Patriotism is not a Modern Dilemma. It is as old as the human settlement itself, however, with changing times, the ferociousness and intensity with which humans pursue it, has evolved drastically. Today, in the name of Patriotism, we are compelled to commit sins and have no repentance. The film, Dear Comrades! underlines the journey of a patriotic woman whose worldview changes as she witnesses the gruesome actions of her own government, to save their reputation. Each frame of the film is a thought in itself and forces you to “review” your political loyalty.
Directed, Co-written, and Produced by Andrei Konchalovsky, Dear Comrades! (Dorogie tovarishchi! in Russian) is a Historical Drama film set in 1962 which showcases the infamous Novocherkassk massacre. The film is shot in monochrome and narrated in the Russian language, but the understanding and resonation of the film are global. Before turning to what makes the film, Dear Comrades! an important and necessary cinema, let’s dig deep into its structure.
Lyudmila Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya), often referred to as Lyudmila in the film, is a party worker of the local city committee in the city of Novocherkassk. Lyudmila is a widower who stays with her father and young-adult daughter Svetka in a small apartment. From the very beginning, the film establishes the conflict which is the increasing price of rations in the city due to reforms by the socialist government. However, Lyudmila is a loyal communist and she blames the new party for the increase in prices, she is a Stalin, at heart.
The city and its people are already under grinding pressure when suddenly in Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant, the authority announces changes in the worker’s wage rate. A final blow in the coffin creates a rift among workers who announces a mass strike in the city.
Government Commission unable to control the mutiny, plots KGB and the Army near the factories and city borders, but a wrong move by KGB leads to the shooting of the workers in the peaceful protest, leading to confusion and chaos. In this disarray, Lyudmila’s daughter, Svetka, who worked in the same factory and was a part of the protest, goes missing. Lyudmila tries with all her might to find her missing daughter and know her fate, whether she is just missing or dead.
Desecration to save Reputation
In a simple narrative, what is alarming is the inhumanity of one’s government. In the very first scene, when Lyudmila is discussing price rates, the other man quotes, “Party words are the law. You don’t get to discuss them.” A simple and very straightforward line during the initial build-up, but I never thought this will define the theme of the entire narrative of the film, Dear Comrades!
After the mass strike, the Government Commission takes exercise power to stop the information of the strike to go out of the city. They take horrendous measures to blanket their shortcomings. The government, with the help of the army and KGB, blocks the city borders, disrupts all radio interferences, monitors all phone calls and letters, and whatnot.
Though, it’s not the end to their barbarity. In the official meeting with the army, the government officials make it clear that they would sanction any measure to stop the workers (whom they referred to as hooligans). The army chief interrupted the thought by declaring, “The goal of the army is to protect the country from outside enemies.” Comrade secretary shuts the army chief down, hinting that he will be a traitor for not following orders.
After the mass shooting, each worker, doctor, priest, gravedigger, the official is compelled to sign a “pledge of secrecy” so this massacre is never discussed nor the information leaves the city. The government tried its best to erase the events of 1 June 1962 and 2nd June 1962.
“The fact that we live in Socialism is also classified.”
A Protagonist in Dubiety
Doubt is the most beautiful of all the emotions displayed on the screen. It is a two-way feeling which can either lead to a character’s pursuit of clarity or her downfall towards darkness. In Dear Comrades! Lyudmila Syomina has total trust in communism. Her patriotism shakes after the massacre watching the inability of the government to follow what they preach. Though it was not only the event that saw her patriotism but the involvement of her own daughter in the protest. Thus, a protagonist in a dilemma, a mother who can’t decide between her daughter and her motherland.
In a party meeting, Lyudmila, a staunch communist demands the arrest of the protestors. Words spoken in haste, she didn’t know what it would lead to. Later, Lyudmila blames herself for speaking for such violent measures, which might have become the cause of the massacre, involving her own daughter. Thus, the narrative is not trying to defend the protagonist, it is not even trying to showcase Lyudmila as a sensible being. She is an enthusiastic patriotic who understands the deeper meaning of being an extremist after her own daughter suffers the fate of Lyudmila’s words. A poetic swing of events, indeed.
Another remarkable layer explored through Lyudmila is the subtextual change of patriotism. The whole film encompasses a patriotic song, “Oh comrade, my comrade, protect your Motherland at all costs”. It is first heard on the television after the massacre so as to remind the citizens what greater duty they have towards the state. However, Lyudmila on her journey to find her missing daughter chants the lyrics whenever her ideals are dwelling. When she learns that her daughter is dead, she chants the same lyrics, but with each word spoken out, the meaning and feeling for her changes drastically. Julia Vysotskaya pulled off a tremendously impacting performance that is in itself a masterclass in acting. In a scene, where she says, “What I am supposed to believe in if not communism?” it makes the viewers question their own extremism towards their nation and nationality. Are you still fighting for a cause or just ideals you were preached? We should protect our motherland but will our motherland protect us or just kill us for speaking the truth? Individual Freedom is HOAX.
“If Sholokhov of yours had written the truth, nobody would have known he ever existed. They’d send him away somewhere or even execute along with the others.”
The film, Dear Comrades! should not be missed. It is an important addition to the dying breed of films that we have stopped watching. It is thought-provoking and plays on many different layers that every cinephile should put his/her thoughts on. Each frame, text, and subtext will remind you of the events of the recent past we know of. Its resemblance is ironic and uncanny and we should be very afraid of the fact because it is these films that remind us, as humans, we are just repairing the horrifying history. We should not fall trap to it and evolve into a better human before a patriot. For extremism in any form is lethal.
Dear Comrades! (film) is available for Video on Demand.
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