Hungarian Liquor

‘Are you a Soviet woman?’ asks Lyudmila Syomina in an opening scene of Dear Comrades!, the latest film by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. The question is more forceful than inquisitive. The person that she is interrogating is no enemy hostage, but rather Lyudmila’s local grocery store clerk, a kind, visibly younger woman who, when we meet her, is standing in the stock room, pulling one coveted item after another – a roll of salami, a bottle of rare Hungarian liquor – out of the fridge and off the shelves for Lyudmila to take with her. Outside, other shoppers coalesce into a small stampede around the cash register, buying whatever they can get their hands on. ‘People started coming at seven in the morning, all of this talk about prices going up’, the amiable clerk explains. ‘Are we going to starve?’ she asks Lyudmila, who reacts to the question with a stunned look on her face. ‘Starve? In the Soviet Union? Do you hear yourself? Keep your mouth shut.’

Communication failure between generations lies at the heart of Dear Comrades!, a film that is as much about the personal challenges of historic political change as it is about what happened in 1962 in the city of Novocherkassk, an industrial town located just over the south-eastern Ukrainian border, when price increases led to one of the most violently repressed strikes in Soviet history. Konchalovsky, amongst Russia’s oldest and most recognised directors, provides a clear-eyed reconstruction of this long-suppressed episode, but in doing so he explores the pull that even the most incontrovertibly evil forces have on ordinary people. Through Lyudmila, played by his wife Julia Vysotskaya, he tracks the crushing disappointment that people face when history tells them to move on, be happy, and never look back.

The end of a dark era and the beginning of another; winter thawing into spring: most would greet this with optimism either muted or unrestrained. Not Lyudmila. As the people around her talk gleefully of communism’s imminent arrival, the latest agricultural advances, and above all, the gentler, kinder leader in the Kremlin, all she can do is scoff. Not because of any scorn she harbours towards the Soviet state. Just the opposite. Early in the film we learn that Lyudmila – likely to be in her early forties when we meet her – is a proud party activist, and a member of her local party committee where she oversees the city’s production sector.

She would have first become involved in the party in her late teens or early twenties under Stalin. During the Second World War, Lyudmila went to the front as a nurse where she met the man who, before dying in battle, fathered her daughter, Svetlana, or Svetka. We learn that, for her wartime sacrifices, Stalin’s government bestowed upon her a handsome consolation package: an apartment large enough for her daughter and elderly father to share, a government job, promises of indefinite raises and promotions, and, of course, the material privileges to match her high-ranking position ­– specifically, access to rare consumer goods like those we see her stuffing into her shopping bag in the grocery store.

To show her gratitude, she hangs portraits of Stalin on her wallpapered apartment doors, laments the fact that Khrushchev ordered his body moved out of Lenin’s mausoleum, that holiest of sites, and defends his record whenever someone, above all her daughter, tries to remind her of all the terrible things that Comrade Stalin did. ‘He executed so many innocent people!’ Svetka insists during one particularly strained exchange with her mother. ‘What do you know about Stalin?’ Lyudmila snaps back.

Then comes May 1962. That month, Khrushchev signed off on an abrupt 25% increase in the price of meat and butter, a reform designed to stimulate government revenues and boost collective farmers’ incomes to offset stagnating economic growth. In Novocherkassk, the increases stung particularly sharply. The city’s workers, nearly a tenth of whom were employed by the Electric Locomotive Plant, built in the 1930s as the Soviet Union’s largest producer of train engines, had just learned that their pay would be slashed, in the middle of a city-wide food shortage that forced citizens to stand in line at all hours of the day. Many became accustomed to saving their potato peels to get them through to their next meal. When workers at the plant learned of the price increases, they organized a strike, something which, at first glance, should register as neither a shock nor a rare occurrence in a country that called itself the world’s first workers’ state. Yet as far as party officials were concerned, labour strikes had no place in a socialist country where class conflict – and classes in general – had ceased to exist.

