In the 1970s and 1980s, the Russian national hockey team was a vital instrument of propaganda for the Soviet Union. Gabe Polsky is a retired American hockey player turned director and producer (The Motel Life, 2012). In Red Army, his portrayal of this legend of the sports world sheds insight into the former régime.
Still from the film © RR
Why did you choose to work on this legendary ice hockey team?
My parents are immigrants from Soviet Ukraine. I was born in the United States and played hockey very competitively. To a large part, because of my heritage, I was naturally drawn to the subject matter. At a fairly early age, I was introduced to Soviet hockey by a coach and became fascinated by their creative playing style. Later, I began to see the connections between the Red Army team and what was occurring in the country. I found it very interesting how an incredibly oppressive system produced one of the greatest teams in history. Hockey had a huge impact the culture, politics and legacy of the Soviet Union, and this is what I wanted to examine in my film.
How long did you work on this project?
Unknowingly, my whole life I’ve been on a path to tell this story. Little by little I've been collecting experiences, ideas, and thoughts that have ultimately contributed to this story. A couple years ago, I had an opportunity to access these players and interview them. I didn’t know exactly where the story would lead, and it went through many evolutions along the way. I used a lot of old Soviet archival footage, which really gave a sense of place and history and scope. I had archival researchers here and in Russia, and I traveled to Russia multiple times.
Your film witnesses an important time in History…
The Red Army team was designed as an instrument of propaganda to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. The country’s investment in the team’s success was massive. The demanding lifestyle and oppressive circumstances under which the players trained was a reflection of broader Soviet society. What was most interesting was that the Red Army’s style of play was significantly informed by the country’s ideology. Priority was placed on serving your teammates and your country and expressing individuality or questioning authority was forbidden. In the Soviet Union, hockey was a microcosm of the country. The success and demise of the team reflected that of the country.
What did you learn about Russian ice hockey players's life?
The players lived removed from society for eleven months of the year. They couldn't see their families, and they trained endlessly. Because of these conditions, they became the best ever to play the game. But this success came at tremendous personal costs.
Did the KGB play a key role on the Russian ice hockey team at the time?
The Red Army team was funded and organized by the soviet military. Because of this, the players were always under watch by the KGB, especially when they travelled abroad. The players were the proletariat’s heroes. The KGB feared that if a player defected, it could cause political instability.
In conversation with Benoit Pavan
Friday 16th May / Soixantième Theatre / 7:45 pm