Ironic Stalinism is making a bit of a comeback on social media among idiots who fancy themselves to be on the left and choose to find something amusingly unconventional about celebrating a mass murderer writes Andy Stowe.
The superb new Russian film Dear Comrades directed by Andrey Konchalovskiy, which is now streaming on Curzon and is being entered for this year’s Oscars, gives a flavour of what Stalinism really was and how it endures in regimes like Putin’s and Assad’s.
In 1962 factory workers in the Russian city of Novocherkassk went on strike and marched peacefully into the city centre, bearing portraits of Lenin, to lobby the local government about wage cuts of one third and price rises. KGB snipers murdered twenty-six of them, their bodies were dispersed across the region in unmarked graves and everyone who witnessed the events had to swear a legal document which meant they would be executed for talking about what they had seen. A KGB officer explains “these people have to be forgotten”.
At the film’s heart is the incomprehension of Lyudmila, a decorated veteran of World War Two, who now holds a position roughly equal to a cabinet member in your local council. Played by Yuliya Vysotskaya she gets some of the perks of being a bureaucrat. Her flat is luxurious by Soviet standards; while the town’s working class are panic buying salt, matches and milk she is taken to the back of the store and given everything she needs. “Temporary hardship” is reserved for the workers and right till the end she harks back to the time when life was good and prices were low under Stalin.
Her eighteen-year-old daughter Svetka joins the protests. She believes the empty words of the Soviet constitution about freedom and how the army cannot shoot the people. She shocks her mother by saying “Stalin was a dictator who shouldn’t be put next to Lenin.” So successful was the Soviet bureaucracy at making its people forget, that the alternatives offered by Trotsky or Bukharin aren’t even an historical reference point for Lyuda or the workers. It is left to the grandfather to offer an alternative Russia. He takes long-hidden religious icons out of a trunk and puts on his old Tsarist military uniform.
Nikita Khrushchev, the relatively liberal Soviet leader, was in charge at the time. He had made criticisms of Stalin but hadn’t done anything to undo the bureaucracy’s control of society. So, when the protests start the Communist Party closes ranks and works out a plan to smash the workers’ revolt. A day or two after the event the Young Communists hold a festival on the square where it happened. They were literally dancing on the blood of the working class.
Lyuda, the Stalinist who’d called for the workers and protesters to be shot, is transformed into the mother trying to dig up what might be the site of her daughter’s unmarked grave asking, “how is this possible”? Her Stalinism was the very thing that made her unable to understand it. Earlier in the film another bureaucrat had wrestled
with the same problem, blurting out “a f**king strike in our socialist community! How is this possible?”
Dear Comrades! is an impressive memorial to the memory of those Stalinism wanted to erase from history. Slandering the 2500 Hungarians they’d murdered a few years earlier as fascists hadn’t worked and secrecy seemed a better policy. Indirectly it’s also a memorial to those Syrians murdered secretly and slandered by Assad using techniques learned from the KGB.