One reason why Americans thought that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic was a formidable Cold War opponent during the 1980s and that the Cold War might never end had to do with the preeminence of the hockey team from the USSR. During the decade, we kept our fallout shelters operational and President Reagan dreamed that a Star Wars missile shield and ramped up defense spending would contain or even defeat “the evil empire.”
The Soviets told us that the superiority of its hockey team in international competition was a clear indication of the superiority of the Soviet system and way of life. Clear-eyed analysts knew that the USSR was rotting from within and that citizen discontent was high. Yet, because the hockey team was gobbling up opponents, for many Americans it was near unthinkable to predict that by the end of the decade the Berlin Wall would fall and two years later the USSR would dissolve.
Put aside the “miracle on ice,” the US hockey team’s stunning defeat of the Soviet team at the Lake Placid Olympics. It was a fluke. A “friendly match” played a few weeks before the Olympics, a game in which the Soviets won handily 10-3, was more indicative of the imbalance between the teams. A year later in the Canada Cup, the Russians defeated the hosts in the final game 8-1 and had an aggregate 42-5 record against all tournament competition. They would win the gold medal at the 1984 games in Sarajevo and, at the end of the decade, when allowed to play against North American professional clubs, they easily triumphed.
But all was not well. National heroes wanted to test their skills in North America and a tyrannical coach, appointed by the Politburo, only fueled the desire to escape the coercive obedience of the system and the burden of representing an entire society that was coming apart at the seams. Across the decade the idealism of youthful players who once uncritically embraced their ambassadorship waned. Star players, many born into the poverty of 1950s post-war Russia and eager for advancement, had a taste of international acclaim but were only paid a modest wage set by the Red Army of which they were members, privileged members but nevertheless.
Gabe Polsky’s 2014 documentary film Red Army, nominated for an Academy Award and now available on DVD, traces this story of sports and culture principally through the magnificent career of Slava Fetisov. According to some hockey historians, Fetisov is the best defenseman ever to play the game. Surrounded by brilliant teammates who made up the “Russian Five” and coached by the grandfatherly Anatoly Tarasov, this unit established a style of hockey based on superb conditioning, fast skating, brilliant short passing, and absolute familiarity with the patterns and choices of teammates. Tarasov love of chess and ballet (two other cultural priorities of the Russians) resulted in hockey that was cerebral in its execution and beautiful in its fluid movements. The Red Army style made the National Hockey League “hit and be hit” style look primitive. There were no “enforcers” on the Red Army team.
The companionship formed during the team’s early development under Tarasov sustained the team through the administration of the martinet Viktor Tikhonov. Tikhonov insisted upon total devotion to the mission; players could spend only one month with wives and children.
Fetisov, the representative man, is the documentary’s principal witness to history. He is now a high ranking Minister of Sport, having return to his native land even after exposure to the wonders of American consumerism and winning, with the help of five other Russian players, the Stanley Cup for Detroit in 1997. He looks back over his 23 year career as a hockey player with self-congratulation for what he has accomplished, with disdain for the Soviet political hierarchy who tried to block his departure for the West through physical intimidation, and with sadness for having been the driver of a car in which his much younger brother was killed due to Fetisov’s neglect.
He’s a proud man whose greatest off-ice accomplishment might have been standing up to the Ministry of Culture that would permit him to play for an NFL club but only on the provision that it keep the lion’s share of his salary. He stands his ground and the authorities finally relent. Yet, he never once thought about defecting, even when some of his teammates did so.
The story of the failed efforts of Mikhail Gorbachev to re-engineer and save the Soviet system is a familiar one. Polsky’s film, which explores the inter-relationships between sport, culture, and political life, provides a slightly different angle on the dissolution of the empire. His portrait of this modest but proud and ethical man makes one wonder how such a person will fare in Putin’s kleptocracy. There’s a hint that he can weave his way through today’s political opponents (an intrepid interviewers like Polsky) as well as he avoided hockey opponents. He knows when to attack and when to cautiously pass the puck back to the goalkeeper.
One also wonders whether the Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP in the 2015 Stanley Cup, knows very much about Slava Fetisov.