Red Penguins

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Using ice hockey as the prism through which to view Russia in the immediate post-Soviet era, that’s the USP of Red Penguins, a documentary made by Gabe Polsky, the son of Russian emigrés and a former hockey player himself, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Polsky takes us back to the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to start a joint venture with CSKA Moscow (aka the Red Army hockey team), once a major force on the international stage but flat broke since the end of communism.

The Americans send PR guy Steve Warshaw out to Moscow to sex up the Russians’ operation. And with a raft of investor money behind him – including some from Michael J Fox – Warshaw and team set about dragging the team out of the grave. He’s a good interviewee, and is eloquent filling in the gaps in the footage from the time, telling of the rundown “ice palace” being used as a dwelling by homeless people, with its gear looted and a strip club in the basement (one of the very few sources of income).

Warshaw went about his task energetically and enthusiastically, re-designating the strippers as (very good) cheerleaders, giving out free beer, getting real live bears out on the ice to perform. Showmanship. The Russian did not approve but the circus tactics worked. Warshaw didn’t entirely approve either, calling what he created a “freak show” but reasoning that he did what needed to be done. In came advertisers, Disney got interested, things were definitely looking up.

Steve Warshaw in 2019
Steve Warshaw: he tried, he really did

And then, some way down the line, the Americans started realising that, though the merch was selling well and matches were well attended, the figures weren’t adding up. Someone at the Russian end was skimming the profits. There was also the problem of the local mafia, and the “tax police” who’d turn up and ask for money – no one really knows what official authorisation these guys had, if any.

It’s the story of Russia transitioning from one system to the other, and of brash incomers telling hick locals how to run their affairs. The unsung hero of the film is Viktor Tikhonov, the “pure hockey” coach, a relic of the Soviet era wise enough to realise that change was necessary, and happy enough to go along with any amount of razzmatazz, but who drew the line at the rinkside. Off the ice, do what you like; on the ice is my domain. All beautifully encapsulated in the story of the no-good player with a family pedigree who the new management wanted to make into a star – Tikhonov refused.

At a certain point a slightly horrified Disney pulled out and things started going south. Again, this is the story of Russia in the 90s – a rapid injection of cash followed by economic collapse. Here the mantra becomes that the Russians just did not “get it”, but reading between the lines it also looks like the Russians just didn’t particularly want it. They’d lost the Cold War and as far as they were concerned were now losing their hockey team too. You can’t blame them for being shirty.

Polsky gets good quote from Warshaw, from Howard Baldwin, who owned the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time, and from Valerie Gushin, one of the two Russians who ran the team. He’s talked to the right people and asked the right questions. Even so, a bit more from the Russian end – they seem to find the American sell, sell, sell distasteful but it’s hinted at rather than explored – might have evened things up a touch and helped lay bare the capitalist/communist mindsets. And whatever the actual players thought of the mayhem, we’re not let into that secret.

There are more plot turns than I’ve laid out in this precis, especially once the local mafia start throwing their weight about. But why ruin a fascinating documentary that’s well worth watching by tracing every kink in the pipe?

Red Penguins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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