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    SUBJECTS — World/Russia;
    SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Marriage; Human Rights; Suicide;
    Age: 15+; MPAA Rating -- PG-13; Drama; 1991; 137 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.

    Description:     Based on a true story, "The Inner Circle" recounts events in the life of Stalin's personal projectionist, Ivan Sanshin. In the telling, the Russian writer/director, Andrei Konchalovsky, reveals much about the character of the many Russians who accept totalitarianism. Sanshin worships Stalin. All others, including his wife and his friends, are secondary. Anyone accused of being an "enemy of the state," is shunned, invalidating family ties, friendship, and any sense of justice. Over the years, Sanshin pays a heavy price for his devotion to the state and its leader.

    Benefits of the Movie:     The writer/director of this film, Andrei Konchalovsky, was a leading Russian filmmaker who emigrated to the U.S. during the Cold War. In 1992, referring to "The Inner Circle," he said:
    I made this film to explain Russia to the Americans. The Americans think the Russians are wonderful people who had a terrible economic system, and all they need is freedom and they will be happy. But it is not that simple. Russians have never been free. There is no precedent for it in our history. Only as recently as 1861 did we free our serfs. Until then, most Russians were slaves - enslaved, not along racial lines, but by other Russians.

    There is something in our character that values the security of someone telling us what to do. The reason the Russians hated Gorbachev so much was because he told them the truth, he told them they were not happy, and in Russia, to be unhappy was against the law. In the American media, you foresee a happy capitalist Russia developing. I will be happy if we get to the point that Mexico was at in 1920 - a self-sufficient economy where everybody gets enough to eat. (This quote is from Roger Ebert's Review of the film.)


Benefits of the Movie
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Selected Awards & Cast
Helpful Background
Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)
Bridges to Reading
Links to the Internet
Assignments, Projects & Activities

WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

    Ivan Ganshin, the man whose story this film portrays, maintained his hero worship of Stalin, apparently for his entire life.

    Possible Problems:    SERIOUS. Problematic scenes include two suicides, a sex scene, and lots of drinking. The fear that pervades the society depicted in this film is so overwhelming that no actual brutality need be shown.

    Parenting Points:     Read the comments by the director set out in the Benefits section. Then ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. Children who see and enjoy this movie will be interested in the film Stalin.

    Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

      Selected Awards:  Berlin Film Festival Nominated for the Golden Bear Award.

      Featured Actors:  Tom Hulce, Lolita Davidovitch, Bob Hoskins, Bess Meyer, Aleksandr Zbruyev, Mariya Baranova.

      Director:  Andrei Konchalovsky.

    Helpful Background:

    Stalin is described by historian Robert Conquest as "a man who perhaps more than any other determined the course of the twentieth century." He was born Joseph Dzhugashvili to an impoverished family in Georgia in 1879. Ironically, he began his career in a seminary, then switched to the Bolsheviks where he adopted the moniker "Stalin" (which means "man of steel"). Twice exiled to Siberia by the Czar, he became the General Secretary of the Communist Party upon the success of the Bolsheviks against the Empire and against their rivals, the Mensheviks. When the movement's leader, Vladimir Lenin, died in 1924, Stalin defeated his rival Leon Trotsky and purged the party of opponents.

    Beginning in 1928, Stalin engaged in a series of Five-Year Plans which converted the Soviet Union from a land of peasants into an industrial country. Millions of peasants starved to death due to the massive grain quotas Stalin demanded to fuel his country's industrial growth. Molding peasants into laborers also led to millions of casualties due to harsh conditions and brutal treatment of the workers, described by Nobel Prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago.

