It’s odd just how relative history truly is. It often varies from person to person, country to country depending on the message those in power wish to convey. Maybe the American Civil War was a heroic battle to free the millions of slaves within the nation’s borders. Or, maybe it was a terrible show of “northern aggression.” As such, Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel THE DEATH OF STALIN has its own perspective of history it is trying to portray. Thus, it is up to the reader to decipher that specific perspective and understand how it plays into a larger historical narrative.

The English translation of THE DEATH OF STALIN comes out at a time of growing political tension, especially once more between the United States and Russia, the former Soviet Union. Therefore, this narrative not only teaches the readers about an oft-overlooked moment in history, but it also holds up a mirror — a mirror for them to consider how their government might want certain historical events to be portrayed to benefit those in power.

Russian History 101: Why This Matters

For those of you who don’t know, Joseph Stalin ran the Soviet Union after the initial communist revolution that occurred in the beginning of the 20th century. His policies of rapid industrialization caused the biggest man-made famine in recorded history. He reigned over his citizens with an iron fist, sending many individuals to labor camps known as “Gulags.” In fact, he caused the deaths of millions of citizens in his wake. So as it turns out, Stalin was kind of a big deal.

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If I am honest, I only had a passing knowledge of the Russian leader before reading THE DEATH OF STALIN. The knowledge I had of the Soviet Union came from the films made there before Stalin gained power. Therefore, when I read the account of Stalin’s death from these authors, I was beside myself. I never realized what he did to his people to deserve such a gruesome reputation. I thought he just ruled the Soviet Union with a ridiculously large mustache — not a Machiavellian man who killed to maintain his power and ruled his people with fear.

DEATH OF STALIN
Image Courtesy of Titan Comics.

A Country Soaked in Red

Robins does a great job animating the figures in this comic. While the muted colors fit the somber and serious tone, the events remain a spectacle. Each scene presents itself with the proper weight those living it probably felt. When someone dies, or their family is destroyed, the weight of those actions does not go unaccounted for. Even the scratchy way some of the lines are seen on the characters makes the entire comic appear as though it were in a memory. While this is technically a fictional account, this is still someone’s memory of the day Stalin died. This is still someone’s memory of how the men in charge presented Stalin’s dead body to the world. And most importantly, a memory of how some never learned there was a bloody uprising soon after that was quickly dismantled.

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THE DEATH OF STALIN Won’t Stall the USSR

I had no idea how much political maneuvering went into organizing Stalin’s funeral. I also was unaware of how certain officials wished to ensure their power by framing one another of horrible atrocities. The events of THE DEATH OF STALIN take place over two days, and ultimately don’t really amount to much. The next leader continues on, and the public is none the wiser. The politicians introduced in THE DEATH OF STALIN are influential, yet their identities were largely unknown to the public at the time. They’re simply the puppeteers that control what the people know. In a way, their designs emphasize that. Ultimately, they are all just men who want to maintain the status quo by whatever means necessary.

It’s clear that Nury and Robins did their homework on what exactly went down in the aftermath of Stalin’s fatal heart-attack.  While the events in THE DEATH OF STALIN are technically fictionalized, they’re very closely based on the real-life occurrence of Stalin’s death. Think of it as a “based on a true story” account, something along the lines of HIDDEN FIGURES. In fact, this graphic novel will receive a movie adaptation shortly, bringing the fallout of Stalin’s death to a larger audience. The production of this film is surprisingly timely given the political climate in which we find ourselves.

A Healthy Skepticism of Those in Power

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This idea persists throughout studies in politics. It drives the plot of 1984 by George Orwell and serves as a comparison to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Like the USSR, the information distributed by the government of George Orwell’s dystopia does not exactly line up with the truth. What Big Brother, the all-seeing eye within Orwell’s novel, decides is inappropriate, he destroys. Much like the spies that report dissent within Stalin’s country, people turn against one another under this kind of pressure. While George Orwell’s novel remains in the realm of science fiction, Stalin’s totalitarian communist state happened. Sometimes, our wildest fantasies really do come true, but not always in a good way.

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DEATH OF STALIN
Image Courtesy of Titan Comics.

 

The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Even when those in power manipulate the truth to change history, people did not necessarily see it occur. This has happened quite often, unfortunately. More recent examples include China’s Tienanmen Square, a rebellion that occurred during the height of the Communist Party’s power in the country. People died of course, yet the government swiftly cleared up any sign of its occurrence, and even today, it’s hard to find information about this event within the country’s borders. North Korea is another example of this kind of purposeful disinformation. The country’s leaders tend to flood the media with propaganda that often misconstrues real-world events to fit their needs.

In some ways, the United States has fallen into this trap recently. It appears as though the current administration has decided that the truth is merely a suggestion rather than a necessity. The Trump Administration decides that the media is out to get them — that somehow this president gets unfair treatment and ridicule, that his citizens don’t actually feel anger towards his policies. Even something as petty and quantifiable as the size of crowds seems up for debate in this era of American politics. Unfortunately, even when people point out this emperor has no clothes, he continues to strut around insisting he wears the peak of fashion.

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Those Who Forget are Doomed to Repeat

With the aid of technology, it should be harder for governments to just get away with disinformation. With so much information at people’s fingertips, anyone can fact check virtually anything. However, just because we have access to correct information doesn’t mean people utilize this access. This phenomenon occurred in the United States during the 2016 presidential elections. Many people knew Donald Trump’s words lacked truth yet were unwilling or unable to challenge him. Like the leaders of Soviet Russia, Trump managed to mold the message he wanted the people to consume. It worked.

We have a responsibility as vigilant members of society to never let what Nury and Robin’s present in THE DEATH OF STALIN happen again. The corruption shown is deplorable no matter how these politicians tried to spin the truth. We must approach politics with the tact of these masterful creators: with objectivity, attempting to out the truth without the pomp and flair of our own opinions getting in our way.

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