The Death of Stalin

You thought “Succession” was hilarious?  The story of minor-league talents battling it out to take over the family business from a toxic patriarch?

“The Death of Stalin” is a terrific movie about the end of the life of quite possibly the worst dictator the world has ever known.  It is reported to be one of Barack Obama’s favorite films.  It was banned in Russia, which, of course, is hilarious.  It was also criticized by some for historical inaccuracies, which, of course, is also rather absurd: it is a comedy.  The comedy lies in the kind of chaos created when an authoritarian, melomaniac, paranoid leader dies without leaving a clear line of succession.

It drives me insane to read, in IMDB, an explanation of why they made the “strange” decision to have the actors speak in plain English, instead with an amusing Russian accent!  The assumption is that they should have had them speak with Russian accents, which is actually a really, really strange idea.  But these are Russians talking to each other in Russia.   Do viewers think that Russians or Germans or French people speak to each other with funny accents?

If you say, that’s what people expect, it is only because they have been trained to expect that moronic approach, the way they have been trained to believe that bullets arrive at their target simultaneously with the sound of the gun being fired: they have been trained by early Westerns which chose not to allow audiences to learn the truth.

The best solution is for them to speak in their real, native tongue, with subtitles, but having them speak fluent English is a good option, and far, far, better than the stupid accent idea.

Stalin

Estimates vary, as they will, but Stalin was probably singularly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Key players:

Lavrently Beria

  • Became head of the NKVD in November 1938.
  • Proposed and master-minded the Katyn Massacre in March 1940.
  • just before Stalin’s funeral, he had the army units in Moscow replaced with his own NKVD units and cancelled all the trains coming to Moscow.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor)

  • Closely associated with Vladimir Lenin.
  • Ran Soviet Missile Program during World War II.
  • Discredited Georgy Zhukov to curry favor with Stalin who was jealous.
  • Briefly succeeded Stalin as Premiere and “first among equals” (March 5, 1953)
  • Eventually sidelined by Nikita Khrushchev.  Attempted a palace coup against Khrushchev in 1957 and expelled from the Presidium and exiled to Kazakhstan.

Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin)

  • Negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany in 1941.
  • Part of the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death to plot things out.
  • his wife, Polina, had been arrested by Beria, with Molotov’s passive consent.  Three days after Stalin’s death, Beria did indeed release Polina to Molotov, presumably to cultivate support in the ongoing power struggle at the Politburo.

Nicolai Bulganin

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Lazar Kaganovich

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Anastas Mikoyan

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Nikita Khrushchev

  • Brought back from Ukraine to Moscow in 1949
  • Regarded by British Diplomats as mouthy and misinformed and inarticulate.  They were far more impressed b y Malenkov, though the movie portrays him as a bit of a dunce.

Vasily Stalin

  • Stalin’s son
  • Called to his father’s side after his cerebral hemorrhage, he was drunk and angry, shouting at the doctors

Svetlana Stalin

  • Stalin’s daughter.  Reported that her father’s death was “difficult and terrible”.
  • Beria had been very friendly with her as a little girl, like an Uncle

Maria Yudina.

  • famous pianist who played piano at reception at Stalin’s lying in state
  • 9 years before his death (unlike in the movie which places the event the very night of) she had played the concert shown in the movie, and had been roused out of bed to repeat the concert for a recording
  • Wrote a note to Stalin which she placed in the record sleeve saying:  “I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.”  She was not arrested.  She died in 1970.

Georgy Zhukov (died June 1974)

  • got along well with Eisenhower; tried to supply food to Berlin after war
  • however, did nothing to stop the brutal rapes and pillaging by Russian soldiers
  • unlike everyone else around Stalin, he refused to kowtow; openly dismissive of Stalin, and openly contradicted him at times
  • did loot Berlin; was caught and made an abject apology
  • Brilliant Soviet military general who guided the stand-off in Stalingrad.
  • his arrest of Beria did occur, but 3 months after the funeral (June 1953), and Beria did get a trial and was executed in December 1953.
  • supported Khrushchev’s bid for power, but, by 1957 lost favor and was forced to retire
  • never returned to a position of influence after that
  • some historians believe he exaggerated his role in WW II.

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Watch Me Risk My Life

I am ambivalent about films and stories about men and women who unnecessarily risk their lives, on mountains, in cars, under water– for…  well, that’s the question.  For what?

Almost no documentary or book about these individuals would dare suggest that these people are selfish, self-centred individuals interested primarily in self-promotion and ego gratification.   (I make an exception for “Into Thin Air”, the amazing book by Jon Krakauer which considers the issue at some length.)  Think about why that’s so.  Why doesn’t “The Last Mountain”, for example, seriously consider the issue?

Could that be because the viewer, who adores these stories, would feel implicated?  I get pleasure by watching other people put themselves in grave peril at the expense, sometimes, of their lives?  Could it be because the writers (often the daredevils themselves) or film-makers (ditto) really want you to believe they are doing something important and admirable?  Think of how often they claim there is some higher purpose to their activities: to learn more about sharks, to extend human endurance and achievement, to fulfill personal goals?

