Andrey Konchalovsky's black-and-white reconstruction of a state-sponsored massacre is rigorous and powerful, but very hard to love
Russian director Andrey Konchalovsky has been making films about Russia’s Soviet past and present ills since 1965, so it should come as no surprise that his latest, Dear Comrades!, is concerned with one of the most heinous crimes of the post-Stalin Soviet state. The Novocherkassk massacre (occurring just three years before Konchalovsky started making films) saw the Red Army and the KGB open fire on a crowd of striking factory workers – the kind of workers that the USSR was ostensibly set up to support and celebrate – in a crime that would go unanswered until many of the perpetrators were dead.
Covering three days in June 1962 (the days before, of, and after the massacre), Dear Comrades! follows party loyalist Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) as she looks for her missing, revolutionary-minded daughter through the streets of Novocherkassk. Konchalovsky makes the bold choice of centring the management who were responsible for both the strike and massacre – alongside Lyuda, we follow a cowardly bureaucrat and a guilt-wracked KGB agent – instead of the strikers themselves.
The result is a rigorously researched and scathing look at the ineptitude and casual brutality of the Soviet system in the Khrushchev years (this is a film that expects a decent knowledge of Russian history from its audience), albeit one that's a little cold and hard to love, mostly on account of its rather detestable “heroes.”
Vysotskaya puts in a strong performance as Lyuda becomes ever more unsure of her place in Soviet society, but it’s not easy to warm to a Stalinist true believer who simply cannot comprehend that frozen wages and food shortages might be problems that would cause people to distrust the system. It makes her into a naïve, even spiteful figure and though you still care about her search, it’s for her (mostly offscreen) daughter’s sake rather than an emotional investment in the character.
Konchalovsky instead finds the real emotional weight in the little acts of rebellion you see. The strike, riot, and massacre are all captured in crisp, clear black-and-white photography that does a great job of selling the scope of a 5000-person protest, but it’s in more private moments that this ambitious history lesson really comes to life. A old man puts on a Tsarist war uniform to remind himself of a heroic past that the state would see erased, and whispered prayers show the limits of the Soviet Union’s power, its enforcing of atheism unable to truly bend the souls of citizens.
Everyone involved in the Novocherkassk massacre was sworn to secrecy through legal documents (the incident wasn’t fully uncovered and investigated until 1992), but Dear Comrades! shows us that such an effort on the part of the state may have been unnecessary. Everywhere Lyuda turns, she hears some variation of “I don’t know anything.” The people here have long since learned that ignorance is one of the best survival strategies under authoritarianism, a poisonous way to live, one that robs them of basic human kindnesses. It’s a bleak message in a difficult film that asks a lot but will reward the most patient and attentive of viewers.
Dear Comrades! is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from 15 January.Where to watch