Wage cuts and price rises sparked the protests depicted in ‘Dear Comrades!’ © SASHA GUSOV

In June 1962, a group of protesters gathered in the Soviet city of Novocherkassk. Elsewhere in the USSR, the great director Andrei Tarkovsky had just released his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood. Co-writer of that film was another young film-maker, Andrei Konchalovsky; he would go on to have his own acclaimed career as a director, working across genres in Russia and the US.

Now, nearly 60 years on, Konchalovsky has made Dear Comrades!, a dazzling, coldly furious account of events that year in Novocherkassk. Like the rest of the world, he knew nothing of them then. How could he? His story is one of a government massacre and the cover-up that long erased it.

The film is shot in black and white, evocative as old photographs. Daylight floods a small apartment, lovers dressing. It could be any city under any system. Small talk makes the context clear: mention of jostling for rations, the KGB. Lyuda (Julia Vysotskaya), we learn, is a loyal apparatchik. As such, her own shopping involves candy, liqueurs and Hungarian salami. But her party activism is more than expedient. Even in death, Stalin remains her idol. Nostalgia is her comfort, her duties divided. She is both the mother of a rebellious teenage daughter and a stone-faced functionary, summoned with her fellow committee members to the Electromotive Factory when the workers — their wages cut as prices rise — go on strike. 

Bearing images of Lenin, the strikers have set off the factory sirens. (An omen of Chernobyl, yes.) For a moment, a glimmer of absurdist comedy beckons as the party officials are forced to flee again. Their panic is twofold. They fear the workers, but Moscow terrifies. “Nikita Khrushchev is appalled,” they are told. Generals descend. The Soviet army would never fire on the people, locals assure each other. When they do, the guns are accompanied by a chipper folk song on the radio. Then an order to Novocherkassk, brutally enforced: none of this ever happened. Lyuda becomes our eyes and ears — the rest is what results when a true believer finally confronts the truth.

★★★★☆

On Curzon Home Cinema in the UK from January 15

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