A Very High Spiritual State

Everyone… razzamataz and look at me: I was doing something that was intended to take you into a very high spiritual state.  La Monte Young

And that “something” was smashing a piano with an axe.  Among other things.

La Monte Young is an American avant-garde composer, a minimalist, whose work has “called into question” the very nature of music.  Which also what any accidental sounds do.  Always.

You know immediately that you are not cool if you do not recognize that smashing a piano with an axe, as an act of musical performance, is the most incredibly brilliant thing you have ever seen.   You are now in a very high spiritual state.

What is so brilliant about it is that you invite rational people to ridicule what you are doing, which makes it cool for hipsters to announce that they understand it.  They get it.  They are cool, hip, youthful, still fuckable.  Not like those un-cool nerds.

But you– you are a dinosaur.  A fossil.  You probably still listen to AM radio.

A Rashomon Moment on Highway 401: The Trucker Convoy

In the Japanese movie “Rashomon”, by the incomparable Akira Kurosawa, a magistrate convenes a hearing to determine who was responsible for the death of a man in a remote area of a nearby forest. Each of three protagonists, the man’s wife, a common thief, and the man himself (through a medium) confesses to the murder(!) Why? Because it is preferable to them to confess to a heinous crime than to admit to a dishonorable act that each committed during the incident. In the end, a witness comes forward who saw the incident and relates the truth to the court; only one of them is the real murderer, but all three of them are shown to have behaved shamefully.

“Rashomon” was made in 1950 and is often cited as the reason the film academy added “Foreign” to its Oscar categories. I saw it when I was very young and it shook me, and still influences my perception of why people act the way they do. (Another film I saw around the same time, “Monsieur Verdoux” by Chaplin– had a similarly powerful impact on me.)  Nowadays we sometimes say people are “invested” in a particular narrative. In fact, some people are dying of Covid 19 because of their investment in an anti-vaccine ideology.  To the end, most of them refuse to concede that they were fundamentally, ridiculously wrong about Covid.  They can’t stand the idea of admitting they were idiots.

Science isn’t perfect but it’s a hell of a lot more reliable than some website that caters to a political constituency and rages about conspiracies and media bias. And yes, the “mainstream media” is actually another way to describe accountable, institutional journalism that isn’t perfect but has a pretty good track record of uncovering facts and evidence. Most news organizations presented with the claim that vaccines cause illnesses will diligently seek evidence: scientific studies, personal accounts, opinions of qualified, experts. Something like the extinction or near extinction of certain diseases, like measles and polio– which is not hard to verify– is pretty compelling evidence.

Have I wandered?  No.  There is a powerful connection between the truth revealed by “Rashomon” (and “Monsieur Verdoux”) and truth about the pro-Trump right-wing anti-vaccine rabble that is destroying America.  This is about shame.  This is about people who have long despised the “educated elites” who promote equality and feminism and the fight against global warming and the truth about American history (that it is a history of racism and genocide) and want to tax gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and take away your guns because they have contempt for those things, and not because it is good social policy.

These people have felt a sense of shame at the condescension liberals hold for them and this is their chance to say “fuck you” to the members of the “establishment” who make them feel stupid and vulgar.

And they would go very, very far to avoid admitting that they really are stupid and vulgar.

Pre-School

According to a study in Tennessee, children from poor backgrounds offered a pre-school program (for 4-year olds) did worse in several important categories by Grade 6.

This is not supposed to be true.  It is counter to other studies which generally showed that children do better — they graduate high school and have fewer disciplinary issues– if they have an extra year of school at about age 4.  For as long as I can remember, that has been the accepted wisdom on pre-school.  But this study flatly contradicts those assumptions.

If it survives further analysis and assessment, it will have to be taken into account regardless of the politics of government-funding for pre-school.

The Kabuki Theatre of Putin and the Ukraine

[I am publishing this because I was wrong.  I want to acknowledge it, because that’s the only way we learn to be better and more astute in judging these issues.  I really thought Putin would not go this far, but it is clear he is a madman–madder than we thought–who is dangerous to all of Europe.]

Still leaning towards the idea that all this blather about Ukraine is just so much self-perpetuating frenzy: everyone is reporting it so it must be true. And who is supplying all the networks with the lustrous video of tanks and missiles and armored personnel carriers racing around? The Russians of course.

Gwynne Dyer thinks Putin has no intention of invading and he’s right more often than most pundits. Every TV newscast starts out with “INCREASING tension today… ” but tension can’t increase every day without reaching 100% at which point it’s either the same or it decreases. North Korea had it’s time; then Iran. Now it’s Putin.

Strikingly, nobody ever mentions the size of the Ukrainian army, which is actually the largest in Europe at 250,000.

