVD and the Red Army do not like each other much. There is palpable glee in the army officer's voice when he arrives at NKVD headquarters and announces "The army is back in town".
  • Kangaroo Court: While nobody disputes the fact that Beria has done any number of things that could justify executing him, the "court" that sentences him to death is little more than a lynch mob of men equally guilty of crimes against humanity who barely bothered to write the charges down.
  • Kicked Upstairs: Khrushchev is forced to accept the honor of planning Stalin's funeral, which is transparently a ploy to occupy his time on trivialities and hamstring his efforts to outmaneuver Beria.
  • Kick the Dog: Beria. It's not enough to execute someone for him; he wants as much salt poured into the wounds as humanly possible. For example, he tells a subordinate that, when executing someone, to make sure they torture and execute his wife where he can clearly hear her before offing him.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: In the gulag, one prisoner gives his last words as "Long live Stalin!" The guard says that Stalin is dead and Malenkov is in charge, to which the prisoner says "Long live Malenk-" before getting shot.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: While a number of NKVD officers have to be hunted down and shot, the officer in command of the guards at their headquarters knows they've lost, and makes sure his men hold their fire and peacefully hand over their weapons to the army.
  • Large Ham: Zhukov prefers to dominate attention as much as is humanly possible. Vasily too, but since he's falling-down drunk almost the entire time, he typically makes a mess of it.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Malenkov was chiefly interested in his public image. The last shot of him is his picture being edited out of his own headshot. Welcome to Unpersonhood.
    • Stalin is basically responsible for his own death. Thanks to generating rampant paranoia and being the sole decision-maker of his cabinet, no one dares to check if he's okay when he collapses, and thanks to his purging of competent doctors, there's no one capable of helping him long after his condition has gone unchecked (reminiscient of the ending of To Live, which also had a Communist purging of doctors that leads to death).
    • Beria's horrifying ruthlessness and sadism before and during the events of the film ensure that when he is Out-Gambitted by the other party leaders, there is absolutely no mercy shown to him and he winds up dying much like his many victims, being beaten, humiliated, given a show trial, and coldly executed while he begs for his life.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: During the execution scene in the Volga prison, a messenger prevents further bloodshed by delivering Beria's order to release prisoners. This doesn't make the situation better for those prisoners who were shot just a few seconds ago, however.
  • Life Saving Misfortune: Beria lets slip to Malenkov and Khrushchev that Molotov is on the latest kill list. He's saved when Stalin's death prompts Beria to burn the order.
  • A Lighter Shade of Grey: While Khrushchev and basically everyone except for Beria are still power-grubbing jerks who cynically want reforms after the man who wouldn't allow them is dead, they genuinely believe in the reforms... and they're not sadistic rapists like Beria. Notable during Beria's trial and execution — Khrushchev and everyone but Malenkov are furious when Khrushchev announces evidence of Beria having raped hundreds of children. In any case, it should be pointed out that as per real life, most of the central committee members in the film are still Stalinists, but merely lacked his will to carry out purges in the name of pragmatism or power. Khrushchev was a full-on reformist, but still an authoritarian. Mikoyan, by contrast, went with whoever was clearly in power. Zhukov, however, is pretty much this role and the Token Good Teammate of Khrushchev's crew, having not that much baggage on him aside from a few personality quirks and questionable actions in the war.
  • Literal Ass Kissing: Malenkov tells the Presidum members to kiss his Russian ass.
  • Long List: Vasily plans to make a speech at his father's funeral. In the speech, he describes the Soviet people as 'cubs', and then starts listing "Russian cubs, Georgian cubs, Latvian cubs..." and keeps listing, apparently intending to list every republic in the USSR. Both times, he gets cut off before he can finish the list.
  • Minor Major Character: General Ivan Konev isn't named, but is the bald soldier assisting Zhukov take out Beria, same with Brezhnev who only comes into focus in the very end. Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai also appears just to react to Vasily's dunk behaviour.
