The Death of Stalin released in 2017, is a satirical take on the aftermath of the demise of Josef Stalin in 1953. The movie which has an ensemble cast including Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov and others.

The movie paints a chaotic picture of the sudden death of Stalin and the fumble for power between the NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria and the Moscow Party Head Nikita Khruschev. The other characters in the power struggle are equally power-hungry and taking sides based on favours. It also the Soviet Union, victorious in the Great Patriotic War but caged by Stalin and his cronies in the NKVD (Soviet Secret State Police) led by Beria. The executions of the old guard in the aftermath of Stalin’s death by the NKVD, though hilarious in their portrayal, are a gruesome reminder of the savagery that was committed through the NKVD by Stalin.

Deciding how to proceed now that the head of the command structure has gone

The movie shows how Khruschev manipulated the other party members and gained an ally in Georgy Zhukov, a Hero of the Soviet Union and commander of the Soviet Red Army during the Great Patriotic War. The other members of the leadership committee, grow sick of Beria and his misdeeds and soon through a quick coup, execute Beria through a mock trial (as he had executed so many others on the orders of Stalin and for personal gain).

The funeral of Josef Stalin as a catalyst towards Khrushchev’s coup against Beria and Malenkov

The movie paints an exaggerated view of the red-tape of Communism, the incessant bureaucracy and most of the Soviet top leadership as corrupt, sycophants who care only about preserving their power. But the brilliant acting by the entire cast, the dark comedy moments during the movie and the atmosphere of fear cultivated by Stalin, makes it a movie worth watching.

However, the leadership crisis presented in the movie, makes us ask the question, when great leaders suddenly die, is it as chaotic? Why do so power vacuums suddenly emerge when powerful and charismatic leaders suddenly die. We usually attribute such vacuums to dictatorships, where the cult of personality is such that if a great leader dies, a person who held total power without delegation and with an incompetent token successor who is merely a puppet, the aftermath is such that chaos, infighting and even civil war can follow.

Leaders who come to power following the death of an autocratic leader and who seek to deviate from the status quo are likely to provoke resistance from the “old guard” — elements of the regime who maintain control over the power apparatus and find it in their interest to limit changes in the new system to preserve their power.

Jason Isaacs as Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov

Though power vacuums usually exhibit most strongly in dictatorships, democratic political parties can be equally hamstrung when a great leader goes away. Germany, having enjoyed several years as an economic leader in the European Union, under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, faces several questions as to who would be the appropriate leader after Merkel who would lead the dominant political party in Germany, the CDU. Though a successor to Merkel as been named, questions remain whether she would be as effective as Merkel.

In India, both the primary political parties of India – the BJP, led by the charismatic but divisive leader Narendra Modi, and the Congress, which is still under the yoke of the leader Sonia Gandhi. Both parties are concerned with finding successors who could steer these political parties correctly but the BJP having been decimated with the loss of several party members, who were poised to take leadership roles in the party, to illnesses and the Congress, who have a Gandhi family member to lead the party – Rahul Gandhi but whose abilities as a leader and a politician are highly doubtful and is a constant source of mockery in the Indian social media and political circles.

In powerful democracies such as the USA too, the Republican party, which had historically produced great leaders, unleashed the chaotic and moronic leadership of Donald Trump onto the US and the world. Trump’s irrational policies are the outcome of political vacuums and choosing incompetent successors to good leaders. Thus, the absence of great leaders causes political vacuums in almost all political and social systems but how can this be addressed? Can leadership be taught or are leaders born, not made?

Leadership can be taught and leaders forged under the right circumstances. Yes, charisma cannot be taught but uncharismatic individuals can be built into effective leaders. Most of the real life examples of leaders emerging can be during a crisis. People step up to take lead when chaos threatens in the absence of effective leadership. However, a good succession plan or a chain of command can also help accelerate the process by which people take leadership roles.

An effective organizational plan, good leaders who plan for their succession by delegating essential tasks and mentoring promising individuals and an effective support apparatus around present leaders which can scout for the right leadership talent can help nations, political parties and organizations plan for a leadership crisis. These can mold individuals the right way to help prepare them for the tasks that would be encountered but sometimes, in terms of extreme political change, chosen leaders can sometimes be rejected in favor of an individual who shows promise during an effective crisis (but may not be an effective leader for all occasions and just someone who is at the right place at the right time).

Thus, we can limit the emergence of political vacuums to a large extent through effective planning but in certain situations these will emerge no matter what the succession plan is. Sometimes even the choice of a committee can fail for inexplicable reasons.

All in agreement yet no progress


A hilarious satire set in the Soviet-era. Go for it if you enjoy intelligent comedies.

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