    In the 1930s, Stalin became convinced that factions within his own Communist Party were opposed to his harsh rule and were plotting to oust him from office. The murder of popular party official Sergei M. Kirov in Leningrad on December 1, 1934 led Stalin to organize a massive investigation which led to the first of many bloody purges of his own party. Many allege that Stalin himself had Kirov assassinated because he feared the man's popularity and needed an excuse to rid himself of party rivals. Stalin's crackdown is described in official Soviet textbooks published in 1948 as follows:
    The investigation established that in 1933 and 1934, an underground counterrevolutionary terrorist group had been formed in Leningrad consisting of former members of the Zinoviev opposition and headed by a so-called "Leningrad Centre." The purpose of this group was to murder leaders of the Communist Party. S. M. Kirov was chosen as the first victim. The testimony of the members of this counterrevolutionary group showed that they were connected with representatives of foreign capitalist states and were receiving funds from them. The exposed members of this organization were sentenced by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Soviet of the U.S.S.R. to the supreme penalty: to be shot. Soon afterwards, the existence of an underground counterrevolutionary organization called the "Moscow Centre" was discovered. The preliminary investigation and the trial revealed the villainous part played by Zinoviev, Kamenev, Yevdokimo, and other leaders of this organization in cultivating the terrorist mentality among their followers, and in plotting the murder of members of the Party Central Committee and of the Soviet Government .... The chief instigator and ringleader of this gang of assassins and spies was the Judas Trotsky. Trotsky's assistants and agents ... were preparing to bring about the defeat of the U.S.S.R. in the event of attack by imperialist countries; they had become defeatists with regard to the workers' and peasants' state; they had become despicable tools and agents of the German and Japanese fascists .... Purging and consolidating its ranks, destroying the enemies of the Party and relentlessly combating distortions of the Party line, the Bolshevik Party rallied closer than ever around its Central Committee, under whose leadership the Party and the Soviet land now passed to a new stage: the completion of the construction of a classless, Socialist society. (From History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course (Moscow, 1948: 324-329)).
    Stalin established a cult of personality that treated him as an infallible godlike figure. The investigative powers bestowed upon the NKVD (later the KGB) under L. Beria produced a society of fear. No one was immune from receiving the late night knock on the door, from ordinary citizens, to loyal Communist politicians, to members of the NKVD itself. According to Frank Smitha in Terror in the Soviet Union, investigations were rapid and appeals were few. Death sentences were commonplace. The old Bolshevik leaders, Lev Kamenev, Nikolai Bukarin and Grigori Zinoviev, were subjected to show trials and convicted with coerced confessions. Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon provides an excellent story in which a loyal Bolshevik veteran suffers a fate similar to those of the Communist vanguard during Stalin's purges. Even Stalin's friends did not escape the purges. As Deborah Willis notes in Malevolent Nurture: "During the 1930s and 1940s in Stalin's Soviet Union, leadership fractured at all levels, not only within Stalin's 'inner circle' but also within local and regional party machines" (Willis, 1995: 244-245).

    Shortly before the onset of World War II, Stalin feared a military coup and had 35,000 of his officers executed. Without top tacticians such as Marshal Tukhachevsky, the Soviet Red Army was decimated by the invading Nazi armies in 1941. The Germans were only defeated after 20 million soldiers and civilians perished in the conflict. Yet the conclusion of the war did not end the atomistic society of fear, where children informed on their parents, neighbor sold out neighbor, and coerced confessions sent innocents to their deaths. The Soviet Union under Stalin's rule was the model for the world of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, where a Stalin-like "Big Brother" watches all and rules by propaganda, brainwashing and fear. Smitha describes Soviet society under Stalin as one where:
    People saw enemies everywhere, enemies who wanted to destroy the revolution and diminish the results of their hard work and accomplishments, enemies who wanted to restore capitalism for selfish reasons against the collective interests of the nation .... Denunciations became common. Neighbors denounced neighbors. Denunciations were a good way of striking against people one did not like, including one's parents, a way of eliminating people blocking one's promotion, and ... a means of proving one's patriotism .... As with Lenin, it was believed that some who were innocent would have to be victimized if all of the guilty were to be apprehended ... (Smitha, Terror in the Soviet Union)
    Only with Stalin's death in 1953 and Beria's execution did the purges lessen. At the time of Stalin's death, an estimated 12 million people were in labor camps. Robert Conquest, in his book The Great Terror: A Reassessment, claims that ten million died between the years 1937 and 1938 alone. Some consider Conquest's estimates to be conservative and report a statistic twice as high. But few would disagree that the Stalin purges represent a particularly dark chapter in an already troubling century for humanity.

QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:   What is it that makes people worship a totalitarian dictator like Stalin, a man who had committed gross atrocities?

Suggested Response: There does not appear to be a consensus about the correct answer to this question. What follows is our opinion, informed and sharpened by the movie, developed by thinking about this issue and making observations over many years.

