Dear Comrades: Red Spring, by David Bax
On June 2nd, 1962, in the city of Novocherkassk, the Soviet army and the KGB opened fire on protestors who were supporting striking factory workers. Officially, 26 people were killed but locals and survivors count many more. Bodies were buried in hidden graves, accounts of the massacre were kept out of the news and the events weren’t recognized or investigated until 30 years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Dear Comrades begins on June 1st. Our protagonist, through the eyes of whom we see the massacre and its ensuing days, is Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a local party official. She’s proud of her position and eager to toe the line until her daughter, Svetka (Yuliya Burova), is among those unaccounted for in the chaotic aftermath of the slaughter. With reluctant help from a sympathetic KGB officer (Vladislav Komarov), Lyuda sets off to find out whether her daughter is hiding out somewhere to avoid arrest for her involvement in the demonstration or if she’s among the unidentified corpses dumped in the ground outside the city.
Konchalovskiy and cinematographer Andrey Naydenov shoot in black and white and in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This has two effects. It makes the drama, especially the disturbing images of the massacre and its immediate results, feel like newsreel footage. And, with a classical sense of framing and triangular blocking, it makes Dear Comrades sometimes seem as if it were produced contemporarily with the events depicted.
That verisimilitude offers a contrast that only helps the film’s sometimes bitterly dark sense of humor. As Lyuda’s search goes on and begins to look more and more futile, the comedy falls away. But the early scenes of bureaucrats scrambling to escape a government building surrounded by protestors and pointing blame at one another even as they scurry into the sewer system approach the tone of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin.
Satire is perhaps the only way to process the unvarnished hypocrisy of the party elite here. While every second piece of Soviet propaganda seems to have been about the nobility of striking workers, the bureaucrats are quick to angrily dismiss them all as “morons” as soon as they find themselves on the other end of a strike. For most of these men and women, even as evidence of despicable human rights abuses piles up, preserving their standing in the party outweighs their own consciences. Denying what you know to be true to preserve something you know to be wrong because it’s better that way for you is, in fact, the way that every corrupt institution has always perpetuated itself. One gets the impression that hardline believer and loyalist Lyuda would be in lockstep with the other officials were it not for her own daughter’s involvement.
Despite Konchalovskiy’s aesthetic affectations, 1962 wasn’t all that long ago. With protestors being called “instigators” despite the opposite being true and curfews that do more to put citizens in harm’s way than protect them, Dear Comrades proves that it has as much to say about the mid-century Soviet Union as it does about America today.