Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

‘Sex With Stalin’ Is Surprisingly Dull

A new Russian video game takes transgressive material but does nothing with it.

A still image from the video game "Sex With Stalin."
A still image from the video game "Sex With Stalin." Georgiy Kukhtenkov

Sex With Stalin, a newly released game by the independent Russian developer Georgiy Kukhtenkov, is incredibly boring. That’s too bad, because traveling back in time to seduce Joseph Stalin is a truly depraved idea. It promises subversive heterodoxy and cutting satire. Even just taking him for a spin through rooms that are most remarkable for their leather accessories promised at least some sort of excitement. But, though the game holds itself out as a transgressive thrill, what you get instead is a PowerPoint presentation inviting you to invest in the game creator’s incoherent ideological timeshare.

It didn’t have to be this way. As the British satirist Armando Iannucci so ably demonstrated, Stalin remains a fertile subject for reflective, meaningful, absurdist comedy. And Stalin has long been an object of romantic and carnal fascination. The Soviet archives contain thousands of letters from women to the dictator describing their fantasies about him. Now in the digital age, an edited picture of a young, hot Stalin routinely resurfaces for fresh rounds of reluctant fans to comment on how incongruous it is that someone so hot could be so evil.

Sex With Stalin, a newly released game by the independent Russian developer Georgiy Kukhtenkov, is incredibly boring. That’s too bad, because traveling back in time to seduce Joseph Stalin is a truly depraved idea. It promises subversive heterodoxy and cutting satire. Even just taking him for a spin through rooms that are most remarkable for their leather accessories promised at least some sort of excitement. But, though the game holds itself out as a transgressive thrill, what you get instead is a PowerPoint presentation inviting you to invest in the game creator’s incoherent ideological timeshare.

It didn’t have to be this way. As the British satirist Armando Iannucci so ably demonstrated, Stalin remains a fertile subject for reflective, meaningful, absurdist comedy. And Stalin has long been an object of romantic and carnal fascination. The Soviet archives contain thousands of letters from women to the dictator describing their fantasies about him. Now in the digital age, an edited picture of a young, hot Stalin routinely resurfaces for fresh rounds of reluctant fans to comment on how incongruous it is that someone so hot could be so evil.

The specific scenario of sexual adventure is itself a tantalizing contrast to Stalin’s repressive paranoia. Where revolutionary Bolsheviks had decriminalized homosexuality, Stalin leveraged accusations of homosexuality against his political enemies. Where they railed against the corpulent excess of the Romanovs, Stalin tolerated Lavrentiy Beria’s sadism. In Stalin’s own life, the unexplained suicide of his second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva was surrounded by political and sexual rumor.

Even intimate life couldn’t escape Stalinism. Partners lived in fear that their relationships might be fodder for political persecutions and that their pillow talk might be overheard or revealed. Even in post-Stalinist times, local political committees often intervened in matters of intimacy, divorce, and abuse. Though Sex With Stalin acknowledges the terror Stalin sowed, there’s no import to the references. They pass by as, literally, screen wipes to indicate the passage of time: “XXXX repressions later…”

The game itself is set as a tableau with the player, as time-traveling interlocutor, deposited across a desk from the tyrant, Joseph Stalin. Interrupted from his paranoid scheming, Stalin pours forth with stilted rants, insults, and monologues, while the player can only occasionally select a dialogue option between long bouts of mechanically clicking “next.”

It doesn’t much matter, though, because the selections are alternatively so abstract, opaque, or generic as to make it impossible to intuit the result. Click long enough and the game will eventually spit the player into an animated ending scene, likely featuring some sadistically profane sexual act.

Not a single moment of it is erotic, however. Sex With Stalin promises shock and subversion. Instead, the player is simply a time-traveling weirdo, deposited on a chair before the great tyrant Stalin to endure stultifying lectures about athleticism, economics, libertines, management principles, and whatever else boiled forth from the froth of the creator’s brain before some bizarre scene finally plays across the screen.

These ending scenes are barely connected to the dialogue preceding them, each other, or any cognizable commentary concerning the state of the world then, now, or in the future. The only moment of genuine emotion is one in which Stalin takes your hand as you destroy the world together, suggesting an element of volition otherwise entirely lacking in the mechanical click-through gameplay.

Admittedly, it is all modeled in remarkable detail, and the option for pixelation of Stalin’s genitals is a welcome concession by the creator. The voice acting is also convincingly Stalin-esque, in that the heavy Russian accent and gravelly brusqueness sound like what someone might imagine Stalin sounded like—his actually flexible Georgian accent aside. The player can even click through five different camera angles while waiting for the often mystifying dialogue to advance.

There’s no point to any of it, though. Sex With Stalin hints at something radical but instead delivers Stalin speaking earnest corporatese on the subject of five-year plans:

“In the process we compare our actual progress with the plan and assess any deviations. This is called the control. Once we have fixed the deviations in the best way we can, we go back to implementing the list of goals. We implement management based on these principles.”

Dialogue such as this makes it almost a relief to “circle back around” to the toneless digital sadomasochism. To be sure, this is what Stalin often actually sounded like—a mixture of American management theory and communist jargon. But while some other games, like the grim border guard simulation Papers, Please, make a moral point out of the monotony of dictatorship, this is just plain dull.

The monologues are also invariably pablum. One possible ending features an eye-rolling parable of the same tone and tenor as the breathless email chains about an arrogant atheist professor who was totally owned by the facts, logic, and faith of a true Christian student. It’s almost immediately clear that Stalin in the context of the game is at most an aesthetic. His inclusion amounts to little else than a shock jock’s attempt at virality. Rather than a conversation with the dictator—or seduction, as advertised—the game itself is a tedious exercise in thumbing through the creator’s personal journals.

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but even the grotesque ending scenes end up banal. Yes, ok. There’s Hitler and Stalin having sex. Moscow’s remaining Communists were offended, but it’s not clear that anyone else should care. The game is so edgy it lacks any point.  The problem may be that it appears to be the product of some inscrutable layering of weebdom (a condition characterized by unhealthy obsession with Japanese culture), ironic radicalism for clout, and message board nihilism. The rest of us shan’t be expected to try to figure it out.

Presented differently, the graphic sexual masochism of the ending scenes could stand as a powerful reflection of the state Stalin built. Deeply personal emotion excised as mechanical, impersonal cruelties. Some scenes bring to mind the Kremlin caricatures that circulated during the relative calm before the Great Purge in 1937. One, dating from 1930, depicted Nikolai Pavlovich Bryukhanov suspended from the ceiling by his testicles—a reference to his political difficulties as the people’s commissar for finance during the Soviet Union’s first five-year plan.

Stalin weighed in with an apparently tongue-in-cheek note directing that Bryukhanov should “hang … by his balls for all of his sins present and future. If his balls hold, consider him acquitted by the tribunal. If not, drown him in the river.” Eight years later, Bryukhanov was executed during the Great Purge. Could Sex With Stalin have convincingly addressed itself to the real cruelty of those histories?

Ultimately, the game seems to be a product for the terminally irony-poisoned. It’s pure fantasy, by the creator’s own description, but not a particularly enchanting one at that. The player has no role to play, by the creator’s own intent. It prompts no reflection and delivers no payoffs. If you absolutely must see Joseph Stalin bench-pressing naked in all the gory detail that entails, spare yourself the trouble of playing the game and just look the scene up on YouTube.

Nate Christiansen holds an M.A. in History from Western Washington University and now studies law at George Washington University.