My fascination with the former Soviet Union was amped up after seeing the documentary "Red Army," which tells the story of the USSR's legendary ice-hockey team. My review of the film, which I write for Spokane Public Radio, was broadcast this morning. A transcription follows:
For those of us raised in the decades immediately following World War II, that coalition of nations known as the Soviet Union served as an enduring boogeyman of international politics.
To us, the USSR was tanks and soldiers marching every Mayday in Moscow’s Red Square – the same kinds of tanks and soldiers that marched into Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian invasion. It was Nikita Khrushchev famously – though perhaps apocryphally – pounding his shoe at the United Nations. And it was, every four years during both the summer and winter Olympics, the epitome of sport.
During the winter, that meant – in the main – ice hockey. And when it came to hockey, the team fielded by the Red Army may have been the best the world has ever seen – a fact that Gabe Polsky’s documentary “Red Army” makes with both style and sensitivity.
Which is only fitting. Style was the hallmark of the Red Army hockey team. These were soldiers, shepherded into the military so that they could be trained, supported – and, let’s not forget, guarded – as part of the Soviet government’s drive to symbolize the superiority of the communist system. Choosing the best candidates from thousands of boys eager to play for their country, Red Army coach Anatoli Tarasov used a blend of unique training methods, adopted both from the Bolshoi Ballet and the USSR’s long tradition of chess mastery, to shape players into men who would become magicians with pads and pucks.
To those who would argue that these Soviet men held an unfair advantage over amateur U.S. hockey players, well, just remember the “miracle” win those U.S. players managed to pull off during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Remember also that from 1976 to 1991, when paired against teams from the National Hockey League, Soviet teams won 14 of 16 match-play series. Even NHL pros couldn’t stand up to the graceful Soviets.
The sensitivity of Polsky’s film comes, perhaps ironically, from the man on whom the director focuses most closely: Slava Fetisov, the heart of the Red Army team. Bearing a manner that ranges from brusque to droll, and unafraid to speak the truth as he sees it, Fetisov is the perfect person to narrate the Soviet story. It is through him that we learn about the Soviet team’s rise under Tarasov, the hell that Tarasov’s successor – the disciplinarian Viktor Tikhonov – put the players through, the pride that the athletes felt at representing their country – pride that would force them to skate until their feet bled – and the sadness they felt when, like the USSR itself, it all fell apart.
Fetisov and a number of his Red Army teammates would go on to play in the NHL – and he, in fact, would play a part in two Detroit Red Wing Stanley Cup-winning seasons. But the Soviet team, after winning gold in 1988, has won only two medals since – neither of them gold.
Polsky makes it hard not to see this as something sad. That, of course, is the magic of what he’s accomplished – making us feel sorry for the boogeyman.