Why Yorkshire, Cockney & New York accents aren’t out of place in Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

Margaret Frainier

It’s said that a heckler once interrupted Nikita Khrushchev in the middle of a speech denouncing the crimes of Joseph Stalin, shouting, “As a colleague of Stalin’s, why didn’t you stop him?” Unable to see the heckler, Khrushchev barked, “Who said that?” No one in the audience moved, and after a few moments of tense silence, Khrushchev quietly added, “That’s why.”

Whether the story is true, the paranoia and fear inspired by the Party leader makes any attempt to satirize Stalin’s legacy a bit of a tough sell. But that’s exactly what Armando Iannucci does so well in his new film The Death of Stalin, preserving the very real terror of the era while revealing its bleak absurdity. This attention to detail and fairly accurate representation of history has none of the stiffness of other cinematic representations of the Soviet Union and the people inhabiting it. By keeping the background scrupulously correct, Iannucci does what he does best, bringing the petty humour of panicked political plotting to the fore.

What really impressed me, however, were the accents. This may seem counter-intuitive, for none of the actors involved make an attempt to sound even vaguely Russian: no generic Eastern European-baddie mumbling here. Rather, each character has his or her own distinct mode of speech, whether it’s Steve Buscemi playing future leader Khrushchev as a neurotic New Yorker, or Jason Isaacs’ glorious rendition of Red Army general Georgy Zhukov in full profanity-spewing Yorkshire. The fact is, however, that each of these people would have sounded as disparate in Russian as they do in their filmic English-speaking counterparts.

In a country as large as the Soviet Union (and, indeed, modern Russia), there are quite literally hundreds of accents. The men surrounding Stalin in the mid-1950s all came from different geographical backgrounds: Politburo member Vyacheslav Molotov from a mid-western region of Russia, central committee secretary Georgy Malenkov from near Kazakhstan, Stalin himself from Georgia. That these same men in Iannucci's version speak in different accents (played by Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambour, and Adrian McLoughlin) is actually more historically accurate than if he had them all copy a generic Russian one. It appears incidental that a Stalin who discusses his latest purges in a cockney drawl is so darkly hilarious.

It’s not often we see films with such a diversity of regional English accents as The Death of Stalin and it seems paradoxical to find them in a film set in Russia. It’s been argued that a loss of regional accents is one of the side effects of increased connectivity in a context of globalisation. But this film highlights the continuing importance of linguistic diversity in societies across the world, and the potential this holds for the creative arts.        

Margaret Frainier is a Creative Multilingualism DPhil candidate researching the development of Russian opera libretti from the late eighteenth century. She is part of our 4th strand, Languages in the Creative Economy.

Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S91405 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Where's next?

Flights of fancy: birds and multilingualism

Inspiring pupils: multilingual creative writing

EBacc – passport to success in the global economy?