I confess to feeling a certain nervousness when confronted with Western mainstream media pieces about Soviet and Russian hockey. I have read far too many that are sanctimonious, condescending, just plain wrong, or some ugly combination of those elements. Not all of them, of course, are that way, but enough are that I did experience a mixed feeling or two when I first heard about American film-maker Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army, about CSKA Moscow (the “Red Army” team of the title) and the Soviet national hockey program in the 1980s. Well, I recently got the opportunity to watch the film, and — long story short — I need not have worried. Red Army is a beautiful movie, and you, dear reader, should watch it.
More thoughts on it below (and some spoilers, so be warned)!
The film is basically the story of the “Green Unit,” so-named due to the colour of their practice jerseys. This was the CSKA quintet of Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov, and Vyacheslav Fetisov who dominated hockey both at home and in international play throughout the 1980s. Red Army discusses their early careers together, but focuses particularly on the players’ conflict with Soviet authorities during the latter days of the USSR, and on their eventual migration to North America and the NHL. This makes it a bittersweet sort of tale; while the players of the Green Unit paved the way for the numerous excellent Soviet and Russian players who would follow them to the National Hockey League, they paid a heavy, heavy, price to do so, and their move overseas marked the end of one of the great hockey assemblages of all time. And of course there is the fact that the place to which some of them later returned was quite literally a different country than the one on whose behalf they had played and won so much. Red Army does a fine job of guiding us through it all, and finishes by catching up with its main characters and what they are up to these days.
It is Fetisov, captain of both CSKA and the Soviet national team, who is at the centre of the story as Polsky presents it, and it’s a good choice given the former defenseman’s vibrant personality. Fetisov is presented in various moods throught the film; he is by turns irritable, nostalgic, cheerful, egotistical, deeply funny, belligerent, and I could go on. He is also intensely likable in a strange sort of way, and completely unafraid to speak his mind — in short, a most compelling subject for an interview. Fetisov does most of the talking in the film, but we also hear from his wife Lada Fetisova, his former line-mates Krutov and Kasatonov (Larionov and Makarov, interestingly, are absent), the great Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretyak, and others.
There is a clear-cut bad guy in the piece, and it is CSKA and Soviet national team coach Viktor Tikhonov. Tikhonov, who died this past winter, is portrayed as viciously authoritarian, dishonest, and downright cruel to his players, while being obsequious towards his political superiors and undeservedly benefiting from the hockey-related efforts of those who came before him. Polsky is probably guilty of laying it on a bit thick here; while Tikhonov certainly did inherit the wonderful system built by Anatoly Tarasov rather than construct it himself, he was nonetheless a fine hockey coach in his own right. That said, he was also unquestionably a difficult and even awful person at times, and Fetisov’s anger and contempt for him ring loud and clear even after so many years (Tikhonov, who was still alive at the time Red Army was made, declined to be interviewed for the film).
If there is a hero of the tale apart from Fetisov and his line-mates, it is probably the afore-mentioned Tarasov, whose work in the 1960s on training methods and tactics has deservedly earned him the sobriquet “Father of Russian Hockey.” He is presented as an almost diametrical opposite to Tikhonov in every way, and again we must be wary of a certain lack of nuance in the portrayal — Tarasov could be every bit as harsh and dictatorial as his eventual successor was. However, there is truth in the contrast between the two men as well. Unlike Tikhonov, Tarasov had no qualms at all about opposing the higher-ups, a trait that eventually cost him his job as coach of CSKA and the national team in the early 1970s. He would emerge from retirement, as the film shows, to play a very interesting role in Fetisov’s story.
Red Army is full of excellent moments. On such involves Fetisov grinning broadly after of a brief montage of Canadian commentators dismissing the Soviet team’s chances before a tournament (the USSR swept the event). Kasatonov’s awkward and emotional unwillingness to answer questions about the now-healed rift between him and Fetisov, his former defense partner, is another example. For me, however, the most poignant images in the film come from Polsky’s interview with Vladimir Krutov. Krutov looks ill, unhappy, and worn out — he passed away not long after the interview was recorded — and we can readily believe that those far-off days with CSKA were the the most pleasant of his life (he had a truly miserable time of it in North America). These vignettes play a major part in making Red Army the compelling piece of viewing that it is.
And then, of course, there is the hockey itself. It is easy to forget how unbelievably good the Green Unit was during its heyday, and what an otherworldly thing those players were for North American audiences in those pre-internet days. Polsky, happily, provides us with copious reminders, and there are some magnificent old clips in the film. The passing game of Larionov, Fetisov, et al. was so skillful as to be, bizarrely, almost comical — one goal shown in the film, scored by Krutov against the Edmonton Oilers during a Super Series game, is so stunning that it temporarily reduces one of the Canadian commentators to rapturous incoherence. It is gorgeous, gorgeous, stuff, and Fetisov’s disdain for the type of hockey he found when he arrived in the NHL is easy to comprehend in this context.
If I have a complaint about Red Army, it is that, in the interests of moving the story along, it does not delve deeply enough into some areas. As mentioned above, the character of Viktor Tikhonov is deserving of a less simplistic examination than the one we get. However, I do not believe that this in an attempt on the director’s part to mislead his audience. The aspect of Tikhonov that is important to Fetisov’s story is the aspect that was horrible (and it genuinely was horrible), so that is where the film goes. Red Army might also benefit from more historical context, particularly in terms of the USSR’s domestic hockey set-up. Who were CSKA’s rivals at home, and what did they think of the emigration of the country’s biggest hockey stars? However, given what the film is attempting to get through in a reasonable run-time, these are minor quibbles rather than major irritations.
In short, then, Red Army is a splendid documentary, an excellent telling of an intriguing and occasionally heart-breaking tale. I would recommend it heartily, even to those who are not die-hard hockey fans. And as a final note about Fetisov, we learned last week that the latest chapter in his hockey story is just beginning; he has been appointed to the Executive Board of the Kontinental Hockey League.