It doesn’t take long to suspect why Andrei Konchalovsky was recently inspired to revisit the Novocherkassk massacre in “Dear Comrades,” a 1962 tragedy where a group of striking workers at the Electric Locomotive Building Factory were fired upon by a coalition of the Russian Army and KGB, resulting in numerous deaths, many of which were never reported since everyone in the city was forced to swear to secrecy. The incident only came to light internationally in 1992, but nearly 60 years later, it makes for prescient viewing and compelling drama in an era where fascism appears to be on the rise again and some of the greatest evil is the ability to preemptively wipe history of it from the historical record.
This adds an extra level of appreciation to the painstaking detail Konchalovsky and crew puts into vividly recreating June 1st and 2nd with hundreds of extras, immaculate production design that replicates the Community Party headquarters of Ataman Palace and the striking black-and-white cinematography of Andrey Naidenov that echoes the groundbreaking Soviet cinema of the era that the now 83-year-old director had no small part in ushering in. However, that is not the primary attraction of “Dear Comrades,” which is centered on Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a Head of Sector of the Communist Party’s City Committee in Novocherkassk who is thrown for a loop when the sirens begin to blare at the factory, sending herself and her boss Loginov into a tailspin when they learn the regional committee secretary is headed to the city to quell the strike before word spreads to other cities. As Loginov fears being relegated to becoming a school principal in the sticks, Lyuda has an even greater concern when her daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova) works at the factory and given their difference of opinion about the state of the nation, could well be participating in the protest.
Although Konchalovsky and co-writer Elena Kiseleva never position “Dear Comrades” as a satire, the Communist Party leaders are made to look ridiculous when they’re confronted by a simple nonviolent stand by workers after their wages are being cut and the cost of kitchen staples such as milk and kefir is going up and fought over at the local pantry. Everyone other than the all-mighty Nikita Khrushchev looks for cover from their immediate superior and the fear that sets leads to a number of irrational decisions, culminating in the use of live fire against the workers and the decision to cover up any casualties. When Lyuda, on record as a staunch proponent of stemming the strike at any cost, comes to believe Svetka may be among the dead when she goes missing, she is faced with navigating the same system shrouded in mystery that she’s benefitted from as a party official to get ahead of the breadlines and now reckons with being the last to know what happened to her daughter.
Vysotskaya is a strong anchor for the drama, a commanding presence at first in ably conveying Lyuda’s poise and determination, but then gradually letting the vulnerabilities that once drove such strong convictions register as Lyuda is hollowed out by the fruitless search for Svetka. The strength of the film emerges from exposing the frailty of the system, following Lyuda into the backrooms of government where it comes into sharp relief that the leaders only have the power afforded to them by the people’s obeisance, and once she is need of their assistance, there are no answers but to push nondisclosure agreements to sign, assuming — reasonably, as it turns out — that they can get the entire town to engage in a mass amnesia about what happened. Still, between Vysotaskaya’s engaging performance and the crisp images that Konchalovsky consistently etches into memory, it becomes impossible to forget anything in “Dear Comrades.”
“Dear Comrades” will screen at the Venice Film Festival on September 7th at 11:15 am at the Sala Darsena and Sala Giardino, 2 pm at the Sala Giardino, 4:30 pm at the Sala Grande and 4:45 pm at the Sala Giardino and September 8th at 11:15 am at the PalaBiennale and 10 pm at the Sala Perla.