They were one of the greatest ice hockey teams in history, winning Olympic gold medals and regularly vanquishing their US and Canadian rivals. They were also the poster boys for a Soviet system they themselves had started to question. Welcome to the "Red Army" team of the 1980s, now the subject of a new documentary executive-produced by Werner Herzog.
Red Army is a sports documentary with a difference. Western audiences will be startled by some of its revelations about sporting stardom behind the Iron Curtain. The famous old Bill Shankly formulation about football being "much, much more" than a matter of life and death takes on an ironic resonance when applied to elite Soviet athletes. For the ice hockey players in the Soviet Union's Red Army team, it was obligatory to win. As one of the interviewees in the film puts it, the team "represented the peak of what the Soviet Union had achieved".
The KGB were among their biggest fans, and their continuing success was seen as proof "that the Soviet system was the best system". That's quite a burden for young athletes playing the game they love.
Following the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, the documentary is described and seen through the eyes of its captain Slava Fetisov. Whether he was pitted against enemies in the political arena or on the ice, Fetisov's story provides a rare glimpse behind the Iron Curtain of the 1970s and '80s by mirroring the social and political forces at work in the world around him. While helping pave the way for his nation to cross over into the next century, this one man demonstrated how sports could not only be an avenue for creative expression in a world determined to suppress it, but also be something so inextricably intertwined with a nation's cultural and political identity.
The documentary makes it very clear that sport was an instrument of propaganda in the Soviet system, but that the US likewise saw sporting success as a way of trumpeting American values during the Cold War in no greater example when you witness the ecstatic celebrations of the so-called "Miracle On Ice" when the US team beat the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.
It was released at the Cannes Film Festival last year to much hype, and when it was released in America it turned out to be one of the best reviewed films of the year, maintaining a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It will have it’s theatrical release in the UK on 19th June, but you can view the trailer for the film below.