Russia is once again in the West’s doghouse as a result of Vladimir Putin’s autocratic rule and brazen interventions in neighbouring Ukraine. The Russian economy may be on the skids with collapsing oil prices but Putin’s position of impunity seems secure. It’s not back to the USSR. Still, relations are as frosty as an Arctic winter.
Two recent movies offer fascinating insights on the old and new Russia. One thing that Canadians and Russians share is a passion for hockey as a national sport. There are now many Russians playing in the NHL competing for the Stanley Cup. But these playoffs can never match the epic international rivalries that have emerged on the ice between the top hockey powers.
Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army looks back to the glory days of the elite Moscow-based team that was developed in the 1950s to achieve supremacy in the sport. Soviet leaders saw it as a propaganda vehicle demonstrating the superiority of their system. Before the entry of NHL players into international competition, that dominance seemed assured. It was a system of rigorous selection, military regimentation and merciless training. But it also produced extraordinary skill levels and teamwork. Legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov used unorthodox techniques to elevate the quality of play. However tightly controlled Russian players appeared, their passing finesse was like a chess game compared to the bruising North American style.
Focusing on defenceman Slava Fetisov, a member of the famous Russian Five (the others were Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Alexei Kasatonov), Polsky also shows how passionate and deeply patriotic these players actually were. They were not automatons and they became deeply resentful when Tarasov was replaced by the tyrannical Viktor Tikhonov, a KGB appointee.
These star players had no illusions about how ruthless the system could be. With Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric in the background, the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics so-called “miracle on ice” — when U.S. amateurs beat Red Army for gold — was a calamity for Russia. Tikhonov responded by exiling a number of veterans. The ideological games continued when some Russian players began to defect to NHL teams. With the end of the Soviet Union many more would follow the money. Fetisov had a successful NHL career including Stanley Cups with Detroit in 1997-98. Yet he returned to Russia, even becoming a top sports bureaucrat appointed by Putin. Russia’s most famous goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, never played in the NHL.
Director Polsky is an American of Soviet ancestry and a weakness of the film from a Canadian perspective is that its history largely ignores some of the greatest Canada-Russia confrontations of the Red Army era, including the inaugural 1972 series which Canada won, and the 1974 New Year’s Eve tie against the Montreal Canadiens, considered by many the greatest game ever played. While the Russian challenge shook up our hockey world, Russia’s best were far from invincible against Canada’s best. It would have helped to have interviewed someone like Ken Dryden who has written extensively about the game. Still, Polsky’s account is a reminder of how intensely the politics of sport can reflect on a society. One only has to consider Putin’s massively corrupt $50 billion Sochi Olympic showcase that delivered loads of medals but hockey humiliation.
Director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev’s masterful Leviathan is a stinging morality tale that exposes the soul-destroying rot of contemporary Russia in which an oppressive colluding ideology of state and church crushes any individual who dares stand up to it. Set in a bleak decaying northern landscape by the shores of the Barents Sea, the aggrieved main character is Kolya, a mechanic whose family home and heritage are threatened with eviction by the grasping venal local mayor Vadim who covets the property. The family situation has its own strains as Kolya’s troubled teenage son Roma from a previous marriage fights with Kolya’s wife Lilya.
Kolya seeks out an army buddy, Dmitriy, now a Moscow lawyer, to help him mount a legal defence. Dmitriy (Dima for short) arrives and settles in but it’s clear that the entire authoritarian bureaucratic system, with the court’s convoluted decisions delivered in a robotic monotone, is designed to be stacked against any individual justice. The strings of power are shamelessly manipulated by the sweaty, vodka-swilling mayor whose office meetings are held under a portrait of Putin. Vadim may be a shameless cretin but he has the support of the Russian Orthodox clergy who assure him that “all power comes from God.”
A priest who speaks with Kolya refers him to the biblical Book of Job in which a righteous man suffers great injustice and cries out to the Almighty about his affliction. Like the primeval monsters of the sea in that story, the bleached carcass of a large whale lies prominently along the area’s desolate shore strewn with wreckage. What is Kolya to do up against another Leviathan?
Kolya and his male friends frequently seek solace if not solutions in a vodka bottle, as if being sloshed somehow dulls the pain of living in an unjust world. (Look no further for Russian men’s declining life expectancy!) It’s hard not to be cynical. There’s a great scene where Kolya brings Dima along on a group outing for some shooting practice and someone has brought along portraits of past Soviet/Russian leaders (notably not including Putin) to use instead of bottles as targets.
Kolya’s dilemma is complicated by further misfortune when he finds out that the attractive Dima has been having an affair with Lilya. In a drunken rage he threatens to kill them both. Exit Dima back to Moscow. Then Lilya who becomes distraught disappears. When her body washes up on the shore days later the authorities use circumstantial allegations to railroad Kolya on charges of murder and he receives a lengthy prison sentence. Roma is sent to live with friends of the family.
Kolya loses his land, his house, his wife, his son and his liberty. To add even crueler insult to those injuries we see the house being torn down and replaced by an expensive Orthodox church. The self-satisfied mayor and his family listen to a sermon from the Russian Orthodox leader he considers an ally as the latter extols on the deep religious values of the Russian soul. Could godless Communism have delivered worse irony and hypocrisy?
As a commentary in the Feb. 14 issue of The Economist observes: “Thomas Hobbes could barely imagine what a monster church and state have become.”
The Russian reaction to the film exhibits some interesting contradictions beginning with the fact that it was made with some state support. High praise at the 2014 Cannes festival (awarded best screenplay), a 2015 Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination are a source of pride. But the movie has also been roundly condemned by officials, church figures and conservative pro-Putin forces.
Beyond the acid portrait this Leviathan paints of Russia today, I think it will endure as a great work of art. The story touches on a profound anxiety in the human condition about whether justice will prevail. It’s told starkly through exceptional acting, scenarios and cinematography, entirely without any melodramatic music. This is that rare cinema that needs no embellishments to grab your attention and never let go.