Issue 72 (2021)

Andrei Konchalovsky: Dear Comrades! (Dorogie tovarishchi, 2020)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2021


cAndrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! invites us to reconsider the work that came before it: it is a film that helps define and retrospectively shape the director’s oeuvre. After all, the director’s many interviews and the critical acclaim the film has received positions it as such. In his later films, Konchalovsky has been methodical in laying out the tenets of his philosophy and worldview. Now, after years of relative international obscurity, the octogenarian is gathering recognition across a variety of mainstream outlets: The New Yorker, Washington Post, The LA Times, and even on National Public Radio (NPR). The reviews are overwhelmingly positive; the film is streaming on Hulu and shortlisted for the Academy Award and BAFTA.

Dear Comrades! takes place over one harrowing weekend in the summer of 1962. On 2 June, the workers of the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant (NEVZ) in the Don region of southern Russia, incensed by price increases and pay cuts, went on strike. The government retaliation was deadly: the protestors were met with rounds of live ammunition. Dozens were killed, many more wounded. In the aftermath, the survivors were threatened and silenced, erasing the event from the collective memory. The Novocherkassk uprising held a ghostly presence in the history of Khrushchev’s Thaw until Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn carved a spot for it within the third volume of The GULAG Archipelago (1975). More inquiries, some by the KGB, others by journalists, followed in the 1990s and 2000s. After years of forced silence, no one ventured to dispute that it did happen; how it happened is still debated. In Dear Comrades!, Konchalovsky offers his interpretation, in a protean black-and-white image enclosed in a 4:3 frame, the choice that pays homage to and, at the same time, subverts the romanticism of Soviet cinema of the 1960s.

The American press praised the film for its visual precision and emotional intelligence. Anthony Lane (2020) called it “calm, controlled, persuasively detailed” but also “beautiful and damning.” Justin Chang (2021) of The LA Times, too, applauded the vision of “clarity that burns and even heals.” At home, critics were less effusive. Zinaida Pronchenko (2020) noted the “cold estrangement” of Konchalovsky’s point of view: “[he] is not sorry for the man who is eternally guilty in his choice to grovel—be it before the system, society, or before another, equally worthless, man.” Veronika Khlebnikova (2020) concluded that the director aims for a “crystal palace of abstraction” in considering the crimes of the Soviet state.

tovarishchiThe conservative historian Evgenii Spitsyn and the journalist Andrei Fefelov condemned the film, without seeing it, for its anti-Soviet and anti-Russian sentiment. The director used their broadsides as an opportunity to engage and educate the opponents in a couple of lengthy video chats (Fefelov & Spitsyn 2020; Spitsyn & Rychkov 2020; Konchalovskii & Fefelov 2020). During these calls, Konchalovsky explained his point of view as compassionate rather than damning or withdrawn: “There are no bad people in my films,” he says, “I feel for them all.” He does not seek to condemn, but to “explore the human condition.” The director has often employed this kind of generality during interviews. This time, however, he went further and offered a more comprehensive explanation. Konchalovsky said that he is drawn to a particular type of man, one he finds to be characteristically Russian. “Under the thin gauze of civilization lays the tectonic plate of Russian people with their deeply rooted socialism, even communism, with their communal spirit. All that we can call peasant mindset,” he explained. When such character, with a lack of self-knowledge and individualism, is seduced by a greater idea, the results can be catastrophic on a personal and even global scale. Konchalovsky concluded: “An image of a person scorched, scolded by an idea runs through several of my films.”

