On Gabe Polsky's last day of filming in Moscow, Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov—a hockey legend and former minister of sports in Russia—finally agreed to an on-camera interview for the documentary Red Army. Polsky had been calling and calling, but the former captain of the Soviet national hockey team said he wasn't interested. At the last minute, Fetisov said he'd give Polsky 15 minutes. The interview lasted five hours.
It started out rough. In Red Army's first scene—a marvelous depiction of the awkwardness of interviewing—Fetisov icily ignores the director, stubbornly looking at his phone while Polsky presses him with questions. "I'm busy now," Fetisov says. "I've got some business." Polsky persists, and Fetisov eventually flicks off the camera. But they start talking. The result is a turbulent, hairpin-turn story that uses the hockey team known as Red Army, which was technically part of the Soviet military and won six out of the seven Olympic gold medals awarded from 1964 to1988, as a keyhole to peek at what was happening inside the USSR during the late 1970s and early '80s.
In those years, hockey dominated the Soviet Union—and the Soviet government dominated its top hockey players, who were international superstars but also virtual prisoners. For several years, Fetisov and his team were locked away in a training facility for 11 months of the year, with only one phone to call their wives and children, and were accompanied by KGB agents—Fetisov calls them "the special men"—when they played abroad. Under those conditions, the athletes became intensely close, and it showed in their style of play. It was collectivist (players emphasized passing over drives toward the net to score, which kept their opponents totally bewildered about what they'd do next) but highly creative and improvisational. The architect of the Red Army, a beloved hockey coach named Anatoly Tarasov, studied chess and the Bolshoi Ballet while developing his grand theory of optimal hockey training and play.
But for Fetisov, those golden days wouldn't last long. Tarasov angered Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev—the documentary mentions an incident when Tarasov pulled his players from the ice after a controversial referee call, directly disobeying orders from Brezhnev, who was in the stands; Tarasov's grandson has told reporters that the coach also refused to throw a game at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Japan that would have busted the US team down to bronze status—and was replaced with Viktor Tikhonov, who, Fetisov says, only got the job because of his close connections with power brokers at the KGB.
Tikhonov, in Fetisov's account, was a brutal man who intensified the Red Army's training regimen and refused to let players interrupt it for any reason, including going home to visit dying parents. In game footage from the era, a sportscaster says he'd heard one of the players say that if he ever needed a heart transplant, he'd want Tikhonov's—"because he's never used it."
Red Army, which was coproduced by Polsky, Jerry Weintraub, and Werner Herzog, hangs almost entirely on this stroke-of-luck interview, but Fetisov's life seems like a microcosm of Soviet history and its eventual tilt toward capitalism. At times, he seems nostalgic for the esprit de corps of the old socialist system—"We have lost our soul," he says at one point—but he was also battered by it. When he quit the team in disgust after several broken promises that he could play for a year in the United States, he was socially ostracized, prohibited from skating in any rink in the USSR, and once arrested and beaten until four in the morning. After a long struggle, Fetisov and a few of his teammates got to play in the United States, where they were almost universally reviled by jingoistic fans and teammates.
Americans who remember those players probably associate them with the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the US team—made up of amateurs and college students—beat the highly trained and heavily favored Soviets. At the time, the victory was taken as a political, and almost metaphysical, affirmation that American capitalism was superior to Soviet socialism. But as Red Army reminds us, the human stories behind big symbolic moments are always more complicated—and often more tragic—than what we see on the highlight reels.