Skating on Thin Ice
A Review of Red Army


Red Army Illustration

We begin with the face of well-dressed, middle-aged man, sitting in a cushioned chair in the center of an empty room. He is holding his phone up to his face, squinting at its screen. Silently, he checks his messages. The documentary filmmaker pipes up from behind the camera, asking leading questions. “Could you begin by telling us…What did you feel about…?” The questions hit a brick wall of indifference. Sitting comfortably in his chair, he tells him to be quiet, and when the interviewer continues, unceremoniously flips him off.

The audience laughs, I smile as I nudge my friend besides me. His indifference doesn’t come off as defiant, or rude, but strangely engaging. He is soon revealed to be Slava Fetisov, an internationally renowned hockey player, now Russian politician. He played on the Soviet national team in the 1980s, before moving to the United States to play in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Red Army, directed by Gabe Polsky, follows Slava Fetisov’s hockey career, which spanned continents and cultures during a time when hockey was more than just a sport, but a matter of national prestige. As Cold War tensions raised to fever pitch throughout the 1980s, the stakes of each game had never been higher.

Red Army was screened in Cubberley Auditorium, by the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, and was followed by a Q&A with Polsky facilitated by Professor Mike McFaul. The documentary released this January, played at the Cannes, Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals last year.

During the Cold War, the anthem of ice hockey in the Soviet Union was called ‘The coward does not play hockey’. To do so, you were representing your nation and your national way of life. Young boys would line up for hours to try out for the national hockey team, which was called the ‘Red Army’. The film incorporates black and white footage of these young athletes familiarizing themselves with the ice, doing drills and learning the intricacies of the elegant Russian game.

The more accomplished players glide around the ice rinks with perfect ease. Coaches were highly resourceful in their training plans, using ballet to teach their players to ‘dance’ on the ice, and employing Russian chess grandmasters to develop their game strategy. It was the intensity of this training, motivated by government pressures, that saw the rise of a talented cohort of Soviet hockey players that would dominate the international scene for a decade.

The most gifted in the country came to be known as the ‘Russian Five’, and constituted the core of the Soviet hockey team throughout the 1980s. The Five were Viacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. Coached by Viktor Tikhonov, they were undefeatable, consistently dominating world championships, and winning gold at the 1984 and 1988. This was in a long tradition of triumphs: the Soviet national team winning almost every world championship and olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991.

On all their international travels, the Soviet hockey team were accompanied by the KGB. This was to insure that players would not defect to other countries, after experiencing the material abundance and freedoms of the Western world. One hockey player recounts how the KGB would give them their passports before they entered immigration, and then take them back after they exited. This became a concern especially towards the end of the decade, as the NHL began to offer many players millions of dollars to move to the United States. Poaching of hockey players became low key proxy warfare, a means of both augmenting the talent of American teams and undermining Soviet morale.

Throughout the documentary, Slava consistently evades addressing the politics of the Cold War. When the interviewer asks him what difference it made that their coach Tikhonov was a ‘powerful’ man, Slava responds by asking, “What do you mean powerful?” Western assumptions of what it means to be ‘powerful’ or ‘corrupt’ within a non-democratic government seem to condescend, rather than initiate genuine conversation. Through moments like these, the film occupies a strange liminal space, often asking questions from a Western paradigm, and receiving answers from a Russian one.

On a whole, the documentary also struggles between illustrating the larger historical context of the Cold War, and the details of hockey players’ personal stories. The film resorts to recounting events where it lacks the honesty of its interviewees, using footage of Gorbachev speaking to Congress about Perestroika and Glasnost, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

However, when the film finally lands on Slava’s story, it finally breathes; delving into his antagonism with the brutal coaching techniques of Tikhonov, and his fight to play in the NHL. Like many other players in the period, Slava was offered to play in the NHL, but was prohibited to do so by the Soviet government. It was only until one player defected, that the government decided to allow players to go to the US under certain conditions, in order to save face.

However, when Slava arrived in the US, he met a slew of obstacles he had not foreseen: culture shock, the brutal American style of hockey, and the need to amass courage to continue playing on a losing side after a lifetime of victories. After playing for a number of years in NHL, Slava returned to Russia to become Minister of Sport under Putin in 2002, where he remained until 2008 when he became a member of the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia.

In the Q&A following the film facilitated by Professor Mike McFaul, Gabe Polsky recounted Slava’s response to his news that the film had been accepted to Cannes Film Festival—‘I don’t need Cannes, why do I need Cannes?’ However, upon visiting the festival with his wife and daughter, Slava began to appreciate the attention he was receiving for the film. Polsky said that it was then that he finally understood the film made him look good—and he is absolutely right. Although Slava appears abrasive at times, at the end of the day, he is an engaging figure who exemplifies a culture often stereotyped and misread.

The film ends where it begins; Slava sitting alone in his chair, indifferent to the filmmaker. This time, however, he appears more impressive. He is no longer the unknown crude Russian figure that he previously appeared to be, but a national hero, an international icon, a man who returned to his homeland that had previously spurned him, with dignity and honour. His ideals or motivations, however, remain enigmatic—possibly even misunderstood—even after we spend so much screen time with him. Red Army perhaps shows us the impossibility of truly bridging the cultural norms that we are inundated with and the cultural paradigm we are confined to—but also the perpetual need to try to find common ground, be it through sport, politics, or art.

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