The Charms of Terror

The Inner Circle

a film by Andrei Konchalovsky

The Inner Circle: An Inside View of Soviet Life Under Stalin

by Andrei Konchalovsky, by Alexander Lipkov, translated and edited by Jamey Gambrell
Newmarket Press, 147, 150 photographs pp., $16.95 (paper)

Columbia Pictures began showing Andrei Konchalovsky’s The Inner Circle on the day the Kremlin struck the colors of Lenin’s flag and raised the tsar’s in its place. Lenin had proclaimed the end of God, Who survived, and now the Russians have decreed the end of the Devil, that old dog whose death-defying toughness is Konchalovsky’s theme.

His devil is Joseph Stalin and his hell is the Kremlin of the Thirties, whose corridors are as pristine, polished, and sparsely populated as the communal apartments in the Moscow it rules are worn, dingy, and cluttered with crowds.

It is history’s custom to identify Stalin’s Inner Circle as the Molotovs, the Berias, and the lesser planets gravitating around the sun of his authority. Konchalovsky has chosen instead to fix that collective on the servants of his household, those ordinary Russians who were his guards, his waitresses, and his film projectionist, and who were all of them worshipers and prisoners not of his tyranny but of his charm.

For, as Konchalovsky reminds us, “The devil always uses his power to seduce and not to force.” Thus Stalin “was very affectionate with simple people.” The Berias and the Molotovs were friends and it was his nature to be “afraid of them….” “On the other hand, he seems to have genuinely loved and respected his guards…who hadn’t been corrupted by politics.”

And so his servants adored Stalin as all simple Russians adored him. Charm is the ultimate refinement of Satan’s work.

Spiritual tragedy occurs,” Konchalovsky decided, “when you realize that you have been seduced, because you are implicated in your own victimization…. And, in this sense, Stalin seduced the nation…. This seduction acquired a mass dimension, bordering on fanaticism, which is characteristic of Russians.”

Both The Inner Circle and the sweeping scenes around the Kremlin towers at this coinciding moment of real history leave us with the puzzle of whether the Russians yet realize their part in their own victimization. It is not yet clear whether they aren’t still convinced that it is better just to bury Stalin as though he and their infatuation with him had never been, that all they need to do is to be reborn as Adams and Eves in one more New Eden.

It can hardly be that simple; despotism’s devilish charms are not stuff so easy to inter. Ivan Sanshin, The Inner Circle‘s protagonist, runs the movie projector for the KGB, the Soviet secret police. Then he is roused in the night by policemen, who bear themselves as their function ordains when they are about to arrest political suspects. Ivan is homo Sovieticus, which is to say that he regards the terror’s whims with panic and its rectitude with reverence. He takes it for granted that he is being transported to Lubyanka for the crime of having allowed a newsreel film to catch fire and dissolve Stalin’s face on the screen in full view of a …

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