Oleg Massarygin and Mira Todorovskaia: Stalin's Wife (Zhena Stalina, 2006)

reviewed by Jamie Miller© 2008

Russians have grown used to feature films and documentaries about Stalin. They were produced in abundance during the Soviet period, both until his death in 1953 and during the perestroika period, and this tendency has continued in post-communist Russia. Historical interpretations of Stalin have varied from God-like adoration, in films such as Mikhail Chiaureli's The Fall of Berlin (Padenie Berlina, 1949), to the equally unbalanced, denunciation of all things Stalinist, evident in the documentary series directed by Sergei Mnatsakanov, Historical Chronicles (Istoricheskie khroniki), which has been screened on Russia's second channel during the last few years. However, unlike most of the work that has been done over the decades that tends to focus on political and historical matters, Stalin's Wife attempts to develop a less hackneyed perspective. It looks at the private life of the Soviet leader's second wife, Nadezhda Allilueva, and her experiences with Stalin.

The idea for the film had its origins in a documentary of the same name made by the former Soviet, now American director, Slava Tsukerman, in 2004. Mira Todorovskaia, a co-director, the scriptwriter, and the producer of this later version, was involved in the production of Tsukerman's work. In the process she unearthed a large amount of archival material on Nadezhda Allilueva and her relationship with Stalin. This, alongside Ol'ga Trifonova's book The One and Only (Edinstvennaia, 2002) and various other memoirs provided the inspiration for the film, which was intended to tell not only Nadezhda's story, but to show other aspects of Stalin's personality, such as his love of women. One version of the completed film was premiered at the Pushkin Cinema in Moscow, but the film was created for a television audience. Russia's second channel bought the work and screened it in November 2006.

Stalin's Wife begins in February 1917 as sixteen-year-old Nadezhda (Ol'ga Budina) innocently falls in love with Stalin (Duta Skhirtladze) who visits the Alliluev family in Petrograd. The film traces the development of their relationship through the 1920s as Stalin rises through the ranks to become General Secretary, while Nadezhda initially works as a secretary to Lenin. The filmmakers attempt to reconstruct the private world of the couple, although any attempt at building a normal family is seen as Nadezhda's work, since Stalin constantly abuses her, calling her a “fool” or a “whore.” We then see Nadezhda studying and making friends at an industrial academy, as well as on her trips to Germany to get treatment when her mental health declines. Towards the end of the film, Nadezhda gets increasingly distressed about Stalin's lecherous behavior, his lack of love for her, and his sponsorship of the slowly rising tide of arrests and executions. This life eventually takes its toll as Nadezhda soon becomes a broken woman detached even from her own children. After a political anniversary dinner one evening in 1932, Nadezhda returns to her room and shoots herself through the heart.

The film does, to some extent, convey what it must have been like to live with a political fanatic incapable of finding happiness in the intimacy of private life. For Stalin politics are his life and he treats his wife as a mere object of control and abuse. At one point Nadezhda announces that she is pregnant and Stalin reacts by stating “look at what is happening around us… now is not the time.” He forces her to have one of many abortions. On another occasion, Stalin's preoccupation with politics is conveyed in a humorous way: when Nadezhda is allowed to have a child, her bump reminds Stalin of how much Lenin likes donuts and buns. The nature of their relationship is made clear when at one point Nadezhda asks: “Should I be subordinate or should I love you”; to which Stalin responds: “They are one and the same thing.” His uncaring approach to Nadezhda extends to his attitudes toward ordinary people. His politics of fraternity are exposed as a sham when he physically pushes away in the street a desperate man whose family is in trouble due to the chaos of revolution. Here Stalin seems to be purely motivated by power and the possibilities of exploiting and manipulating his fellow human beings.

The film tends to offer a somewhat idealized presentation of Nadezhda's character. She is seen as largely apolitical, working for Lenin as a necessity and only really voicing her political views towards the end of the film. In reality Nadezhda Allilueva was from a highly politicized family and was herself an obsessive communist who lived and breathed Marxism. For much of the movie the filmmakers seek to portray Nadezhda as a loving, educated, family-oriented wife with only a minor interest in political life. However, the real problem lies in the fact that, from a dramatic perspective, the development of the relationship between Stalin and Nadezhda seems unnatural and does not engage the viewer. From the very beginning of the film it is hard to imagine how the couple came together. One of the main reasons was, of course, politics, but Stalin and Nadezhda's shared revolutionary romanticism is largely absent from the film and this deprives it of a certain dynamism.

