Watching Dear Comrades! from my home in lockdown London, for BAFTA 2021 awards, took me back to my movie binge youth spent in the National Film Theatre on the South Bank where I was first introduced to Russian cinema, amongst them Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Eisenstein, Vladimir Menshov, Sergei Bondarchuk, Mark Donskoy and of course Andrei Konchalovsky.
Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades!, a stark monochrome film, depicts the brutal and tragic Novocherkassk massacre in June 1962. This was the moment when the KGB opened fire on unarmed demonstrators outside a factory in Novocherkassk, the capital of the Don Cossack region in the west of the country. Twenty-six protestors, including women and young people, were reported to have been killed with many more injured. There was a total news blackout of the massacre and the dead were buried in unnamed graves by the KGB.
Over five decades later, Andrei Konchalovsky, now 83, has brought the tragic events of Novocherkassk to the screen. Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya, also the director’s wife) is a member of the local Communist Party. She is a staunch upholder of the Communist regime and despises any form of dissent. During a labour strike at the local electromotive factory, she witnesses the shooting of protesters by the Army sent by the government to quell the strike. This massacre changes her vision of the world forever. The city is torn apart by riots, arrests, hasty convictions. Many people are injured, and several are missing. When Lyudmila’s daughter disappears, she starts an anguished, dangerous, and relentless search, despite the blockade of the city, the arrests, and the attempt at a cover-up by the authorities. Dear Comrades! is based on a true story that happened on June 2nd, 1962 in Novocherkassk and was 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.
I wondered why the director has chosen to tell this story from the point of view of the woman – Lyudmila – until I came across an interview in which he said he had considered making a film about the massacre some 20 years ago but forgot it. That is, until he directed his wife Julia Vysotskaya on stage as the tragic Greek heroine Antigone. “I was looking at her, thinking she is really a tragic actress. These two ideas – Julia as a tragical actress and events at Novocherkassk came together”. Julia Vysotskaya was born in Novocherkassk. No wonder, the complex heroine she portrays, stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
Dear Comrades! shows the Soviet way of life as experienced by Lyudmila. The director is adamant that it is not an attack on Soviet-era brutality, violence, and the machinations of the KGB. “Life is ambivalent. There is no absolute evil or absolute good and absolute innocence”, said Andrei Konchalovsky in one of the interviews. The film ends on a redemptive note. “Life and art are different. Art is a big lie that helps us to understand the truth of life. A human being is very thankful to someone who gives him hope. I want to give hope. I want a miracle…. A miracle is something we need as an irrational motive to have beliefs. The moment we don’t have any beliefs, we have no strength to live” says Konchalovsky. He could be speaking about the current global pandemic. Dear Comrades! is a passionate drama of fear and rage – a must-see film so we do not forget.
Produced and financed by Uzbek-born tycoon Alisher Usmanov, who is well known to the football fans in the UK when he was a major shareholder in Arsenal FC, the film has been released in Russia and the US, and won numerous awards.
About Parminder Vir OBE
Parminder Vir OBE has dedicated herself to positively impacting and transforming lives through a professional career spanning 40 years in philanthropy, entrepreneurship, film and television production, arts and culture, and investment funding. She is the co-founder of the Support4AfricaSMEs campaign and The African Farmers Stories, launched in 2020. She served as the CEO of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, based in Lagos, Nigeria from April 2014 to April 2019. Prior to joining the Foundation, Parminder has enjoyed a distinguished career as an awarding winning film and television producer and private equity investor in film and media.