Alex Moreland reviews The Death of Stalin…
I’ve always been interested in Russian history, particularly that of the twentieth century – but for some reason or another, I’ve never really looked into the specifics of Stalin’s death. It occurred to me this was a bit of a notable omission, so in a way this graphic novel proved a nice intersection of my interests, and what I wanted to know more about.
The Death of Stalin tells an engaging story – “the intense and underhanded struggle for control of a nation”, as the blurb proclaims. It’s an apt description; this graphic novel focuses heavily on the political machinations of powerful men in a country that’s been ruled by fear for a long time, and gets a lot of dramatic mileage from this premise. It’s consistently compelling – while it doesn’t linger particularly on any one character, there is a real attempt to develop this world and emphasise this struggle.
Particularly effective is their depiction of the ‘personality cult’ that surrounded Stalin – there’s a nice prelude at the start of the comic that focuses on an attempt to recreate an opera performance for Stalin, because there was no recording available. It does a nice job of underscoring that palpable atmosphere of terror to the readers, as well as illustrating the near constant presence and threat of the NKVD, or the secret police. While it’s obviously not going to be the most nuanced or detailed depiction of Soviet society,
The art style is nice, and well suited to this story – clean lines, muted colours, splashes of red. The only issue I’m inclined to highlight, really, is that it can be a little difficult at times to tell one character from another; while it’s usually obvious with the main characters, it can be difficult to distinguish the supporting characters, given that they’re all wearing similar clothes. Still, while this is an issue it’s not a big one – it’s still relatively easy to follow what’s going on through the story.
In terms of accuracy – well, I can’t quite say for certain, because this does fall outside my area of expertise. To the best of my knowledge, though, it does seem to be largely accurate – and even if not, I’d content that the story is told well enough that the occasional lapse for dramatic effect can be forgiven. While it does draw on events from real life, and hopes to portray them accurately, The Death of Stalin doesn’t purport to be a history book – something that’s worth bearing in mind.
Admittedly, it’s not perfect. There’s more than a few areas where The Death of Stalin veers into gratuity for no apparent reason; you could argue, perhaps, it’s meant to illustrate the more casual brutality of society, reinforcing it as a backdrop against the cunning, surgical precision of the violence we see foregrounded, but it’s difficult to contend it’s done effectively. Primarily, this is down to the novel’s depiction of its female characters; for obvious reasons, it focuses predominantly on men, but I’m inclined to question the need to introduce a female character just so the men can talk about sex. It’s awkwardly written, to say the least – although, to the novel’s credit, there are some nice, albeit brief, female roles elsewhere.
Ultimately, then, this was quite an entertaining novel. It takes an interesting story and tells it well – indeed, I’d love to see similar accounts of other events. The death of Lenin and the death of Mao would probably provide fertile ground for similarly compelling graphic novels, and I’d definitely be interested to read them. In and of itself, though, this is a solid piece of work, and one I’d absolutely recommend to people with a passing interest in Russian history, or simply looking for an entertaining way to pass an afternoon.