Stalin normally had his chief secret policemen, such as Yagoda and Yezhov, liquidated after a couple of years. But the supremely competent and vicious Beria had survived for fifteen years, during which he’d taken on numerous other tasks, such as managing the successful atomic bomb project, recommending the murder of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn, deporting troublesome Soviet minorities to Asia, and bailing out Israel by ordering the sale of Czech arms to the Zionists.
The aging Stalin had apparently been leisurely setting the stage in the early 1950s for firing and likely executing Beria, Molotov, and most of the rest of his Politburo. He had recently arrested his own doctors, in what Khrushchev denounced in his 1956 secret speech as an anti-Semitic plot. (In the movie, the Politburo is paralyzed in choosing a doctor to call for Stalin by their awareness that they had just arrested all the good doctors in Moscow. Finally, Malenkov sagely points out that if whichever doctor they call cures Stalin, then he must be, ipso facto, a good doctor. And if he proves a bad doctor, well, then Stalin won’t be around to blame them for their choice.)
Meanwhile, Beria had Stalin’s chief bodyguard arrested on corruption charges.
Stalin was supposedly planning to deport all the Jews in the Soviet Union to Siberia as part of a plot against his insiders.
The Soviet Union had been the world’s first anti-anti-Semitic state, but Golda Meir’s visit in 1948, when 50,000 Jews turned out to cheer her on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, inspired Stalin’s worry that his Jewish subjects tended to be more loyal to Jerusalem than to Moscow.
In 1953, Stalin seemingly theorized that launching an anti-Semitic frenzy would be a convenient cover for disposing of his veteran lackeys, most notably his old pal Beria, who was open to Jewish Communist talent, including the puppet leaders he had appointed in Czechoslovakia and his atomic bomb scientists, such as the brilliant physicist Zeldovich.
Immediately after Stalin’s fortuitous death, the Politburo called off his anti-Semitic campaign.
Strikingly, Beria, the initially dominant figure among the survivors, pushed for a proto-Gorbachevian liberalization, such as restoring private property and allowing German reunification in return for American aid.
Iannucci ignores the conspiracy-theory version of Stalin’s death, even though that would make a stronger plot. He also downplays the anti-Semitism angle of Stalin’s last years, possibly because he is committed to having the historically pro-Semitic Beria as the bad guy in his movie.
Indeed, Beria was a remarkably depraved man. Few torturers in history have been as bright.
Both Stalin and Beria were close students of Persian history. Stalin conceived of himself as an oriental sultan or shah, while Beria saw himself as the potentate’s wily and ruthless grand vizier.
Yet, because the cynical Beria, unlike Stalin’s other accomplices, didn’t believe in Marxism, he could conceive of what they couldn’t: a better future without it.
But—spoiler alert—that didn’t happen.
Instead, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia were mailed a razor blade and additional text about the alphabetically adjacent Bering Sea.
Kind of like Jeffrey Tambor and the Death of Stalin poster.