‘Dear Comrades’: Was it in Novocherkask, USSR, or in La Guinera, Cuba?

The film ‘Dear Comrades’ immerses us in the story of a strict local official of the Soviet Communist Party and an admirer of Stalin. (Frame)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 13 February 2022 — She is a militant  Party member, one of those who “bite,” but one day her daughter participates in a protest and from then on she has to see the ugliest side of the system: the repression, the arrests and the concealment of the truth. Her story could be that of any Cuban mother since 11 July 2021, but her name is Lyudmila Syomina, she lives in Novocherkask and the popular demonstration that changes her life takes place in 1962.

In stark black and white, the film Dear Comrades immerses us in the story of a strict local official of the Soviet Communist Party, an admirer of Stalin, nostalgic for the heavy hand of a leader who, after dying, had officially fallen into disgrace. Severe and extremist, the protagonist loses part of her fanaticism and her physical composure as the two hours of the film go by.

The trigger for the change that takes place in Lyudmila is the massacre perpetrated by the Committee for State Security (KGB) in Novocherkask, where in June 1962 they dispersed a demonstration by the workers who worked in the electric motor factory. For three decades, the incident will remain hidden under layers of threats, secrecy and fear.

The Russian director Andréi Konchalovsky has selected this passage from Soviet history to guide us through a drama worthy of a Greek tragedy: a mother who searches for her daughter, even in cemeteries, and along the way of the investigation her blind faith in a social project breaks down within her. The journey through the morgue, the hospital and the graveyard cracks the radical civil servant and exposes the rottenness of the system.

Lyudmila, who initially does not want to listen to the complaints that surround her about rising food prices and falling wages, ends up being swept away by the tide of popular discontent. The economic model that she has helped build overachieves its production plans in the headlines and on the television screen, while she condemns families to meager rations and buying on the black market.

Konchalovski’s film masterfully portrays middle-level officials who have risen to their position by assenting to orders from above and using opportunism as a strategy to climb the ladder. As soon as the crisis breaks out, these puppets – who only know how to write reports and hold meetings – are unable to respond to the demands of the strikers or have any initiative of their own. They only know how to flee and fear for their necks.

When the high officials arrive from Moscow, the fight to win points begins in front of the “dear comrades” sent by Nikita Khrushchev to bring order to this city in the Rostov region. Local militants scramble to please the newcomers and shift their responsibilities on anyone nearby. Lyudmila does not miss an opportunity to demand a strong hand against the protesters, not knowing that her own daughter is among them.

While the meetings continue, the emissaries of the Kremlin impose a violent solution to the protests and the KGB weaves the threads to silence the population, a process of rewriting history is also taking place to erase that act of rebellion of the people against the Soviet power. Nor is there any lack of the well-known argument that everything has been forged by the CIA and has been a consequence of the calls made by foreign radio.

Forced to remain silent, on pain of imprisonment and even death, the residents of Novocherkask watch in terror as house-to-house arrests take place, hospitals are taken over by the KGB to detain those wounded by gunshots who went to be treated, and the the city is closed down until the last traces of the massacre are erased. The greasepaint will last until 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when some of the victims begin to tell what happened.

In a shocking scene, the square that was the scene of dozens of deaths is resurfaced because the blood has melted into the ground due to the heat. On the new surface, a platform with musicians and dancing couples brought from other towns is placed to appear normal and a sign of people’s joy. Terror tries to cover up with spectacle, lights and false laughter.

Approaching the story of Lyudmila from Cuba and after the popular protests last July forces us to draw parallels, in addition to differences. The rigorous member of the Communist Party could well live in Havana’s La Güinera community and be the mother of one of the young women arrested and prosecuted for taking to the streets to demand democratic change on this Island. Like the Russian militant, this Havanan must also have visited police stations, hospitals and even morgues looking for her little girl.

Let’s say her name is Yamila and the red card she used to carry with pride now weighs heavily in her pocket. In her nucleus of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) they look at her with resentment for not having known how to raise a true revolutionary and during this time she has received a visit from State Security agents warning her to keep her mouth shut, because “any publication on social networks” will be worse for the girl.

Yamila would never have entered a courtroom before, but until very recently she swore and perjured that the lawyers defended, the judges dispensed justice and the convicted had guarantees. After a couple of days of oral hearings, she can no longer sustain that idea in front of anyone, the stories that her daughter tells her from prison have also destroyed her dreams of reeducation, dignity, and protection in Cuban prisons.

A few days after the ground in La Güinera was stained with blood due to the death of one of the demonstrators and the injuries of many others, a brigade arrived and painted some facades, touched up the curb on the sidewalk with lime and installed loudspeakers with patriotic songs. Yamila looked at everything from the window of her house with the same eyes that Lyudmila did 60 years ago.


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