While those involved with the project admit to a small degree of artistic license, it is clear this is an attempt to tell the historical “truth” about Nadezhda and her life with Stalin.[1] Broadly speaking, the film provides accurate information in terms of historical facts, such as Lenin's orders to hang incompliant peasants and his last testament in which he described Stalin as “rude” and demanded his removal. Nevertheless, the film is very unimaginative, conforming to the well-worn image of Stalin as the brutal monster and tyrant. There is an attempt to identify the source of the leader's cruelty in the psychological factors of rejection and failure as a child growing up in Georgia. Stalin is regarded as having an inferiority complex with his constant references to Nadezhda's respectable background and his suggestion that she considers him to be nothing more than “rubbish.” Despite the filmmakers' efforts to show a different side to Stalin, however, they seem to have largely ignored many of their own sources of information. Recent research suggests that, while the evil-tyrant interpretation was indeed part of the story, the dictator had a more complex, multi-dimensional character. [2] This surely provides material for a more interesting portrayal that would do justice to the truly weird nature of this individual, whose character ranged from the communist puritan to the depraved madman.

Ol'ga Budina plays the role of Nadezhda very well and she succeeds in maximizing the impact of a flat script. Budina effectively conveys the disappointment of Nadezhda's life with a cruel and unaffectionate man as we witness her joy slowly draining away. Budina adds more subtlety by internalizing Nadezhda's true feelings, which are rarely made explicit in the film. This is especially noteworthy towards the end, when Nadezhda realizes that, to some extent, she is complicit in the work of the Communist Party and that her transformation from a young, naïve, innocent girl with a love of life to a woman drained of her femininity and dignity is now complete. Budina's excellent control of facial expression and gesture often provide an effective contrast to what she actually says.

The Georgian actor Duta Skhirtladze turns in a respectable performance as Stalin, although there are some weak moments, including the point when Stalin learns of Lenin's death and Skhirtladze attempts to fuse relief, delight, and empowerment in an expression that turns out to be unintentionally amusing. The filmmakers also decided to employ some amateur actors in the movie. This is very obvious at certain moments, especially the use of Nikolai Svanidze, the well-know television journalist as Stalin's brother-in-law, who looks awkward. In other sections, such as the marches at the beginning of the film, some of the extras look directly into the camera, giving the film a slightly amateur feel. These weaknesses may be related to the fact that the directors come from a documentary filmmaking background and have been less attentive to the requirements of a feature film. At the same time, this background encourages some minor experimentation, such as the insertion of small elements of documentary film into the movie itself, which lends a sense of historical authenticity.

Evidence of audience reaction shows, in some cases, a tendency to focus on how the film interprets the Stalin era. Thus, nostalgic pro-Stalinists objected to its portrayal of the leader, while some liberals were satisfied with yet another confirmation of Stalin's unrelenting cruelty. Others, who watched the film through less politicized eyes, were glad to see a movie that attempts to develop a fresh new theme, if not a fresh point of view. Overall though, the audience reaction has been lukewarm. [3]

Indeed, it is fair to conclude that Stalin's Wife is a mediocre offering which, despite its intentions, does not really say anything new. It simply does not stand out among the plethora of feature and documentary films about Stalin, his wife, and the Soviet political elite who led the USSR at this time. Although it is possible to point to some strengths, especially Ol'ga Budina's performance, the filmmakers have passed on an opportunity to create a new artistic vision of how Stalin and his wife lived.

Jamie Miller
University of Exeter

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Notes

1] At the time of the film's broadcast on the state channel Rossiia , the radio station Ekho Moskvy held a live interview/phone-in session with Mira Todorovskaia and Nikolai Svanidze, in which they admitted to a degree of invention, but emphasized the accurate, factual basis of the film.

2] Research, including Simon Sebag Montefiore's book on Stalin, paints a fuller portrait of the leader, suggesting that he also had normal human traits, as well as the evil characteristics with which we are familiar.

3] In addition to the phone-in comments recorded on the Ekho Moskvy website, see the comments posted on Ruskino.

 


Works

Itar-Tass. “Zhena Stalina.” Kul'tura (28 October 2006).

Larina, Kseniia. “‘Zhena Stalina' na teleekrane.” Ekho Moskvy (6 November 2006).

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar . London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

Treneva, Elizaveta. “ Nadezhda i Iosif: smertel ' nyi roman.” Rossiisskaia gazeta (6 November 2006).

 


Stalin’s Wife, Russia, 2006
Color, 176 minutes
Directors: Oleg Massarygin and Mira Todorovskaia
Scriptwriter: Mira Todorovskaia
Cinematography: Pavel Kulakov
Art Director: Aleksei Aksenov
Music: Mikael Tariverdiev
Cast: Ol'ga Budina, Duta Skhirtladze, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Natal'ia Rogozhkina, Tamara Gverdtsiteli, Nikolai Svanidze, Ekaterina Galakhova
Producer: Mira Todorovskaia
Production: Mirabel'

Oleg Massarygin and Mira Todorovskaia: Stalin's Wife (Zhena Stalina, 2006)

reviewed by Jamie Miller© 2008

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