The Berlin Wall fell shortly before I was born. Despite the deeply entrenched paranoia engendered by the Cold War that led to that world-shaking event, I managed never to learn about the real effects that the subcutaneous conflict had on people outside of the United States. To me, the Cold War was apple-cheeked white kids huddling underneath their desks to hide from the nuclear bomb that was inevitably going to destroy them all. But as far as Americans were concerned, it was business as usual at home: we were a superpower and, for many of us, that meant that we got to live in the utmost comfort.
Over in the Soviet Union, however, things were different. A lot different. As the main subject of Red Army describes, you could buy fish only once a week in the Soviet Union. "Fish Thursdays," he called it with a rueful grin. It was that kind of universal poverty (save for the folks at the tippity top of the food chain) that was de rigeur in the USSR at the time. So folks played hockey instead; thankfully, with the enthusiastic endorsement of Josef Stalin himself. The national obsession with the sport is the target of documentarian Gabe Polsky, who seeks primarily to capture what it was like to live in that country at the time.
For much of the film, Polsky succeeds. He begins by describing the socio-political climate of the USSR post-World War II, with Vyacheslav "Slava" Fetisov serving as his narrative focal point. We first see Fetisov rudely staring at his phone—and then making a call—while Polsky lobs questions at him. This bizarrely arrogant behavior is contradicted when we quickly learn that Fetisov grew up extremely poor in the Soviet Union, an unlucky recipient of the evils of Soviet Communism. He, like many other boys his age (ladies get short shrift in this doc), played hockey to escape the doldrums of daily living. But Fetisov was good, really good. As in, join-the-national-team-at-sixteen good. Along with four other stellar players from the USSR, Fetisov's rise and fall and rise again are charted with the history of modern Russia.
Polsky demonstrates a deep affection and understanding about his subject. He clearly has been invested in this project for years, which is evinced by the prodigious amount of highly specific archive footage (although a few shots are repeated quite obviously), as well as the extensive backlog of interviews Polsky conducted. His subjects are the talented, impatient international superstars of hockey who, despite grievous mistreatment on the part of their home country, still cling to a sense of national identity and pride. When Polsky even remotely comes close to sounding critical of the Soviet Union, Fetisov and his countrymen either cut him off or dismiss his question as "not a real question." This shared impulse is perhaps more telling than any amount of demonstration of forced nationalism that Stalin imposed upon his people. The hockey team was called the "Red Army" for a reason: they were completely indoctrinated by their country.
Unfortunately, the caginess of Polsky's subjects can make it difficult to learn everything that we'd like to about their past. They seem to be interested only in discussing the positive aspects of their careers: only a single, admittedly crushing loss is ever talked about in the film. Polsky seems to be a bit too meek of an interviewer to get all the juicy details we'd like to hear. Just when things seem to be really bad for the team (their coach, Viktor Tikhonov, abused them in about every way imaginable), the film swerves away, and focuses on another victory of theirs. Despite the film's very brief, 76-minute runtime, it can feel repetitive in sections, because we are not allowed to delve too much farther below the surface.
As I mentioned before, I am clueless about Soviet history, and so I was fascinated by even the simpler details touched upon in Red Army. For a Soviet history buff, this film may not be particularly eye-opening; same goes for hockey fans. But if you were just as in the dark as I was about this country's checkered history before seeing this film, it merits a look.