“Dear Comrades!” is inspired by a true story: It takes place over a few days in 1962 in the city of Novocherkassk, Russia, where the Khrushchev Kremlin has just announced hikes in food prices at the same time that industrial workers are ordered to increase their production quotas. Employees at a locomotive plant go on strike, resulting in two days of unrest and government crackdown, ultimately ending in a massacre at the hands of the KGB. Kept secret for 30 years, the episode was finally brought to light in the 1990s.
Konchalovsky’s Virgil through the events in Novocherkassk is a communist party functionary named Lyuda (Julia Vysotskaya), who came of age during World War II and still idolizes Stalin. Her rebellious daughter Svetka (Julia Burova), who works at the factory where the uprising starts, isn't nearly as reverent when it comes to her country's elder statesmen; when her mother orders her to stop hanging around with “hooligans,” Svetka has the temerity to suggest that they live in a democracy, with attendant freedoms of speech and assembly. Lyuda’s father, who lives with the two women, passes his time smoking and dressing up in his Cossack uniform, dreaming of the good old pre-Soviet days.
The ideological diversity of Lyuda’s household alone guarantees that “Dear Comrades!” will present a multifaceted lens on a chapter of Soviet history that, while shameful in substance and its subsequent erasure, contained within it so many political contradictions (embodied by Lyuda with agonizing poignancy). For audiences who delighted in Armando Iannucci’s delightfully scabrous satire “The Death of Stalin,” Konchalovsky’s less antic version of history arrives less as a corrective (Iannucci was actually pretty faithful to the facts, his interpretive license notwithstanding) than a continuation: Here we see a Soviet Union still proud of winning the war, reeling from Stalin-era famines and genocides, hopeful about a genuinely fair and just future and equally wary of authorities and those who question them.
Filmed in black-and-white with the boxy aspect ratio of the Mosfilm era it depicts, “Dear Comrades!” looks sensational: Konchalovsky has obviously taken pains with his casting (he went out of his way to hire unknown actors, the better to sink viewers into the story) and composition. Miraculously, his attention to detail never feels fussy or fetishistic. He's just as thoughtful in his approach to an episode that is both tragic and absurd. “Dear Comrades!” always tiptoes to the edge of parody, without ever tumbling in. Konchalovsky does an exceptionally capable job of restaging the massacre itself, especially during a wrenching sequence of desperation and random death that he films almost entirely through a beauty shop window while a government-run radio station plays inspirational music to the very workers it’s lying to and oppressing.
Sure-footed and deeply intelligent, “Dear Comrades!” is so faithful to verisimilitude that the emotional wallop of its third act comes as a surprise. So subtle and sophisticated is Konchalovsky’s filmmaking that everything that happens feels spontaneous and preordained. “Dear Comrades!” may not make perfect sense of the past, but it goes a long way in allowing people to look at it with a clarity that manages to be exacting and compassionate at the same time.