Chad Comello

Libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: Russia

The Death of Stalin

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like The Death of Stalin, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s new film about the farcical machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at his sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its subject.

In the film, Stalin’s surprising death sets his cronies scrambling on how to appear to honor their beloved leader while also scheme to seize his power. One contender is future Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), probably the most well-known name of the group. The other is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the Soviet secret police and power-hungry instrument of the widespread purges, executions, and violent repression of that era. Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin are other highlights of the excellent cast, and Jason Isaacs nearly steals the movie as Georgy Zhukov, the brash Red Army commander.

Shot and lit almost like a stage play, the film is a black comedy of manners, with men trying to save face and save their own lives while jockeying for position. As all this happens in Stalin’s country dacha or palatial government buildings, when we do venture outside the halls of power we see the brutal reality of life in a totalitarian regime for regular people: being tortured in a gulag, say, or being forced to reenact an entire symphony for Stalin’s pleasure.

This juxtaposition—“slapstick horror” as Manohla Dargis called it—is jarring but somehow sings. It’s like an extended episode of Veep if Selina Meyer had been a repressive dictator. The laughs don’t come at the expense of the true victims but in response to how the Committee members struggle with their darkly absurd circumstances, like what to do with Stalin’s soiled, unconscious body, or how to communicate with each other while standing guard during Stalin’s funeral and trying to appear stately while doing so.

Though Stalin himself isn’t a prominent character in the film, even in death he looms over everything and everyone, affecting every choice or non-choice these bureaucrats wrestle with, the way the paranoid authoritarian and his regime of senseless violence really did.

The real Khrushchev later reflected in his memoirs about the horrors of this time:

Stalin called everyone who didn’t agree with him an “enemy of the people.” He said that they wanted to restore the old order, and for this purpose, “the enemies of the people” had linked up with the forces of reaction internationally. As a result, several hundred thousand honest people perished. Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal … [P]eople not to Stalin’s liking were annihilated, honest party members, irreproachable people, loyal and hard workers for our cause who had gone through the school of revolutionary struggle under Lenin’s leadership. This was utter and complete arbitrariness. And now is all this to be forgiven and forgotten? Never!

We’ve heard about the banality of evil, but the capriciousness of evil, to me, is just as destructive, if not more so. Regimes that rule through fear and paranoia and unpredictability create a living nightmare for everyone, not just the people thrown in jail.

The Death of Stalin enters that nightmare and tries to expose it with the harsh light of humor. Iannucci does stretch his artistic license to the max, condensing the factual historical timeline and giving the main characters a variety of English accents. But by doing so he’s able to honor the absurdity of this true story and bring it into the 21st century in a seriously funny way.

Trump’s Razor

Trump is either hiding something so threatening to himself, or he’s criminally incompetent to be commander in chief. It is impossible yet to say which explanation for his behavior is true, but it seems highly likely that one of these scenarios explains Trump’s refusal to respond to Russia’s direct attack on our system — a quiescence that is simply unprecedented for any U.S. president in history. Russia is not our friend. It has acted in a hostile manner. And Trump keeps ignoring it all.

— Thomas Friedman

Trump’s Razor: when presented with competing hypothetical answers to the question of Trump’s behavior, one should select the one that makes the fewest assumptions.

Which means: Once you realize the possibility that Trump is deeply compromised, his behavior makes so much more sense.

And this, for me, is the root of our present crisis. Beneath the “America First” president totally uninterested in defending America’s democratic integrity, the businessman running a chaotic and vapid administration, the “deal maker” with no poker face whatsoever, the demagogue with no ideology but himself—beneath all that is a man in a (presently) invisible prison of his own making. Who also happens to be president of the United States.

Happy Presidents Day, everyone!

New font based on Lithuania’s Act of Independence

Eimantas Paškonis made a beautiful new font based on the manuscript of the Act of Independence of Lithuania, passed in 1918:

The whole project took more than 6 months. First of all, a high-resolution scan of the Act of Independence of Lithuania had to be obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then the person who wrote the Act had to be identified because some characters were missing in the resolution of February the 16th. When the handwriting was established as Jurgis Šaulys’s, the missing characters were created according to other documents written by J. Šaulys and found in the archives. It took a highly skilled typographer over 120 hours to construct the font.

Previously under Russian rule, Lithuania was occupied by the German Empire during the First World War. It used the distraction of the war as another bid for independence, which Germany surprisingly agreed to with hopes Lithuania would “detach itself from Russia and establish a closer relationship with Germany.”

