On 2 June 1962, during a protest about rising food prices and poor working conditions, Soviet soldiers opened fire on civilians in what would become known as the ‘Novocherkassk massacre’, officially killing 26 but in reality closer to 90 people. Veteran Russian director Andrei Konchalovskiy tackles the atrocity in this tense, stark and uncompromising drama.
“We need Stalin. We’re not going to make it without him”. So says diehard apparatchik and local council leader, Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) at a moment when one might have expected her to finally let go her zealotry for the leader that embodied the evils and privations of Soviet Russia. After the horrors that she recently witnessed and the profound personal cost to her at the hands of Soviet soldiers and the KGB, still she clings to her belief that a USSR under Stalin would be better.
This is Khrushchev’s adulterated USSR, a revolution stalled by poor leadership; under Stalin “we’d already be living under Communism”. Never mind that the state bureaucracy and paranoia wrought on her were to a large extent Stalinist creations, that comparable crimes were committed under Stalin, or that the food price hikes that instigated the protest are invariably a result of agricultural and economic policies rooted in Stalinism; her refrain – under Stalin things would be better – seems unshakeable.
The massacre, coming at around halfway through the film, is unsentimental, harrowing, and darkly ironic. As the factory workers assemble outside the manager’s office, both the council and the factory bosses fall into disarray, bickering over whose fault it is that a strike is even conceivable in a socialist utopia. As the people are massacred, their leaders make their escape, like rats, through the innards of the building.
Cinematographer Andrey Naydenov’s favouring of long and wide-angle lenses distorts spaces, flattening and curving interiors that elicits a sense of panopticonic surveillance, while the 3:4 frame defies classic Soviet cinematic conventions by privileging individuals over groups. When Lyuda’s daughter goes missing after the massacre, suddenly the distant cameras become more intimate and stifling, squashing us in alongside her and her sympathetic KGB friend as they try to track Svetka (Yuliya Burova) down.
In the film’s first half, Svetka and Lyuda are at growing odds. Lyuda pines for an imagined utopia under Stalin; her daughter is free of that particular fantasy, but is instead brainwashed by the promise of a new dawn under Khrushchev. Yet neither’s faith in their systems of rule can prevent Svetka’s disappearance; their cognitive rift mestastising into a generational one. Trauma is handed down from parent to child, yet neither seems capable of acknowledging the other’s. Dear Comrades! works well as an historical drama, a political satire and even a cold-war thriller. It’s brilliance, however, lies in its study of the profound cognitive dissonance that comes of all totalitarian systems.
Dear Comrades! is available now on Curzon Home Cinema.