While the genre of the flashy new movie Dear Comrades! Seems obvious (a political drama), it can also be called a horror film. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, dear comrades! shows the actions up until June 2, 1962, when Soviet soldiers opened fire on workers in the city of Novocherkassk. The workers protested for better living conditions and lower food prices. 26 people died, and the communist government, counting on the poisoned fruits of a rotten system, tried to cover it all up. Only after a 1992 investigation was the full extent of the nightmare revealed. “It was a total blackout and banned for 30 years,” director Konchalovsky recently said. “Every citizen of Novocherkassk had to sign an affidavit that they would not talk about it or risk the death penalty.”
Like a classic monster film, dear comrades! is shot in bold black and white with a narrow aspect ratio selected by cinematographer Andrey Naydenov. This box frame increases the feeling of claustrophobia, the inability to escape and gives the film the look of a documentary. The monsters in this film are metaphorical rather than literal vampires, the bloodsuckers who are the representatives of the Soviet system. They are bureaucrats, party members and elite politicians who are both seen and invisible. Most notable is Khrushchev, who is like a terrible off-screen ghost that haunts history. Every time his name is mentioned, characters freeze in fear.
Yuliya Vysotskaya plays Lyuda, a middle-aged Communist Party official in the Novocherkassk district. The first ten minutes of the film reveal the corruption as Lyuda is pampered with salami, cigarettes and sweets in a back room of the local shop, while ordinary people fight for junk on the shrinking shelves outside the door. She also has an affair with a local KGB employee, Loginov (Vladislav Komarov). Her teenage daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) works in the electric motor factory, which is boiling over with protests against bottlenecks. This is where the massacre will begin.
Lyuda is a true believer. “If Stalin were alive, we would already be living under communism,” she argues. Their theory is that communism has been localized in places like Cuba rather than internationally, and in a world where capitalism is allowed to exist in every corner, the full revolution cannot take place.
The level of paranoia and oppression is incredible. Party members view the general population as both childlike and a serious threat. A few years ago Kino Video released a series of DVDs that collected old Soviet animated propaganda films. “They treated us like children,” says one of the interviewees on the series. In Dear Comrades! Are citizens spoken to, appeased, threatened and patted on the head while being told exactly how to deny what they have seen. Most nod along and are afraid to claim that there is another way than the way of lying. It’s surreal and scary. It also commemorates the academic star chambers that have been censored on modern college campuses, the demolition culture that has been rampant in the tech industry and social media, and left-wing political groups that have vowed to follow supporters of former President Trump Private lives and ruin their livelihoods.
Lyuda and Loginov evoke the things that made Russia a great country, things that existed long before October 1917.
Local bureaucrats and enforcers from the Novocherkassk party hold closed meetings where the apparatchiks discuss people’s everyday lives. They investigate what was overheard on the sidewalk at a game of craps, what shopkeepers are talking about and what habits people have. Lyuda’s father (Sergei Erlish) shocks her by wearing an old military uniform dating from tsarist times and quietly reassures her that his little painting of the Virgin Mary can be burned before it is discovered. The mildest dissenters have to go through an “awareness training”, similar to what happens in the modern West, when a celebrity or athlete expresses an unacceptable opinion – even if it is based on facts. When Lyuda’s daughter Svetka announced that she supported the demonstrators because she believed in “constitutional rights” such as “freedom of assembly”, Lyuda suddenly and violently beat her.
In Dear Comrades! There isn’t a large musical score that ironically adds more emotional power to the scenes – but occasionally patriotic songs are used as an ironic commentary on the unfolding brutality. When higher party members come to Novocherkassk, Lyuda pleads for the toughest repression of the demonstrators.
Then, like a Frankenstein whose monster becomes uncontrollable, Lyuda is confronted with what she created. Striking workers are shot at and Svetka is missing. Lyuda, once the image of loyalty, now faces Soviet brutality, pettiness, and incompetence as she desperately tries to find her daughter. Vysotskaya is fantastic in this role, assuming a cold bureaucrat who challenges the minds of those who think differently and ensures that her hair and outfits are appropriate for a desperate mother missing a child – and her confidence in what she has , loses (if not completely) turned out to be a false religion. Lyuda listens more and more to her father telling stories of past repression and speaking about the brilliant and tragic Soviet novel Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don. Lyuda goes from coldly reciting party platitudes to a desperate attempt to negotiate with a potential helper, asking for sympathy, and asking, “Do you have any children?”
She employs the help of Loginov, her KGB lover, who has ties high in the party. This leads to the most powerful sequence in the movie. In a long, uncut shot that lasts minutes, Lyuda and Loginov quietly sing the “State Anthem of the Soviet Union”. Of course, the irony is heavy – their faces are worn and grim, their bodies are exhausted from searching for a missing daughter, their thoughts are almost broken by communism, but the two still quietly ring their allegiance to Russia. But there is a difference in their portrayal: the two characters not only express loss, but also a real love for the people, history and culture of Russia. They evoke the things that made Russia a great country, things that existed long before October 1917. In spite of all this, there are small indications, albeit faint, that Lyuda will still not give up the belief in dialectical materialism. It keeps them like a cult.
Beautifully directed and finely played, dear comrades! is a fascinating film that should be on the short list of anti-communist classics like The Lives of Others and Cold War. The film dramatizes the emotional and personal costs that millions have paid for their belief in communism. For many, like Whittaker Chambers, that reality did not apply when a geopolitical theory or economic system was exposed, but because those of conscience admitted hearing the screams.