The list of these characters, though not all of them Russian, includes the revolutionary zealot Diuishen in The First Teacher (Pervyi uchitel’, 1965), the men of the Ustiuzhanin clan in Siberiade (1979), Stalin’s personal projectionist Ivan Sanchin in The Inner Circle (Blizhnii krug, 1992), and the Chekhov-loving SS officer, Helmut, in Paradise (Rai, 2016). All are “scorched” by a utopian idea that blinds them and, ultimately, robs them of their humanism. The protagonist of Dear Comrades! Liudmila Semina (Vysotskaia) is another addition to this pantheon of naive and deadly fanatics. She is a woman of the mid-level Party nomenklatura, the head of a department responsible for the industrial sector, whose comfortable life erupts in tragedy when her daughter goes missing during the Novocherkassk massacre. The events of 2-3 June 1962 are seen through Liudmila’s eyes as she struggles to reconcile her devotion to the Party with the desperate attempt to save her rebellious daughter, Svetka.

tovarishchiSvetka (Burova) is inspired by the rhetoric of Khrushchev’s Thaw that promises democracy and constitutional rights. While her mother, along with the rest of the Town Committee, attempts to alternately damage-control the uprising or hide from it, Svetka follows her factory co-workers into the streets and disappears into the bloody chaos. The search for her daughter takes Liudmila on a Menippean journey from the claustrophobic guts of the town morgue to a sun-bleached field with a forgotten cemetery.

At home, Liudmila’s father (Erlish) is also rebelling. When Liudmila dismisses the food shortages and rising prices with the customary excuse of “temporary difficulties,” he sardonically notes: “Wait till Kennedy drops a bomb on you, then you’ll have your ‘temporary difficulties’!” The line is derived from the field surveillance reports compiled by the KGB during that time. The workers in Novocherkassk were not alone in their outrage. A quote from a driver in the Arkhangelsk region said: “Kennedy will do us right by dropping his atomic bomb on the Soviet Union!” Grandpa, as he is referred to by daughter and grand-daughter, is readying himself for the end of the days. Amid the deadly confusion, he remains inside the stifling apartment, bedecked in his old Cossack uniform: cap, medals, and all. From the chest that holds the incriminating regalia, he also pulls another family relic: the ancient icon of Our Lady of Kazan, the most feared and revered of all. This is his last stand. Liudmila herself knows that things are not going right: “If Stalin was alive, we would’ve built communism a long time ago.” Her tragedy is not only in the loss of her daughter, but in her inability to overcome the blind devotion to the “Father of All Peoples.”

As Liudmila, Iuliia Vysotskaia overshadows her previous screen work in her husband’s films and rivals her own, powerful stage turns as Sonia in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (Diadia Vania, Mossovet Theatre, 2014) and Antigone in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (Olimpico Theatre in Vicenza, 2014). There are strong echoes of both heroines in Dear Comrades! In several interviews, Konchalovsky noted that, while the desire to tell the story of the Novocherkassk massacre has existed for a while, the image of the film’s protagonist came after directing Vysotskaia in the role of Antigone. Her performance was so powerful, says Konchalovsky, that he realized that the actress can handle the demands of Dear Comrades!

tovarishchiAn echo of Sonia can be heard in the film’s last scene, when Liudmila and her miraculously alive daughter are clutching each other under the nocturnal skies. Svetka reaches for her mother, asking: “Why?! I don’t understand!” Liudmila answers: “We shall be better. We shall be better!” The scene parallels Konchalovsky’s production of his beloved Uncle Vanya down to the scene composition. In the stage production of Uncle Vanya, Vysotskaia as Sonia embraces Pavel Derevianko as Vanya, while she delivers the final lines of the play: “We shall hear the angels, we shall see the whole sky all diamonds, we shall see how all earthly evil, all our sufferings, are drowned in the mercy that will fill the whole world. [...] We shall rest. We shall rest.” Where Sonia consoles her uncle with a promise of posthumous reward, Liudmila comforts her dejected child with a false hope of another utopian rally and the harrowing: “If only Stalin was here. We can’t do it without him.” Even after witnessing the “temporary difficulties,” the horror of the massacre, and nearly losing her daughter, she is unmoved in her conviction.

