dir: Andrei Konchalovsky
If you ever wanted to watch a movie about a strike at a factory in Novocherkassk in 1962 that resulted in Soviet authorities killing a bunch of innocent people who had the temerity to protest falling wages, rising prices and unavailability of basic food in what they were told was a communist paradise, then this is the film you’ve been waiting for all your life.
Saying that the Soviet years were already renowned for the sheer, spiteful waste of millions of lives and the cruelty of such a brutal, totalitarian system downplays the fact that people forget, all the time, and it’s stuff none of us should be forgetting, ever. But it also ignores the fact that Russian life has always been brutal, and that, just to massively over-generalise, they are a fatalistic people who always expect the worst and are rarely disappointed.
I’ll give you two basic idiomatic examples: in English there’s the phrase “hope springs eternal”.
In Russian the phrase is “hope dies last”.
In English, we say “love is blind”.
In Russian? “Love is evil”. Literally. Lyubov zla means “love is evil”. The full phrase is “love is evil and will even make you fall in love with a goat”.
I mean, how the fuck do you deal with such an entrenched cultural mentality?
And plus there are hundreds of thousands more atrocities the Soviets perpetrated on their own people and plenty of others. So why would you tell this story about one atrocity that they later covered up with their usual executions, sending of people to the gulag and random, I dunno, eyebrow shavings just to keep people on their toes? I think, because I’m not privy to the thought processes of the director, who is 83, directly, but I’m guessing, since I’ve seen the movie, that the emphasis is not on what happened, but what mentality the true believers had to deal with in order to keep believing in this farcical system. What lies a person has to tell themselves in order to keep living.
The main character is Lyuda Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya, who also happens to be the director’s wife), a war veteran, a loyal member of the party, and someone fairly high up in the local city committee. I don’t pretend to know the structure of how these jerks ran things, but what it looks like is the Party, being the Communist Party, sets people on committees to run towns, run factories, threaten people, and lord it over everyone, instead of having like a council or a mayor, since what’s the point of elections anyway?
In the flick’s opening scene, she’s getting out of bed, where she’s slept with some other Communist jerk, and she’s saying she wants to get to the local shop to get food and cigarettes before too many other people queue up. She starts thinking out loud and talking about how prices are rising, wages have been cut, living standards are dropping, and things weren’t like this when beloved Stalin was around. The guy she just slept with lashes out and says stuff along the lines of “that’s capitalist pig anti-Communist talk!”, because that’s what you do when people say accurate and logical things about a stupid, oppressive and deranged system; you attack them until they attack themselves.
The goal of the system is to make people police themselves, police their own thinking and the things they wish to say and do, all for the glory of the Fatherland, or the Motherland, or the Glorious Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. So Lyuda spends much of the rest of the film attacking people whenever they say anything that’s obviously true about how truly fucked the system is.
When she gets to the store, getting to walk through the massive queue like a hot knife through butter, she is treated to all the best stuff being horded for the Party officials: cognac from here, salami from there, actual decent tobacco and matches, stuff which the other comrades don’t have a chance of getting. She accepts all the stuff, says thank you and such, but once the shopkeeper starts asking her what’s going on with the prices and shortages, she lashes out and threatens her with the obvious – the gulag, torture, disappearance or all three.
At home she has her old dad, who lives to smoke and constantly talks about wishing he was dead. He is so old that he actually remembers the time before the October Revolution which saw the Bolsheviks rise to power. And, from a uniform he puts on, and an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary he takes out of hiding, which are clearly forbidden items from Ludya’s perspective, I would guess he fought on the side of the White Army in the civil war that saw the Reds triumph. He remembers the before times, and even the atrocities committed by the Red Army right at the start of their glorious Empire. Ludya’s got nothing to scare him with, because, well, he’s fucked anyway.
She does have a young daughter, though. Sveta (Yuliya Burova) works at the factory in question, and she is young and naïve enough to believe that when the Communist Party committee members, apparatchiks and other useful idiots say things like “Soviet citizens live free in a Communist paradise”, she thinks that extends to a right to protest the obvious injustices of the system.
What she and the other striking workers don’t realise yet, but will soon, is that regardless of anything that the Central Committee or the powers that be within the Party do or don’t do, complaining about it is treason. Complaining about starving, or high prices, or government bullying is anti-Russian, anti-Communist and playing into the hands of the capitalists, the Americans and the CIA. Wanting food and water is counter-revolutionary. Dying quietly in the corner is every comrade’s patriotic duty, without a word of complaint, that’s the way to do it.
So the workers strike, the city’s committee members are embarrassed, and feel insecure, and have no idea what to do. When senior powerful party people hear about what’s going on, the local middle management types are terrified. Not of what’s about to happen, but for being blamed for the workers striking in the first place, and therefore sent to the gulags or be executed.
So they have few options. They can’t leave the town, because it seems to be surrounded by soldiers and tanks, for some reason. They can try to reason with the workers, who are pretty angry. Or they can blame the workers themselves, saying that these protests must be the work of outside agitators, or the Americans, or, hey, everyone in the region is like a criminal, or a Cossack or a gypsy, so it must be the fault of these sub-humans, yeah?
