Red Army is a documentary by Gabe Polsky that follows Soviet hockey legend Slava Fetisov and a small core of players through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union’s world-dominating hockey program and into the present day. It was released to a handful of theaters around the country in February and was released for streaming last week. So far it’s gotten a ton of good reviews and some awards from various film festivals and I’m going to have to add myself to the list of people who give it a thumbs up.
As a hockey player and a Cold War history aficionado, I figured this would be something that would interest me. A lot of what happened behind the iron curtain is still shrouded in a little bit of mystery and Red Army shines some light on the day-to-day life of the players, the characters involved and the bureaucracy of the system they played for.
Russia is kind of synonymous with hockey these days. There’s a shitload of players in the NHL from Russia and they’re always a force to be reckoned with in the Olympics. The Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League only plays second fiddle to the NHL in the world. Hell, Russian President Vladimir Putin plays hockey (and even recently scored eight goals in one game!) and is a huge advocate for participation in the sport.
Although they’ve taken the sport and ran with it, hockey is relatively young in Russia when compared to North America and Europe. The sport was introduced in the 1920’s by the Soviet government and then put on a bit of a hiatus due to some other events, like wars, five year plans and purges. Hockey was picked back up with a vengeance once the dust settled and in no time at all they were dominating the world of international hockey. As the legend goes, they just had a mile-high idea of what hockey was supposed to be like and someone acquired an international rulebook and the Soviets filled in the gaps in isolation and came up with a system of hockey that valued teamwork, creativity and finesse. Red Army picks up the story from here, focusing on Slava Fetisov’s experiences during the rise of the Soviet hockey program then the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
They didn’t exactly have professional hockey as we know it today, but they did have teams that were representative of factions of the government and worker’s collectives. Even today some of the names of the teams in the KHL carry this legacy – Spartak, Lokomotiv, SKA St Petersburg, CSKA Moscow, etc. The focus of the documentary is CSKA (Central Sporting Club of the Army) Moscow, which was the team that represented the Red Army and was made up of soldiers. Here’s the catch: In a country with forced conscription, the best hockey players were inducted into the Army and put on the team. So not only did CSKA Moscow get first crack at talent, they were able to keep them within the system and develop chemistry between the players at levels beyond that of Western teams where the individual players have a lot of mobility and the makeup of teams can change drastically from year to year. Because CSKA wasn’t technically a professional team, the players were allowed to compete in the Olympics and the Soviet Olympic roster was overwhelmingly comprised of CSKA Moscow players.
Fetisov, charmingly combative and gruff with the interviewer, takes the viewer back to his early childhood days of hockey in the 1950’s. They had plenty of ice in the Soviet Union, but everything else was at a premium. His parents had to save and shrewdly acquire gear for young Slava off the black market but he showed enough talent to eventually get accepted into a youth program sponsored by CSKA Moscow that groomed young players for the possibility of landing a spot on the team.
The documentary ties the rise of the Soviet team with the rise of the Soviet Union on the world stage. They built atom bombs, put a man into space, socialism began to spread in the world, they controlled an empire that stretched from deep into Central Europe all the way to a few miles off the coast of Alaska….and started racking up medals in hockey. They felt pretty good about themselves in the decades following World War II and they definitely counted their meteoric rise in the world of hockey as a feather in their ushanka. There’s even a clip where an exasperated Wayne Gretzky, representing Team Canada, throws his hands up and says “we just can’t compete with these guys”. It must’ve been very unnerving for Canadian (and American, for that matter) hockey fans to see “the Great One” make a statement like that.
Although their success seemed unshakable, the documentary focuses on the cost that the individual players paid for it. Notorious CSKA Moscow/USSR Olympic coach Viktor Tikhonov is by all accounts painted as a complete asshole by his players that demanded of them strenuous training eleven months of the year and a highly regimented life in a military-style barracks. They knew of the disparity in standard of living between the Soviet Union and the West due to visits. At one point in the documentary they ask Fetisov about the differences between the players that comprised the core of CSKA Moscow. He kept insisting that “we’re all the same”. By that he meant that these guys weren’t able to pursue much else besides hockey and just about everything they ever did was done collectively. There wasn’t any room for anything else.
The American viewer will probably go into this documentary with the 1980 Olympics in mind, that event isn’t dwelt upon in Red Army but it is acknowledged that it was a low point for them. Speaking of low points, this was approximately the time when Fetisov and company really started questioning if the personal sacrifices were worth it and cynicism and apathy crept into their ranks, although they continued to be a powerhouse right through the collapse of the Soviet Union and beyond.
I thought the most interesting thing about this documentary and their story is that Fetisov and company were always missing something throughout their hockey career. The irony that they had the most creative system of hockey within the most oppressive system off the ice has been pointed out many times. They enjoyed professional success and favor beyond that of the typical Soviet citizen, but they paid dearly for it by being pushed to their limits eleven months out of the year – the simple life of the average Soviet citizen would’ve looked pretty damn appealing at times. When they finally obtained freedom and riches beyond their wildest dreams by signing NHL contracts, they found it difficult to adjust to the individualistic and physical North American style of play and socially shunned. While they didn’t miss the Soviet bureaucracy, they missed their native Russia. They had developed into such a cohesive unit throughout their trials and tribulations in CSKA Moscow and the USSR Olympic team that it was hard for them to function as individuals without each other.
Style-wise, there’s nothing to complain about. They picked some good people to interview, found some good stock footage of the players training, playing and even a bit of “letting their hair down” during offtime. I got a chuckle out of the way Fetisov bulldogs the interviewer throughout the documentary and I thought it was cool when they would show a name they would throw it up in Cyrillic first then it would fade to English. I would’ve liked for them to spend a little bit more time on the history of hockey in the USSR and the system they created, but they did show some great examples of the results – the plays these guys could make were mind boggling. It’s definitely worth checking out. I also predict that after watching this, Andrew Curiel will spend the offseason doing somersaults in his living room.
Get it off Amazon here: