Thinking politics from Sergei Loznitsa’s “State Funeral”

A revolution’s most important works of art are the men produced by it. New fiery souls are seen to arise from the explosion of new life that cleaves the convulsed world, like anthems that fill the air with clamours of faith and whose echoes prolong themselves well beyond the disappearance of these men. In the future, they will become the inspiration and heroes of epic cantos and novels, which are the harvest of opulent summers for which the age of revolution will have been a pre-Spring.

Romain Rolland, “Preface” (1937), Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel was Tempered (1936)

If Romain Rolland’s words hold true, to watch Sergey Loznitsa’s film, State Funeral, is to see in the women and men who mourn Stalin’s death not only the failure of the Bolshevik revolution as a “political act”, but the horror of the humanity created by the Bolshevik regime.

This is not affirmed with arrogant superiority, with the comfortable attitude of, “how could so many have been duped and blinded by the lies of Stalin’s dictatorship, while so many were killed in the name of the revolution?”, but with humility before what the funeral reveals: the despair on the faces of so many before the dead Stalin.

Joseph Brodsky, writing in 1973, summarises it simply with the following words: “I suspect that there isn’t another murderer in world history whose death was mourned by so many so sincerely.” Or as Andrei Sakharov recalled: “The streets were filled with people who seemed somehow excited and lost, and funereal music was playing constantly.” … “You might say that I lost it in those days. In a letter to [my wife]—intended, certainly, for her eyes only—I wrote, ‘I am immensely impressed by the death of a great man. I keep thinking of his humanity.’ . . . It was very soon that I would blush thinking about those words. How could I explain writing them? To this day, I cannot understand it fully. I already knew a lot about his terrible crimes.”[1]

Perhaps it is a very good thing that we cannot wholly rule our minds and that they force on us ideas and images which we would ignobly prefer to dismiss; thus truth makes its way in spite of egotism and unconsciousness.

Victor Serge, The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Søren Kierkegaard described despair as a “sickness of spirit”, consequence of the refusal or flight from the changing and unstable nature of the human “self”.

“A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” (The Sickness Unto Death, p. 13)[2]

The “self” may be taken as a consciousness of itself, as self-consciousness. Such a picture however is wanting, for it suggests the possibility of complete and transparent self-awareness, when such a possibility is precisely what is ruled out by the third element of the relation between consciousness and self-consciousness, namely, the self-consciousness of self-consciousness, or in Kierkegaard’s words, “the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” The self is “held together” in an unstable unity, a never completed synthesis. I am conscious, I may direct my consciousness to my-self, and I may be conscious of my self-consciousness. This latter though is always partial and unfinished, for while there is life, consciousness flows on between necessities and possibilities, finitudes and infinitudes. 

In the permanent possibility of the flawed awareness of self-awareness lies the possibility of despair.

“An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to get rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it. But this also means something else: precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he now cannot bear to be himself. Consequently he does not despair because he did not get to be Caesar but despairs over himself because he did not get to be Caesar…. Consequently, to despair over something is still not despair proper…. To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself—this is the formula for all despair.” (The Sickness Unto Death, p. 19f)

Kierkegaard’s essay then proposes a narrative-psychological typology of “despair”, distinguished by its expanding degrees of intensity, from the unconscious denial of self, to despairing flight from one’s self, to despairing self-affirmation. In each case, following Kierkegaard, it is possibility which is denied, the possibility of being other and if the first type is purely negative, the latter two involve a self-destructive agency that can only be overcome when “in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.”(The Sickness Unto Death, p.14)

What “power” is this that establishes the “self”? In consonance with Kierkegaard’s thought, it is common to speak of God here. Kierkegaard’s deity however is not a being from which “morality” can simply be read off, offering thereby a quick cure from despair. In Kierkegaard’s words, God is rather the “one for whom all things are possible”, and, in parallel, that “all things are possible” is God. It is God as pure possibility, as the being that exists in the possibility of giving expression to not-being and being, as absolute freedom. In other words, it is freedom, the power or potentiality of freedom, that sustains the human self, and that thus renders us imperfectly free, bound as we are between possibility and necessity. In this sense, and in this sense alone, we are God’s children. Yet in this very freedom lies the human possibility of despair, the flight from freedom.

