I’ve spent some time trying to understand Nikita Khrushchev’s role, during his 1953-1964 reign as the head of the Soviet Union, in the history of nuclear electricity. Armando Iannucci’s black-as-pitch satire, The Death of Stalin, messes with chronology to depict Khrushchev’s triumph over Lavrenti Beria after Josef Stalin’s 1953 death. As I’ve noted before, movies tend to be of dubious historical value – is this bold attempt of any use to me?
The overall movie is strange and powerful but I kept my focus on Steve Buscemi portraying Khrushchev. None of the actors attempt fake Russian accents, a conceit that quickly becomes familiar, so Buscemi’s sharp American accent didn’t grate at all on me. Buscemi could not realistically duplicate Khrushchev’s “fat peasant” appearance but he does a good job in conveying the politician’s “fat peasant” persona, a bumptious façade that hid the man’s sharp (if unintellectual) mind. Buscemi (and the brilliant script he works to) capture well, in my humble opinion, the appeal of Khrushchev, his seemingly open nature (at least compared to the monstrosity of Stalin) and his immense practicality. The Death of Stalin, and Buscemi’s role, also jibe with my own understanding of one of the central paradoxes of Khrushchev’s leadership: he was a deeply conservative communist who at the same time aspired to deep reforms.
In the end, no, the movie didn’t help me much, just as recent films about Churchill and India made little impact on me. But I’m glad I saw it. Khrushchev continues to baffle me and any time I spend pondering him is time well spent.