If you hypothesize that this is all just theatre and watch the news in that context, nothing seems jarringly out of place. The White House wants to look tough and determined; Putin wants to look like he’s big and powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with Biden (he’s not: Russia is really not that big or powerful), the media thrives on a perpetual state of crisis.

It’s like Republicans and the crime the rate: it’s always going up. It’s now at 26,000 percent.

Just so You Know

While the American National women’s soccer team is suing for equal pay and bragging about their victories over other women and just how smackingly clever and talented they are, let’s just keep one minor corrective in mind:  the Australian National Women’s Team once challenged a team of 15-year-old boys.

They were easily, effortlessly, crushed 7-0.

The Americans are probably a bit better than the Australians but not by much.

So yes, you American women often beat other national women’s teams, but not nearly as many people care about your performance as much as you do, and you don’t play on the same grand scale as the men do, and no, you don’t deserve the same pay, not remotely, not by any standard that usually applies in the world of professional sports.  You can’t go into Italy or Brazil or even Iceland and play their national women’s team in front of 60,000 fans.

Anyone who watched your game right after, say, a men’s game of France vs. Spain, would know the truth.  In terms of skill and speed and power, you aren’t even close.  Not even close.

So who did you ask for more money?  From the fans, who would pay to see you?  From the owners of the club teams that run the league that you play in?  From the sponsors who pay for advertising during the games?  From the makers of sporting apparel and bling who dress you and market you?  But then you would have to prove that you actually generate the same income-driving passion as the men.  You don’t.  You too would lose to a bunch of 15-year-old boys if you played them.

So you went to the government.  That’s right.  Give us more money or we’ll cancel you.

 

Justin Alexander’s Bid for Authenticity

In the first post on his travel blog, Adventures of Justin, he wrote: “I am running from a life that isn’t authentic…I’m running away from monotony and towards novelty; towards wonder, awe, and the things that make me feel vibrantly alive.”  Outside Online

I am always deeply impressed and disturbed by men like Justin Alexander who embark on quests for “authenticity”, and always disappointed in their inability to relate the “authentic” to me in comprehensible English.

They try, and they are often quite eloquent, but not about what matters most.  This is partly because what matters to them is something that is very hard to describe or explain.  But, like Christopher McCandless, they often scrap and scrape and flourish phrases and ideas and images before you without connecting all the dots.  McCandless ended up dying, stupidly, alone, in an abandoned bus in Alaska, just a short trek from help because he didn’t really know the terrain or the challenges of living in the wild.  He thought he was on to some incredibly valuable insight into the purpose of life but didn’t even take good hiking boots with him (a truck-driver who gave him a ride gave him his boots, out of pity).

He starved to death.

Countless others have died on mountains or in obscure, remote regions.  Justin Alexander is another.  No one knows what happened to him.

There’s not point pitying these men: they took responsibility for themselves and made choices that mattered to them and probably accepted that they might pay a price for it.  In a way, I do admire them, because they are largely right about the predictability and mediocrity of life in the modern suburbs.

The one thing these people don’t seem to really consider is that, just as they might have some secret insight that sets them apart from mainstream society, mainstream society might have some secret insight that keeps them from wandering into the bush or the wild mountains and starving to death.

And yet some of them might have lives that are rich and rewarding and meaningful.

Divine Incest

The Vatican announced on Wednesday that Pope John Paul I, the Italian pontiff who reigned for only 33 days before his death in 1978, will be beatified after a miracle was attributed to him, bringing him one step closer to sainthood.   Ny Times – The Vatican announced …

What is this bullshit?  Did anyone tell the Roman Catholic Church that it is 2021 now?  The witches are gone, the Inquisition is gone, the miracles are gone, the magic is not afoot.

Pope Francis has authorized this step, adding to my disappointment with his appointment.

A sick young girl in Argentina was allegedly healed mysteriously by an “invocation of the Venerable John Paul I” according to the chief miracle detectors and busters office of the Vatican, the “Congregation for the Causes of the Saints”.   Any hospital could point you to dozens of similar “miracles”– unexplained sudden recoveries.

Make sure, Pope Francis, that you appoint your friends to this august body: that’s how it works.  That’s how you ensure that you too will reach the pinnacle.

And popes are not saints.  Saints are not saints.  Olga of Kiev, who brutally murdered thousands of Drevlians (a tribe living in what is now the Ukraine) is not a saint.  But the Catholic Church thinks she is.

What we have is this: each pope for the last 50 years has come to realize that his own canonization depends on establishing a precedent or model that will provide the framework for his own beatification.   I predict that every single pope from now to eternity will be Canonized.  It’s like sports halls of fame: every chief executive in the league offices has arranged it so that his own induction will seem inevitable, by establishing the kind of vague, loosely defined criteria that can be buffed and customized to suit any succeeding executive even if he is as mediocre a person as Gary Bettman.

It’s almost as bad as Franklin Graham inheriting his father’s divine mandate to lecture us all on how Donald Trump is really Jesus.