Fear as essential
A review of the film Dear Comrades! directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, Russia, 2020.
Dear Comrades! is a recent movie, by the prominent Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, which became a big international hit last year. It was shortlisted for the Oscars and received the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, while Konchalovsky was awarded the Silver Hugo for Best Director award at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film tells the story of a violently dispersed demonstration that took place in 1962 in the city of Novocherkassk. Classified by the Soviet authorities until perestroika, this event remains mostly unknown to the Russian public Dear Comrades! depicts the Soviet army shooting into a crowd and leaving 25 people dead and more than 85 wounded. It received a mixed reception in Russia, being accused of tarnishing Soviet history.
On May 31st 1962 the price of food increased in the Soviet Union, although the communist party claimed rumours about it were only “hostile propaganda”. Having learnt about the price increases when they did take place, citizens became perplexed. How could they trust official statements if the hostile propaganda turned out to be true? The next day, workers of the Novocherkassk electric locomotive factory got news about changes to their workload and wages. As a result, some workers lost one-third of their monthly income. Workers approached their superiors saying they could not afford to have meat as part of their daily food ration. One of them responded with advice to replace meat with liver pies.
In response, the workers organised a strike as they had seen them in Soviet propaganda movies – they dismantled the train tracks. They cut off the railway line to the south, a witness recalled in a conversation with Meduza, an independent Russian outlet that published a lengthy article on the events in 2017. The workers also came up with the slogan “Khrushchev for meat” which they painted on the trains that could not operate due to the dismantled track. Khrushchev himself did not seem too concerned about the strikes in Novocherkassk – he seemed more preoccupied with his speech about domestic enemies of the Soviet Union that he prepared for Cuban and Soviet students that day. Members of the Communist Party Central Committee and the Politburo arrived in the city to deal with the crisis.
The strike lasted for three days. On the second day, tanks entered the city. People carrying red flags and portraits of Vladimir Lenin approached the square where the local communist party headquarters were located. As witnesses recall, some children and passers-by were injured by the shootings during the demonstration. Soviet authorities, in the aftermath, launched a secret investigation of the event. Most of the 110 people arrested were sentenced to ten years in prison and seven were executed. The communists made a huge effort to conceal information about the event – there was no coverage in state media and residents were not allowed to leave the city. Bloodstains on the square pavement were immediately covered with a new layer of asphalt. Perestroika changed the situation, allowing people to speak out about the tragedies of the past, although an official investigation of the case was conducted only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The story of this revolt is told through the perspective of a staunch communist party worker, Lyudmila Syomina. The first scene starts with Lyudmila, or Lyuda, and another married man who, as we get to know, is the first secretary of the local communist party. The couple is sharing a bed, naked. Lyuda complains about the food price increase and says that things had not been this way under Stalin. She expresses this point throughout the movie, even when her daughter disappears during the peaceful demonstration and she has to secretly look for her daughter’s body in someone else’s grave.
Konchalovsky does not primarily focus on the protest or the participants’ motivations. At first glance, it seems that the events are a reaction to the repressive, totalitarian state system (and its fervent followers). We see people throwing empty bottles at the windows of the local communist party headquarters and marching on the street. The communist authorities and KGB workers appear on the screen in various situations, showing how tense communication was between different high-ranking officials who had to make a decision on how to deal with the situation. The director skilfully incorporates opposing narratives into this story. In one scene the Soviet authorities are blamed for shooting innocent civilians participating in the peaceful demonstration; while in another it is speculated that the protest was fuelled by prisoners released as a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1953 amnesty. According to the latter, if there was something to blame the Soviet authorities for, it was for not shooting the wrongdoers but for burying their bodies in someone else’s grave and not letting their relatives pay their last respects to loved ones.
Yet in Russia the film was criticised by conservative groups for tarnishing Soviet history. However, for some viewers, the dark pages of Russia’s history displayed here may be too tame. This does not come as a surprise as Dear Comrades! is mainly written for international audiences, as Russian critics have pointed out. It is simultaneously targeted towards international viewers who are not that familiar with Soviet realities and Russians who are generally fond of historical dramas. Reaching out to these two diverse audiences is possible as most Russians are not acquainted with the story of the Novocherkassk tragedy.
