Many Americans will most likely only know of the Soviet hockey program in the context of the famous U.S. defeat of the Soviet Union national team during the 1980 Olympics, in an upset famously dubbed the “Miracle on Ice.” A corrective of sorts, Gabe Polsky’s documentary Red Army provides a history of hockey in Russia—not just about the sport, but about political maneuvering and how it affected the country’s hockey players on a personal level.
This wider purview is apt given that this national sports program was conceived back in the 1950s as a way of propagandistically extolling the virtues of communism to the outside world. Polsky draws sharp connections between moves made behind the scenes and their underlying political implications. Even the chess-like style of play enforced by the Russian team’s first coach, Anatoly Tarasov, was, one talking-head expert suggests, an extension of the communist collectivist philosophy of teamwork. After that stunning 1980 Olympics defeat, however, new coach Viktor Tikhonov completely rebuilt the team and proceeded to disenchant the remaining hangers-on with his dictatorial style, leading many to either defect to the U.S. or quit altogether. Polsky’s overarching insight is to suggest the ways in which developments in the Russian hockey program aligned closely with those in its political history, with initial excitement of change giving way to increasing economic ruin and personal disillusionment.
Ultimately, though, Polsky’s focus is less on the historical and political than it is on the personal. Much of the Soviet hockey program’s history is illuminated through the perspective of Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, the former hockey superstar at the center of Red Army. From his precocious success in the late 1970s under Tarasov, through the increasingly untenable lifestyle he was forced to adopt during the ’80s under Tikhonov’s hardline reign, to his eventual hard-fought move to the United States, Fetisov struggled to maintain his passion for the sport through thick and thin. As a result, the documentary functions as an archetypal sports-movie tale of a man attempting to hold onto his dreams amid overwhelming odds.
But Red Army distinguishes itself from most sports movies with its bracingly nuanced view of national identity. If the Olympic Games tend to encourage an extremely nationalistic perspective in players and fans, Polsky, through Fetisov’s story, discovers the gray areas in playing for one’s country—especially when it feels as if you’re treated as little more than a tool to prop up your home country’s status. And yet, homesickness still befell Fetisov even after he fled Russia for the United States. Though he would later be joined in the U.S. by some of his fellow Russian players as part of what turned out to be a sizable mass exodus of Eastern European hockey players for the National Hockey League, Fetisov was never fully able to shake off the shadow of his mother country, even after it ceased to be known as the Soviet Union. Polsky presents his resulting move after retiring from the NHL—returning to Russia to take on a position as the country’s sports minister—with a mixture of bitter irony and humane empathy. In light of Vladimir Putin’s recent antagonism of both Ukraine and the world at large, one could accuse Fetisov of aiding “the enemy” with his return, but Polsky’s quiet yet welcome achievement is to allow us to see the individual amid the politics, clearly and sympathetically.