The great filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy knows that sentimentality and nostalgia are poison pills, and has never been shy about making films that defy that maudlin tendency of Mother Russia.
The director of “Maria’s Lovers” and “Runaway Train,” the films he’s best-known for on this side of the Bering Strait, wants to remind us that Russia’s grim, dictatorial present is no reason to forget the Bad Old Days of the Soviet Empire, where bread was pricey and life was cheap when viewed from the lofty “Animal Farm” of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
“Dear Comrades!” has the Russians of 1962 Novocherkassk gossiping about rising food prices and “production quotas” and waxing near-nostalgic for the good old days, when meat was plentiful and bread was cheap and, uh, Stalin was in charge. Or the Czar.
There are idealists in their ranks — young and old — certain that the Kruschev Era USSR has “freedom of speech,” that the State “would not let us starve,” and that if they quote Lenin accurately, the Army would never “shoot its own people.” These “Dear Comrades” are about to get a reminder that State propaganda may be quoted as gospel, but it’s just as much myth as the original gospel. And believing too deeply in it isn’t just naive. It can get you killed.
“Dear Comrades!” is about the Novocherkassk Massacre, a wildcat strike that threatened to spread in a country where discontent rivaled nostalgia as a default frame of mind.
We see the events of those few days in June of 1962, mere months before the Cuban Missile Crisis (Kruschev’s “Wag the Dog” moment), through the eyes of Party veteran Lyuda. She is a city official, working her way from one committee meeting to the next, trying to keep her affair with a married man quiet and her teen daughter Svetka on task (she has a factory job) and in line.
Lyuda, played by Konchalovskiy’s wife and longtime muse Yuliya Vysotskaya, a native of Novocherkassk, isn’t shy about using her Party Privilege to get the back-room shopping treatment at the grocer’s or to lecture friends and family that the Party’s “words are law” (in Russian with English subtitles), “You don’t get to argue with them.”
She survived the Great Patriotic War believing that, so it’s good enough for everybody else. When word comes down that the electric locomotive plant’s workers, grumbling at the latest squeeze to their diets, salaries and standard of living, have gone on strike, Lyuda is the first to refer to them as “ignorant criminals,” a “bunch of hooligans” who should be dealt with swiftly, and with force.
It isn’t long before she is reminded what that means and how ugly it can be.
Konchanlovskiy, telling this story in period newsreel black-and-white, has it unfold in brief, unhurried strokes. A committee meeting interrupted by the sounds of a distant civil defense siren, a worried call or two or three, instant buck-passing, kicking decisions up the ladder to Moscow, one and all citing Soviet Truths they take for granted.
The local military commander is sure those in uniform would never be ordered to fire on “our own people.” He summons a boy’s military academy and members of whatever artillery unit is close by. “Munitions?” They don’t need bullets, not for a protest, even one that closes in around City Hall, even after a few windows are broken when the marchers won’t be mollified.
Maybe after the marchers break in, rage at the “cognac, Hungarian salami” and other delicacies the Party members enjoy the Army will change its mind. Can’t have that Orwellian truth getting around.
There’s no real comedy to this story, although the endless meetings, backbiting, each Party Official determined to out lie the next about how loyal her or his constituency is and how few “hooligans” are in their ranks, how loyal and compliant and not-the-least-bit-disgruntled one and all are, is drily amusing.
Lyuda is the loudest voice in the room in a few of these meetings. But as outside officials convoy in to take charge, as the KGB weighs in, as the legions of informants and KGB plants in the town and in the factory provide intel (hearsay and photos) on what’s happening in this pre-CCTV, pre-Internet era, as efforts to contain the strike, deny the strikers access to the city and close off the city from the world, physically and electronically (“Every phone call is being monitored, Comrades!”), Lyuda’s eyes open. And not because she sees the light, the comical inefficiency, the Big Lie and the inhumanity of The State.
What rattles her is the shooting, seeing that KGB sniper heading to the roof with a cello case hiding his rifle, the chaos that follows and the fact that idealistic Svetka (Yuliya Burova) is nowhere to be found.
Revolution and “counter-revolution” hit close to home.
Konchaolskiy shows us everything that happens on a human scale — human foibles, raging petty rivalries, a well-intentioned Army officer over-ruled, repeatedly, the frantic calls for instruction from Moscow because nobody wants to be caught holding the bag. And he shows the shooting at street level, random targets dropping in pain, tending to the wounded, screaming and scrambling for cover.
The film’s third act mimics every story of a mother confronting the mystery of a missing child, working every angle in rising desperation and fatalistic dread. Vysotskaya is most impressive in these scenes, Lyuda struggling with hide her despair and use her connections, not knowing who to trust, warned away by friends, arrested by those just “following orders.”
The intimacy of the story and the black and white cinematography keep “Dear Comrades!” from crossing into “epic.” Konchalovskiy is more interested in reminding people of the violence their neighbors, soldiers, police and leaders are capable of, how drab and circumscribed life was back then.
He’s not shy in his messaging. Protests met with violence aren’t just of the past and aren’t just a Russian thing. In a universal viewership sense, we might not see ourselves in the nameless victims, but we can certainly see ourselves in Lyuda, someone who thinks “the system works” right up to the moment when we see that it doesn’t work for everybody.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity, smoking, drinking
Cast: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Vladislav Komarov, Andrey Gusev, Yuliya Burova
Credits: Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy, script by Andrey Konchalovskiy, Elena Kiseleva. A Neon release.
Running time: 2:01