What is the price of success? What sacrifices do you have to make to be the best? These questions are at the center of Red Army (2014), Gabe Polsky’s fascinating documentary about the Soviet Union’s legendary Red Army hockey team. Polsky uses present day interviews and archival footage to chronicle the team’s establishment in the ‘40s, its peak in the ‘80s with the Russian Five, and its struggle to survive after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ‘90s. The film connects Soviet Union sports with politics, and persuasively argues that the history of the hockey team has parallels to the broader history of the nation.
In 1946, Joseph Stalin founded the Red Army hockey team to assert Soviet superiority in the West. The players featured in the film, Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Vladimir Krutov, were members of the famous Russian Five. As the film shows, their exceptional playing was inspired by Anatoli Tarasov, “the father of Russian hockey”, whose innovative training program derived from ballet and chess. Tarasov’s approach to hockey prioritized teamwork over individualism, and according to journalist Lawrence Martin, he made hockey an art form.
Polsky briefly highlights this early history, but for the most part, he focuses on the team’s leadership under Viktor Tikhonov in the ‘80s. Tikhonov led the team to eight world championships and three Olympic gold medals over the course of his long career. He is criticized in the film for his harsh treatment of the players.
After the Red Army lost to the United States in the now iconic “Miracle on Ice” 1980 Olympic Games, Tikhonov rebuilt the team to great success, but at a significant cost. The players were forced to live in a barracks for 11 months of the year, and they practiced at least four times a day. They barely saw their families, and didn’t have social lives. These harsh living conditions call attention to the Soviet Union’s general failure to care for its citizens under its rule. As Fetisov candidly says at one point in the film, “It was a conflict between human being and the system called communism.” Fetisov is Polsky’s primary interview subject, and his stories guide the film’s direction.
Fetisov’s dissatisfaction raises a number of thought-provoking questions about the price of greatness. There’s no doubt that Tikhonov was a successful coach, and that his Red Army team was the greatest of its era. World dominance was Stalin’s goal, and Tikhonov delivered in spades. However, as Fetisov’s testimony shows, the players were miserable under Tikhonov’s rule, and many of them left in the late ‘80s as a result of his dictatorial coaching style. Is it possible to achieve greatness with a less totalitarian coaching style, or is this the price players must pay to be the best?
During Perestroika, the Soviet Union suffered economically, and the government could no longer afford to fund sports programs. To compensate, the government sold players to NHL teams for a substantial profit. Most players didn’t care that the majority of their earnings were sent back to the Soviet Union because they preferred the freedom of the US. Fetisov refused. Although he desired to leave the Soviet Union, he wouldn’t give his money to the government. The film powerfully shows the suffering he and his family faced during this period as a result of his resistance. After much protest, Soviet authorities gave in, and Fetisov joined the NHL in 1989 with a full salary.
In retrospect, Fetisov isn’t enthusiastic about his experience with the NHL. Unlike the Red Army, Fetisov says, the NHL teams lacked structure and discipline. Whereas the Red Army stressed fundamentals and teamwork, the NHL was all about individual superstardom. This dichotomy between the collective and the individual is, in many ways, the ideological difference between the Soviet Union and the US.
Fetisov’s wry sense of humor is infectious, and makes the film funnier than it has any right to be. Polsky occasionally gets serious, such as when Fetisov describes his attempts to leave the Red Army. At one point, a Soviet official threatened to send Fetisov to a Serbian prison if he didn’t comply with the government. These were the harsh realities of the Soviet Union, and they explain why many of its best hockey players abandoned their home country for the US when given the chance.
And yet, despite these challenges, a number of former Soviet players including Fetisov returned to Russia years later. Vladimir Putin appointed Fetisov to be Minister of Sport after the 2002 Winter Olympics. Fetisov has since been incredibly supportive of Putin’s regime. Most viewers will be surprised to find that Fetisov refers to his time in the Red Army as the best years of his life. Although it’s unclear what drives Fetisov’s patriotism, it’s fair to say that his terrible time with the NHL brought him closer to his home country, and healed much of the animosity he had toward the Soviet Union when he left.
The Blu-ray comes with a number of interesting special features, including an informative commentary by Polsky and executive producer Werner Herzog. In addition, there are deleted scenes, an interview with former Hockey coach Scotty Bowman, and a Q & A with Polsky and former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Those familiar with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series will notice significant similarities between the episode “Of Miracles and Men” and Red Army. In my view, Polsky’s documentary is more ambitious and comprehensive, despite its shorter running time.
Red Army works as an engaging history lesson and an entertaining sports documentary. Die-hard hockey fans who lived through the Red Army’s dominance will certainly love the film, but a prior understanding of the sport or Soviet Union history is unnecessary. At just 85 minutes, Red Army feels like a sprawling epic for the entire family, and it should be required viewing for any serious cinephile, sports lover, and student of history.