Gabe Polsky interviewed by Stephen Mayne.
Two tendencies in sports films often prove their undoing. One is a surfeit of game footage that immediately puts off anyone outside committed enthusiasts. The other is a clumsy attempt to equate the sport in question with personal and political problems off the field of play. Red Army does both and is still brilliant. Non-fans will watch clips of the Soviet men’s ice hockey team with awe, while even more remarkably, the film uses hockey to investigate the impact of the decline and fall of the USSR. It’s about as impressive a debut in the documentary world as director Gabe Polsky could have made.
With his film set to open in the UK on 9th October, Gabe joined us from Los Angeles to discuss the origins of the story, the style of play adopted by the USSR, and the impact politics has on sport.
TLE: How did you first come to this story?
Gabe Polsky: My family is from the Ukraine and emigrated in 1976 but I also grew up with ice hockey and played competitively at college. I guess I’m a student of the game. As a kid I got my hands on a tape of the USSR playing Canada in 1987. I watched that game and it made a massive impression. It gave me this whole new idea of the sport as art – the creativity compared to the brutal aggression in the US. I wanted to learn more about the team; find out their story. I started looking into it after college and found this deep story that became an allegory for the Soviet Union. What the team went through was what the Soviet Union went through.
TLE: Is your Soviet heritage a big part of your life?
GP: Russian was my first language though it has gotten worse as I’ve grown older. My parents have accents and I was made fun of – not in a particularly mean way – for being Russian. During the 80’s it was not the best thing to say your parents were soviets. Not that they were fans of the USSR – they left for a reason. There are no opportunities for Jewish people there, it was a backwards place. They grew up there and have many Russian friends and identify with the culture, but the society and politics is very backwards. They didn’t talk about the past much though. I knew it wasn’t good, not that they were destitute, but not good.
TLE: Red Army shows the training regime forced on the players to be a very brutal one. What part did that play in their dominance during the 1980’s?
GP: They had to train hard and correctly. The players are athletes and need strength and stamina. It’s a bit like ballet or circus training in that respect. But hockey is hockey. It’s hard training that makes it look effortless. Tarasov [Anatoli Tarasov – the coach who pioneered their style of play], was an artist. All the weaving and passing, the emphasis on team skills over the individual, the importance of possessing the puck; his system made it look beautiful. But the regime after his was brutal. The only place the players were free was on the ice.
TLE: It seems hard to separate sport and politics.
GP: On the Soviet national team, all the players were officers in the military. There was supposed to be a deep loyalty to the country, and their game was meant to spread the Soviet ideology over the world. A lot of them knew that, but really they just wanted to be the best in the world. It all gets wrapped up in politics and while some believe deeply, others didn’t.
TLE: Do you think this use of sport as propaganda is unhealthy?
GP: It depends. Look at Brazil – many people wouldn’t know anything about the country if it wasn’t for soccer. The country is identified with that. Their incredible style creates images in people’s heads. What better pulpit for pushing certain images when players are treated as Gods. People associate these sporting values with the country in question hence the ties between Soviet hockey and Soviet ideology.
Think of other teams. The British soccer team play a linear, boring style, whereas the Spanish play creatively. Spain is a more interesting culture in the eyes of those watching as a result. People make this subtle reading of sport. The irony of the Soviet team is a rough and backwards political system beneath such creative play. But they do it collectively, in line with socialist values.
TLE: How damaging was political interference for the team?
GP: Tarasov, one of the greatest coaches in the entire game was fired as Brezhnev didn’t like him. There was definitely political interference in terms of coaches and Ministers of Sport. It leads to a loss of purity in the game, and creates a damaging atmosphere in which the team is expected to win for political reasons.
TLE: What impact did Soviet players moving to the NHL have?
GP: In a nutshell, there was no money left to fund hockey. That’s why all the best players were leaving for the NHL. There was no longer a system of development that went from childhood to adulthood with the players training and playing together. The national programme failed and without that, you’ll never have a great team. It became an extreme example of Russian society. All the players left to play individually, and they have no longer been able to play as a team in the same way again.
TLE would like to thank Gabe for taking the time to speak to us. Red Army is out in the UK on Friday 9th October. Our review of Red Army here.