In the former Soviet Union, the Red Army hockey team fueled national pride and propaganda.
“Red Army,” a fascinating documentary that centers primarily upon Viachaslav “Slava” Fetisov, the Soviet Olympic gold-winning team’s captain, is dramatic, amusing and tragic.
More than a sports story, “Red Army” explains Soviet culture and history. Freedom and creativity, as practiced in the sport of hockey, existed within one of history’s most repressive societies.
“Red Army” director Gabe Polsky’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. When he was growing up in democratic America, his parents said little about life under Communist rule. But when Polsky was a 13-year-old hockey player, a coach from the Soviet Union introduced him to Soviet-style hockey.
Polsky’s knowledge of Soviet hockey informs “Red Army” in revealing ways. Footage of Soviet-schooled players, including Fetisov’s teams, shows how superior they were to U.S. and Canadian hockey teams. The team-oriented Soviets practiced the art of hockey, unlike their graceless, individual-centric competition.
“Red Army” opens with the pre-president Ronald Reagan. “It is sheer folly for us not to make every conceivable preparation to win,” Reagan says in a black-and-white clip.
In the Soviet Union during the Cold War that Fetisov says he’s never heard of, the Red Army hockey team made every preparation to win. Hockey, and sports in general, was a proxy for war.
Fetisov comes off as an honest guy who reveals the good, the bad and the ugly. From a western vantage point, the not-so-good includes a childhood during which Fetisov’s family shared a 400-square-foot, waterless apartment with two other families.
Those living conditions didn’t matter to the future hockey star, a native of Moscow born in 1958. “I was happy kid,” he says. “I play game. I play hockey.”
After the Soviets made hockey a national priority, 9-year-old Fetisov was ready to be cultivated for sports glory. National hockey team players were automatically members of the Red Army.
The intriguing characters who appear in the documentary include the grand old man of Soviet hockey, Anatoli Vladimirovitch Tarasov. He fostered invention, dancelike movements and ensemble work. If Tarasov was the team’s fairy grandfather, replacement coach Viktor Tikhonov was its evil stepfather.
“Red Army” includes behind-the-scenes Soviet political drama, betrayal by one brother hockey player of another, chilling repression and suffering. Most of the suffering involves the brutal Tikhonov. But there’s also Fetisov and his teammates’ victories and their bonded in sweat and blood brotherhood.
“Red Army” didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It deserved one.