Satire and Soviets: An evening with Armando Iannucci

On Tuesday, 2 February, LSE’s Government Department held a screening of Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The Death of Stalin. The screening, in a packed Sheik Zayed Theatre, was followed by a Q&A with Iannucci, chaired by Dr Jonathan Hopkins, that brought up fundamental questions about the nature of a free society.

The hour-long Q&A spanned topics ranging from the penchant of the world’s bureaucrats for “making it up as they go along” to illegally filming in Russia. As soon as the questions began, the theatre lights went out, seemingly by accident, prompting Iannucci to joke about post-Brexit Britain.

When describing his inspiration for Death of Stalin, Iannucci recounted his desire to remind people of the delicacy of democracy and the harshness of its alternatives, stating that “democracy is not permanent… you’ve got to keep defending it… leave it on its own, and it will wither.” He applied this concern for democracy to the present UK government, referencing the recent issues faced by journalists in Downing Street. He then shifted his focus to Jeremy Corbyn as he compared the politician’s claim that Labour ‘won the argument’ to the ‘counter-logics’ of the Soviet Union.

The director also discussed the influence of Chinese funding in Hollywood and the insidious power of social media companies. The former topic was brought up by an audience member’s question on whether Iannucci would consider a follow up to Death of Stalin on Chairman Mao. The director laughed with the audience but then said that it was simply not possible in Hollywood, referencing the industry’s lack of content portraying the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Iannucci expressed similar thoughts on Facebook, and, when asked what subject he would consider for his next satire, Iannucci answered, ‘social media’. He expressed his desire to portray the broken logic of tech CEOs believing that, as ‘good people’, they should not be hindered in any way.

Finally, an audience member quoted criticisms made by Peter Hitchens to Death of Stalin, who believed the film trivialised the deaths caused by Stalin, raising the question of sensitivity in political satire. Iannucci responded that comedy is useful for addressing topics from a new angle. He described an encounter he had with a group of Ukrainian women who had experienced the Soviet regime, and how they thanked him for his film’s accurate portrayal. They agreed that the only way one could tell the regime’s story without risking being sucked into its absurdity is through comedy. In his ultimate rebuttal to the criticism, Iannucci cited Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator as a prime example of successful satire of a totalitarian regime.

Iannucci’s other work includes The Thick of It, Veep, and, most recently, The Personal History of David Copperfield.

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