Her blank stare is a familiar one but, unlike the other characters “scorched by the Idea” mentioned by Konchalovsky, the Stalin-loving protagonist of Dear Comrades! is a woman. Even his most complicated female characters have been defined by their feminine traits, often their intrinsic mothering, or what Konchalovsky calls their “biology.” Film historian Evgenii Margolit (1993; emphasis added) describes the character of Nastia, the wife of Ivan Sanshin in The Inner Circle, thus: “The real plot of The Inner Circle for me is the story of [...] Nastia Sanshina who, in her dumb, female, ignorant pity cannot abandon Katia Gubelman.” Indeed, Nastia pays dearly for her “dumb, female pity,” but even in death, her love for the daughter of the purged neighbors saves Katia and redeems Nastia’s “scorched” husband, Ivan. In Paradise, Vysotskaia’s character—the morally weak, spoiled aristocrat Olga—chooses death in the gas chamber to save the Jewish twins. Her motherly instinct prevails over self-preservation and earns Olga access to the pearly gates. In the end, her film-long “interview” with the unseen omniscience concludes with the welcoming “Enter!”

On the other hand, Liudmila is a true believer: the portrait of Stalin on the wall of her home is no less a religious relic than the icon of Our Lady of Kazan that her father hides in a trunk. Other members of the Town Committee, including her boss and lover Logunov (Komarov), are bureaucrats who are sweating over the possibility of demotion. Not Liudmila! She genuinely believes that “comrades Mikoyan and Kozlov will figure it out.” On a mission from Moscow, the two comrades call a meeting of the town officials. During the tense session where the workers’ fate is being decided, Anastas Mikoyan, the government’s long-hauler tempered by the Hungarian events of 1956, suggests to wait until the morning and “talk to the people.” This is when Liudmila, with righteous fury in her eyes, passionately blurts out: “What’s there to talk about? Arrest them all! Arrest and prosecute to the full extent of the law!... And the instigators should bear the ultimate measure of punishment!” Her outburst comes as if by obsession: “I don’t know what moved me,” she says to the shocked Logunov. Like a Pentecostal worshipper speaking in tongues, or a holy fool in a town square, Liudmila is “moved by the Spirit.” No wonder that both Logunov and Viktor (Gusev), the helpful KGB officer, call Liudmila “a lunatic” with a mix of wonder and horror. Both men understand the rules and the logic of the game, even in this extreme situation. Logunov knows to tread lightly around the big wigs, lest he’ll be fired. He also knows all the right words to put in a speech. Viktor knows that he can label anyone in the photos of the strike as an “instigator,” as he pencils a fat X on those with an open mouth. He also knows how to get Liudmila out of the city. He knows all about the abandoned graves where the murdered were hastily buried.

To save her daughter, Liudmila will have to abandon rules and logic, and rely on the so-called “biology” that Konchalovsky talks about, the “dumb, female, ignorant pity.” At its purest, this is the almost primitive, elemental, shaky logic of essential humanity: unconditional parental love, familial bonds, and basic physical attraction. The “senseless impotence of kindness” (Lev Grossman) and “accidental grace” (Dmitrii Bykov) are the “lowly truths” evangelized by Konchalovsky.

To awaken the protagonist from her blind devotion to the Party, the director employs a blunt metaphor that seems to be out of place in this nuanced film. As the committee members are waiting out the unrest in a quiet courtyard, Liudmila sees a stray dog nursing her pups. Even for Konchalovsky, who is no stranger to using various domestic animals to build a metaphor, this tableau is a bit on the nose. However, it bears to argue that it is aimed not at the viewer but the character. Blinded by her devotion to the Idea, Liudmila needs something as direct as the bitch and her pups to awaken her motherly instinct. Once “biology” takes over, it renders her unable to obey the “word of the Party” and deliver the speech to support the government’s actions.

tovarishchiUnable to reconcile her obligation to the Party with her organic need to save Svetka, Liudmila locks herself in the Town Committee’s bathroom, where she silently sobs, almost to the point of convulsion. Instead of a diligently crafted public speech, we witness the raw expression of Liudmila’s humanism. Distraught, she forgets the prescribed atheism and begins to pray. The camera looks down on the woman kneeling by the commode, her face upturned to the window, the draping of her skirt reminiscent of the robes of Giotto’s angels. Liudmila’s father may be right and “there is no God upon Don,” but the camera’s angle seems to suggest otherwise.

