Fighting the Cold War on Ice: A Review of ‘Red Army’

In “Red Army”, a documentary directed by American filmmaker Gabe Polsky and produced by Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog, we witness the dramatic rise of Soviet ice hockey and the ensuing fierce rink-centric rivalry of the Soviet, American, and Canadian hockey teams. By skillfully juxtaposing the history of Soviet hockey with cold-war history more broadly, it makes for a riveting account of the postwar rise and fall of Soviet power, both on and off ice.

Director: Gabe Polsky. 85mins

The first scene of “Red Army” shows an uncooperative interviewee, Slava Fetisov, trying to conduct business on his phone while filmmaker Gabe Polsky has to repeat his questions and help Fetisov focus on the matter at hand. An annoyed Fetisov reproaches Polsky, whom he simply calls – heavy Russian diphthong included – ‘Gabe.’ This scene both sets the tone for the remainder of the film – the interactions between Fetisov and Polsky becoming a recurring focal point – but also immediately suggests to the audience the centrality of Fetisov. We laugh at his sense of self-importance, but are, it turns out, here to view a film about his career and life. A motive has thus been established for the filmmaker, namely to convince the audience that Fetisov is a deserving subject. Who, then, is this Slava Fetisov?

red-army-still-3‘Slava Fetisov’

This question will seem obscene to some – specifically, to regular readers of both the BFJ and Puckhead Magazine.[i] Others will deem it perfectly legitimate. In any case, Fetisov, born 1958, grew up in a Soviet Union ravaged by war, one that – not unrelatedly – sought glory in sports. Fetisov chose to play ice hockey. Before the second world war, the preferred Soviet wintertime team sport was the lesser-known bandy (which, however, also involves ice, skates, sticks, two teams, two goals, etc. etc.[ii]). In the fifties, Soviet authorities – certain that its success in bandy would translate into success in ice hockey – called on young boys to audition and join a youth squad. Fetisov and a cohort of other favoured youngsters were invited to join the prestigious CSKA Moscow, affectionately known as the Red Army due to its being affiliated with the eponymous branch of the Soviet military. Coming of age in the late 1960s, these players – including famous names such as Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasantonov, Igor Larionov, and Vladimir Krutov – would eventually dominate the game, both in the Soviet Union and internationally. A longue durée perspective capably serves as example: in the period 1963 to 1990, the Soviets won the annually-held IIHF world championships all but five times. Three times out of these five exceptions, the USSR brought home the silver instead; twice the bronze. In that same period (beginning with the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics), the Soviets won six Olympic gold medals (seven if we count the 1992 Albertville post-Soviet ‘Unified’ team). They won every Olympics except for the ‘Miracle on Ice’ of 1980, held in Lake Placid, in which they were surprisingly beaten by an inexperienced American team, composed mostly of college students.

red-army-still-1‘Red Army’

In “Red Army”, Polsky ably sets out to answer the question of how the Soviets, in such a short time, managed to excel at a game which up until then had been totally dominated by the Canadians. Through questioning Fetisov and others, he establishes a more-or-less conventional narrative. For instance, one of the film’s main contentions is that whereas the Canadians and Americans were comfortable with playing a crude and violent but ultimately action-packed and entertaining game, the Soviets were the first to truly ‘think’ of the game. Drawing inspiration from such stereotypical Russian sources as bandy, chess, and the Bolshoi ballet (as well as, obviously, physically rigorous exercise), the Red Army’s eccentric coach Andrei Tarasov was able to craft a team that played a new type of ice hockey. This included thought-out and well-prepared strategies and tactics, rigorous five-man play, and the cultivation of a sense of collectivity amongst the players which would, if not discourage, then at least de-emphasise, North American-style individual efforts. Polsky convincingly argues that this eclectic (and somewhat academic) approach to the game is what gave the Red Army its edge, and does so through an interesting collage of archival footage.

red-army-still-4‘Fetisvon and Tikhonov’