  • Mood Dissonance: Almost the entire point of the movie: by playing the real (and farcically implausible) historical events following Stalin's demise for maximum Cringe Comedy, it turns a violent struggle for power into a petty workplace squabble like something out of Office Space. Meanwhile, thousands of innocent people are being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered as game pieces in the political maneuvering between some very bad men. It's hysterical.
  • Moral Myopia: Despite being both the mastermind (and, in some cases, direct perpetrator) of the torture and murder of countless thousands of innocent people, as well as the entire Gulag system for much of Stalin's reign, and a serial rapist/killer of countless hundreds of women and girls, Beria is absolutely incensed at the mere implication that he is responsible for any wrongdoing in the aftermath of the funeral massacre, immediately throwing a furious tantrum and listing the (far less severe) crimes of the other Soviet leaders as he tearfully demands their respect and gratitude for not exposing their shady pasts. This is seen again in his show trial where he shrieks about how they are all gangsters and tyrants who have no right to judge him (in between begging them not to kill him).
  • Morality Pet: Ultimately subverted with Svetlana for the Presidium. Beria and Khrushchev both know that the public loves Stalin's daughter (especially in comparison to his drunkard son Vasily) and both immediately start vying to gain her favour once she arrives. Right after Beria is killed, however, it becomes obvious that she's no longer useful and Khrushchev's kindness toward her immediately dries up.
  • Never My Fault:
    • Vasily is most definitely not responsible for the plane crash that killed the entire Soviet national hockey team.
    • When 1500 people are killed by the NKVD for trying to attend Stalin's funeral, Beria blames said people for being there against his orders. Khrushchev even calls him out on this.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Done on purpose. Everyone uses their natural accent or put on a regional accent from their home nation. Armando Ianucci didn't want the film to be bogged down by a slew of fake Russian accents. This leads to an amusing mix of British and American regional accents for the Soviet leadership, including a Yorkshire-accented Zhukov and a Cockney-accented Stalin. A lot of this falls into Fridge Brilliance because in real life, the characters were speaking Russian, but due to being from different regions of the USSR, all spoke with and heard different accents the same way a group of English-speaking Americans would pick up a Texan or New Yorker accent.
  • Not So Different: During his Villainous Breakdown, Beria rants that everyone in the Presidium has signed off on Stalin's death lists at some point or another.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The director of Radio Moscow when Stalin personally calls him and asks for a recording of the night's performance...only to realize that they didn't record it.
    • Then his reaction to the conductor being knocked unconscious. And his reaction to a substantial chunk of the audience departing. And his reaction to the note making its way into the record sleeve.
    • Everyone's reaction to Stalin's death. Beria, however, has one when Stalin momentarily recovers.
    • Vasily's reaction to seeing Zhukov angrily heading towards him in the middle of his rant about the Americans stealing his father's brain at the funeral.
      Vasily: Medic!
    • The reaction of the NKVD troops who come to help Beria when they burst into the room to find several army officers pointing AKs at them.
      NKVD Officer: Sorry, comrades. Wrong room.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • Svetlana Stalina, who is the only moral and decent person among the crowd of sharks and monsters in Stalin's inner circle.
    • Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who, despite his Chest of Medals, is no buffoon and is very aware of the situation.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Khrushchev sees Malenkov running out of their apartment building in the early morning and realizes that something's up.
  • Overcrank: As each of the major characters is introduced, the scene goes into slow motion for a moment as a caption appears giving the character's name and position. Mostly played for laughs — Khrushchev gets his moment in the middle of a drunken Wimp Fight with Beria, and Bulganin is speaking when he goes into slow-mo, causing his voice to stretch and deepen — although Zhukov gets a reasonably dramatic (if rather hammy) moment.
  • Overly Long Gag: A drunken and enraged Vasily attempts to grab his escort's sidearm, but fails, and spends several minutes struggling weakly with his escort while everybody else stands around looking awkward.