Liudmila’s entire journey unfolds in spaces that seem to be far too small for the immensity of the tragedy that leans ever closer to Sophocles than to Chekhov. Her home is “a house divided” visually as well as politically. Cinematographer Andrei Naidenov films the characters through doorways, with the camera positioned in a space between two rooms of the apartment. Some part of the interior—a door jam, a mirror, an ironing board—is always in the way, and the action takes part in a small section of the screen. The mostly static camera forces the viewer to look deep into the scene, often from an unexpected angle: top of a littered desk, a bookshelf. This effect is achieved by using eleven cameras that capture the scene from different angles. If not for the sense of immersion that they produce in the viewer, the eccentric angles would be jarring.

In another scene, one of the shortest in the film, the seemingly imbalanced composition is used to achieve a powerful, heartbreaking effect. In the last-ditch effort to locate the grave where Liudmila’s daughter may have been buried, Viktor visits a local police officer. In the aftermath of the massacre, the local police hastily dispersed the victims’ bodies among unattended graves around the region. Viktor finds one of the police officers with his wife and a small child in a small room of a communal apartment. Dressed in an undershirt, with a kitchen towel around his waist, the policeman is peeling potatoes. Most of the scene is shot over Viktor’s shoulder through the open door with the policeman’s back to us. Most of the wife’s figure is outside the frame; we can see only the baby’s tiny feet in its mother’s arms. Viktor asks the man to come with him “only for a minute:” the implication is clear to both the policeman and his wife. The man’s back stiffens and the woman’s hand slowly clutches the hem of her apron in a white-knuckled fist. We don’t see the couple’s faces but feel their helplessness and horror. They are trapped in the small room, exposed and vulnerable before the unexpected guest.

tovarishchiThe dramatic scene of the violent quelling of the protest is mostly shot through the window of a hair salon. Liudmila’s battle-field medic instinct kicking in as she attempts to save a wounded woman; a jaunty pop-song is playing on the radio. On the floor, we see the hairdresser, her convulsing legs in full view, the rest of her body hidden behind a counter. A stray bullet comes through the window, instantly killing Liudmila’s companion. This scene is based on an eye-witness account of the death of Novocherkassk hairdresser, Gribova. The witness, twelve years old at a time, ran into the shop to hide from the bullets. “I hid behind a wall and saw the hairdresser. She was walking around and bowing, bowing. At first, I didn’t understand what was happening. Then I saw that she was holding her stomach with both hands. From underneath her hands, a red stain was spreading. She was killed, it turns out, by a stray bullet” (Aprunts 2013). The power of Dear Comrades! is in its deep immersion, both visual and narrative, of a historical event into personal trauma.

To achieve the authenticity required to make this deeply personal take convincing, Konchalovsky again relies on non-actors. Chief among them is Sergei Erlish, who delivers a powerful performance as Liudmila’s father. An Adyghe apiarist, he was discovered by accident. After several unsuccessful attempts to cast a real Don Cossack in the role, the casting director stopped by Erlish’s shop to buy local honey. The man’s rich highlander accent presents a stark contrast to the rigidity of the language used by Liudmila and the other party functionaries. He is the only voice in the film that is devoid of the official terminology; he challenges his daughter with each spoken word. Erlish’s performance culminates in a scene around the kitchen table when, in an attempt to shake his daughter’s conviction, the old man reads a letter from his niece. The letter describes the terrors brought upon the Don region during collectivization. “By the time I got there,” reads the old man, “they were all dead.” Yet, despite what the old uniform may suggest, Grandpa fought on the side of those who raped and murdered the girl and her mother. He’s both victim and perpetrator of the atrocities.

The letter, like some other lines in the dialog, according to Konchalovsky was found during the research for the film. The girl who wrote it describes seeing her murdered relative’s body, piled up along with others on a wagon. She writes about the man’s leg “indecently” sticking upward. The letter’s language mirrors the film’s visual language that refocuses the view from the sprawling landscape of history to an extreme close-up detail of family tragedy.

