Red Army Film Review, Reviewed by Sabrina
The story that was heard all over the world was about a group of scrappy and amateur American college hockey players who competed for gold against the robotic Soviet Union hockey team, at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. Eventually the American team won and the nation dubbed as what it was; a “Miracle on Ice”. Gabe Polsky’s documentary, Red Army, offers a different narrative than what most North Americans have already heard about the “bad” Russians. “Miracle on Ice” was merely a hiccup in the Soviet domination of ice hockey from the 1970s to the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. Polsky, the son of Soviet émigrés, brings to light the voices of the silenced Soviets, who were born and raised to become patriotic symbols despite harsh living conditions, to break the confirmed stereotypes of an alien nation. This review will argue that Red Army is a useful example of popular history that should be added to historians’ understanding of the Soviet Union narrative of national identity through sports propaganda, with an intimate re-telling of the stories of past by the silenced Soviet heroes.
Despite featuring interviews of key Soviet hockey players, their significant others and hockey experts, the documentary is centered on an interview with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, who is undeniably one of the finest hockey players to come out of the Soviet hockey system. Slava Fetisov is seen as a national hero, having played twenty-three seasons of Soviet League, National Hockey League (NHL) and international hockey. Along with being a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, he has won two Olympic gold medals and two Stanley Cups. Fetisov’s story begins as a boy living in a country that was ruined by World War II. Despite such circumstances, he claims he was happy because he played hockey, a game he viewed as a way to escape reality.
Hockey was the most popular sport in the Soviet Union. Boys were recruited at a very young age to train for a well-organized system with the man who was deemed as the “father of Soviet hockey”, Anatoli Tarasov. Tarasov formulated the Soviet hockey system by creating a training method from studying ballet and an on-ice strategy from playing chess. He saw hockey as an intricate game of passing the puck to emphasize comradeship. Along with tight control over the players’ lives, the playing strategy worked in helping the Soviet team dominate hockey internally by winning twelve world championships and four Olympic gold medals. These accomplishments indicated that the Soviet hockey team represented the peak of what the Soviet Union had achieved. Hockey was not just a form of pure entertainment. It was to demonstrate their superiority in the political system through puck-based propaganda.
Prior to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Tarasov was dismissed after angering Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev then assigned his prodigy, Viktor Tikhonov, to continue Tarasov’s methods of training players. However, in contrast to the beloved Tarasov, Tikhonov was detested by most of the players. In the aftermath of Lake Placid, Tikhonov rebuilt the team around young players, including then-22 year old Slava Fetisov, who served as team captain. The core of the team consisted of the Russian Five, a unit of three forwards – Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov—and two defensemen, Alexei Kasatonov and Fetisov himself.
The heart of the documentary focuses on the final years of the Soviet hockey team. Their success occurred during the economic stagnation of the Soviet Union, which launched reforms including perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. As the East was opening to the West, there was a financial incentive for players to play for the NHL. Publically, Tikhonov stated that players were allowed to leave, but privately, he was pressuring the players to stay. The conflicts between the lure of the NHL and loyalty to the homeland eventually tore the Russian Five apart. Furthermore, the transition from Soviet hockey to North American hockey was difficult for Fetisov and other Soviet players. North Americans found the Soviet style of playing hockey odd. They were unaccustomed to the more physical style of play in the NHL. Furthermore negative stereotypes against the Soviets generated animosity and hostility towards them. For Fetisov, it was only after being traded and reunited with players who were trained under the same Soviet hockey system, that he was able to adjust to playing for the NHL.
A decade after the disintegration of the USSR, Fetisov and some of his fellow players returned to a rapidly changing Russia with a different mentality and culture. By the early 2000s, Russia had embraced capitalism and materialism, which in turn created a growth in corruption and poverty in the large cities. Fetisov links the country’s crisis to hockey, criticizing newer hockey players for focusing on the materialistic aspects of hockey, which originated with the West, and which conflicted Soviet national identity. Despite being mistreated, it is clear that Fetisov yearns for the glory days of Soviet hockey.
Polsky aims for Western audiences to understand the Soviet patriotism by shining light on the voices of the unheard Soviet heroes. Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued that history has been silenced by the more powerful actors and narrators. In this case, the West had no knowledge of what shaped the Soviet Union and its people. Soviets were not allowed to leave their country unless it was for diplomatic reasons or international competitions. Thus, how the West viewed the Soviets was what was presented to them. Members of the K.G.B. used their power to silence the hockey players. Polsky believes that using the voices of the silenced will invoke a more emotional narrative of the experience in living and training in the Soviet Union.
