Orange Wednesday: The Death of Stalin (2017)

Not GCSE History

The Death of Stalin

This week’s been a bit full on and I fell asleep last night, rather than watch Snowpiercer as I’d planned. So only one movie this week: Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of the graphic novel La Mort de Staline, The Death of Stalin.

I’ll do Snowpiercer next week, particularly since the TV series got renewed for a second season today, even though the first season won’t even air until this time next year.

The Death of Stalin
Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, a couple of blokes I don’t recognise, Paul Whitehouse and Simon Russell Beale

The Death of Stalin (2019)

Available on Amazon

In the USSR in 1953, General Secretary Joseph Stalin is listening to a concert on the radio and orders that a recording of it be delivered to him. The concert has to be hurriedly repeated and recorded, but the pianist, Maria Yudina, hides a note to Stalin in the sleeve of the record, saying he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note in his dacha, he suffers a cerebral haemorrhage and becomes paralysed.

The members of the Central Committee are alerted. The first to arrive are Interior Ministry (NKVD) head Lavrentiy Beria, who discovers Yudina’s note, and Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov.

As Malenkov panics, Beria encourages him to take the leadership, hoping to use him as a puppet.

The funeral scene in The Death of Stalin

Not GCSE history

One of the blights of my childhood was the introduction of GCSE exams, particularly History. It’s not because I hated history or GCSE History in particular – although the ’empathy essay’ could fuck right off – or because I was bad at it (I got an A, thank you).

It’s because I was in the first year of students to do it. Except I could have been in the last year of students to do O-level history because the Tories weren’t quite sure when they were going to introduce the exam. As a result, in my third year, I studied the O-level History syllabus (The Rise of the European Dictators). And then, when it was clear we were getting GCSE History after all, in my fourth year, I studied the GCSE History syllabus (The Rise of the European Dictators).

Yep. Double bubble for me.

As a result, going into Death of Stalin, I was wondering exactly how much of the history I would remember (still can remember most of the terms of the Treaties of Versailles, St Germain and Trianon, thank you very much), how many characters I would recognise and how much I would hate it or at least dislike it thanks to my childhood trauma.

Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin
Jason Isaacs
However, I shouldn’t have worried, since the story plays fast and loose with history, being more a comical take on (justified) paranoia, when even the slightest misstep in thought, word and deed can have you or your family sent to the gulag or murdered.

I say comical, but most of the time, it’s dark, rather than funny. It’s the kind of humour people have when they keep looking over the shoulders for death the whole time. For the most part, it’s actually quite bleak, rather than entertaining.

However, there is a fun level of absurdity to it, as we see Steve Buscemi playing future Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, for example, and everyone trading minor insults like they’re in an office meeting, rather than trying to work out how to seize control of Moscow. There are wicked barbs to enjoy, thanks I presume to Iannucci’s The Thick of It co-writer Ian Martin.

But it’s not until Jason Isaacs turns up as the (not actually in 1953) Field Marshall Zhukov sporting a marvellous Yorkshire accent that we really get much laughter. Similarly, The Fast Show‘s Paul Whitehouse turns in a properly comedic performance.

However, to be honest, if you want comedic Stalin, The Red Monarch‘s probably your boy, assuming you can get hold of it.


As an idea and as a mood piece, The Death of Stalin is very good. You will come out of it feeling as claustrophobic and trapped as its characters. But in detail and practice, it’s not the laughterfest you might be hoping for. The cast are great, you will remember the film for a long time to come, but if you’re hoping for a Russian The Thick of It, this ain’t it.


  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.