Why do oppressive regimes always wear such awesome uniforms? The national hockey team of the Soviet Union, also known as the Red Army team, wore the best crisp red sweaters. The letters “CCCP” on their chests looked way more intimidating than when they started “Chris” or “Peter.” For a generation of Americans, those letters might as well have spelled “KGB,” and the players should have skated in Darth Vader masks. The team’s dominating performances on the ice were overshadowed by their status as the frozen face of evil socialism.
That team dominated international ice hockey in the seventies and eighties, turning even Canada into so much maple syrup each time they clashed. Yet they are most famous for a single loss to a ragtag American team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The upset for the ages marked a seminal Cold War point, a showdown between two global superpowers that figured out how to fight without turning the world into a glowing-green ball.
The Gabe Polsky documentary “Red Army” takes the wider picture by documenting the importance of ice hockey in Soviet political and psychological life. The national hockey program was run by the Red Army, e.g. the Soviet military. Shortly before the Lake Placid loss, the Politburo dumped the team’s genius coach and appointed a no-nonsense KGB officer. Players rose to the level of national heroes and emblems of socialist advances. For being so good, they became virtual prisoners inside year-round, non-stop training camps, separated from families, with their contact monitored by the secret police.
While Americans still look back on the Lake Placid moment as one of national pride, the Soviets did not dwell it. They regrouped, doubled down and reasserted their dominance. Likewise, the film barely touches on it. The goal here is using the Soviet National Team to look at the evolution of Russia over the past twenty-five years, from Soviet oppression to Glasnost to the age of Putin. “Red Army” follows how the players lived under police-state conditions, succeeded and failed in American capitalism after the decline of communism and gained greater freedom but watched as their country gradually lost order, patriotism and pride.
Prior to the tennis pin-up Anna Kournikova, Soviet athletes had a reputation for being silent robots born in a laboratory next to a tennis racket or hockey stick. There is something to that charge, and some of the film’s big moments are left hanging by the player’s reserve (such as that of Slava Fetisov, the team’s world-class defender and the film’s main interview subject). The best moments of “Red Army” come when the Russians drop the icy face, reveal their mutual brotherhood and describe the way that change tested them.