Tasked with the job of reviewing a film about the funeral of JV Stalin in 1953, Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw clearly emerged from the viewing in a somewhat nervous frame of mind. He describes the State Funeral, an assembly of contemporary footage now worked up into a film, as a “very disquieting documentary, like a two-hour bad dream” full of “eerily fascinating scenes”.
What can it be about the film that Bradshaw finds so eerie and upsetting? Is it the footage of Stalin lying in state surrounded by the flowers brought by workers in a mass outpouring of love and grief, an image which it pleases Bradshaw to mock as a “Marxist-Leninist Ophelia”? Or is it the “scenes of people shuffling along in the streets, obediently reading newspaper reports, listening to speeches, presenting wreaths”? (“Obediently” is presumably meant to suggest that all the workers scouring Pravda for the tragic news and straining to hear the latest bulletins are all doing so with a gun to their heads.)
Bradshaw professes to find the “most bizarre scene … at the airport when delegates from Soviet countries and communist parties from all over the world arrive to pay their respects.” What is so “bizarre” about communists and progressive people the world over wanting to express their sorrow for the loss of so great a leader and their gratitude towards a man who did more than anybody to uphold the proletarian revolution? Scraping the bottom of the stereotyping barrel, the delegates are portrayed as “grim-faced men in heavy hats and coats” (no fashion sense these commies) who are only interested in demonstrating “their own prestige”. Amazing how much nonsense it’s possible to wring out of a few minutes of grainy footage!
Special mention is made of the delegate from the British Communist Party, Harry Pollitt, who is described as “a Stalin supplicant whose footnote in history came with opposing George Orwell’s application to join the International Brigades in the Spanish civil war.” Given Orwell’s disgraceful support for the Trotskyite POUM, Pollitt was right on the money.
What really rattles Bradshaw about this footage is what it reveals about the spontaneous love and admiration in which Stalin was held, not only in the Soviet Union but by all oppressed people.
Brought up in an imperialist culture whose heroes are either talentless celebrities, swashbuckling billionaires or deadbeat royals, it is hard for some to conceive of a society, socialism, in which the real heroes are those who dedicate their lives to serving the people. The phenomenal mass mourning occasioned by the loss of Stalin simply baffles the sceptical and ironic mindset of petit bourgeois intellectuals inhabited by Guardian writers.