International Film Festival of Rotterdam: In Dear Comrades!, Andrei Konchalovsky’s record of the Novocherkassk massacre

What is the real “truth” behind the Novocherkassk massacre? Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky's latest film — premiering at International Film Festival of Rotterdam — explores this in detail.

Baradwaj Rangan February 06, 2021 13:41:28 IST
International Film Festival of Rotterdam: In Dear Comrades!, Andrei Konchalovsky’s record of the Novocherkassk massacre

Andrei Konchalovsky has had one of the odder careers in world cinema. He began by writing a couple of Tarkovsky classics (Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev) in the 1960s. By the 1980s, he was in Hollywood, making mainstream fare like Tango & Cash, starring (gulp!) Sylvester Stallone. (You have to admit that’s some leap!) And now, in his 80s, he’s back to his roots in black-and-white Russian cinema. His latest film, Dear Comrades!, premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. This week, it was part of the line-up at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.

It’s 1962. We are in Novocherkassk, in the erstwhile USSR, and right off, we meet our protagonist, Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya). She appears to be a woman of patterns. During World War II, she was a nurse at the front, and she had an affair with a married man. The man she is sleeping with now — her boss — is married, too. Another pattern: She is a staunch Communist. She longs for the days of Stalin! Now, she works as an official in the Communist Party.

But like many of us, her staunchness to causes can be a little flexible during a crisis. Things aren’t looking good in Novocherkassk. For one, food prices are on the rise, and people are clamouring to stock up on provisions. But thanks to her connections, Lyudmila doesn’t have to bother. At the store, she is ushered into a private room, past the other clamouring customers. This Communist doesn’t seem to mind this bit of special treatment over the “masses” on the other side of the door. The director seems to be taking a dig.

The story catches fire when labourers at a heavy engineering plant learn that their wages have been cut by a third (we don’t see this scene, exactly, but it’s context) and stop working. The party workers are stunned at this act of rebellion: A fucking strike in our socialist community. How is this possible? It gets worse. Photographs arrive of people who are branded “instigators”, of people who are branded “hooligans” because they were seen breaking the windows of train cars.

Soon, workers from other factories have joined the strike, and are marching towards the city. The KGB lands in town. An emergency meeting is convened, and we get a moving scene where the Army chief is questioned after it is discovered that soldiers have no munitions. The man is clearly torn between his commitment to the Communist cause (he is staunch, too) and his sympathies for the labourers. He says he thought his job was to protect the State from external enemies. The top brass doesn’t buy it. They order him to arm his soldiers.

And we get to the film’s centrepiece: workers assemble at the square near Lyudmila’s office and they are gunned down mercilessly. Lyudmila ducks into a shop where she watches it all unfold through the glass windows, as though she were watching a horror movie. And her staunchness is shaken. Later, we learn from people trying to hose down the area that the blood could not be washed off. It seeped into the asphalt and stained it red.

Some of us may be reminded of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There, too, we had a protagonist who — if not exactly committed to a cause, to a set of beliefs like Lyudmila — was indifferent to the lives of the “masses” around him. But when he witnesses a massacre, something changes inside him. Some of us may also be reminded of the “women’s pictures” (as they were known back then) Hollywood made in the 1950s — because Lyudmila’s daughter (who works in a locomotive factory) goes missing in the commotion, and the latter part of the narrative narrows down to a mother searching for her daughter.

This is no doubt an “important” story. The press notes at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam gave more context of the story’s importance: ‘The movie is based on a true story that happened on June 2nd, 1962, in Novocherkassk and kept secret until the Nineties. The investigation was started in 1992. The victims were secretly buried in graves under fake names so they could never be found. Major suspects among the top Soviet officials were dead at that time. Culprits have never been convicted.

But Dear Comrades! never becomes more than “an important story”. It’s proficient. It looks classy. It’s well-shot, well-acted. It’s a solid history lesson. (Those familiar with the Khrushchev regime will find this history a lot more interesting.) What the film doesn’t quite become is something urgent, something that gives us a new angle to a “generic” story that’s been told in so many ways by so many filmmakers from so many different countries. Compare the massacre here to the riot in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and you’ll see the difference between staging and statement.

The most interesting angle comes when a KGB agent named Viktor (Andrey Gusev) decides to help Lyudmila. Why should he? Isn’t the KGB responsible for the massacre? And didn’t he, earlier, come to Lyudmila’s house with a search warrant, asking about her daughter? Has Viktor, like Lyudmila, been transformed by the horror that just unfolded? This is the one part where the film acquires texture. Not everything can be explained, seems to be the answer. Maybe going after the missing daughter is a small act of... penance.

I use that word deliberately, because we see that not all of Russia is godless. Lyudmila’s father has with him a portrait of Mary and the baby Jesus. He says he would like to be buried with it. When you live in a State where you cannot voice your own beliefs, maybe you begin to think that actions are louder than words. What you cannot say explicitly (maybe that “the massacre was an overreaction”), you try to remedy by what you end up doing (going after the missing daughter).

Lyudmila’s father also reminds us that Truth is an elusive quality, and that not everything that’s been “written down” can be believed. Father and daughter speak of Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel, And Quiet Flows the Don, which was published in the early twentieth century and tells the story of Cossacks who settled along the river Don. It’s regarded as one of the canonical works of Russian literature, but Lyudmila’s father says that had Sholokhov written the “truth”, no one would have known he existed. He would have been killed. Extrapolate this thought to Dear Comrades!, and we are left with this troubling thought: What is the real “truth” behind the Novocherkassk massacre?

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