  • Pajama-Clad Hero:
    • Khrushchev runs to Stalin's dacha wearing a suit over his pyjamas. It doesn't take long for Beria to mock him for that.
    • The second conductor at the Radio Moscow concerte directs in his sleepwear, as he wasn't given time to even change his clothes.
  • The Paragon: Having led the Red Army to victory over the Nazis, Marshall Zhukov is a major source of inspiration and heroism for the Soviet Union, which makes him untouchable as far as political games are concerned. He thus exploits this role in leading the Red Army against the NKVD, which makes him the most valuable member in Khrushchev's team.
  • Please, I Will Do Anything!: In one scene at NKVD headquarters, Beria and a lieutenant discuss a husband and wife who were recently arrested. The woman offered to do anything if they would let her husband go; Beria says reminiscently that she's done "everything" — and that he intends to have them both killed anyway.
  • Potty Failure: Khrushchev entertains the group by sharing a story about Stalingrad, where a kid told them that if you stick someone's finger in a glass of water while they sleep, they wet themselves.
    Stalin: What's next? You stick a bar of chocolate in their pocket, they shit their pants?
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Along with being a lot funnier than the graphic novel, several subplots are removed, most notably Beria's attempts to groom Vasily as a potential pawn while Vasily's very public breakdown is occurring.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: Beria, the man who orchestrated the Great Terror and has the blood of millions on his hands, pushes through reforms to liberalize the Soviet state, put a stay on executions, and free low-level political prisoners. He does not do this out of the kindness of his heart (as he is still murdering people left and right to secure his own position), but because these reforms make him look good and are necessary for the sake of progress.
  • Puppet King: Malenkov is quickly established to be a weak and indecisive ruler, and Beria tries to use this to his advantage. Later, Khrushchev manages to force Malenkov into approving Beria's execution.
  • The Purge: Several are carried out throughout the movie, and the film covers the tail end of Stalin's final purge organised by Lavrentiy Beria, the subsequent purges carried out by Beria on his own as Stalin dies, and the counter-purge against Beria and his cronies as Khrushchev and the others vie for power and try to avoid becoming victims themselves.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Of the charges against Beria, special attention is given to the charges of serial rape, much to the absolute disgust and anger of basically everyone except for Beria. While Beria was indeed a serial rapist, this was not actually one of the charges he was convicted of.
  • Reaction Shot: When Stalin's head is cut open for the autopsy, the Presidium watches it in abject horror.
  • Reality Ensues: During the funeral, some of the presidium members start sneezing due to the many flowers being brought in.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Part of the movie's humor comes from the fact that many of the real-life events are so absurdly over-the-top that they come across like a parody of history and not the thing itself. Armando Iannucci specifically invoked this in an interview, stating "There were certain things we toned down because we just thought, 'People won’t believe it.'"
    • Zhukov's Chest of Medals is already pretty extreme, until you see this real life portrait, and it gets better when you realize the real man wore nearly twice as many.
    • In real life, there were actually three conductors at the Radio Moscow concert, not two. After the first one knocked himself out, the second conductor also had to be replaced because he came to the concert hall absolutely stinking drunk.
    • Some people accused Beria's serial rape sprees as a tasteless example of Gratuitous Rape to make the others look better by comparison. Nope, he really was that horrible in real life, and the numerous accusations of sexual assault were brought up at his trial. note  His handing the bouquets of his flowers to his female victims was straight out of real life; if they accepted the bouquets, it was taken as an admission that the sex was consensual, and if they refused, they were arrested.
    • If anything, Beria's Obviously Evil behavior was toned down from real life. He actually gloated over Stalin's death while the other Politburo members were openly weeping, and he also had a habit of bragging that he killed Stalin, and scientists did indeed find evidence that Stalin had been poisoned, although whether it was the actual cause of Stalin's death is disputed. His Villainous Breakdown was even more over-the-top and farcical than in the movie; in real life, he was first stripped down to his tighty whities, and blubbered on for so long that the executioner got tired of listening to his begging and stuffed a sock in Beria's mouth before shooting him just to shut him up.
