The story largely remained a secret until the late 1980s, when the relaxation of censorship during Gorbachev’s glasnost led to the mass exhumation of skeletons from the country’s past. But in the following decades, it has remained little known or discussed. Andrei Konchalovsky’s 2020 film Dear Comrades, which was shortlisted for best foreign film at this year’s Academy Awards, is the first cinematic depiction of the tragedy. The movie has garnered rave reviews from critics, including The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, who praised it as a “beautiful and damning […] act of remembrance.” Dear Comrades is in fact a rather more curious creation: an anti-protest protest film, which resurrects the repressed past with the aim of calling for law and order.
Konchalovsky, 83, is the son of Sergei Mikhalkov, a famous author of children’s books who wrote the lyrics to the Soviet (now Russian) anthem, and the older brother of Nikita Mikhalkov, an actor, director, and conservative nationalist whose 75th birthday Vladimir Putin honored with a champagne toast on state television. While his brother has sunk into cartoonish conspiracy theories and xenophobic calls to love the motherland, Konchalovsky maintains a more restrained public image and positive reputation abroad. His wife Iulia Vysotskaya, the star of Dear Comrades as well as two of the director’s other recent films (including a Michelangelo biopic co-produced in Italy), is also the host of a popular TV cooking show. Her signature dishes include risotto made with buckwheat — a Euro-Slavic fusion suggestive of how the couple has successfully combined its status in the Russian establishment with globe-trotting cosmopolitanism.
In an early scene in Dear Comrades, Vysotskaya is shown acquiring buckwheat — along with fresh sardines, chocolate-glazed sweet cheese, Hungarian liqueur, and other delicacies — in the back room of a shop, as part of a special allotment supplied to Communist Party officials. Her character, Liudmila, a member of the local party committee, has just slipped out of the bed of her married lover to secure food before long lines form due to the impending price hikes. When the woman serving her expresses fear of famine, Liudmila scolds her with a reminder that hunger is impossible in the Soviet Union. It’s easier to love Big Brother on a full stomach, and so she does, attending a committee meeting that declares workers fully support the price increases. Whether this is really true appears irrelevant — until rocks start flying through the window.
Raising prices on basic necessities had already produced moments of critical instability in the socialist bloc, including strikes in East Germany in 1953 that were put down by Soviet tanks. Initially, protestors in Novocherkassk seemed to be gaining the upper hand: they succeeded in blocking the train tracks and storming the police station. One participant later recalled that they were emulating what they had seen in Soviet films about worker uprisings. These included, most famously, Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), in which tsarist henchmen on horseback throw a baby to its death. One of the finest sequences in Konchalovsky’s film is his rendering of the massacre, which stands in restrained contrast to Eisenstein’s relentless close-ups of brutal whips and crying innocents. When the guns start firing, Liudmila is sitting on a shady bench. She bolts across the town square and helps drag a wounded woman into a hair salon. The interior is eerily tranquil as the radio plays, muffling the sound of shots and screams outside.
The film is less concerned with the fate of those in the square than the inner conflicts of those who fled it. Dear Comrades joins a cultural tradition of examining state violence from the perspective of the true believer. While the strike is still in full swing, Liudmila declares that the instigators should be shot. When she realizes that her teenage daughter hasn’t come home, however, she fears that she may have been killed, and frantically tries to find her. Her story is similar to Sofia Petrovna, Lidia Chukovskaya’s novel of the late ’30s about the Stalinist purges. Like Liudmila, the protagonist is a party loyalist who expresses approval when supposed traitors are arrested, then strives to maintain her faith when her only child disappears. Admitting that the system is rotten would mean the collapse of everything these women know to be true. “If not communism, then what can we believe in?” Liudmila asks in desperation, saying that the people would have to “blow it all up […] and start over again.”
Tales of communist conviction tested by terror have typically been crafted by the thoroughly disillusioned. Chukovskaya, whose husband was executed in 1938, joined members of the literary intelligentsia, including her friend Anna Akhmatova, in voicing moral opposition to Soviet rule. Arthur Koestler left Germany’s Communist Party before writing Darkness at Noon (1940), his novel inspired by the arrest and tortured confessions of the Old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin. Konchalovsky lived through the shock of the post-Soviet years, and he extracts different lessons from the past. For Russia, the moment of blowing it up and starting over came in the ’90s — an era that many associate with precariousness, poverty, and international humiliation, and in contrast to which Vladimir Putin has staked his legitimacy. Konchalovsky said in an interview with BBC Russia that, though he had welcomed the end of Soviet power, he then saw how “things didn’t work out as expected […] [and] Putin had to unite the state so that it didn’t collapse completely.”
