Perhaps the only thing unexpected about the ban was how long it took. Russia's Culture Ministry is not known for its sense of humor about films, and Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has written studies of how American movies such as "Saving Private Ryan" distort Soviet and World War II history to undermine Russia's national standing.
So even though the Armando Iannucci political satire was just days from its Russian premiere, the opening of a comedy about bloodthirsty apparatchiks still felt like a long shot. And it was a Monday night screening attended by Medinsky and a gaggle of prominent cultural figures (and ministry lawyers) that sealed the British-French production's fate.
"The Death of Stalin is meant to create hatred and animosity, debase the dignity of the Russian (Soviet) person. It is propaganda of the inferiority of a person due to his social and national background, and these are signs of extremism," read a letter sent by Culture Ministry lawyers to the minister on Tuesday, hours before the film's license was revoked.
"The Death of Stalin," based on a graphic novel of the same name, portrays the Soviet postwar elite at one another's throats to succeed dictator Joseph Stalin. The plotters include war hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov; Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov; spymaster Lavrenti Beria; a drunken son, Vasily Stalin; and the ultimate successor, Nikita Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi).
Iannucci is a veteran portrayer of political infighting, best known in the United States for his television series "Veep," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an ambitious and harried vice president (at least in Season 1). That was an adaptation of his "The Thick of It," a satire on political spin in the corridors of the British government.
Iannucci's scheming, darkly violent reconstruction of the power struggle to replace Stalin plays with some of the facts, but it is also meant to demystify the historical fight for control and win a few laughs along the way.
According to reports, it didn't go over very well.
In one scene, Beria tells an underling, "Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it," before going on to order a complex series of murders. The scene is meant to lampoon the cruelties of the secret police.
According to Dmitry Steshin, a pro-Kremlin journalist who attended the Culture Ministry screening for the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, "the audience met this speech with a deathly silence."
"Veterans will go to the movies on the weekend and see this," Medinsky said during a discussion following the film, noting that it would open close to the 75th anniversary of the World War II Battle of Stalingrad. "You can imagine what the public reaction will be."
The Culture Ministry has found itself in the middle of several scandals over films in recent months. A 2017 film about Czar Nicholas II's youthful romance with the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska led to death threats and calls for a ban. And just last week, the ministry attempted to delay the opening of the film "Paddington 2" to prevent it from competing with several Russian films, including the sports flick "Going Vertical," which has become Russia's highest-grossing film in history.
At moments, Medinsky even seemed to suggest that there was a conspiracy. "It's curious that the film was brought by the same company that released 'Paddington 2,' " he mused. One day later, the premiere of "The Death of Stalin" was canceled.