In the recent essay for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen (2021) approaches the film as a tale of two nomenklatura families: the director’s and the protagonist’s. Although she somewhat erroneously defines the “private world of Liudmila’s family and the private terror of her search” as the fictional part of the narrative, Gessen is correct in directing our attention to the image of a family caught between the grindstones of history. To demonstrate the state’s invasion into the private space, Konchalovsky uses the words of his own father, Sergei Mikhalkov, the author of all three versions of the Soviet/Russian anthem.

Comrade, comrade!
In labor and in battle
Selflessly protect your Motherland!
Alongside with you
Are the great
Soviet people.
In the name of freedom
Through thunderstorms and adversity
March inexorably
Towards the cherished goal.

The song from the Soviet film Spring (Vesna, dir. Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1947)pouring from the TV screen, infiltrates not only Liudmila’s apartment but her mind as well. In the moment of the greatest distress, after finding her daughter’s presumed grave, Liudmila doesn’t cry. Instead, she breaks out into the song. It seems that same spirit that moved her to speak at the meeting now moves her to belt out, “Comrade, comrade! In labor and in battle/ Selflessly protect your Motherland!” Viktor is all but sure that the woman has gone mad from grief, yet he joins her in the desperate duet. The song seems to tether both to the slipping promise of Stalinist utopia.

These are the binds that the director himself seems to have struggled against throughout his long career. In his younger years, he openly rejected the position of his father at the helm of the Soviet cultural establishment. In recognition of his mother’s artistic heritage—the Russian Silver Age artist Petr Konchalovsky was his maternal grandfather—the young Andron (Andrei) changed his last name to Konchalovsky. In his films, the figure of an absent, or distant, father takes an ominous shape. In several of Konchalovsky’s films, the figure of the father appears as a ghost, draped in a long army overcoat, looking very much like Stalin himself.

tovarishchiIn Siberiade, Aleksei Ustiuzhanin (Nikita Mikhalkov) hallucinates the terrifying figure twice, as a child and an adult. Both times he sees it in the forbidden swamps of The Devil’s Hump. The first time, the faceless figure appears to be Death itself. As an adult Aleksei, who grew up as a state ward, runs after the figure, crying: “Daddy, daddy!” An almost identical apparition is seen on the other side of the globe, on the Louisiana bayou, in the underrated Shy People (1987). In the dusky house, Ruth (Barbara Hershey) faces the portrait of her lost, abusive husband. If Liudmila Semina were to see the mustached visage, she might have mistaken Pa Joe for the beloved Leader. Meanwhile, on the bayou Ruth’s son is lost in the fog. He spots a dark shape ahead. In a nearly direct re-enactment of the scene from Siberiade, he whispers: “Pa?..” The shape turns out to be a tree stop that he soon collides with and draws blood. In The Inner Circle, the figure appears to Stalin’s projectionist Ivan Sanchin (Tom Hulce) after his wife, raped and impregnated by Beria, commits suicide. As he sits in his dark apartment, next to Nastia’s hanging body, Ivan peers through the windows framing Stalin’s portrait. Outside he sees the figure, the hem of its coat sweeping past. Ivan runs into the night, calling after comrade Stalin. The man stops and turns; it is indeed Stalin, or rather an almost macabre vision of the Great Leader. In the worst moment of his life, Ivan turns to Stalin, his only salvation, just like Liudmila so many years later. In his review of The Inner Circle, Evgenii Margolit concludes:

Indeed, Stalin’s real funeral occurred not on the Red Square in March of 1953, but on the screen in Andron Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s The Inner Circle in 1992. Then Ivan Sanchin, divested of his fear, more easily interpreted as the love for the Great Leader, and finally rushed to pull the poor Katia Gubelman from the stampede. He saved her from the collective infanticide that in this System is called “public life” and convinced her to come home with him. The return of the Child concludes with the act of adoption as an act of [Ivan’s] resurrection. (Margolit 1993).