    • Early in the film, Stalin gets his advisors to stay late to watch an American cowboy movie. Stalin actually was a fan of Westerns and other Soviet top dogs like Mikoyan were fans of aspects of American culture and food, even after USA was declared the number one enemy during the Cold War. No one thus questions the desire to watch an American film even in private.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Zhukov.
  • Reusable Lighter Toss: Zhukov sets fire to Beria's petrol-soaked corpse by tossing his lighter on to it.
  • Right Behind Me: Beria comes to visit Molotov, who is already being visited by Khrushchev. Not wanting to admit that they were talking about Beria, Khrushchev and Molotov claim that they were discussing Molotov's wife Polina, who Stalin had sent to a labor camp five years earlier, and attempt to allay any suspicions Beria might have by asserting firmly that of course Stalin was right to do so. Beria suggests that she was innocent and mistreated, which they assume to be a test and double down on condemning her as a traitor. Then Beria reveals that the reason for his visit is to bring Polina home, having taken advantage of Stalin's death to commute her sentence — she's been standing just outside the door this whole time.
  • Running Gag:
    • Each member of the Central Committee arriving at Stalin's dacha and kneeling in the puddle of 'his indigity' as they attempt to show their grief.
    • Malenkov's attempt to recreate a photo of Stalin with a little girl on a balcony. His handlers round up a collection of little girls similar in age and appearance to the photo, but he insists on having the same little girl as in the original photo, and orders the NKVD to find her. When they do, he decides she's grown too tall, and has her sent away and one of the other little girls brought back. Before they can go out on the balcony, the girl has to wait uncomfortably on the sidelines as the Central Committee have a vicious argument — and when they do, the little girl is too little and can't be seen over the balcony railing.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: When Vasily announces that he wants to make a speech at his father's funeral, Khrushchev sarcastically responds, "And I want to fuck Grace Kelly." Vasily fails to recognize the subtext, and responds that he's not interested in Khrushchev's fantasies.
  • The Scapegoat:
    • It is debatable whether a single person in the NKVD prisons is actually guilty of anything.
    • The replacement conductor, thinking he's about to be arrested, tells his wife to go along with any accusations against him.
    • Khrushchev and Beria agree to execute a bunch of low-level officers for the killing of 1500 civilians on their way to Stalin's funeral, even though it was as much their fault as anyone else's, and it's not even clear if the officers who actually carried out the killings will be the ones who are punished. Beria dies first and presumably takes the heat for it, though, since Khrushchev ends up being the one in power.
  • Scatterbrained Senior: Molotov is depicted as one.
  • Shutting Up Now: Malenkov after the "No Problem" statement.
    Malenkov: Ignore me.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Malenkov may have a high party position, but it's established immediately that he's a moron, making reference to someone Stalin has made an Unperson to Stalin's face. One wonders how long the man would have lasted had Stalin not died, since being Beria's toady could only protect him for so long.
  • Smug Snake: Beria.
  • The Sociopath: Beria. Now, Stalin's hatchetman was never going to be nice, but Beria takes it to a whole new level - in his very first scene, he specifically orders a woman to be murdered right in front of her husband, and only goes downhill from there, casually doling out executions left and right for the pettiest of reasons (at one point a Mook gets executed for stuttering) and trying to browbeat the rest of the Presidium in line through sheer terror and intimidation - not to mention his side hobby of being a Serial Rapist (which was actually toned down from real life). Even moments of supposed kindness or mercy (such as ordering a halt to executions and amnesty for select prisoners) are only done to make himself look good and secure his own power.
  • Spiteful Spit: Vasily tries to do this when he's tackled and held down. It backfires and the spit hits his own forehead.