The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.

Arthur KoestlerDarkness at Noon

The despair in the faces of the many mourners of Stalin’s death is the despair of the loss of certainty and fatality. The political godhead is dead. The radio voices that interrupt the images and sounds of Loznitsa’s film impress upon all who care to listen the enormous dimension of the loss. Stalin was leader – of nations and of world revolution-, teacher, father of the people, genius, the most important man in human history. He was protector, guide, pure of heart, altruistic, good. It was he who “illuminated the path to communism” and with his death, “we have been left alone”. But so that the latter not infect the people’s consciousness with fear, with despair, the transmitted voices insist and repeat that Stalin lives in the breath and in the heart of every Soviet citizen-comrade, and that he lives eternally in the construction of communism.

The libretto of Prokofiev’s cantata Zdravitsa of 1939, composed to celebrate Stalin’s 60th birthday, testifies to the regime’s cult of personality and foreshadows the grandiose mise en scene of Stalin’s funeral.

Never before
Were the fields so green.
With unprecedented joy
The whole village is full.
Never before for us
Has life been so joyous.
Never before in our country,
Has the rye blossomed so.
Differently now, the sun
Shines upon the earth.
Surely the sun must have been
With Stalin in the Kremlin.

I sing, nursing my son
In my arms: “You shall grow up,
like a stalk of wheat,
Amongst the blue cornflowers.
Stalin shall be the first word
On your lips.
You shall learn
The source of this bright light.
You will draw in your notebook
A picture of Stalin.

Oh, white is the cherry tree in the garden,
Like a white mist.
My life is blooming
Like the spring cherry blossom now!
Oh, the sun glows and dances
In the bright dewdrops.
This light, warmth and sun,
Stalin brought to us.
Know, my beloved son,
That his warmth
Through forests, across mountains,
Reaches you.

Oh, white, white in the gardens
Is the cherry, white as mist.
Our life has blossomed like the cherry!
If my youth suddenly returned,
If the Kokshaga River suddenly ran North,
If my eyes glowed
As they did when I was seventeen,
If my cheeks became pink like a ripe apple,
I would go to Moscow, the great city.
I would give thanks to
Joseph Stalin.

He hears all, sees all,
How the people live,
How the people live and work.
He rewards everyone
For their hard work.
He invites them
To see him in Moscow.
He welcomes them kindly,
He talks with them merrily, kindly, oh!

He hears all, sees all,
How the people live,
How the people live and work.
He rewards everyone
For their hard work.
He leads his guests into the bright rooms.
He bids them all sit down at the tables made of oak,
And asks them about everything
He wants to know.
How is their work? What do they need?
Is not our motherland beautiful?
But how is the people’s work? What do they need?
He himself gives us his wise advice.

He hears all, sees all,
How the people live.
He rewards everyone
For their hard work.
He invites them
To see him in Moscow.
He welcomes them kindly,
He welcomes them merrily,
He himself gives us his wise advice.

Oh, yesterday we sang, we celebrated!
We were not drinking to celebrate as Aksinia’s light brown braid
Was plighted to her betrothed –
We were sending Aksinia on a visit to Stalin.
To the city of Moscow we sent her, to the capital.
We dressed her as if she were a young bride.
Aksinia, our light, went out of the gate;
So beautiful, so handsome, in new boots.
We escorted Aksinia to the end of the village.
With her, we send greetings to Stalin.

He hears all, sees all,
How the people live,
How the people live and work.
He rewards everyone
For their hard work.

You, O Stalin, have faced many trials,
And for the people suffered much.
When we protested the Tsar crushed us,
And left women without husbands.
You have opened a new way for us.
Behind you, we joyously march.
Your vision is our vision, O leader of the people!
Your thoughts are our thoughts, indivisible!
You are the banner flying from our mighty fortress!
You are the flame that warms our spirit and our blood,
O Stalin, Stalin!