Trouillot states that silences are “inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing.” Polsky attempts to fill in those missing parts about the Soviet narrative of hockey with the interviews and clips that serve as testaments. One of the silent narratives that is revealed is the brutal control the Soviet government held over the players. In 1979, the group made a trip to Canada accompanied by KGB agents. The agents, one of whom Polsky interviews, says that they were assigned to control the players and prevent any “escapes” to the West. Fetisov says “The special people who traveled with us, they give you your passport before you get to passport control; and they collect the passport when you cross the border.” Fetisov’s wife, Lada, recounts that eleven months in a year, they were forced to be training at a camp. “In the Soviet period, the individual had to obey very strictly and had no say. If he tried to have a say that could end his career,” describes Fetisov’s teammate Vladimir Krutov. Tikhonov would not allow the players to leave the training camps even under the most extreme circumstances, such as an ill parent. Fetisov recalls that if the players did not obey, then Tikhonov would punish severely by cutting their salaries or barring them from playing the game. When Fetisov was adamant in leaving to play for the NHL under his own terms without KGB interference in salary profits, he was barred from playing for any other ice hockey teams in the Soviet Union. His wife recalls Fetisov once being attacked, handcuffed, and then beaten until he chose to compromise with Tikhonov.
Another silent narrative that is revealed is despite a break to the West, most of these players were still attached to the patriotic narrative of the Soviet Union. When Fetisov speaks of the frustrations with playing for a league with a different system of playing the game, Polsky presents a clip of a Toronto Maple Leafs player attempting to engage in a fight with a confused Slava Fetisov. Fetisov comments on the North American style of hockey as, “There was no style.” When Fetisov comments on the lack of patriotism in current Russian hockey players, Polsky presents a clip of Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin shootings pucks at Russian dolls filled with Russian dressings. When Polsky asks “Would you rather it be the Soviet Union again?” Fetisov refuses to answer the question directly but replies with “It’s not a proper question.” The silent truth is that these players were shaped by the Soviet system. It is impossible to get rid of the past. That is who they are.
Red Army should be regarded as a popular history as it appeals to the mass by using emotional narratives to humanize the Soviet players. At times, it was difficult to un-silence the already silenced. When questions became too personal, they chose not to answer. When Polsky questions Fetisov’s best friend, Alexei Kasatonov on why the Russian Five were torn apart, he is given small sentenced answers such as, “Next question.” Instead of pushing him, Polsky closes in on Kasatonov to capture the glimpse of sadness on his face. Similarly, when asked to recount the finals at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, Fetisov answers Polsky with several expressions varying from irritation to pensiveness. Instead, Polsky relies on showing clips of the original broadcast of the game where players clearly looked frustrated. In that sense, Polsky attempts to fill in the gaps of the narrative with emotional music and clips.
In respect to Trouillot’s argument, silences are inherit in history. The story of the Soviet Union hockey team is not complete as there are still parts that are missing. From the Russian Five, only three players were interviewed. Igor Larionov played a major impact on Fetisov’s career in the NHL. However, he was not interviewed. Furthermore, Tikhonov refused to be interviewed for the documentary. Instead, Polsky chooses to adopt Fetisov’s narrative of Tikhonov. The former coach is presented to the audience through a series of clips portraying him as a mockery. One clip features an angry Tikhonov yelling at one his players during a hockey game. Another clip shows an announcer claiming that a player once said that if he ever needed a heart transplant, they would want Tikhonov’s because he had never used it. Polsky intercepts scenes of Tikhonov’s iron fist with other scenes of Russian bears playing hockey at a circus. The background music is humorous, even featuring a laugh track. Polsky portrays Tikhonov as what Fetisov sees him to be, a stooge for the KGB who gains his position as coach due to nepotism. Therefore it is acknowledged that the documentary may portray some bias against Viktor Tikhonov, who did play a significant role in the success of the Russian Five.
Red Army is a popular history as it aims to understand an emotional Soviet narrative of devotion to the nation through sports domination. Americans viewed “Miracle on Ice” as one of the most memorable moments in sports history. It was a “David and Goliath” matchup where the much inexperienced American hockey team took home the gold. Coincidentally, the game occurred during a period of rising tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, when the latter invaded Afghanistan. To the Russian, a win was a much needed victory against the “enemy”. Polsky makes it clear that Red Army is simply not a sports documentary. It is a story of the people who were born in the Soviet Union and shaped by the Soviet system, who then cultivated hockey as a symbol of patriotism.