Some Context for The Death of Stalin

Did you see The Death of Stalin and have a few questions afterward? Did you wonder how accurate the film was? So did I! Here are a few things you might not have known:

  1. Svetlana, Stalin's daughter, asks Beria to find "Aleksei", and is later informed by Beria that Aleksei died at a labor camp. However, the movie fails to let you know who Aleksei was, although one could surmise that he was a lover. They're talking about Aleksei Kapler, a Jewish Soviet filmmaker who had been in a relationship with Svetlana. Stalin disapproved and sent him to a work camp. Stalin is generally regarded as an anti-Semite, so this certainly had something to do with it. Svetlana did end up marrying later, and in 1967, fourteen years after Stalin's death, she even defected to the United States.

  2. The film makes it seem as though Stalin died the same day he was discovered. In fact, he died three days later. As the movie suggests, some historians think that Stalin was poisoned. More about this later!

  3. I found the expository text at the beginning of the film a little misleading: "For 20 years, Stalin's NKVD security forces have imposed The Great Terror". Stalin's leadership of the Soviet Union was full of mass killing, beginning in 1932 when he deliberately caused mass starvation in Ukraine. However, the term "The Great Terror" refers specifically to Stalin's mass purges of 1936-1938. During this period, Stalin killed hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as tens of thousands of Soviet military personnel, including most of the high-ranking officers.

  4. The post-war period was a little calmer until 1953, when Stalin suspected doctors in Moscow of conspiring to kill him and other Soviet leaders, so he had them purged. This is why someone in the cabinet quips that "all the good doctors are dead". Historians think that Stalin was beginning a second Terror by killing the doctors, but he died before it could ramp up to the size of the first one. It seems pretty plausible that someone in his cabinet poisoned and killed Stalin to prevent this next Terror (and to take power for themselves).

  5. Khrushchev is furious that the bishops of the Orthodox church have been invited to Stalin's funeral. The Soviet Union was an atheist government, and in the early days of the Revolution, special Communist party members even traveled Russia trying to dissuade the peasantry from believing in God. This wasn't just a side thing they did while spreading the Communist gospel; subverting religion was their assigned duty. They went so far as to dig up Orthodox saints so that they could show people that the saints' bodies had decomposed, which, according to the church's doctrine of "incorruptibility", didn't happen. Through a miracle of divinity, the holiness of their lives was supposed to preserve their bodies.

  6. The situation where the people of Russia arrive by train in Moscow and are shot by soldiers is sort of accurate. Due to Stalin's cult of personality and Soviet propaganda, many people, in spite of things like the Terror, were genuinely grieved by his death. You have to remember, Stalin made himself the center of the nation. To many people in the Soviet Union, he had saved them from the Nazis. A lot of them wanted to pay their respects. The crowd at the shooting shown in the film was much larger than the movie shows (probably because of budgetary constraints). Most of the deaths were not from being shot, but because people were crushed to death by others in the crowd when they panicked and started trying to force their way through the barricade.

  7. Yes, Michael Palin's character Vyacheslav Molotov is who the "molotov cocktail" is named after.

Did you see The Death of Stalin? Did you notice anything else? Do you have other questions? Comment below