The Novocherkassk shooting took place during Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw, when the party condemned mass terror and many young people expressed fresh enthusiasm for building a communist society. Konchalovsky has described the idealistic student daughter of the main character as a version of his former self, who suffered from the “illusions and hopes” of youth. The now older and wiser director adopts the perspective of Liudmila, who longs for the collective struggle and clear binaries of Stalin’s day. She declares that prices never rose under the dictator and that, if he were alive, communism would have been achieved long ago. Her fealty is justified by her heroic sacrifice as a veteran: on her apartment wall, a portrait of Stalin hangs near a photograph of herself (and her dead husband) in army uniform. “On the front it was clear who was one of ours, and who was the enemy,” she recalls.
In a bitter moment, Liudmila and a KGB officer who tries to help her sing the march from the 1947 movie Spring: “Comrade, comrade! At work and at war, selflessly defend your fatherland!” The song’s lyrics, like those of the Soviet anthem (which originally included praise of Stalin), were written by Konchalovsky’s father. The motif of the people united under Stalin merges with the memory of the Don Cossacks, whose resistance to the Bolsheviks is praised by Liudmila’s father. In the conservative Russian nationalist imagination, the Cossacks symbolize the defiant spirit of the long-suffering people (narod). When the strikes start, the old man retrieves his icons from storage and dons his pre-revolutionary military uniform. Though Liudmila chides him, they are essentially on the same side: Orthodox symbols and pre-revolutionary military regalia were mobilized by Stalin’s regime during the fight against the Nazis.
With such details, the film establishes its own binary of “ours” — Stalin, the army, and the Russian people, fighters for national salvation and heirs to a glorious past — versus “the enemy,” composed of Khrushchev, the security services, and assorted bureaucrats, associated with disorienting ambiguity and petty self-interest. In doing so, it takes pains to protect the army’s reputation: although it was an army general who gave the order to shoot (according to historian Tatiana Bocharova, who wrote a book about the massacre), Dear Comrades absolves the military of responsibility.
The film premiered in Russia in fall 2020 amid mass protests in Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko, the former state farm manager who has ruled the country since 1994. Lukashenko has countered dissent by arresting and torturing protestors, unknown numbers of whom have died in police custody. Several Russian critics noted in passing the resemblance between the subject of Dear Comrades and current events in Belarus. Yet Konchalovsky’s remarks following the film’s release have made clear that he is on the side of centralized authority. “Any destruction leads immediately to chaos, and this is evident with the Soviet Union — how it was destroyed and what came of it,” he said in the BBC interview. “Now we see this chaos in Ukraine” following the Orange Revolution.
In this light, Dear Comrades appears as a cautionary tale about the dangers posed by unruly masses, compatible with the Russian state’s condemnation of uprisings in its former satellites. But it can also be read as a warning of what happens when an out-of-touch elite forgets to feed the people. In the Eastern bloc, events like Novocherkassk drove the socialist leadership’s efforts to forestall popular unrest by improving living conditions and consumption, with outward shows of support expected in exchange for a decent quality of life. A similar paternalist pact drove Putin’s claim to rule in the early 2000s — and while oil prices were booming and the middle class expanded, it worked.
In recent years, declining real wages have been coupled with austerity measures, including the raising of the pension age, while elites keep the bulk of the country’s wealth offshore. Protests spread across the country this winter in support of the jailed anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, whose YouTube exposé of “Putin’s Palace” catalyzed popular discontent over economic hardship, political stagnation, and oligarchic excess. The demonstrations have found particular support among young Russians who were not shaped by the disappointments of previous eras and are willing to organize online and in the streets. They won’t find much inspiration in Konchalovsky’s film, which warns that their protests come at too high a price.
Joy Neumeyer is a historian of Russia and Eastern Europe and current Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, where she is completing a book about death in late Soviet culture.