This film, just released in the UK, tells the story of a massacre of about 80 workers by the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police, in the town of Novocherkassk in 1962. The Khrushchev regime had just put up food prices, at a time when there was already great shortages; workers in a giant locomotive factory went on strike, and with the strike spreading to other workplaces, marched on the Communist Party HQ in the town.
While soldiers fired warning shots in the air to stop them occupying the building, KGB snipers on the rooftops opened fire on the crowd. The dead were piled into lorries and driven away, to be secretly buried in other peoples graves in cemeteries around the region. Many other workers were arrested and imprisoned. The blood stains in the town square were covered over with new tarmac. Local musicians were brought in to organise an open air concert and dance on the site of the massacre.
All forms of communication in and out of the town were blocked. All local officials and hospital workers were forced to sign documents preventing them, on pain of death, from revealing what had happened. It’s not hard to see why someone would want to tell the world this story that must still linger in the popular memory of the town.
The film has received rave reviews from film critics. Personally I would describe it as ‘workers murdered by the KGB, exhumed and buried again by film maker for his own benefit.’
What the film does do is show the more or less universal hatred of the working class by the Communist Party members at every level of the state machine, and their utter fear of the workers once they break free from the state control. From the local administrators all the way up to the national leaders, everyone is only concerned with protecting their own skin – though the film director makes some differentiation between the Red Army commanders, who at first refuse to issue ammunition and the KGB, who are the willing killers. The Red Army generals protest that they are only supposed to deal with an external enemy. Mind you, there is a reference to the fact that they had happily just crushed the Hungarian workers’ uprising.
But the problem with the film is that the whole story of the massacre is really just used as a backdrop for the drama of its two main leads – who just happen, Hollywood style, to be good looking. There is a middle aged woman who is a devout party member and part of the local state machine, and a dashing KGB officer.
The woman constantly mourns the death of Stalin and sees all the turmoil as a result of Khrushchev’s policies. When news of the protests are first reported to the Communist Party apparatchiks, she demands that the instigators are executed.
But she shares her home with her Grandad, an old time Cossack, and her teenage daughter who works in the factory, and who it turns out was at the forefront of the protests.
After the massacre her daughter goes missing and the film traces the mother’s efforts to find her body, convinced she is dead. She is helped by a local KGB chief who, one minute is ordering executions and the next is driving the attractive woman around the countryside looking for graves.
The workers who made the protest, who suffered the massacre and resulting repression are just extras, a choreographed backdrop for this melodrama of the mother and daughter and the KGB man with the killer hands but a warm heart.
In style, the film is a curious blend of socialist realism and Hollywood. All the scenes that actually contain the workers are like a 1950’s Hollywood B movie. We start with a scene in a shop where people are jostling with each other to try and get the scarce food items. They helpfully say things like ‘The price of milk’s gone up’. Then we see them marching on the factory management block and being VERY ANGRY, throwing bricks through the window when the Party bureaucrats refuse to come out. They invade the building and come out on the balcony to shout to their comrades below – useful things – like ‘They are drinking Georgian wine and eating salami’.
Then we see them marching on the Town Hall, carrying improbably beautifully made banners and pictures of Lenin.
Then they flee as they are shot, but the fleeing looks more like a ballet than the carnage it must have been.
And that’s it, apart from seeing a room full of medical staff waiting to be forced to sign the non-disclosure deals.
Not once do we actually get to hear any discussion amongst the workers. We don’t see in their homes or work places, we only see them or hear them as film extras being told ‘run here, run there, shout this, shout that’.
The regime was responsible for mass murder and a cover up. It was absolutely anti-working class. I don’t quarrel with the film, because its take on things could really be coming from any present stand point. It could simply be anti-communist or anti Great Russian chauvinism ( the local cossack population had been heavily repressed ) or anything you like to make of it. No, to tell this story doesn’t have to be done from a particular view point to make it worthwhile. but I do think that to use this terrible story as the backdrop for a personal story is a bit much, especially when that personal story is pretty improbable. Sure, the dilemma the woman faced, loyalty to her Stalinist views, loyalty to her party and country, loyalty to her own little privileges against the love of her daughter – must have been a common event. But linking that in with the KGB man with the human touch, is all a bit much. If the film director felt that it was necessary, in conventional film story telling style, to focus on one or two individuals to tell the story – all I can say is that the choice of these individuals is very odd.
We have the massacre and the sight of the dead bodies being carted away, then the scenes of people being rounded up; but after that, all the extras were clearly told to go home, not needed any more. It’s just the working out of the personal dilemma that is followed through. The workers (extras) are just dismissed from view.
Finally the woman finds her daughter is alive, hugs her and says ‘We will do better’.
This end helps hide the memory of the blood, just as the new tarmac did at the time.
To read an account of the events shown in the film go to 1962: The Novocherkassk tragedy (libcom.org). Then you will really see how the film silences the voices of the people who organised the protests and turns them simply into ‘extras’.