Film & TV

Stalin at the Movies

From left: Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, and Steve Buscemi in The Death of Stalin (IFC Films trailer/YouTube)
Weakness and evil are all too often partners.

Toward the end of The Death of Stalin, two Communist Party bosses size up Joseph Stalin’s immediate successor, Georgy Malenkov. “Can we trust him?” one asks.

“Can you ever really trust a weak man?” his comrade answers.

Good question.

Last week brought the news that the head of Shambhala International, the largest Buddhist organization in the West (his title, sakyong, translates as “king,” approximately), has been dethroned after confessing to a number of sexual relationships with his followers, some of whom have come forward to accuse him of misbehavior ranging from drunken groping to sexual extortion. He is not the only fallen Buddhist leader, and Shambhala is not the only Buddhist organization that has been obliged to come to terms with allegations of sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church has had its turn in that barrel with its ongoing sexual-abuse scandals, which in many cases were made even more destructive by the efforts of Church authorities to keep things quiet — which is part of the nature of scandals. The Catholic practice of clerical celibacy is an obsession of the kulturkampf Left, and at the height of the revelations of clerical abuse it was common for critics (many of them quite ignorant of Catholic thinking and Catholic practice) to blame celibacy for all that priestly misconduct, the argument being that men denied ordinary sexual outlets will seek out extraordinary ones. But similar scandals have cropped up in Christian communities that do not practice clerical celibacy, in Jewish congregations, in Muslim communities, and in the Buddhist world, too. From the New York Times:

The downfall of a Buddhist leader in the West accused of sexual impropriety has become its own sorry tradition. Last year, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who founded a monastery in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., retired after allegations of sexual misconduct. So did Sogyal Rinpoche, author of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” who was accused of decades of sexual assaults and violent rage. In the Zen tradition, fallen masters include Joshu Sasaki and Eido Shimano, two of the leading proponents of Zen in America.

In Shambhala, bad behavior runs in the bloodline. The organization was founded by the Sakyong’s Tibet-born father, Chögyam Trungpa, a wildly charismatic man, brilliant teacher and embodiment of the concept known as “crazy wisdom” whose alcoholic exploits and womanizing were well known. He died in 1987. In between Chögyam Trungpa and the Sakyong, Shambhala was led by an American-born Buddhist who is mainly remembered for having sex with students even after he knew that he had AIDS.

From politicians such as Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner to business moguls such as Harvey Weinstein, the same kind of behavior that has been seen in powerful men in religious life is also present in men with other kinds of power. The problem, it would seem, has less to do with the particulars of Catholic practice or Buddhist organizational dynamics — or capitalism, or democracy — than with the one thing all these scandals have in common: powerful men.

Which brings us back to The Death of Stalin. Lavrenti Beria, the fearsome head of the Soviet secret police, is played with terrifying zeal by Simon Russell Beale. He is a master of the universe right up until the moment he isn’t, blubbering for mercy when his colleagues finally turn against him and sentence him to death after a sham trial conducted in a public toilet. Among the offenses in his indictment: 347 counts of rape, including the sexual abuse of children as young as seven. How that precise number — 347 — is arrived at is a mystery, possibly the product of careful Politburo recordkeeping, possibly made up on the fly by Nikita Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi, American accent and all). “Bourgeois excess,” they call it. The keepers of V. I. Lenin’s atheist creed, like the keepers of the Christian ones and the Buddhist ones, offer up evidence, superfluous at this point in history, in support of Lord Acton’s famous dictum.

The real Beria was marginally worse than the fictional one in The Death of Stalin. He would troll the streets of Moscow in his limousine and point out women to his goons, who would then arrest them and bring them to his home, where they would be treated to a mock date, with dinner and wine, before being raped. When Beria dismissed his victims afterward, one of his henchmen would offer each woman a bouquet of flowers, acceptance of which implied that the encounter had been consensual — and refusal of which would lead to arrest or death.

Can you ever really trust a weak man? Can you ever really trust a weak man with power?

What Christianity and Buddhism share is the sense that man is stranded in this world, trapped by his own nature.

Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the effete Malenkov, left his transgender-themed television series, Transparent, under a cloud of sexual-harassment allegations. Nothing in Beria’s league, to be sure, but celebrity is its own kind of power inviting its own kind of abuse.

Christianity and Buddhism are radically different creeds, though the commonalities between them have been explored by Thomas Merton, among others. What they share is the sense that man is stranded in this world, trapped by his own nature. Perhaps the Buddhists would not use the word “fallen,” but there is something of that in the Buddhist analysis. Man is a bag of appetites and urges, not all of which are conducive to his own happiness and well-being or that of those around him. Beria, Uday and Qusay Hussein, Mao and his endless parade of virgins, Jack Kennedy and his girl-a-day routine, Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski. What kind of men become monsters?

One possible answer: Those who get the chance.

For the thoroughgoing materialist (“dialectical and historical materialism,” Stalin called it), none of that should be surprising. If you believe that H. sap. is only time’s favorite monkey — that man is meat — then there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for the kind of behavior we’re talking about, and no need to justify it, since there is nobody to justify it to. If you believe that man ought to be better, it implies that he can be better, and that “better” means something. And here materialism fails us, which is why Marxism became an ersatz religion. Christianity is a fortunate religion in the sense that the endless moral failings of its leaders (and followers) keeps illustrating, generation after generation, the fundamental facts of the creed. The creeds based on human perfectibility, which is the romantic notion at the heart of all utopian thinking, have as their main problem the countervailing example of everybody you’ve ever met and ever will.

It is tempting to make like the Pharisee rather than the publican and say: “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” It is unpleasant to meditate on the truth at the center of Christianity, and perhaps at the center of all wisdom: I am like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous. (I have never been guilty of collecting taxes.) We must sympathize with the victims and care for them, but we must also identify with the malefactors, who are made of the same stuff as we are, cut from the same crooked timber. In the black comedy of The Death of Stalin, we see men — extraordinarily powerful men — who mainly are acting not out of malice or inherent wickedness but out of terror. The survival instinct is even more powerful than the libido. It is tempting to think that you’d comport yourself with more integrity in those circumstances, but would you really? Down in Beria’s dungeon, with the gunshots audible from the room next door — would you really? (One of history’s little ironies: The Lubyanka was originally the headquarters of an insurance company.) Would you be so brave with your wife and children being held in another cell? Or would you beg, connive, lie, simper, degrade yourself, and, if necessary, murder to keep yourself and your loved ones away from those gunshots?

Can you ever really trust a weak man? Is there another kind?

To understand power, one must understand weakness, especially the weaknesses that are particular to men. Human weakness is what necessitates that we constrain power—political power, especially, but also other kinds of power. We are not governed by angels, and there aren’t very many of those in the boardrooms, either. The advice that we put not our faith in princes applies to princes of the church and captains of industry, too. All that we have — culture, technology, civilization, democracy, the rule of law, government — is provisional. What’s permanent is what the publican knew.

After a long night of drinking and drawing up hit lists, the cinematic Stalin decides that rather than go to bed, he wants to stay up and indulge his passion for cowboy movies. “Who’s in my posse?” he asks. Everybody.



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