In 1993, the historian had every reason to see a glimmer of hope in the cross-hatched spring sky at the end of the film. Konchalovsky himself was less optimistic:

You see, I don’t ever make my films at the right time. I don’t hit the target of zeitgeist. But when I am told that The Inner Circle is outdated, I think to myself: perhaps I made it too early. It’s not a film about Stalin, it’s not even a film about Stalinism. It’s a film about Russian identity and about its inexorable need for a strong hand. Even now, everyone is begging for the Master. (Savel’ev 1994).

Almost thirty years later, the happy end of Dear Comrades! confirms the director’s earlier suspicions and offers no salvation. Somehow, against all odds, Svetka finds her way home, but the mother-daughter reunion takes place not in their apartment but on the roof. Liudmila and her child cling to each other in the starless no man’s land between heaven and earth. There is no expected catharsis, only cold horror when in one moment Liudmila turns back into her former self, hurriedly calculating how her connections will help get Svetka out of the city. To her daughter’s plea: “Mamma… I don’t understand,” she responds: “We will be better… we will be better...” The dark void that surrounds them compels us to question whether this reunion is real or imagined. Does it really matter if somewhere in the field, someone’s daughter with pigtails and torn socks, just like Svetka’s, is buried in a forgotten grave?

Anna Nieman,
Cheshire, CT

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Chang, Justin. 2021. “Andrei Konchalovsky’s brilliant ‘Dear Comrades!’ brings Russian tragedy into stark focus.” The LA Times, 21 February.

Gessen, Masha. 2021. “‘Dear Comrades!’ Is the Story of Two Russian Families and a Century of Terror.” The New Yorker, 27 February.

Khlebnikova, Veronika.  2020. “Belye piatna na krasnom asfal'te.” Colta, 11 November.

Lane, Anthony. 2020. “‘Dear Comrades!’ is Andrei Konchalovsky’s Masterpiece.” The New Yorker, 25 December.

Margolit, Evgenii. 1993. “Prishestvie rebenka”. Iskusstvo kino 1.

Pronchenko, Zinaida. 2020. “Dorogie tovarischi: Svobody net, i etot vopros zasluzhivaet obsuzhdeniia.” Iskusstvo kino. 11 November.

Savel’ev, Dmitrii. 1994. “Ne po zakonam Golluvuda.” Interview with Andrei Konchalovsky. Seans 9.

Video/Audio:
Aprunts, Artur. 2013. “Novocherkasskaia tragediia. Ochevidets rasskazyvaet, kak ubili parikmakhershu Gribovu.” 28 June.

Fefelov, Andrei and Evgenii Spitsyn. 2020. “Dorogie tovarischi!” Novyi fil’m Andreia Konchalovskogo i ego zakazchiki. Den’ TV. 18 November.

Konchalovskii, Andrei and Andrei Fefelov. 2020. “Konchalovskii I Fefelov. O fil’me ‘Dorogie tovarischi!’”. Den’ TV, 3 December.

Spitsyn, Evgenii and Kirill Rychkov. 2020. “Konchalovskii, Spitsyn: My stanem luchshe. ‘Dorogie tovarischi!‘”. Radio Avrora, 27 November.

 


Dear Comrades! Russia, 2020
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky [Konchalovskii, aka Andron Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii]
Screenplay: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
DoP: Andrei Naidenov
Production Design: Irina Ochina, Konstantin Mazur, Ekaterina Kharnas
Editing: Karolina Maciejewska, Sergei Taraskin
Cast: Iuliia Vysotskaia, Sergei Erlish, Iuliia Burova, Vladislav Komarov, Andrei Gusev
Producers: Andrei Konchalovsky, Olesia Gidrat, Alisher Usmanov
Production: Andrei Konchalovsky Studios
Release Date: 7 September 2020 (Venice).

Andrei Konchalovsky: Dear Comrades! (Dorogie tovarishchi, 2020)

reviewed by Anna Nieman © 2021

Updated: 2021