  • The Spymaster: Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the NKVD.
  • The Starscream: Brezhnev to Khrushchev. While Khrushchev's disposal happened long after the timeframe of the movie, Brezhnev is shown suspiciously looking his boss' way in the final scene.
  • State Sec: The NKVD, who routinely round people up in the middle of the night and have them killed.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Vyacheslav and Polina Molotov suffer from this, possessing genuine loyalty to Stalin despite everything he's done to them (and planned to do to them). Disturbingly, this is Truth in Television: they remained ardent Stalinists for the rest of their lives, staunchly defending all of his actions and viciously criticizing his successors, especially Khrushchev.
  • Succession Crisis: Officially, the succession is straightforward: an established rule dictates that on the leader's death, he will be succeeded by his deputy. However, Malenkov is a weak-willed ditherer (Stalin made him his Number Two specifically because he wouldn't pose a threat to his own power and become The Starscream), so there's still a conflict among the more strong-minded and devious officials to determine who will be unofficially but actually in charge.
  • Talk to the Fist: Zhukov decks Vasily the moment he sees him, calling him a disgrace to the uniform.
  • This Cannot Be!: Beria says this when Stalin momentarily recovers.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: It isn't like the Politburo members and the Red Army were very fond of Beria in the first place, but when Khrushchev reads charges of raping children against him during the Kangaroo Court, everyone in the room doesn't leave any doubt that Beria doesn't deserve anything short of being shot.
  • Those Two Guys: The two unfortunate soldiers on duty outside of Stalin's office when he dies, and who are left standing there for most of the day without an order to 'stand down':
    Guard 1: [hearing Stalin's body hit the floor with a thud] Should we investigate...?
    Guard 2: Should you shut the fuck up before you get us both killed?
    • Mikoyan and Bulganin fill this role among the members of the Central Committee.
  • Throat-Slitting Gesture: As Khrushchev and his wife are going over the former's notes from last night (seeing which jokes were considered funny by Stalin and which weren't), she finds one that simply says "Molotov chhh". After some effort, Khrushchev remembers it means "Molotov *khhhhk*", as he's on the list for execution.
  • Toilet Humour: A mild version. The Presidium comes in to find Stalin's unconscious body and there is much squeamishness as they all try to avoid kneeling in the "puddle of [Stalin's] own indignity" as they attempt to show their grief. Kaganovich and Mikoyan still end up covered in urine when they move the body.
  • Token Minority: The leaders of the USSR pretty much make up a Multinational Team, which the film acknowledges, unlike other western works about the USSR that focus on the Russian majority. Khrushchev has a Ukrainian background, Mikoyan is Armenian, Stalin's family and Beria are Georgian, and Kaganovich is Jewish.
  • Trench Coat Warfare: Zhukov smuggles two automatic rifles to his men who are waiting for him in the bathroom by concealing them under his greatcoat.
    Zhukov: Pick your dates for the evening.
    Brezhnev: I'll have the tall blonde, please.
  • Troll: Zhukov.
    Zhukov: I'm going to have to report this conversation, threatening to do harm or obstruct any member of the presidium in the process of...[cracks up]...look at your fucking face!
  • Understatement: Beria says that Stalin is "feeling unwell," when he's clearly near death from a stroke. Although it's partly this and partly Insistent Terminology, since everyone is still so afraid of Stalin that they're initially afraid to come right out and say the obvious in case it turns out he's not dead and they get into a lot of trouble because of it.
  • Unperson: Used as a Historical In-Joke during the end credits, as people are edited out of photographs.
  • Upperclass Twit: Vasily is a thoroughly useless drunken incompetent who is only shown the least amount of respect due to who his father is.
