Back in the USSR: Dear Red People

When I was a student revolutionary, I attended a debate between a communist and liberal in Manhattan circa 1972. When the latter complained that workers didn’t strike in the socialist states one of the reds in the audience shouted out that this was because “The workers own them!”

In Dear Comrades! seasoned Soviet/Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky poses the question: What does happen when the workers go out on strike in a (purportedly) workers’ state? Russia’s official entry for 2020’s Best International Feature Film Academy Award is based on an actual labor action in June 1962 by the industrial proletariat at the city of Novocherkassk, back in the USSR.

Konchalovsky’s two-hour black and white film, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, dramatizes the response of local and regional Communist Party apparatchiks and the national government led by Premier Nikita Khrushchev to the workers’ uprising. The film focuses on Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya, who is actually from Novocherkassk), a World War II veteran and Party functionary, who shares a flat with her freethinking daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) and father (Sergei Erlish), who was born before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and represents the Czarist past.

Since the 1920s a recurring theme in Soviet cinema has been the interrelationship of the individual and the collective, particularly in narrative films. By 1925’s Strike, Sergei Eisenstein struck the template of the mass hero, a style of filmmaking wherein a group of proletarians and/or peasants are the protagonist, as opposed to Hollywood’s rugged individualist conception of a lone hero, such as, say, John Wayne or Gary Cooper. So, expressing a socialist conception the Soviets emphasized the collective onscreen, while capitalist movies focused on the individual.

But as Soviet cinema advanced filmmakers sought to resolve the tension between individuals and the masses. For much of Dear Comrades! Konchalovsky and co-screenwriter Elena Kiseleva creatively dramatize the interplay between individual characters and the collective, that is, the striking workers.

Dear Comrades! opens with Lyuda, who is around 40, in a bedroom with her lover, who appears to be a married man. Shortly after when Lyuda returns home she uses the toilet while Svetka showers, and we see the teenager totally nude. Seen through Western eyes these scenes seem to sexualize the lead females, although their sensuality is subsequently dropped as a plot point. Perhaps the early references to sexuality are intended to suggest that these are liberated women who have agency over themselves and their bodies, but I’m not really sure what the point is in introducing this facet then completely dropping it as historic events take over the narrative.

Be that as it may, a scene in between the boudoir and bathroom vignettes is also quite telling. Lyuda uses her privilege and power as a Party member to jump the queue at a grocery, where ordinary residents of Novocherkassk wait to buy food (the rise in prices, by the way, is one of the reasons for the strike) on a long line, while the entitled Lyuda receives special treatment.

Just as the scene at the store dramatizes the elitist advantages and position of Party apparatchiks, arguments back home between mother and daughter illustrate tensions in 1960s Soviet society, conflicts which in the West came to be called the “generation gap.” The dialogue between Lyuda and Svetka is very sharply drawn and those interested in issues associated with socialism and the USSR will prick their ears up to hear these incisive lines.

Svetka, who sympathizes with the striking workers, insists she has “constitutional rights” that guarantee her rights and freedoms. If I recall correctly, in reference to the removal of Stalin from the mausoleum where the Soviet Union’s founder rests, Svetka argues “a dictator shouldn’t be next to Lenin.” Lyuda responds angrily and offers a refrain that was commonly uttered in sheer exasperation by befuddled American parents confronted by unruly children refusing to accept the status quo back in the 1960s, declaiming: “Now nothing makes sense.”

But Lyuda is referring not to the Vietnam War, drug use, long hair or the like, but in particular to the 20th Party Congress six years earlier, when Khrushchev disclosed Lenin’s long suppressed last will and testament which, among other things, recommended Stalin’s removal from the Central Committee. The reform-minded Khrushchev went on to usher in a period of liberalization, a “thaw.”

But his “Secret Speech” in February, 1956 took place the same year as the Hungarian Revolution, which began in October and was crushed by Soviet military intervention. As the 1962 strike at Novocherkassk spirals beyond the control of local and regional authorities, the national government steps in. How will Khrushchev’s regime respond? With the policies of a “thaw” – or, similar to Hungary, with a crackdown? (Of course, this question resonated in the 1980s as the Solidarity union arose in Poland and beyond, as Gorbachev was confronted with the fall of the Berlin Wall and transition in the East Bloc – including at home in the USSR.)

Without divulging too many plot spoilers, there is a scene in Dear Comrades! where the unarmed masses are massacred that is reminiscent of the famed “Odessa steps scene” in Eisenstein’s hair-raising sequence of civilians being butchered in 1925’s classic Battleship Potemkin. But in Dear Comrades! the war crimes against workers aren’t committed by czarist troops – but, tragically, by Soviet snipers and soldiers.

The final quarter or so of Konchalovsky’s movie focuses on the fate of Lyuda and Svetka. Amidst all the tumult, what befalls the mother and daughter? In so doing, Dear Comrades! abandons the intense interplay and intercutting that had connected individuals to the masses, and unfortunately Konchalovsky, shall we say, “backslides” to bourgeois formulations zooming in solely on key protagonists, leaving the collective behind. Another criticism I have of this movie is that its central character is a Party functionary – and not one of the striking workers.

Nevertheless, this is an excellent, thought provoking film that Konchalovsky consciously set out to make in the style of sixties Soviet cinema, when the writer/director, who was born 1937 in Moscow, came cinematically of age in Mother Russia. In addition to shooting in black and white Konchalovsky also made Dear Comrades! in the 1:33 aspect ratio, which pertains to the height and width of images onscreen, which was typical of the Soviet films he is emulating from that era. Although Vysotskaya (who has appeared in several Konchalovsky films, including 2019’s Sin, 2016’s Paradise and the 2003 TV movie version of The Lion in Winter, which won one Emmy and received five nominations) and some of the other actors are professional thespians, most of the cast in this period piece are, in a USSR tradition going back to Eisenstein, untrained. Co-writer Kiseleva’s journalistic background also presumably serves to bring this epoch – or at least an authentic-looking cinematic representation of it – alive.

This was very much a deliberate decision, because Konchalovsky is quite a versatile stylist. In addition to co-writing with director Andrei Tarkovsky 1966’s award-winning Soviet arthouse favorite Andrei Roublev, he also directed Tinseltown flicks, such as the actioners Runaway Train in 1985 and 1989’s Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell, plus 1984’s Maria’s Lovers, with Nastassja Kinski, John Savage, Danton Stone.

So fans of those Liam Neeson Taken action pictures about a parent desperately trying to rescue a daughter in trouble may also, on one level, enjoy Dear Comrades! But those likely to derive the most out of viewing this thoughtful film are viewers interested in socialism, Stalinism and the rights of workers in what purports itself to be a workers’ state. Along with Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass, about contemporary conflict in Ukraine, Dear Comrades! is among the best, penetrating recent films about events in what had been, once upon a time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Dear Comrades! is in Russian with English subtitles and being streamed at Film Forum · DEAR COMRADES! through on or about Dec. 30 (presumably to qualify for Oscar consideration) and will be more widely released in 2021.