Soon, however, it becomes clear that the film is not simply intended for fans of ice hockey, and any technical or sport-specific knowledge is insisted upon less and less. When the narrative approaches the moment in which coach Tarasov – hugely popular amongst the players – was replaced by well-connected party member Viktor Tikhonov (a replacement which had political motivations, asserts the film), it dawns on the viewer that this story of Soviet ice hockey is beginning to take on metonymical characteristics. Our less-than-humble interviewee/narrator Fetisov is becoming a ‘type’; a symbol of the Soviet postwar experience of relief, aspiration and ascent, eventual success-turned-disillusionment, breakup and, finally, international reintegration. From the start, the film shows how ice hockey was used by the Soviets and the North Americans as a propaganda instrument. This was both the case in the straightforward instance of glory-in-victory but also, more fundamentally, in the way that the teams were made up. The North Americans saw in ice hockey the best of North American masculinity: violence combined with glory, individual achievement, success through hard work, and so forth. Off the rink, the players were allowed much personal freedom and could lead lavish lifestyles.[iii] The Soviets, by contrast, played collectively, took orders and staunchly obeyed their coach and his supporting staff, and were inculcated with a fierce sense of patriotism, not individualism. Off the rink, under Tikhonov, the Red Army players lived in barracks for the majority of the year and it was frequently difficult to get any kind of leave of absence (when it emerged that player Andrei Khomutov’s father was on his deathbed, an unfazed coach Tikhonov ordered the right winger to get ready for the next game).

red-army-still-5‘CCCP’

Yet the beauty and skill of Polsky’s narrative is that we see another, less expected, layer here: by focusing on Fetisov, the story goes beyond a treatment of official motive and intention to discuss the relation of one person to the sport of ice hockey and, concomitantly, the relation of one person to his country. Ultimately, the rise and fall of Soviet hockey is the rise and fall of the USSR. And Fetisov is as compelling an eyewitness as any. Through him, we are allowed access into the inner workings of Soviet hockey during its heyday, and the film thus enables the viewer to reflect upon how a sport such as ice hockey can serve as a bridge, or as a vehicle, to understanding grand-narrative history. Eventually, players’ frustrations begin to mount regarding coach Tikhonov’s dictatorial methods and regarding the lack of respect afforded to them by the authorities, despite their massive success. With the emergence of perestroika, Fetisov gets scouted by the New Jersey Devils (an NHL-franchise). At first Tikhonov and the authorities promise that Fetisov will be allowed to play in North America, but hurdles soon emerge. Soviet bureaucracy begins to fear that, if allowed abroad, players will go into illegal exile – resulting in regime humiliation – and thus make every attempt to prevent Fetisov et al. from going to the NHL. Fetisov quits the team and, in an act of solidarity, a number of players go on strike. Although it is left unsaid, actions such as these are, of course, to be read in context of the great upheavals, strike actions, and demonstrations that went on in the Soviet Union and its greater sphere of influence, famously climaxing in the breakup of the Union and, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the cold war.

The film should appeal to a broad audience. Viewers will appreciate the movie’s well-crafted story, its employment of archival footage combined with sleek graphics, evoking the characteristic aesthetics of Soviet poster art and post-Revolution constructivism (by Philippe Gariepy and Benoit St-Jean), all adding up to fascinating insights into Soviet hockey and into cold-war history more broadly.

 

[i] A Google-search finds no results for Puckhead Magazine.

[ii] Differences include bigger teams, a larger playing surface (referred to as a ‘field’ as opposed to ice hockey’s ‘rink’) which usually entails playing outdoors, a larger goal, differently-shaped sticks, a rubber ball as opposed to a rubber puck, a much smaller international following, etc. etc.

[iii] It occurs to me here that while I earlier wrote that North Americans didn’t really ‘think’ of the game, this will sound problematic and paradoxical to many. Obviously, most of the great players and innovators have sprung out of Canada the USA. Still, I think it interesting to see the lack of ‘thinking’ as an ideological barrier (considered a virtue by many; to play a strategic and ordered, a Soviet, game was considered ‘sissy’ by many). That ice hockey plays into ideology is clear when we consider that during the 1960s and 70s, Canadian society was going through a grand reassessment of its national identity as well. Following the second world war, many will know, Canadian identity gradually began to distance and decentre itself from the British Isles and the Empire, and from ‘crown-and-country thinking’ more generally. A national(ist) outlook was favoured. In Quebec, not dissimilarly, the Quiet Revolution created a basically secular and state-centric society in a province previously totally dominated by the Catholic Church. In these tumultuous days, hockey became a symbolic practice providing welcome relief but also ideological structure and an identity-based reference point. Not coincidentally, this period saw the flourishing of some of the most skilled Canadian players ever – Wayne Gretzky being the unchallenged example. Clearly, then, Canadians ‘thought’ of the game. But frequently this happened on an ideological plane and planned tactics and strategy took the backseat in favour of brutish force and rugged individual play, apparently reflecting an essential Canadianness.

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