June 07, 2004

The Film-Watching Habits of Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin's personal papers were recently made available to the public. It's already well-known that Uncle Joe loved the movies, even those made in the decadent bourgeois West. Now the Daily Telegraph tells us Stalin sent hit squads out to assasinate John Wayne, and Kruschev (softie that he was) rescinded the order.

They poked around in his papers and found all sorts of details about his film-watching habits and the "advice" he liked to give to the people who made them.

As if often the case with Stalin, the small and subtle details are somehow the most interesting and revealing. The guy was about as funny as Hitler (ie, not much) but there's some real black comedy here.

"What will Comrade Bolshakov show us today?" Stalin would ask. His terrified cinema minister, Ivan Bolshakov, had to gauge Stalin's mood. If it was good, Bolshakov could risk a new Soviet movie.


At a typical movie night with Stalin, when the showing was over, he would often ask: "Where have we seen that actor before?" He frequently asked actors who were playing him in films over for dinner: once he asked the best "Stalin", "How will you play Stalin?" "As the people see him," replied the clever actor. "The right answer," said Stalin, presenting him with a bottle of brandy.


Bolshakov once authorised a movie for national release without asking Stalin, who was on holiday. At the next showing, Stalin asked him: "On whose authority did you release the movie?"

Bolshakov froze: "I consulted and decided." "You consulted and decided, you decided and consulted," intoned Stalin. "You decided." He then left the room in a doomladen silence. Eventually, his head popped round the door: "You decided right."


None the less, all the time, this homicidal movie-buff insisted on pretending that he was merely giving "advice" to his filmmakers. "You're a free man," he liked to say. "You don't have to listen to me. This is just a suggestion from an ordinary viewer. Take it or leave it." Of course, they always took it.

See the wonderful Australian film Children of the Revolution if you’re up for two hours of this sort of thing.

UPDATE: Gary Farber collected some Maoist movie reviews.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 7, 2004 10:52 PM

Great notes, MJT.

I can't help but think that's similar to some of the current PC thought control -- blacks are free to speak their minds, but can't be against affirmative action; believers are free to be against abortion, but can't exclude those who favor it in their political actions; students in some poli-sci classes are free to argue either side, but will get heavily ridiculed if they support a conclusion other than their professor.

Of course, this last generality has long been somewhat true.

I recall the US - USSR joke about free speech:
(US) we have free speech;
(USSR) we have free speech, too;
(US) but we ALSO have life & freedom, AFTER we speak freely.

Posted by: Tom Grey at June 8, 2004 12:35 AM

Tom's post hits the mark, Michael...

I believe there is great value in studying (once) the life and actions and attitudes of a true absolute dictator, ie., Stalin, Saddam, Hitler, Mao...

The bottom line, to me, is how such power corrupts the inputs to the tyrant. Although the terrified projectionist continues to live, for instance, and 'only 3' people disappeared without trace from amongst our ruling clique last year, yet the rest MUST get the message, as a matter of personal survival, that one NEVER gives Great Leader any news he doesn't want to hear!

"But we have freedom and life AFTER free speech."

Posted by: Sharps Shooter at June 8, 2004 01:37 AM

The Inner Circle (1992)
Starring: Tom Hulce, Lolita Davidovich
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Synopsis: Slow-moving, talky film about Stalin's projectionist captures mixed motives, moral dilemmas of a little man in a corrupt world. Should delight art-house regulars, fans of subtle, complex drama.
Runtime: 134 Minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama


thought it was pretty good myself.

Posted by: Dan Kauffman at June 8, 2004 02:01 AM

The guy was about as funny as Hitler (ie, not much)

I've heard the guy had quite a sense of humour -- all black. When in negotiations with Churchill regarding the fate of post-war Germany, one evening over drinks he insisted that the massive number of Russian casualties demanded retribution executions of 50,000 Germans after the war. Churchill spluttered angrily that he refused to be part of such inhuman retaliations. "50,000 Germans MUST be shot! The Russian people DEMAND justice!" exclaimed Stalin loudly, pounding the table. Churchill got up to leave, and Stalin quickly said "Look, the Russian people are reasonable, and we will comprimise. 49,000."

Churchill stormed out of the room, and Stalin had to rush after him and explain that he was only joking. Eventually (after a few drinks) Churchill was able to laugh about it.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 8, 2004 08:18 AM

The Russians have a pretty impressive deadpan humour that always surprises me when I see it. They usually seem dour, but then have pretty funny jokes.

Once, during a dinner honouring the participants of SALT treaty negotiations, one of the Americans picked up an ornamental gavel from a table, and suddenly alarms went off. "Oh well," said one of the Russians, "there goes New York."

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 8, 2004 08:24 AM

Hmm, I wonder if the Russians thought Reagan was really "one of them" when he said: 'My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today I've just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.'

In both cases I think there's a truth about a real desire/ fantasy for a terrible result against "the enemy".

Posted by: Tom Grey at June 8, 2004 09:01 AM

For some reason, this thread reminds me of a "newspaper article" printed in The Onion's commemorative "our Dumb Century," dated 1944 -- it read, "Triumph of the Will Wins Cannes for 4th Year in Row!"

Posted by: Jerry at June 8, 2004 09:40 AM

I saw "October" (Eisenstein's 1927 film about the 1917 revolution. The score is by Shostakovich.)

In the introduction, the speaker told about Stalin coming by the editing room to see how things were going. They were at a scene with Trotsky. Stalin said that had to go. The released movie has Trotsky in a minor role.

Posted by: Mike at June 8, 2004 09:51 AM

Most Russian humour, particularly from the Soviet period tends to the black side of things, for fairly obvious reasons.

As to Stalin's sense of humour I think he probably did have one. It was just the kind of humour that delights in the discomfort or outright pain and suffering of others.

That quote from Reagan, I thought he made it because he thought that the microphone was off, it wasn't really meant for public view.

Posted by: sam at June 8, 2004 09:52 AM

While I always disliked Reagan and his policies, I always thought that Reagan quote was funny ("The bombing begins in five minutes"), was obviously in jest for what he thought was just a bunch of technicians, and I wished that it hadn't been used to score political points. We need to loosen up a bit.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at June 8, 2004 10:44 AM

The account of Stalin supposedly ordering the murder of John Wayne struck me as dubious when it was reported last summer. And I still find it dubious.

Posted by: Gene at June 8, 2004 12:06 PM


Hmm. I missed that report. I thought it was news. The Torygraph presented it as such, anyway...

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at June 8, 2004 06:03 PM

One of the most interesting parts, I found, of Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler, was to learn that Hitler, apparently like Stalin (and also Hussein), was a movie buff. Hitler spent a large number of nights forcing his bored, terrified, and obsequious guests to watch movies with him.

The banality of evil, as they say...

Posted by: harry at June 8, 2004 07:36 PM

The banality of evildoers, praps...

Kim, Jong-il digs westerns, spy movies and watching such decadent fare in the company of long-legged, Czech 'models'...

We're all equal, comrades, but I've got my hands on the levers of YOUR death, so I'm MORE EQUAL than you...

Posted by: Sharps Shooter at June 8, 2004 09:36 PM
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