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How I Worked Under Stalin, or Songs of the Oligarchs (1990)

Ya sluzhil v apparate Stalina, ili Pesni oligarkhov (original title)
| Documentary
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Credited cast:
Andrei Malenkov ...
Himself (son of G.M. Malenkov)
Dmitry Sukhanov ...
Himself (assistant to G.M. Malenkov)
Yuri Zhdanov ...
Himself (son of A.A. Zhdanov)
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Frustrating
6 April 1999 | by See all my reviews

The filmmaker, Semyon Aranovich, apparently has no opinion about his subject matter.

"I Worked For Stalin" relies *exclusively* on interviews with a handful of old Communist Party apparatchiki and their relatives. There is *no* critical intervention on the part of the filmmaker, except for the occasional juxtaposing of contradictory opinions about the same event. The viewer does not know what to make of what he's hearing. Was that last statement indisputable fact? Distorted history? Complete fabrication?

The director does not intercede to let us know what he's thinking. There is no narrator to provide an historical context for any of the interviews. Perhaps a knowledgeable Russian viewer has fully-formed opinions about all the significant members of Stalin's government and therefore understands immediately which assertions made during the course of this film are conventional wisdom, and which are startling revelations. But for the uninformed Russian or the curious Western viewer, there is no introduction, or prologue, or incidental commentary, or even organizational flow chart to help make sense of what one is hearing.

I personally recognize the names of Stalin's Politburo members when I hear them. But that doesn't mean I remember their precise portfolios, or what impressions I am already supposed to be carrying around for each of them. I don't have an automatic knee-jerk reaction to names like Mikoyan, Kaganovich, and Bulganin, even though they are familiar to me. What about those potential viewers who don't already know that Mikoyan is the Armenian Politburo member? This film must be completely incomprehensible for them.

Is this particular anecdote traditional history or something brand new? Malenkov thought that the NKVD under Yezhov was committing gross excesses. Malenkov told Stalin. Stalin asked if that was Malenkov's own opinion. Malenkov said yes. Stalin had Beria investigate. Yezhov was arrested. Yezhov was found to be a German spy, and a pederast. Now, one of the interviewees rattles off this hearsay history. What does Aranovich think about this? God knows. What actually happened? I'm still curious myself.

Do you already know where Yakutia is? Have your atlas handy if you don't.

Some of the incidental opinions are fun. Apparently Stalin never "trusted" or "respected" Molotov, and thought Khrushchev was a "buffoon". Rap your shoe on the table if you agree.

People with an interest in Russian literature will hear a story about Mikhail Sholokhov (Nobel Prize-winning author of "And Quiet Flows the Don") meeting Stalin. Alexander Fadeyev is mentioned in passing (author of the war novel "Razgrom", variously translated into English, e.g. as "The Rout").

A lot of the old photographs and archive footage will be of interest. The young Svetlana Stalina looks a little like Winona Ryder? Really? There's quite a lot of Stalin and Molotov of course, but what about those fleeting glimpses of the young Brezhnev? Or how about Castro in a sheepskin coat picnicking with Khrushchev?

Specialists in the time period will no doubt get a kick out of this film. The rest of us will probably have to hit the books first.


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