When the massacre starts, it’s pretty awful, as mass slaughters of unarmed populations go, but it’s purely cinematic. It’s not trying to be a documentary: People are shot, they slowly fall to the ground, they are dead. Lyuda is caught in the middle of it, desperately trying to find her daughter, but the firing at people, it’s pretty precise. It’s not random, they actually want to kill a whole bunch of people. The film goes out of its way to say that the massacre was perpetrated by KGB snipers, and not the Army, because The Army loves the people, it really does. An Army General is being shown protesting the Party types, saying he would never order his soldiers to fire upon unarmed Russian comrades. Then they say “Yes you will if you know what’s good for you” and then he says “Ok”, and that’s that.
The dreaded KGB, on the other hand, not only don’t have qualms about murdering innocent people, they pretty much operate from a basis that everyone is pretty much guilty, so they deserve what they’re getting. There are no scenes of KGB personnel umming and ahhing about whether it’s right to do what they’re doing. They just do their brutal work, because I guess they hate people specifically and humanity generally.
Except for one guy, who though he is just as ruthless as any of the rest of his crew, is entirely a believer in Communism / Stalinism, and decides to help Lyuda search for her daughter.
That is, in between jailing people just for having been at the protest and survived, getting people who heard about what happened to sign documents saying “Nothing happened”, but if they ever talk about how something maybe happened, they agree they’re traitors and need to go to Siberia for 10 years of hard labour that they are not going to survive.
Yet this guy helps Lyuda. It’s kind of implied, but never explicitly stated, that he’s doing this not because he disagrees with what the Party generally does, or is doing in this instance, but because he “likes” Lyuda. Make of that what you will, but nothing turns a woman on like helping her find the corpse of her teenage daughter.
I feel ashamed that I made such a joke, but not so ashamed that I deleted it. I guess it’s my pointless way of protesting the motivation going on here, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, other than that Lyuda needs someone else with her so she has someone to complain to as she searches for her daughter’s burial place.
See, I can only guess what the thinking was. You can talk about what happened, as in, pour over the details of what actually happened, but quite often trying to ascribe sense to the thinking was of the people involved is almost impossible. You assume that groups of adults in power think reasonable thoughts and have a sense not of morality but of self-interest at least.
The whys and wherefores of the massacre here make no sense, and I don’t know if that’s because people do dumb / insane things in cults, in mass political / ideological movements or just that mobs of people act, and then rationalise their actions afterwards. I’m sure the intention was preserving the Party and quelling the rabble, but the actions make no fucking sense.
Okay, so the KGB resolves to murder a whole bunch of protestors to put the fear of Stalin into everyone else, including people in other towns and other factories thinking of protesting. And they do it. But they’ve acted so appallingly, in this Communist paradise, that they then have to cover up what happened, down to disappearing the corpses, trying to wash the bitumen in the square free of bloodstains and failing, so they have to repave the square, and threaten all people who know about it with death or worse so no-one else finds out about it.
Bodies are buried in other people’s graves, in far flung towns, by local cops who are told they will be killed if they tell people what happened.
So, problem solved? Wages still cut, people still starving, many of them missing with no explanation, no one able to mourn, no one able to have funerals.
Past a certain point, Lyuda can’t stop yelling “Я не понимаю” or “Ya ne ponimayu” which means “I don’t understand.” She can’t understand what the fuck these lunatics are doing even though she’s an absolute true believer who does everything the Party asks of her, so what chance have we got? Someone asks her to write up an essay saying the protestors deserved to be killed because they were scum, and even though she sobs, she does it. Imagine thinking you’ve lost your only child to this monstrosity of a ruling party, and then having to say “thanks” afterwards.
Now that’s loyalty. That’s putting the Party before one’s own self, one’s own interests, even one’s own family.
The ending, not to be completely spoilery, is neither entirely downbeat nor entirely optimistic. The Russian people would have these easily embarrassed monstrous lunatics in power for decades more, and even then, when it looked like they might be developing a taste for democracy, along came a sexy KGB colonel called Vlad to remind them just how much they truly loved oppression, state sanctioned assassinations and a ruling class of kleptocratic billionaires and bloody thugs who don’t even bother with the ideological bullshit anymore.
Ah, Russia, don’t go changing. A country where opposition leaders are murdered, the dictator in power is popular with the voters, and runs unopposed, and yet he still rigs the elections because his ego is so fragile.
I can’t say I enjoyed Dear Comrades!, but it’s important, and it needs to be seen, and I respect it. It’s less about what happened, and more about what lies people need to tell themselves in order to be able to go on. We need to not forget what dumb things governments do, and what insanity we put up with as people, as humans. Of course it’s an indictment of Communism, but massacres have happened in a lot of places, done by a lot of jerks who didn’t have the excuse of trying to create by force of will a perfect workers’ paradise. All evil needs to endure is enough people to shrug their shoulders and say “well, whatever’s happening to those refugees, at least my negatively geared properties and franking credits are safe, and that’s what really matters.”
I think there’s something in that for all of us.
8 reasons Dear Comrades! is the perfect film to take someone on a first date to out of 10
“What is her crime?”
-“We’ll let the courts decide that.” – now that’s how you respect the rule of law - Dear Comrades!