With brilliant British satirist Armando Iannucci developing a movie adaptation of this graphic novel, now is a great time to get ahead of the game. No matter how good the film will be, I’m a firm believer that the source material will trump it, but Iannucci’s respect for the book is as good a recommendation as any and probably more compelling a reason to read it than anything I could write here.
Set in the days following Stalin’s collapse and eventual death, the story follows the actions of the dictator’s cabinet as they decide what to do. Everything must pass through this committee, so they initially deal with Stalin’s illness (which is difficult since Stalin ordered all the best doctors be removed from Moscow), how the news will be revealed to the public and his funeral arrangements (problematic, since his daughter refuses to attend and his son is a drunk who the army want removed from office). After that, there’s the small question of succession, which sees each member of the council manoeuvring for position, lining up allies and circling their enemies.
It’s a farce but a deeply scary one, all the more so because it’s based on fact. Writer Fabien Nury has clearly had to build up the drama and fictionalise the situation, but although absurd, it barely seems far-fetched. Some of the characters, particularly the chief of police, are deeply disturbing and have clearly elevated to power by climbing the mountain of corpses they’ve left in their wake. Others may have operated more on a tide of fear than free will but clearly no-one at this level of Stalin’s cabal is guilt-free. Even after Stalin’s death, they remain paralysed by the fear of the structures he left behind.
Thierry Robin’s art is wonderfully evocative. The characters are sublime, verging on caricature but realistic enough to make it clear that the extreme farce is far from a joke. Meanwhile his Moscow is beautiful, from the opulent functionality of the Kremlin to the underground room where convicted traitors face the firing squad.
Clearly the power vacuum Stalin left behind needed to be filled but no-one, least of all Stalin, had put much thought into how it might happen. This book dramatises that process and is a fantastic, satirical take on the course of events.