(The libretto, which according to the first edition was taken from “Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Kumïk, Kurd, Mari, and Mordovian sources”, is a patchwork of poems taken from a 534-page pseudo-folkloristic collection celebrating the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution. The fabricated contents were ostensibly the work of ordinary citizens from the USSR’s many regions and ethnic groups. The selection was made by officials of the Radio Committee, which Prokofiev then reordered and edited. Wikipedia)

But beyond the cult, absurd only in the comfort of hindsight, it is the suffering faces that we see in Loznitsa’s film that are so overwhelming. The composition of the archival footage becomes tragic at this scale, whereas the history that will follow renders all that we see tragicomic. With Khrushchev as master of ceremonies at the funeral, the “revolution” now fell to the pathetic figures of Malenkov, Molotov and Beria, all of whom would be expelled from the Party, with Beria executed nine months later. Three years after Stalin’s death, at the 20th Communist Party Congress of 1956, Stalin would be condemned by Khrushchev, thereby seemingly orphaning the “revolution”, or finally revealing what little remained of it.

In an essay entitled The Communist Postscript, Boris Groys describes communism as the project of “subordinating the economy to politics in order to allow politics to act freely and sovereignly”. Or, as he also states it, the “communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language”. (The Communist Postscript, p. xv)[3]

“Humans will first truly become beings who exists in language and through language only once fate is no longer mute and no longer governs at a purely economic level, but is instead formulated discursively and decided from the outset, as is the case in communism. … If the question is posed, therefore, of whether the regime of the former Soviet Union should be regarded as communist – and this question appears unavoidable whenever communism is discussed today – then, in the light of the definition given above, the answer is yes. The Soviet Union went further towards realizing the communist project historically than any other preceding society.” (pp. xvi, xviii)

Groys is not an apologist for the morally unacceptable. His essay is rather an exploration of the meaning of political autonomy. Taken to its conceptual limits, political autonomy implies a freedom from the economy (the reign of commodity fetishism) and biology, and the freedom to create a human community. The failure” of the Soviet Union therefore lies not in economic bankruptcy or natural calamity, nor in unmet promises or moral turpitude – and what political regimes do not fail on these grounds? –, but in the decision to re-privatise the economy. The “failure” though paradoxically “proves” the regime’s success, for it reveals the possibility of autonomous politics. (p. 125-6)

“The Soviet regime”, writes Groys, “was above all the administration of metanoia[4], of constant transition, of constant endings and new beginnings, of self-contradiction.” (p. 114) Instead of suffering change at the hands of the fates, the Soviet regime linguistified it, rendering it thereby political.

The thesis is perhaps unpalatable, but it is only so in the light of common sense morality. And it is not the latter that we are interested in justifying. Groys’ essay forces anyone who would defend political autonomy to confront what this concept actually signifies. And if no other meaning can be found and argued for, then what is there to shock us in Stalinism other than our common sense morality?

Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul.

Aleksandr SolzhenitsynOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

The error lies – an error that haunts Groys’ essay, but much more besides, including anarchism – in the idea and ideal of a complete linguistification (one could also speak here of humanisation and artificialism) of political life.

The words of Dostoyevsky’s Shigalov resound anew. “I am perplexed by my own data and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine.” (The Devils/The Possessed, p. 404)[5] And to Shigalov, Dostoyevsky is only able to oppose imperfect and frail human love.

The words of Pier Paolo Pasolini also resonate, when he speaks of his film Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom. “There is something brutal about power – any kind of power, legislative or executive. In its laws and in its practices, all it does is sanction and make realizable the most primordial, blunt violence of the strong against the weak. … The fact is, power is anarchical.” (My Cinema, p. 185)[6]

In a letter to Sergey Nechayev, and as a criticism of the latter’s The Revolutionary Catechism of 1869, Mikhail Bakunin writes that no “man, however strong he is, and no society, however perfect its discipline and however powerful its organization, can conquer nature.”[7] It is upon this shoal, upon nature, that “communism”, or autonomous politics conceived of as the total linguistification of collective life breaks.

