The film “The Death of Stalin” is getting rapturous reviews for its stellar cast and comic touches about the machinations of Joseph Stalin’s cronies in the days before and after the tyrant’s death in March 1953. I found it riveting as a depiction of life in Moscow during those fateful days, but the humor mixed very uneasily with the casual scenes of arrests, interrogations, torture and execution. Humor and communist terror blended like oil and water; the context of Stalin and his ruling clique simply didn’t lend itself to hearty humor for me. I tried to imagine “Downfall,” the movie set in Hitler’s bunker, with comic touches and I just couldn’t see that. The longer the movie went on, the less jolly it sounded. Still, the director had a vision he ably executed against, so to speak.
I especially watched Death of Stalin through a Jewish lens. It’s not an explicitly Jewish movie, and knowledge of Jewish history isn’t required for appreciating it, but a little learning goes a long way. The shadows cast by Stalin’s involvement with Russia’s Jews are long and directly relevant to Death of Stalin—both the title and the real death of Stalin, which coincided with Purim as he planned a massive pogrom against Russia’s Jews.
In fact, the movie’s long-term value may be as a surprising form of historical instruction more so than as pop entertainment. A study guide and informed discussion leaders could turn the movie into a primer on achievements and precarious status of Jews in the USSR. With some historical background, viewers can see Jews as victims, professionals, lovers, artists and terrorized citizens. Here are the highlights as I remember them.
The Jewish Doctors of the Doctors’ Plot
In the movie, Stalin suffers a stroke in his office after reading a damning note included with a concert recording he demanded. After lying all night in his dacha office, Stalin finally gets some dithering attention from his inner circle. Members are reluctant to call in doctors, since the best ones had been arrested in the “Doctors’ Plot,” which Stalin cooked up as a way to whip up anger at the Jewish population, ahead of deportations to Siberia. Six of the nine doctors arrested were Jewish.
In his epic book “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” Simon Sebag Montfiore writes about the actions leading up to the scenes in the movie:
On January 13, 1953, after two, maybe even five, years’ patient plotting, Stalin unleashed a wave of hysterical anti-Semitism by announcing the arrest of the doctors in Pravda: “Ignoble Spies and Killers under the Mask of Professor-Doctors,” a phrase he had personally coined and scrawled on the draft article which he had annotated carefully. . .
Stalin orchestrated the drafting of a letter, to be signed by prominent Soviet Jews, begging for Jews to be deported from the cities to protect them from the coming pogrom. The letter itself has never been found but Mikoyan confirmed that “the voluntary-compulsory eviction of Jews” was being prepared . . .
Stalin closely read the testimonies of the tortured doctors, sent daily by Ignatiev. He order the likely star in his Jewish case, Object 12 (otherwise known as Polina Molotova), brought back to Moscow and interrogated.
The movie shows arrests, interrogations and killings, and those give a sense of the endless horror of the times throughout society. The Jews of the USSR must have felt the pressure even more acutely given the Doctors’ Plot. Stalin’s insane actions against doctors show, once again, the profoundly self-defeating nature of anti-semitism, in removing, oppressing and destroying capable people from a society. The movie shows the panicked inner circle trying to find competent doctors, an example of the film’s forced chuckles. In real life, as reported by Sebag Montefiore, principled anti-semitism fell away quickly when the inner circle wanted to know the real deal:
Beria and Malenkov checked up on their Second Eleven of doctors. That night, three surprised prisoners, tortured daily in the Doctors’ Plot, were led off for another session. But this time, their torturer was not interested in the Zionist conspiracy but politely asked their medical advice.
“My uncle is very sick,” said the interrogator, and is experiencing this “Cheyne-Stokes breathing. What do you think this means?”
“If you’re expecting to inherit from your uncle,” replied the professor, who had not lost his Jewish wit, “consider it’s in your pocket.” Another distinguished professor, Yakov Rapoport, was asked to name the specialists who should treat this “sick uncle.” Rapoport named Vinogradov and the other doctors under arrest. But the interrogator asked if Doctors Kuperin and Lukomsky were good too. He was shocked when Rapoport replied, “Only one of the four [doctors treating Stalin] is a competent physician but on a much lower level than the men in prison.”
