▶ Dear Comrades! is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema from 15 January.
When censorship was in effect abolished in the former Warsaw Pact countries in the 1990s, following the collapse of Communism, local filmmakers did not by and large start taking advantage immediately of the fact that certain historical topics were no longer taboo. Andrzej Wajda spent his entire creative life wanting to make a film about the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers (whose victims included his own father); but while this was possible after Mikhail Gorbachev belatedly admitted Soviet culpability, in April 1990, the sombre, elegiac Katyn (2007) took many more years to emerge.
Andrei Konchalovsky, whose six-decade career goes back almost as far as Wajda’s, has made something very similar in Dear Comrades! (the upbeat exclamation mark is a crucial part of the title, its appearance accompanied by the Soviet national anthem), which is set against the backdrop of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre.
Like the Katyn atrocity, this was officially covered up (easier to manage, since the victims weren’t foreign nationals), and although the story sometimes leaked into the public sphere (most notably via Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in 1973), all rumours were officially denied for a full three decades.
It started as a protest by Electric Locomotive Building Factory workers, reacting to a combination of state-mandated price rises for essential staples and an increase in production quotas. An angry demonstration led to violent official retaliation, resulting in numerous deaths. The entire city was then sealed off while perceived ringleaders were rounded up, imprisoned and sometimes executed, and media coverage was forbidden both then and thereafter.
As dramatised by Konchalovsky and his co-writer Elena Kiseleva, these events are told from the point of view of a middle-ranking Communist Party official, Lyuda (Konchalovsky’s wife and regular female lead Julia Vysotskaya, a Novocherkassk native). Her privileged status is underscored when she is ushered into a private room in a grocery shop crammed with people frantically trying to beat the impending price rises – even when they reach the counter they won’t have access to salami and Hungarian liqueur; as the day progresses they’ll be lucky to get anything at all.
Conversations with her married lover Loginov (Vladislav Komarov), concerned shop-worker Valya (Olga Vasilyeva), Lyuda’s cynical father (Sergei Erlish) and 18-year-old daughter Svetka (Julia Burova) establish that Lyuda is not only a true believer in the Communist project but someone who maintains faith in the long dead, long discredited Joseph Stalin, two small portraits of whom are visible in her flat (no particular attention is paid to them at the time, but they’re recalled when she later expresses the desire to return to Stalinist certainties). Already head of the city’s industrial committee, she clearly has greater ambitions; the fact that Loginov is the local First Secretary suggests that her fling with him is driven by something other than passion.
The real world first encroaches on Lyuda and her colleagues when a small-scale protest turns into a full-blown siege of Party HQ, with windows being smashed and occupants fearing for their safety. Rescued by the military, they are in no mood for conciliation, and at a subsequent meeting of the Central Communist Party Committee (Konchalovsky here intersperses fictional characters like Lyuda and Loginov with real-life figures like Frol Kozlov and Anastas Mikoyan, senior Party figures sent by Moscow to investigate the Novocherkassk situation and take necessary action), Lyuda stands out for her hardline demand that the state crack down on the demonstrators in no uncertain terms.
This is driven primarily by expediency – Loginov spells out to her that failure to fully cooperate with Moscow might mean professional disgrace and permanent exile – but means that she’s later identified as one of the ideological instigators of subsequent events. (Near the start of the film, she advises Valya to keep her mouth shut about any personal qualms about the price rises; 48 hours later, Lyuda will find herself on the wrong side of a far more oppressive official omertà.)
When she inadvertently discovers a sniper stationed on the top storey of one of the main administrative buildings, Lyuda realises that the authorities haven’t been completely honest with her. As the film progresses, more and more information is withheld, to the point of her being unable to find out what happened to Svetka (who worked at the factory and sympathised with the demonstrators).
It rapidly becomes clear that ‘Moscow’ (most likely Nikita Khrushchev himself) is determined to cover everything up – one especially grim detail being an order to cover the central square with fresh asphalt, after the discovery that it’s impossible to scrub away the blood on a sweltering day. Later, to distract the populace, a public dance is held on that very spot, an image rendered doubly obscene by the realisation that the dancers would probably have known what they were dancing on.
Konchalovsky is no stranger to shooting either in black and white or in the squarish Academy ratio of 1.37:1 (and not just in the 1960s; his last two films, 2016’s Paradise and 2019’s Sin, each tick at least one of those boxes). All the same, the fact that this is how an actual 1962 Soviet feature would have been framed and shot occasionally makes Dear Comrades! feel like a Russian equivalent of Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2003), which put the style of a 1950s Technicolor melodrama at the service of narrative material (illicit gay and interracial affairs) that would never have got past the US Production Code Administration at the time.
Pastiche is clearly not primarily on Konchalovsky’s mind, though. Not even a British kitchen-sinker of 1962 would have sanctioned an early scene in which Lyuda and Svetka share a bathroom, one peeing, the other showering (in the process emphasising their cramped existence; tellingly, Loginov’s flat is much nicer).
Throughout, Lyuda emphasises that present hardships are a necessary down-payment on future utopian bliss, an attitude that persists to the film’s very last line. And if that rings hollow after what she’s gone through, what’s the alternative when the truth cannot even be hinted at, and local power counts for little on a national scale? At least during her front-line WWII experience (one of many details that establish her as an exemplary Soviet woman) she knew who the bad guys were.
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