When the factory strike develops into a city-wide strike, workers spilled out into streets holding portraits of Lenin, signs that read ‘Proletarians of the World Unite!’, and pamphlets with demands for ‘Meat, Butter, and Higher Salaries!’. In the film, Konchalovsky shows city officials, watching from their office windows, respond with confusion and derision. ‘A fucking strike in our socialist country?’ one party official gripes. The protesting workers eventually storm the city’s party headquarters and go on a smashing spree, marvelling with disdain at the rarefied foods which the party officials treated themselves to as the rest of the city goes hungry (‘Look what they’re eating! Hungarian liquor and ham!’). ‘Arrest them all’, Lyudmila recommends, unflinchingly, during a meeting of local party committee members, who are joined by a coterie of bureaucrats flown in from Moscow to monitor the situation. ‘These people are extremely angry at the Soviet government, you never know what they might do’, she warns her peers. ‘Arrest them and take them to court, to the full extent of the law.’ Stalin may have been dead, but his methods lived on.

The officials end up taking her advice. What happens next would come to light nearly half a century later in 1991, when Gorbachev called for an honest, moral reckoning with even the most unsavoury aspects of the country’s past, including what happened that summer day in Novocherkassk. As the protestors enter the city square, we watch as bullets begin to rain down on the workers and their supporters. To this day, it’s unclear whether the call to shoot came from the Soviet Army or the KGB, but we know that 26 people died (87 more were injured and 110 sent to prison for their involvement in the strike). Knowledge of the event remains scarce. When I told my mother, who grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States in 1987, that Dear Comrades! was about the Novocherkassk massacre, she had no idea what I was talking about.

One of the most underappreciated and – not incidentally – insidious aspects of Stalinism was the moral simplicity it offered. Dividing the world into good and evil allowed citizens like Lyudmila to navigate the cataclysmic changes brought about by the First Five-Year Plan, the wave upon wave of political purges, an apocalyptic world war. Of the many things that Khrushchev overturned when he denounced Stalin in his 1956 ‘Secret Speech’, perhaps this simple code of right and wrong represented the greatest loss. Practically overnight, ‘enemies’ were rehabilitated as ‘victims’, ‘heroes’ turned into opportunistic collaborators, and ‘foes’ into ordinary neighbours, who, after years labouring in the gulag, returned home to haunt the people next door who had turned them in to save themselves. ‘It was so easy then’, Lyudmila reflects at one point, because it was clear ‘who was an enemy and who was ours’.

For a while, Lyudmila refuses to give in to the topsy-turvy moral universe of Khrushchev’s making. She continues to refer to former gulag prisoners as criminals, invests her hopes for society in the KGB, and advises the government to seek the death penalty for the strike’s organizers. But her world view is challenged when she learns that her teenage daughter, herself an employee at the locomotive plant, is planning to participate in the strike despite, or in spite of her mother’s protests. An enemy? In her own family? The possibility leaves Lyudmila visibly unsettled. When Svetka goes missing after the shooting, Lyudmila immediately embarks on a search for her daughter’s whereabouts, a search that continues for the rest of the film.

Her odyssey takes her to the city’s various agencies and offices, each with a portrait of Khrushchev hanging where a portrait of Stalin once rested, the sloppy mounting job visible. We see her visit a morgue, where she almost trips over the bodies of people who died in the shooting, their corpses strewn on the floor like clutter. We watch her visit the city’s army headquarters, where a gang of young soldiers conduct a rough search of Lyudmila, neglecting to pay her the respect that a war veteran, long-time party member and panicked mother deserves. Finally, we join her as she pays a visit to a cemetery outside the city, where victims’ bodies are rumoured to have been clandestinely buried in plots already occupied by the dead.

