Dear Comrades! is a film about actual events that took place in the USSR in 1962, when the Soviet authorities reacted to a strike at the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant by opening fire on the demonstrators. The subsequent cover-up of the massacre was so thorough that details about what had happened only started to emerge when the USSR started falling apart.
Director Andrey Konchalovsky puts a personal dramatic rather than semi-documentary spin on events by opening his film up in a bedroom, where attractive middle-aged local party functionary Ludya (Julia Vysotskaya) is pouring herself back into her clothes and discussing politics with her boss. Sharing intimacies before she heads out, it’s immediately obvious that Ludya is a believer, a party wonk with a hardline response to any dissent about current hardships – we must tighten our belts now to gain future reward.
At home, at the grocer’s and the hairdresser’s the pattern repeats. Complaints about rising food prices cut down by the severe Ludya, whose only criticisms are aimed at the new regime of Khrushchev, too soft by half, would never have been tolerated in Comrade Stalin’s day etc etc.
The strike, when it happens, comes seemingly out of nowhere, but so, ominously, is the response, first at a local political level – where Ludya is all for rounding up the “instigators” and having them dealt with in the harshest terms – and then militarily. Novocherkassk is sealed off, the army are deployed en masse and the KGB arrive to find out who the ringleaders are.
Since the army will not brook opening fire on the populace, the KGB install snipers on the factory roof. The scene is set for the film’s centrepiece – panic and death as the invisible KGB marksmen shoot seemingly randomly at the workers who have gathered to air their grievances.
Having arrived to erect a cordon sanitaire around an impossible event – workers in the Soviet paradise do not strike! – the KGB embarks on a second, more ideological manoeuvre, a thorough wipe of the collective memory.
On a more personal level, Ludya’s daughter Svetka (Julia Burova) is now missing. Dead? The rest of the film maintains a tight focus on Ludya’s increasingly fraught search for her daughter, a search that throws the mother together with the murderer, a KGB officer (Andrei Gusev) impressed by Ludya’s party loyalty.
If you’ve seen the TV series Chernobyl, about a later disaster in the Soviet Union and its attempted cover-up, a lot of the backroom action is familiar – cogs grinding, big rooms full of party functionaries, none of them willing to show dissent, each eyeing the other. Ideological fealty is what’s really under scrutiny rather than actual events, with points awarded to the most crackpot, but on-message, declarations – the strike has broken out because of “counter revolutionary Cossack activity”, or at the prompting of the US-funded radio station Voice of America, rather than price rises and dissatisfaction with the regime.
Some, like Ludya, are believers. Others are just play-acting along for personal advantage. This toxic alliance of the fervent and the fellow traveller making the film an exercise in modern civics as well as a historical excavation.
But it’s the small details that keep Dear Comrades! from being a screed – like the way the KGB orders the immediate resurfacing of the site of the slaughter, the blood having “boiled into the asphalt” on account of the hot weather.
Director Andrey Konchalovsky is now 83, which means he would have been around 25 when the slaughter took place, so he’s got some personal connection the events. Vysotskaya, the actor playing the swivel-eyed Ludya so well, is not only Konchalovsky’s wife but she’s also from Novocherkassk.
Composed exquisitely with a photographer’s eye, lit gloriously by DP Alexei Naydenov, its pin-sharp monochrome looks recall Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, made only two years after the events it portrays, and another film about ideological certainty meeting reality and coming off second best.
I’ve read criticism that Konchalovsky is a regime hack and a Putin supporter and that his film at some level is little more than propaganda. Bizarre. There is only one arc here and that’s Lyuda’s – from true believer to waverer. No, Lyuda’s belief system does not come crashing down, but a crack has appeared, the one that will eventually lead to the fall of the Soviet Union. This is the story of that crack.
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Going completely off message, I also discovered that star Julia Vysotskaya also has her own food blog. Her food looks extremely tasty and is at www.edimdoma.ru
© Steve Morrissey 2021