Kierkegaard’s study of despair already points in this direction. Despair results from the inability to accept possibility, the possibility of their being something more, something other, to our self, beyond that which we can illuminate. In the madness of the insistence on total self-awareness, total self-possession, we find the most intense and extreme form of despair.

“First comes despair over the earthly or over something earthly, then despair of the eternal, over oneself. Then comes defiance, which is really despair through the aid of the eternal, the despairing misuse of the eternal within the self to will in despair to be oneself…. In this form of despair, there is a rise in the consciousness of the self, and therefore a greater consciousness of what despair is and that one’s state is despair. Here the despair is conscious of itself as an act…. In order to despair to will to be oneself, there must be consciousness of an infinite self. This infinite self, however, is really only the most abstract form, the most abstract possibility of the self. And this is the self that a person in despair wills to be, severing the self from any relation to a power that has established it, or severing it from the idea that there is such a power.” (p. 67f.)

We can extend this description to what Bakunin described as Nechayev’s fanaticism, but also to Stalin’s communist regime. A politics that seeks its autonomy in total self-possession is a politics of denial; a politics that denies its inescapable dependence on that which lies beyond it, which we may simply call nature.

The radio voices which punctuate Loznitsa’s film remind us that the building of communism – and its “eternity” – was increasingly reduced to the realisation of the five year economic plans. And yet, in the sequence of final and powerful images, we are shown a country coming to a standstill as Stalin’s body is placed within Lenin’s mausoleum. Across the immensity of the Soviet Union, workers, peasants, soldiers, to the sound of canon and rifle salvos, stop their activities, remove their hats, and stand in immobile and silent contemplation. The plan comes to halt with death. The path to communism is broken, and even a total politics is stopped before individual, human finitude. Along with life, death is the ultimate beyond or other of both individual and collective exisstence, that which cannot be fully mastered, and autonomous politics and political autonomy must be thought and acted out from this ground. To deny it is to engender a politics of despairing violence.

A horse can’t endure even a month of the local winter life in a cold stall if it’s worked hard hours in subzero weather. . . . But man lives on. Perhaps he lives by virtue of his hopes? But he doesn’t have any hope . . . . . He is saved by a drive for self-preservation, a tenacious clinging to life, a physical tenacity to which his entire consciousness is subordinated. He lives on the same things as a bird or a dog, but he clings more strongly to life than they do. He has a greater endurance than that of any animal.

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales

In a final sequence of the series already mentioned, workers stand still while a larger than life portrait of Stalin sails across the sky, moved by a crane. Like the flying Jesus ironically carried through the skies of a no-longer Catholic Rome in the opening sequence of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vida, so Stalin hovers above workers for whom communism is no longer anything but work, but who have stopped working.

The State Funeral becomes the funeral of a State.


[1] Masha Gessen, “A Hypnotic but Contextless Portrait of Stalin’s Death and Its Aftermath”, in The New Yorker, September 30, 2019.

[2] All references to Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death are to the Princeton University edition of 1983, translated and edited by Howard and Edna Hong.

[3] Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript. London: Verso, 2009.

[4] metanoia (n.): 1768, “penitence, spiritual conversion,” from Greek metanoia “afterthought, repentance,” from metanoein “to change one’s mind or purpose,” from meta, here indicating “change” + noein “to have mental perception,” from noos “mind, thought,” which is of uncertain origin. (Online Etymology Dictionary)

[5] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Devils/The Possessed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971.

[6] Pier Paolo Pasolini, My Cinema. Bologna, Italy: Cineteca Bologna, 2012.

[7] Mikhail Bakunin, Letter to Sergey Nechayev. (https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/1870/letter-to-sergey-nechayev.html)

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(For more on Sergei Loznitsa’s film, State Funeral, and on other films by him, see his website here.)

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