Indeed, they went for full independence, adopting a resolution “that an independent Lithuania should be established and that a closer relationship with Germany would be conditional on Germany’s formal recognition of the new state.”

Baller move, Lithuania. And cheers to 100 years!

A Frozen Hell

51m1TGDWHPL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgFinland alone, in danger of death—superb, sublime Finland—shows what free men can do. —Winston Churchill

And Trotter, the author of the superb book A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, shows what fine historians can do. Not sure how I found this book, but after visiting Finland last summer I wanted to learn more about the history of my distant ancestors. When this one popped up on Goodreads and had a good rating, I checked it out from the library, and am glad I did.

Like the “Phony War” of mainland Europe, which was playing out at the same time, the Winter War was a kind of prelude to the main events that would devastate the rest of the hemisphere. Trotter posits that Stalin didn’t actually want to go to war with Finland. Considering Russia’s close relations with Finland in the past and seeing Germany’s advance through Europe, Stalin saw Finland’s value as a buffer between Russia and Scandinavia, and thought his demands for some of Finland’s Baltic islands reasonable.

But Finland thought otherwise. After the rejection of Stalin’s ultimatum and a “who shot first?” controversy (it was Russia, who then claimed it was Finland to publicly justify their preemptive belligerence—they were expelled from the League of Nations for it) the Winter War was off and running. Or rather, lumbering. Though equipped with far more soldiers, artillery, tanks, and supplies, the Russians were an unwieldly force in unfamiliar terrain, making them easy targets for the dug-in Finns, who were well-acquianted with the snowy forests and much better prepared for the frigid siege. The Red Army had also been gutted of its senior officers and commanders thanks to Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the late 1930s, so it was partially a self-inflicted debilitation.

The Finns’ homefield advantage made sabotage and survival the keys to survival. The Finnish commander Mannerheim didn’t even expect total victory, knowing the disparity of men and munitions was against the Finns; “the most honorable annihilation” was what he expected. After a long battle of attrition between two armies unprepared for sustained combat—and a Russian surge months after they expected to win once Stalin was sufficiently fed up with the incompetence—that’s what they got.

But even on so brutal a battlefield, there were some funny moments:

Propaganda efforts by both sides were amateurish and negligible in effect. During the so-called January lull in the Isthmus fighting, the Russians began using loudspeaker trucks to broadcast propaganda programs toward Finnish lines. The Finns started looking forward to them, since the music was refreshing and the Red artillery had orders to cease firing during the playing of Kuusinen’s speeches so the Finns would not miss a word. The Finns used these interludes to “make a break for the head.”

The Finns also weren’t very impressed with the paper the propaganda was printed on:

Leaflets by the million were airdropped all over Finland, promising an improved standard of living. They were printed on such grossly inferior paper stock that the Finns, many of whom knew a thing or two about the paper industry, disdained to use them in their latrines. In the leaflets Finnish workers were promised an eight-hour day, something they had already enjoyed, by law, for the past twenty years.

Also thought it was funny how even on the frontlines the Finns wouldn’t be denied their saunas:

For many of the encircled Soviet troops, just staying alive, for one more hour or one more day, was an ordeal comparable to combat. Freezing, hungry, crusted with their own filth (while the besieging Finns, a thousand meters away, might be enjoying a sauna-bath), for them the central forest was truly a snow-white hell.

The war ended once the Soviets changed tactics and were finally able to overwhelm the exhausted Finnish troops. Though Finland had to cede some land, Stalin’s dream of annexing Finland as a whole wasn’t to be, and Finland would remain the only Baltic state to remain independent from the Soviet Union. Hostilities would renew three months later in the Continuation War, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa and would see Finland fighting with Nazi Germany as “co-belligerents” against Russia. The enemy of their enemy was their friend, I guess.

Like many a military history, A Frozen Hell often gets too far into the weeds of troop formations and movements for my taste. But it shines when focusing on the grander strategies and diplomatic endeavors of the belligerents, and especially the ground-level experience of the men in the trenches. Highly recommended.

So Far Advanced

Here’s a funny bit in an otherwise unfunny but fascinating book called A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940. After Finland refused Stalin’s ultimatum, Russia initiated war and installed a puppet Finnish government that signed the “treaty” Stalin had wanted:

Never change, Finland.

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