The Death of Stalin (2017) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Moscow, 1953. After being in power for nearly thirty years, Soviet dictator Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) takes ill and quickly dies. Now the members of the Council of Ministers scramble for power.

  • In early-1953 Moscow, under the Great Terror's heavy cloak of state paranoia, the ever-watchful Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, collapses, unexpectedly, of a brain haemorrhage. As a result, when someone discovers his body the following morning, a frenetic surge of raw panic starts spreading like a virus amongst the senior members of the Council of Ministers, as they scramble to maintain order, weed out the competition, and, ultimately, take power. But, in the middle of a gut-wrenching roller-coaster of incessant plotting, tireless machinations, and frail allegiances, absolutely no one is safe; not even the feared chief of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria. In the end, who will prevail after the death of Stalin?

  • Moscow, 1953. After being in power for nearly thirty years, Soviet dictator Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) takes ill and quickly dies. Now the members of the Council of Ministers scramble for power. At the forefront of the machinations is N.K.V.D. Chief Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (Simon Russell Beale), after Stalin, the most feared man in the U.S.S.R. Council member Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) does his best to maintain order and thwart Beria's plans.

  • In the Soviet Union, everyone is used to Jozef Stalin's reign of terror, with daily lists of arrests for torture, banishment or execution. When Stalin calls a radio producer for the recording of a 1953 concert, he realizes nobody was recording it and hastily arranges for a second turn, keeping even the audience in, despite having to replace the knocked-out director and bribing the soloist, who slips in a note reviling Stalin for having her kin killed. Reading that, Stalin has a fatal cardiac arrest. It takes ours till anyone dares enter his closed office, then ministers argue how to handle his death and struggle to find competent doctors -most having been purged- and are startled the diagnosis is coma without realistic recovery prospect. Still political alliances are forged for the next Communist reign, including roles for Stalin's arrogant daughter Svetlana and maverick military son Vasily, both overambitious. The formal deputy presides over funeral and formal power transfer preparations but especially security chief Beria and Crutchev plot to become the one purging rather then purged, while inconvenient witnesses are on the next execution lists.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Moscow, USSR

    March 1, 1953

    Based on a true story.... sort of...

    After a concert, famed Russian pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) hides a note in a recording for Soviet leader Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), saying he has ruined the country due to his ruthless and oppressive laws. As Stalin reads it in his dacha, he is paralyzed by a cerebral hemorrhage. The members of the Central Committee are alerted. The first to arrive are Interior Ministry (NKVD) head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), who discovers Maria's note, and Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor). As Malenkov panics, Beria guides him to take leadership, hoping to use him as a puppet ruler under his control.

    The next morning, Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) arrives with the rest of the Committee, except for Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), whom Stalin added to one of his lists of enemies the night previously. Beria closes off Moscow, has the NKVD take over city security duties from the Soviet Army, and replaces Stalin's enemy lists with his own, reprieving Molotov. Khrushchev and Beria struggle for symbolic victories such as control over Stalin's mentally unstable son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough).

    When Stalin dies due to complications from his stroke a few days later, the Committee members rush back to Moscow as the NKVD loot Stalin's dacha and execute witnesses. Khrushchev goes to Molotov's home and attempts to enlist his support, but Molotov, a true believer in Stalinism, opposes any factionalism within the Communist Party. Beria buys his loyalty by releasing his wife Polina Molotova (Diana Quick) from confinement.

    Malenkov is named as nominal Premier while being largely controlled by Beria. At the first Committee meeting following Stalin's death, Beria sidelines Khrushchev by putting him in charge of Stalin's funeral and suggesting many of the liberal reforms which Khrushchev had planned.

    Stalin's body is laid in state in the Hall of Columns, while many political prisoners imprisoned by Stalin are released and restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church are loosened, earning Beria more popular support. War hero Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) arrives and demands to know why the Soviet Army troops have been confined to barracks within Moscow.

    Beria learns that Khrushchev has a passing acquaintance with Maria, who was hired to play at the funeral, and threatens them both with the note. Khrushchev approaches Zhukov, who agrees to provide the Army's support in a coup to overthrow Beria, but only if the Committee agrees.

    To undermine Beria's popularity, Khrushchev orders the trains into Moscow to resume, allowing thousands of mourners into the city. As he planned, the NKVD guards around the Hall fire on the crowd, killing 1,500 people. The Committee suggests scapegoating low-level NKVD officers; as Beria believes blame attached to security services will tarnish him, he angrily threatens the Committee with incriminating documents he has collected on them. Molotov secretly tells Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) he will support the coup if they can enlist the support of the others, including Malenkov.

    On the day of Stalin's funeral, Khrushchev lies to the Committee and Zhukov that he has Malenkov's support. The Soviet Army overwhelms the NKVD and takes up positions outside the conference room. Zhukov and his men arrest Beria, and Khrushchev coerces Malenkov into signing the papers for Beria's trial.

    Khrushchev and his allies find Beria guilty of treason and of sexual assault in a kangaroo court and execute him. As Beria's body is burnt, Khrushchev gives Svetlana a ticket to Vienna and assures her that her brother will be cared for.

    Several years later in the late 1950s, Khrushchev, now Supreme Leader of the Soviet Union after removing his co-conspirators, as well as dissolving the NKVD and replacing the organization with the loyal KGB, attends a concert given by Maria, while future leader Leonid Brezhnev, only a row above, watches him.

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