The circumstances surrounding the production of this movie seem a bit peculiar. To begin with, the state-sponsored production, which presents the violent suppression of protest by the state machine, came on screen around the same time as a wave of protests. The director’s approach to history is quite unique. The film’s main character is an ordinary communist party worker whose job is to reach out and prevent any sort of resentment among factory workers. A quote by Egor Belikov, a Russian film critic, best describes this paradox: “Konchalovsky is a product of the Soviet order – its dear comrade and yet its dropout: as the son of one of the authors of the words of the Soviet and Russian anthems, a recipient of several state art awards, Konchalovsky left the Soviet Union, its censorship and constant limitation of artistic freedom to Hollywood in 1980. He returned a decade later to continue his career in now-independent Russia.”
In spite of his past grudge against the Soviet authorities, Konchalovsky’s contemporary views may appear paradoxical. Recently he called Vladimir Putin a “liberal” who should stay in charge of the state as long as possible as “it would be better for Russia”. However, back in 2012, Konchalovsky expressed his support for civil society by signing a petition on behalf of Pussy Riot, a feminist music group that organised a provocative performance in a prominent Orthodox cathedral in Moscow.
In April 2021 Konchalovsky asked the organisers of White Elephant – a respectable annual film award – to withdraw Dear Comrades! from the competition as the investigation of Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation were nominated for the same award, albeit in a different category. He stated, without explicitly mentioning Navalny and his work, that one of the nominees is a “journalistic project that can be regarded as a political act but is outside of the evaluation of cinematic art criteria”.
Nevertheless, Dear Comrades! won the film of the year award while Navalny’s investigation into Putin’s secret palace beside the Black Sea, viewed more than 130 million times on YouTube, won the event of the year category. As the White Elephant organisers explained, Konchalovsky could not withdraw the film as it was not him who nominated it for the award, but the film critics themselves.
“There is a big misconception harboured in Russia and the post-Soviet space in general, that cinema is standing outside of politics. The fact that in the Soviet Union cinema was frequently used as a source of political propaganda is one of the reasons for this delusion. Cinema has always been related to politics and it was born within a political domain,” a prominent Russian film critic, Anton Dolin, said in response to the dispute. Indeed, the state-affiliated Union of Cinematographers of the Russian Federation, a founder of the award, has already responded to Navalny’s award by promising to cease all relations with the White Elephant organisers.
Essential element of power
The debate around something that depicts the Soviet violent suppression of protest can provide us with insight into the identity cleavages taking place in present day Russia. In one of his recent interviews, Konchalovsky, responding to a critic who accused him of tarnishing Soviet history, said the following: “Fear was essential [in the Soviet Union] as there is no fear today when the failure of the state is happening.” In a way, Navalny’s supporters could agree with the renowned director. Members of his headquarters, responding to the violent dispersal of the January protests in support of the Russian activist, argued that fear was “the one and the only weapon” of the incumbent Russian president.
Interestingly, both sides understand “fear” as an essential element of power but frame it differently; this can also be seen in regards to the Russian public at large. Clearly, the fear of authorities, the fear of law and order, the fear of looking “bad” in someone else’s eyes are unavoidable for many Russians. In their view, these feelings bring order, guarantee security, and constrain people. Found in all spheres of life, these fears are deeply rooted in the Soviet past. Many of my contemporaries also grew up listening to their grandmothers wailing that someone “totally lost their fear” on various occasions.
In the perception of this group, it is fear that triggers officials’ aggression towards innocent people who are discontent with the Kremlin’s autocratic rule, legal violations, corruption, and suppression. However, we live in a state where hegemonic discourse (not only one towards Soviet grandeur, but any other phenomenon) dominates, and the opposing narratives are labelled “radical” or “fascist”. This is frustrating, but at the same time, as history shows, if hegemonic discourses were to exist internally, there would not be many movies like Dear Comrades! made.
Anna Efimova is a Russian journalist and contributing editor with New Eastern Europe. She is currently finishing her master degree in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies from the University of Glasgow, University of Tartu and Jagiellonian University in Kraków.