“An Intensely Rich Illustration of the Post-Stalinist Soviet Union”: Dear Comrades – film review7 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
Andrei Konchalovsky’s latest feature film, Dear Comrades begins in June 1962 with a simple premise: the workers of Novochercassk are protesting and the local government is struggling to contain the brooding crisis. Bureaucrats, party activists, and factory heads meet to discuss their options, refusing to accept that the simultaneous rise in production quotas and food prices are the sole cause of such anger. 

One decides the factory management is at fault for the poor working conditions, another points to the influence of foreign media, someone else considers it pure hooliganism. Then there’s the fact that much of the workforce is made up of recently-released prisoners from GULAGs, thanks to Krushchev’s ‘thaw’. Or perhaps the region itself is the problem: Novochercassk is the historical capital of Cossacks, the wild, nomadic people who don’t take well to external authority.

Yet before any blame can be unanimously assigned, the conversation is broken up by a barrage of bricks thrown through the windows by protesters on the square below. The group scrambles to escape the building and the army is called in, leading to a series of decisions that end in predictable tragedy – the soldiers shoot at the demonstrators, causing hundreds of casualties. The authorities block off the city, while the bodies are concealed, witnesses are silenced, and survivors are imprisoned. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the wider public became aware of what happened that summer.  

Privilege and power

As it is based on a true event, the film could have taken the form of a rather typical political drama if the story was not told through the eyes of (fictional) Lyuda, intelligently played by Yulia Vysotskaya. A poised middle-aged party worker, single mother, and ardent communist, she is a complex character who inhabits a world where the key decision-makers are overwhelmingly male. However, this does not mean she struggles to fit in – on the contrary, she looks equally at home in meetings of grey suits and military uniforms as she does at the hairdresser’s or standing at the ironing board.

In fact, one of the first scenes shows her bypassing a desperate queue of customers wanting to acquire basic goods amidst rumours of shortages. As a party worker for the city government, she is given extra rations by a shop worker at the back of the store, who also gifts her with a bottle of unicum, the infamous Hungarian liqueur. Lyuda promises the woman that she will get her a pair of tights for her efforts, demonstrating her privilege and with it, the ability to circumvent the inconveniences of the Soviet system thanks to her status and connections.

This early scene introduces the idea of her complicity in an unfair system on an everyday level, through the simple fact that she can obtain goods that others can’t. However, as the film progresses, the implications of her status and position within the local government take on a far darker tone. The same bottle of unicum later appears at the kitchen table, reminding viewers of a previous scene where a military officer points to the events in Budapest in 1956. If the army was called in to put down protests then, he says to Lyuda and her colleagues, why not now? And why wait until it spirals out of control? The foreign liquor bottle that sits in her small kitchen is a quiet reference to her government’s bloody methods of control over not just its own citizens, but lands beyond its borders. 

Mother-daughter conflict

The bottle is not the only object at home that reveals far more about the complexity of Lyuda’s situation. On the wall is a prominent photo from her youth, dressed in uniform during the war, as well as a portrait of Stalin. Like many women of her generation (as later recorded by Svetlana Alexeivich), she served at the front line in a medical role, until she became pregnant with her daughter, Svetka. The father, like countless young men, did not survive the war. 

Having witnessed incomparable horrors at the eastern front during her formative years, it is not surprising that the conflict, as well as the cult of Stalin, is a fixed reference point. Upon hearing Svetka’s enthusiasm for the planned protest, she cynically reminds her daughter that during the war “people worked sixteen hours for a piece of bread and nobody complained”. Despite the hardship of her youth, she looks back on it with clear nostalgia, as if back then it was simple to know who to believe and what to believe in.

Svetka, meanwhile, is an idealist, having never had to experience the years of political violence, invasion, and reconstruction that her mother survived. Her behaviour is in part typical for a rebellious teenage daughter, but her naivety and hopefulness reveals what many would have believed after the death of Stalin: “We live in a democracy now” she states to her mother, “I have constitutional rights”. 

A massacre in black and white

The film beautifully portrays the streets of Novochercassk as an elegant, tree-lined city tucked between a meander of the Don River and Russia’s border with Ukraine. While it would have been easy to take advantage of a warm June colour palette, the film is shot in black and white. This decision makes more sense at the climax of the film when the protest is broken up by live ammunition. For a few minutes, the cinematography echoes the drama of the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, focusing on the faces of individual workers as they struggle to escape the crush and chaos. 

Knowing her daughter is among them, Lyuda runs towards the shooting. She searches desperately through the flood of fleeing protesters, unable to spot Svetka. Suddenly the perspective changes, the sound of screams and shots become more muffled as chaos is viewed from the inside of the hairdresser’s that Lyuda visited at the beginning of the film. The windowpane frames the terror outside and in a deep irony, a broadcast for workers is playing on the radio as shots pierce the glass. 

Hiding and seeking the truth

By the evening, Svetka has still not returned home. Roadblocks prevent outsiders from entering the city and its inhabitants from getting out, while survivors are tracked down and taken away from their homes, their shouts echoing through the stairways of apartment blocks. Those who were killed are buried in unmarked graves in the countryside. On the square, the blood has stubbornly stained the ground, so the authorities order that the entire area should be re-asphalted and organise a dance with a live band on the same location as a distraction. 

Lyuda begins to live two lives simultaneously; in one she remains a loyal government worker, complicit in the cover-up, and in another, she is a parent on a desperate search for her teenage daughter. Along with Svetka, Lyuda lives with her elderly father, and the three generations form a triptych mirroring the past, present, and future generation. While her daughter looks towards an idealistic future, her father picks holes in the system Lyuda upholds by referencing past atrocities in the 1920s. She acknowledges that horrible things happened where he grew up, in the borderland between Russia and Ukraine, but points to the publication of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Tikhy Don (And Quiet Flows the Don). The epic illustrated the tumultuous local history but was widely read and supported by the state. Her father, unimpressed, replies: ‘If Sholokhov had written the truth, nobody would have known he had ever existed.’

Dear Comrades is an intensely rich film that uses a single protest to illustrate the zeitgeist of the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Strikingly, it uses a city that is neither Moscow nor Saint-Petersburg as a backdrop and chooses the perspective of a complex and multifaceted female character. Much more could be written about its portrayal of Novochercassk, the cinematography, or indeed any of the film’s characters, let alone Lyuda. 

Another essay could be written in consideration of previous work by Konchalovsky, a veteran filmmaker whose filmography stretches back to the 1960s when he collaborated with Tarkovsky on films such as Ivan’s Childhood. More could also be said about the fact the film was produced by Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire Uzbek-Russian oligarch, and the intricacies of film financing in contemporary Russia. Regardless of the action behind the scenes, by using Lyuda’s perspective, the film forces the viewer to question the line between guilt and innocence, truth and fiction, and acts of loyalty and disobedience. Whether intentionally or not, Dear Comrades raises questions about the recent protests against the current political system in Russia, and the role of the past, present, and future generations in upholding it. 

Featured image: Still from the movie Dear Comrades (2020)
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