  • Verbal Backspace: While trying to persuade Maria Yudina to play for the recreated performance of the piano concerto, Andreyev says in frustration that even Stalin will notice if they substitute a different pianist. Yudina asks him if he's certain the room they're in isn't bugged, and he immediately backtracks and says that of course Stalin will notice because he has the most discerning ears in the Soviet Union.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: While scenes and historical events are retold to fit Rule of Funny, this movie is loosely based on Real Life moments surrounding Stalin's death:
    • The fact that Stalin suffered for hours after having his stroke because no one dared to go in and check on him until it was too late.
    • The problem with finding any qualified doctors to treat him in time was true: the government was in the middle of The Doctors Plot, and as a result, there were few physicians on hand to take immediate control of the situation. However, the film glosses over the Plot itself (a Jewish progrom that also might have been grounds for Stalin to have Beria purged).
    • Beria really was a serial rapist who gave bouquets of flowers to his victims the next morning. This was intended to prove that the sex was consensual. What wasn't included was that after Stalin died, he bragged often that he killed Stalin; decades later, scientists found evidence that, yes, Stalin had been poisoned, though it wasn't necessarily his cause of death.
    • Khrushchev did launch his coup during a meeting of the Presidium after launching into a "The Reason You Suck" Speech on Beria. The soldiers were summoned by a button under the desk. Malenkov was bullied into going along with the coup and did refuse to meet Beria's gaze as it happened.
    • Pianist Maria Yudina might have been forced to play for a single recording to be delivered to Stalin. She was also a harsh critic of the Soviet regime. However, if she did, it was in 1944, not 1953.
    • There really was a mad dash to leave Stalin's dacha after his death was confirmed. Beria cheerfully told the other Presidium members that they owed him their lives and walked out of the room, loudly announcing his departure. Mikoyan then made a cryptic remark about Beria's intent to make a grab for more power, and everyone present rushed to their limousines.
    • The dinner party at the start of the film played out pretty much exactly how it did in Real Life, with one exception: Stalin would put on a cowboy movie before dinner, not after it.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Beria seriously loses his cool before he gets shot in the head. And shortly before that, when he seems to sense the power dynamics tipping against him, he throws a red-faced screaming fit, telling everyone else around him that he has documents on each and every one of them. Humorously, the film actually tones down what really happened — the real Beria was so emotional when he was begging, his executioner stuffed a sock in his mouth to shut him up before shooting him.
  • Vodka Drunkenski: Vasiliy Stalin.
  • Volatile Second Tier Position: Basically everyone in Stalin's inner circle; all of them have to constantly humor, amuse and appease their master, or risk falling out of favor - and from there, an extremely slippery slope towards exile, imprisonment or execution.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Lydia Timashuk, whom the Presidium hires to get some doctors for Stalin (and whom they intended to use as a scapegoat and execute in the event that the doctors failed to save him), isn't seen while Beria's men loot Stalin's dacha.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After Khrushchev let the trains back into Moscow, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of mourners, Zhukov is appalled and calls him out for it. Played With, however, as he immediately jumps on board with Khrushchev's plan when he explains it.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The ending mentions that Khrushchev became leader of the USSR in 1956, only to be deposed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. This info is presented while showing Khrushchev at a concert, with Brezhnev in the background looking his way.
  • Yes-Man: Basically everyone, but especially Malenkov.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness:
    • Molotov has recently fallen out of favor with Stalin, and Beria tells Khrushchev and Malenkov that he's on the latest kill list.
    • Beria has the staff of Stalin’s dacha rounded up once the other committee members leave, especially Stalin’s body doubles as "their contract is up".
  • Young Future Famous People: A seemingly anonymous soldier with bushy eyebrows ("OK, let's go catch a pig in a pot") is part of Zhukov's forces in the coup. At the very end of the film, it's revealed that said man is Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, who gives an unsuspecting Khrushchev a dirty look at the end of the movie. Brezhnev really was a soldier who participated in removing Beria.


Video Example(s):


The Death of Stalin

Field Marshal Zhukov announces that he doesn't intend to die of thirst during Stalin's funeral.

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