The Back Story of Object 12
The reference to Object 12 points to another key scene in the movie, when Beria releases Polina Molotova from prison, and gets her cleaned up, before surprising her husband, Vyacheslav Molotov, with her presence—while he was declaring Polina guilty of the crimes Stalin cooked up to arrest her in 1949. With an actress who bears a striking resemblance to Polina, the movie doesn’t give details on what Polina did to earn Stalin’s wrath (as if any reason was needed).
In fact, Molotova (born Perl Semyonovna Karpovskaya) was the most outspokenly Jewish of the several Jewish wives of the inner circle. I have always found her endlessly fascinating. Sebag Montefiore devotes an entire chapter to her story, “Mrs. Molotov’s Arrest.” She showed up to Moscow’s Great Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah in 1948, when Golda Meir arrived as Israel’s envoy to the USSR. Meir and Molotova chatted in Yiddish at a November diplomatic reception. She was tempting fate with every word, as Sebag Montefiore reports:
Perhaps she did not know how Stalin resented her pushy intelligence, snobbish elegance, Jewish background, American businessman brother and, as he told Svetlana [Stalin’s daughter], “bad influence on Nadya [Svetlana’s mother who committed suicide in 1932].” Her sacking in May was a warning but she did not know that Stalin had considered murdering her in 1939. The synagogue “demonstration” and Polina’s Yiddish shtick outraged the old man on holiday, confirming that Soviet Jews were becoming an American Fifth Column.
The movie does show the reunion between Polina and Vyacheslav, two unrepentant Stalinists who lived until 1970 (her) and 1986 (him, at the age of 96).
Svetlana and Alexei: The Young and the Restless at the Kremlin
I found Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the most sympathetic character in the film. Seen as an asset by jostling inner circle factions, they cozy up to her, as she deals with her unstable alcoholic brother and her own emotions. One conversation in the movie alludes, if I recall correctly, to what Stalin did in the 1940s to her passionate teen romantic interest, filmmaker Alexei (Lazar) Kapler. While not identified as Jewish in the film, this part of his background clearly was a major negative for Svetlana’s strict Georgian father:
It was around this time that Svetlana started going out with film-writer Alexei Kapler. A more unsuitable boyfriend could not be imagined. Kapler was a womaniser who had had a string of affairs. He was over twice Svetlana’s age. He was also Jewish—and Stalin even before the war had been trying to identify himself and his family with the Russians. Kapler was incredibly indiscreet. He acquired Western films such as Queen Christina (starring Greta Garbo) and Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and showed them to Svetlana. He passed on books by Ernest Hemingway, who was then unpublished in the USSR. Kapler handed her—a girl who loved literature—copies of poems by Anna Akhmatova who had been in official disgrace before the war. Kapler made Svetlana feel desirable as a woman, and she fell head over heels in love with him.
What Stalin wanted, Stalin got, and he wanted Kapler out. After spending time as a war correspondent, Kapler got sent into exile for five years to work as a photographer, was released and then was sent up the river again, this time to a labor camp, and was released only when Stalin died.
Would Kapler’s fate have differed had he not been Jewish? It’s hard to tell, but Stalin allowed Svetlana to marry in 1944, divorce in 1947, remarry in 1949 and divorce again in 1952, so something about the (married, indiscreet, womanizing, Jewish) Kapler really rubbed him the wrong way.
Beyond these specific examples, the movie’s sweep can be the basis of views into other Jewish individuals and themes, like the macabre jokes and Jewish imitations at the late-night dinners, or the brief presence of brutal Lazar Moiseyevich Kaganovich, who outlived everybody and died in July 1991, just months before the end of the USSR. Pianist Maria Yudina plays a defiant key role in the concert-setting start and near the end of the movie. To this day she is highly regarded as an artist—another side of the Jewish presence in the USSR.
I would like to see Death of Stalin used as an educational film. The jittery humor and recognizable cast could be the gateway for far-ranging discussions of fear, adaptation and the forms of Jewish identity in extraordinarily difficult times. The Jewish content could enlighten new generations that, fortunately, knew not Joseph.