‘Stalin’ Divides Russians : Some Charge HBO Film Blackens Dictator, Others Call It Too Rosy


As she marched toward Red Square on Saturday morning with 20,000 pro-communist demonstrators, Kira Korniyenkova cherished her vision of Josef Stalin: a courageous, iron-willed leader who transformed his backward nation into a superpower.

Saturday evening, as she sat in a packed movie theater watching the Russian premiere of the film “Stalin,” Korniyenkova absorbed quite a different view of the Soviet leader: a cruel, power-hungry monster who destroyed his family, his friends and his people.

She wasn’t persuaded.

“The movie claims to be history, but it’s all nonsense,” said the 57-year-old Korniyenkova, a high school geography teacher. “It’s a farce and a fabrication.”


Buttoning her gray overcoat, adorned with a pin of Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir I. Lenin, Korniyenkova added angrily, “The movie is American propaganda designed to tear our country apart.”

An HBO Pictures film starring Robert Duvall, “Stalin” traces the bloody career of the Communist Party general secretary who ruled the Soviet Union ruthlessly from 1924 until his death in 1953. It will debut on the pay-TV channel in the United States on Nov. 21.

Like Korniyenkova, many Russian viewers expressed shock and anger after watching Saturday’s premiere.

But whereas Korniyenkova insisted that the film blackened Stalin’s reputation unjustly, other Russians protested that the $9.5-million movie romanticized the dictator.

“We have an eternal trembling in our hearts because of Stalin, but this film makes him seem warm and well-meaning,” said Zoya Krasnovska, 57, a retired secretary. “The film is too soft.”

For all the scenes of Stalin ordering henchmen to silence dissidents and assassinate rivals, critics said the movie too often slipped into a sentimental love story, focusing on Stalin’s sometimes-tender, sometimes-brutal treatment of his young wife, Nadya, and their two children.

By spotlighting his family life, the film illuminates Stalin the man--but ignores Stalin the leader. The three-hour movie rarely moves beyond the Kremlin walls to examine the immense suffering and devastation he wrought on the Russian people.

The picture touches only fleetingly on some of Stalin’s most heinous crimes: selling grain abroad while famine decimated the Russian countryside; sending millions of “enemies” to labor camps in Siberia; forcing peasants to give up productive private plots and move to inefficient collective farms; killing anyone who dared protest.

“The film didn’t scare us because it wasn’t scary--but, in reality, that era was scary, horribly scary,” said one middle-aged woman who refused to give her name. “We lived through those times, we suffered through them, and, to us, this movie seemed artificial and primitive.”

Nikolai Trov, a 46-year-old teacher, bluntly agreed. “We know too much about Stalin’s excesses,” Trov said. “For us, this film was a parody.”

Producer Mark Carliner defended his decision to emphasize Stalin’s personal life rather than the nationwide tragedy his policies caused.

“How can you make a film about a man who killed 40 million people?” Carliner asked. “But you can make a film about a man who destroyed his wife. Nadya is a metaphor for the Russian people.”

After watching excerpts of “Stalin” before the premiere, several Russian politicians blasted the film as a “political thriller” that reduces Stalin to a “gangster” and “hangman.” Indeed, in scene after scene, the movie shows Stalin cooking up accusations against his closest friends and systematically bumping them off.

“I think he was a more complicated person and not as clear-cut as the movie makes him seem,” said a 28-year-old teacher who declined to identify herself.

But, to others, this crude portrait of Stalin as a thug seemed most effective.

“I generally knew what Stalin had done, but it’s one thing to imagine such deeds and quite another to see them with your own eyes,” said Alexander Pomerantsov, 72.

“The movie captured the soul of those horrible times,” agreed Anya Shaldayeva, a 53-year-old teacher.

“Stalin” was screened here twice during the weekend. A Hungarian firm has been given rights to distribute it further but no plans or dates have been announced. The premiere, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, opened just hours after about 20,000 communists marched through Moscow waving red Soviet flags and holding portraits of Stalin and Lenin.

As the large turnout indicated, Russia’s bumpy transition to capitalism--unemployment, inflation and crime increase weekly--has made many citizens nostalgic for the iron discipline of Stalin’s reign.

Although they have heard the litany of his crimes, some middle-aged and elderly Russians still revere Stalin as the commander who beat Adolf Hitler and the visionary who built the Soviet Union into a world power.

Supporters of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin hope the movie will remind these hard-liners of the dark side of totalitarianism.

“Many people who have considered themselves democrats are now yearning for a firm hand, for a kind of benign Stalin,” Boris Notkin, a television commentator, said after the screening. For them, he added, “this film is very timely.”

“I watched the film with pleasure,” Rada Adzhubei, daughter of Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, told Reuters. “It is very good that such films are shown because everything gets forgotten very quickly, especially by the young.

“Of course, for Russians and people of our generation who lived through it and know a lot about it, it’s rather primitive,” she added. “If you know where they lived, what they ate, it is all a bit embellished. But, in this case, I don’t think that matters.”

A former communist who became aware of Stalin’s crimes while searching secret archives, Col. Gen. Dmitry Volkogonov said he hoped the movie would enlighten those who romanticize Stalin.

“Our society in that time was built on two main resources--violence and lies,” said Volkogonov, who wrote the first critical biography of Stalin to be published in the Soviet Union.

“The lies were so strong that people’s consciousness was flipped. Cruelty became kindness. Cowardice seemed like wisdom. Mercilessness was a revolutionary quality,” he added.

“There’s only one medicine to cure ourselves of the past, and that is to tell the truth. This film will be very useful in telling us the truth and helping us to cure ourselves.”