Totalitarian societies exist due to the complicity by cooperation or inactivity of a large portion of the population. In effect, the people cede their power to the dictator. The systematic degradation of the population through the application of police state security measures eliminates not only those who would resist, but also introduces an element of fear into the lives of the remaining population. Adoration of the dictator, Stalin in this instance, despite the violence and atrocities comes from feelings of lack of self-worth and of helplessness in the face of the power of the state, Powered by a need to both neutralize the fear of the government by joining with it and a desire to be among the elite, people identify with the oppressor. For such a person, identification with the dictator and his power provides a false sense of security as well as a false sense of power. Of course, in a totalitarian state the citizen has neither real power nor true security, as Sanshin learned when his wife was seduced by Beria. The best security comes from a democratically elected government of laws in which the leaders are not above the law and in which the law is fairly enforced.

Sanshin is not the only character in the film with a totalitarian tolerant personality. The character of Katya is a "Stalin orphan," i.e., someone who lost her family to a crime committed by Stalin or his men. She was told repeatedly that she came from defective stock. She felt that she had no power. She had no one other than Stalin with whom to identify. And so she was willing to risk being crushed to death to get a glimpse of Stalin's corpse. When you realize that Stalin had caused the death of her entire family, this was quite remarkable.

Dictators are adept at finding legitimate or illegitimate causes to build support for their policies and to try to justify the loss of individual rights. Stalin used the perceived weakness of the Russian economy and the need to rapidly industrialize the country, Communist ideology, patriotism, fear of the Germans, fear of the U.S. etc. Saddam Hussein used nationalism, Arab unity, anger at the U.S. for the failures of Arab cultures to adjust to the modern world, ethnic hostility to Persians, and anger at Israel, among others. Hitler's issues included the perceived wrongs arising from the Versailles peace treaty that ended the First World War, ethnic hostility to certain groups, including Jews, Gypsies and Russians, nationalism, and the myth of Aryan supremacy.

We can substitute many totalitarian dictators for Stalin in this analysis, including Saddam Hussein, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Mussolini etc.

For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM's Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film's end.

Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.


    Discussion Questions:

    1.  See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

    2.  In the film, the marriage of Ivan and Anastasia cannot produce a child but Anastasia gets pregnant after she is seduced by Beria. Is this a symbol or is this simply an element of the story line?

    3.  What are the roles of propaganda films in the story? How do they bolster the story?

    4.  In what way is Sanshin an idealist? In what way is Sanshin naive about the Soviet state?

    5.  At the end of the film, Katya bemoans her Jewish ancestry. Sanshin says "They have Jews in government." She replies "Uncle Ivan, you're so naive." Who is right?

    6.  In the dream sequence, Ivan Sanshin lies to Stalin about his wife. Why did he dream this? Does the Stalin in the dream believe him?

    7.  Why is Katya a "Stalin orphan"? Why was she willing to be crushed to death just to see Stalin's body despite the fact that she knew that Stalin had ordered the deaths of her parents?

    8.  Much has been made about the "totalitarian mind." What might have happened if Stalin had lost in World War II? What if North Korea and Iraq fell today? Would the people bask in their freedom, or would they choose a new strongman to "fill the void"?

    9.  The deaths of people with a strong "Cult of Personality" have produced strife among their followers (Martin Luther King Jr., Ayatollah Khomeni, Alexander the Great). Why might this occur?

Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

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BUILDING VOCABULARY: "cult of personality," "police state."

    Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:


    1.  Think of famous U.S. traitors: Benedict Arnold, Julius Rosenberg, John Wilkes Booth, and John Walker. If their spouses had been aware of their plans and activities should the spouse have turned them in? What is the difference between "loving Stalin more than your wife" and turning over a spy working for a foreign country?

    2.  The germ of the problem in Ivan's and Anastasia's relationship was his statement to her that he loved Comrade Stalin more than he loved her. Why is this regarded as a defect in Ivan?

    3.  Was Ivan right to try to take Anastasia back when she was pregnant? What was this a symbol of?

    4.  Anastasia initially said that she didn't want to come back to Ivan. Was this true?

    5.  Sanshin calls Anastasia "a fleeting pleasure." Do you believe him, or was this just a case of sour grapes?


    6.  What factors might have contributed to Anastasia's final choice? Did she have a choice?

    7.  What was the importance of Anastasia's suicide to the message of this film?

    8.  Is the filmmaker advocating suicide or does he have another purpose in showing Anastasia's suicide? Does this serve as a symbol in this story?