Like many features of the film’s plot, this one, too, is rooted in historical fact. Researchers in the early 1990s revealed that party officials – those whom Lyudmila would have called her own – had dumped the bodies of the massacre’s victims in nearby cemeteries. Reeling from the realization that her daughter’s body might have been thrown, anonymously and thoughtlessly, into another’s grave, Lyudmila breaks down, a moment that we are instructed to interpret as her loss of faith. In one of the last scenes of the film, we watch as she sips unceremoniously on a bottle of unlabelled Soviet vodka, a far cry from the Hungarian liquor we saw her purchasing with delight earlier in the film. In this way, she becomes, perhaps for the first time in her life, a true comrade.

Yuri Trifonov, a Soviet writer who made his career during the Khrushchev years, described members of the generation that preceded him as ‘people of the beginning of the war and people of the end of the war’, who despite their best efforts, ‘remain such to the end of their lives’. Lyudmila, by this formulation, is a child of the end of the war. Konchalovsky however, like Trifonov, is a product of the Thaw, and is no stranger to the need to move with the times. Born Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky in 1937, the year that launched Stalin’s Great Terror, into a family as close to royalty as possible in the Soviet Union – his father wrote the Soviet national anthem, and his relatives, the Mikhalkovs, were old Russian aristocrats who traced their lineage to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – his life’s trajectory maps neatly onto Russia’s long twentieth century.

His is a rare career that transcended not only the Soviet-post-Soviet divide, but also that between Russian and American film circuits (his brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, also an actor and director, accomplished a similar feat when he won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for Burnt by the Sun (1994) about Stalin’s Great Terror). The seeming ease with which he’s managed these transitions is a testament not just to the strength of his artistic vision and its broad appeal, but his ability to acclimate, even thrive in political environments which others would find prohibitively hostile. In his more than sixty years of directing, writing, acting and producing, Konchalovsky has had to navigate institutional alliances with everyone from Communist Party bureaucrats to Los Angeles studio executives to Russian oligarchs. One of this latest film’s producers is Alisher Usmanov, a Moscow-based metal and mining tycoon worth an estimated $11.68 billion dollars – an unusual choice of funder for a film about a labour strike. This also helps to explain how and why he has embraced film styles as varied as socialist realism (1964’s The First Teacher), avant-garde (1962’s Andrei Rublev, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Andrei Tarkovsky), and Hollywood action (1989’s Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell). Lyudmila may have had trouble adapting to changing times, but Konchalovsky has not.

Or has he? A consistent theme that runs through many of the interviews, profiles and discussions of Konchalovsky is his refusal to accede to prevailing moral binaries, or to depict his own life story as a gradual move away from darkness and towards light, from unfreedom to freedom. When asked in 2011 whether during the Soviet part of his career he worried about his ability to express himself in the face of government censors, he responded with an automatic no. ‘Creativity’, he told the visibly confused interviewer, has nothing to do with ‘freedom of self-expression; it’s an illusion, for me’. He then consciously upended the interviewer’s assumptions about what the end of the Soviet Union bestowed upon artists like himself. ‘Russia got a lot of freedom in the nineties, and no masterpieces or great films appeared.’

In an interview conducted in 2018 at an election-night victory party held in Moscow to celebrate Putin’s ascendancy to his sixth term in office, a Russian news correspondent runs into Konchalovsky and asks him to offer his thoughts on the results. ‘Extraordinary joy, a realization of my hopes, and I was almost sure it would happen’, he told the reporter in perfect English. ‘And Putin will lead’, he added, a banner with the words ‘A Strong President; A Strong Russia’ strung visibly behind him. When asked what he thought about the thousands of anti-Putin demonstrators who were out on the streets that same night – many of whom were organized by the now-jailed Alexey Navalny – Konchalovsky did not mince words. ‘It’s not important.’ Like Lyudmila, he would not – perhaps could not – succumb to other people’s assessments of reality. For both of them, it’s too indecent, too unnatural, to bite the hand that feeds.

Read on: Sophie Pinkham, ‘Nihilism for Oligarchs’, NLR 125.