Ordinarily an exclamation point in a movie title indicates satiric comedy, especially if there’s a communist allusion, but Dear Comrades!, which is Russia’s entry for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars, is a harrowingly detailed black-and-white portrait of a society in the process of being devoured by its avowed ideals.
A rare cinematic peek into the seven-decade crime against humanity that was Soviet Russia, Dear Comrades! chillingly explores events surrounding a state massacre of striking Russian workers on June 1–2, 1962, in the city of Novocherkassk. As the film opens, workers at a train factory have just had their wages cut as the government has announced an increase in food prices. We witness events through the eyes of a middle-aged single mom, Lyuda (patiently played by Julia Vysotskaya) who is a city official on a committee that tries to deal with a threatened strike. As the mob becomes increasingly unruly, army tanks roll in and KGB snipers take up perches. Lyuda and the other bureaucrats soon become trapped in the factory offices. As has been asked many times in Russian history, officials wonder: What is to be done? Lyuda suggests a crackdown. She is a committed Stalinist, now and seemingly forever.
The film is a stunning late-career peak from writer-director Andrei Konchalovsky, whose career dates back to the Sixties and includes everything from highbrow theater adaptations (Uncle Vanya in 1970, The Lion in Winter in 2003) to Hollywood features (Runaway Train in 1985, Tango and Cash in 1989). He draws a superb performance from Vysotskaya (his wife), as Lyuda tries to reconcile her love for Soviet communism with the realities of how it operates, and must operate, to retain power. Her 18-year-old daughter Svetka (Yuliya Borova) is the family liberal and takes the side of the striking workers, which places her in danger.
The film is not at all comic, but it is bitterly ironic. Such is the natural state in a land dedicated to disseminating the opposite of the truth at all levels. Much like HBO’s landmark miniseries Chernobyl, Dear Comrades! takes a granular look at how officialdom reacts to a crisis, makes it worse, and then puts most of its energy into sealing off the truth so that it cannot escape into the wider world. It wasn’t until the 1990s, after the dissolution of the USSR, that Russia would finally acknowledge that 26 people were killed at Novocherkassk when the KGB opened fire on the striking workers (some believe the real toll was far higher). The only people ever charged with crimes in the clash were the workers, several of whom were executed for being disruptive.
Konchalovsky’s choice to look at the story from the perspective of a calm insider, rather than one of the irate workers, is a smart way to heighten the contradictions within Soviet communism. As the workers whose standard of living is being ratcheted down by people like Lyuda erupt, she blandly frames their rage as merely the product of a misunderstanding: “We didn’t clarify far enough,” she says. “Clarifying” matters is the exact opposite of what apparatchiks do when things get desperate. Svetka, who opposes Stalinism but is under the impression that Lenin was not a dictator, insists that “we live in democracy [with] freedom of assembly and protest.” The response to the assembly and protest in which she is about to take part will be ruled classified. Anyone who disputes the party line that nothing happened in Novocherkassk on June 1–2 is told they are subject to punishment, including the death penalty.
Konchalovsky’s film is clarifying about how unworkable it is for anyone to be on the correct side in this evil system. People are at pains to describe how carefully they have managed to maintain their position, but there is no good position on the wretched, storm-tossed raft that is Soviet life. For Lyuda, the constant throughout most of her life has been that Stalin was always right. She is nostalgic for wartime because “it all made sense then, who was an enemy, who was one of ours.” These days armies line up against their own citizens, and an official can disappear for saying the wrong thing at a meeting. When she and a KGB officer try to leave town to search for answers, they present the wrong papers to guards and instantly find themselves held at gunpoint by soldiers in a seedy cement-walled chamber that could be the last room they ever see. The KGB and the Army, it turns out, hate each other, but both sides have guns and plenty of authority to use them.
Lubya is one of those comrades who did everything exactly as she was told and yet still finds herself in a situation no mother can bear to contemplate when her daughter goes missing. Yet, she asks herself: “What am I supposed to believe in if not communism?” Her grandfather, who is old enough to remember the USSR’s first state-caused famine — and who reads to Lubya a haunting letter from a niece who died in it — has a more understandable stance: Nothing matters in this nihilistic landscape. “I’m glad I’ll soon be dead,” he says. “Let it all burn.” Having blinded herself to reality for so long, though, Lubya has lost the ability to see what is most obvious. “I wish Stalin would come back,” she says. “Can’t do it without him.”