    9.  What do you make of the fact that Mr. Gubelsman, as soon as the KGB came to arrest him, tried to commit suicide? He made no effort to defend himself. Was it because Gubelsman (a Jew) had betrayed Russia to Nazi Germany or was it because he knew that there was no justice where he was being taken and that he had already been condemned?


    10.  The Soviet Union is not the only government which has turned relatives against each other or run roughshod over the rights of individuals to gain a criminal conviction. Tell us what these three examples say about the U.S. justice system in relation to that which existed in the Soviet Union: Example #1: In return for a reduced sentence for himself and a promise of freedom for his wife, David Greenglass, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg, lied about his sister in crucial testimony that tied her to the spy ring that delivered U.S. atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. Julius Rosenberg, Ethel's husband, was the leader of the spy ring, but there are serious questions about whether Ethel Rosenberg was involved at all. Mr. Greenglass claims that the prosecutors induced or at least were aware of the perjury. Both Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg were convicted of treason and executed. Mr. Greenglass recently stated in an interview that he has no remorse for the perjury that contributed to his sister's death. See PBS Nova article on The Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses. Example #2: David Kaczynski, the brother of Ted Kaczynski (the "Unibomber") alerted the authorities to his suspicions about the Unibomber's identity after the FBI had several newspapers publish his brother's writings. Example #3: After September 11, 2001 approximately 1000 persons suspected of ties to terrorists were imprisoned for long periods of time and denied access to an attorney. Some were guilty of immigration violations and many were innocent of any crime.

    11.  What is the importance of the image of Kremlin soldiers doing a "goose step" march?

    12.  Sanshin says of the Gublesmans, "I always knew they were spies." Why is this troubling?

    13.  Is the patriotism for the Russian Mother Land analogous in any way to American patriotism? Is there a difference?

    14.  The KGB coerces Sanshin into informing on others to generate a quota of sorts. Isn't this bad for a society? How could such a system last?

    15.  What is the meaning of the name of the street on which Sanshin lives? What is the symbol of animals being herded through the streets to the slaughterhouse at all hours?

    16.  Why is Katia's red bow so important? Is it "invalidated" by her denunciation of her parents?

    17.  Anastasia argues that Katya can't be held responsible for the actions of her parents. What rights are spelled out for children in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

    18.  Why is the Jewish background of the Gubelsmans significant? What happened to the Soviet Jews (at that time, and later)?

    19.  Do you find Sanshin's "Stalin in the Closet" sad, funny, or scary? Why?

    20.  Katya contends that her father bashed his head against the wall "to escape justice." Was there any justice in the Soviet Union? Didn't the courts, laws, and consent of the majority confer legitimacy upon the Soviet justice system?

Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!

Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.

    Bridges to Reading: A book with the same name as the film was written by the Director along with Alexander Lipkov (Contributor) and Jamey Gambrell (Editor). George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; Alexander Koestler, Darkness at Noon; Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime; Fredrick S. Choate (Translator), 1937: Stalin's Year of Terror; Gerhard Rempel, The Purge; J. Arch Getty and Oleg V. Naumov, The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939 (Annals of Communism) (September, 1999); Joel Charmichael, Stalin's Masterpiece: The Show Trials and Purges of the Thirties, the Consolidation of the Bolshevik Dictatorship; Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You Comrade Stalin!; Giuseppe Boffa, Nicholas Fersen (Translator), The Stalin Phenomenon; Robert Conquest, Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-1939 (Hoover Press Publication, #324).

MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: Stalin and Fahrenheit 451. See the films listed in the World History/Russia section of Subject Matter Index.



    In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

    • Harvest of Sorrow Robert Conquest;
    • The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, (New York: Harper & Row, 1975);
    • History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course (Moscow, 1948: 324-329);
    • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell;
    • The Great Terror: A Reassessment;, Robert Conquest;
    • Malevolent Nurture, Deborah Willis,(1995: 244-245);
    • Terror in the Soviet Union, Frank Smitha;
    • Gendercide Study, Case Study: Stalin's Purges.

    Acknowledgments: This Learning Guide was written jointly with Dr. John A. Tures, Assistant Professor of Political Science, La Grange College, La Grange, Georgia. Teachwithmovies.com thanks Dr. Tures for his invaluable contribution to this Learning Guide.

    Last updated December 10, 2009.

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