I remember growing up with the USSR described as being “behind the Iron Curtain”. My child’s mind imagined a whole section of Europe, cordoned off with iron mesh like the curtain in front of the fireplace at my grandfather’s house. One side was East, one side was West. What came out from behind the curtain was a mix of fact and fantasy, packaged in such a way as to reaffirm the New World’s faith in democracy and free-market capitalism, while glorifying their enemies just enough to perpetuate the threat. Soviets were communists, they were freakishly strong and smart and ruthless and relentless, but they were also, always, two steps behind the West as far as we knew on our side of the Curtain. I grew up with this polarity, though the Soviet Union was already on a downward trajectory politically, and remember the images of the USSR under Gorbachev, and the string of leaders before him whose pronouncements of leadership were followed abruptly by their obituaries. I also grew up in Canada, and Canadians take hockey very seriously, so the Soviets were widely regarded with a mix of ire and awe as the team to beat. As much as I was aware of all of these things, the extent of the impact that the profound difference in ideology between East and West was having on the residents on both sides of the Iron Curtain was only really brought sharply into focus by this film, and, of course, only in the limited arena of hockey.
Interestingly though, if unsurprising, there was little distinction between the realms of sports and politics in Soviet Russia, and the Red Army hockey team, established by Stalin, were seen as national heroes, all of them also serving as officers in the Army. Stalin and his predecessors saw hockey as a way of bringing people together, socially and politically, in a way that was advantageous to the State.
For director Gabe Polsky, the American son of Russian immigrant parents, Red Army is an expression of his curiosity about his roots, and his angle is both gentle and informative. Coming from a sympathetic place as a filmmaker, and young enough to not be affected by the rhetorical Cold War hangover, Red Army is a look through the Iron Curtain with fresh eyes. While the heroes’ darker sides are never really closely examined, the insights into the nature of the Soviet regime and its permeating ideology whose depth and breadth of influence rivaled that of the West in every way are enlightening. Soviet collectivism was being cultivated with the same enthusiasm as American exceptionalism, and the Red Army hockey team lead by Slawa Fetisov were among the first to pull back the Curtain and penetrate both worlds.
A third of the film was dedicated to the training rituals of the Red Army hockey team, the same training regimen that was shrouded in secrecy was even more elaborate, intensive and bizarre than even the rumours suggested. Coach Anatoly Tarasov trained his players from childhood, living with them eleven months of the year, and training four times a day for hours at a stretch. A committed student of the sport, as well as a gifted teacher, Tarasov’s diligence was matched only by his curiosity and enthusiam. After studying the dancers’ training regimen at the Bolshoi, Tarasov would return with an all-new sequence of skating manouevres designed to condition the athletes’ agility, control and precision. He studied the behaviour of bears, and would have players perform freestyle breakfalls on ice for hours at a time. Unlike his successor, Viktor Tikhonov, who was widely criticized by the players for being too brutal, Tarasov was widely viewed as a father figure who recognized the talents in each boy from childhood and invested his time, skill and patience in cultivating a team dynamic that made the best use of each player. The style he encultured was one where his players were intimately familiar with each other, and spent so much time on the ice together, their movements were a languid latticework of passes and a progressive, persistent and adaptable offense. It was this natural teamwork and ability to move smoothly between defensive and offensive manoeuvres that stymied the US and Canadian players, whose individualistic style of play lacked the latent cohesion of their Russian counterparts.
Tarasov’s books on hockey, of which he wrote many, were on the bedside tables of every boy who aspired to play for Russia. Due to a political restructuring in 1977, Tarasov was replaced with former hockey player, Latvian coach and KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov. The Red Army players never connected with the brutal Tikhonov, and, although he lead the Soviet team through its most dominant series of victories, they were more deeply connected to Tarasov and credit him with much of their success. One of the players is quoted in the film as saying “If I ever need a heart transplant I want Tikhonov’s. He’s never used his.” The relationship between Tikhonov and the team that ultimately lead the Soviets to their greatest success is central to the film, and the bonds that formed between the central players – Slawa Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Kutrov, Alexei Kasatanov, and legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak – were made stronger by the common enemy who lead them to victory.
Slawa Fetisov, the Red Army team captain through the 80s, is the central character, and his charisma is tempered with the uncomfortable awareness that he now sits as Putin’s Minister of Sport and oversaw the Sochi Olympics. The ties between politics, sport and patriotism remain steadfast. The latter part of the film is dedicated to the Glasnost years, and the early days of the first Russian players to play for the NHL. Although anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s will remember the controversies around defecting players and stringent Soviet control of players traded to American teams, what Polsky’s Red Army shows of the period are a small number of seasoned hockey veterans who are as close as brothers negotiating for the best possible scenarios for themselves and their families in the lead-up to Soviet collapse, and whose sporting language did not translate any better than their native Russian in the West. Unpopular for political reasons, and feeling the weight of the years of rivalry from their new American teammates (none of whom had faced them in the Olympics, as professional players had not yet been allowed to compete), one of the most poignant images in the film is the face of a 31 year old Slawa Fetisov, in his first season playing for the New Jersey Devils as he is interviewed by an American sports journalist. “Don’t you think American style hockey is just more fun?” Fetisov’s long silence, coupled with the unmaskable sadness on his face spoke volumes about the alienation faced by the Russian players as they left their homes, pedestals and constant praise and victory for unfamiliar tactics, the disdain of hockey fans and isolation from their teammates. The promise of the American dream was very different on delivery.
It is worth mentioning that Fetisov, who graced us with his presence at Cannes, and gave us a brief introduction to the film, as well as a brief history of his early life – asserting that the Soviet dream shared a parallel with the American, and that his rise to fame and glory from the slums of impoverished Moscow was a testament to the opportunites offered by the Soviet system as well as the warmth of its embrace – is now, in addition to his illustrious political career and his reinstatement as an officer in the military, playing hockey again. Why? Because even at 51, Fetisov can still skate better backwards than anyone else can skate forwards.