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Red Army

26/09/2015

Red Army, which I watched during the New Zealand film festival a couple of months ago, illustrates the best and worst of the collectivist ethos at the heart of a socialist political and economic structure.

Directed by Gabe Polsky, Red Army tells the story of the high performing Soviet Union Ice Hockey team, personal stories of the players in the team and their lives under communism, and the climate of cold war political propaganda which served as a backdrop to contests between the Soviets and the United States.

While economic performance in the centrally planned Soviet Union was inferior to that of the decentralised capitalist west, the Soviet Union was able to list a number of significant achievements in competitive arenas; including mathematics, chess and sports.

Central planning seems to work for objectively measurable fields, like sports, but struggles when it comes to the subjective preferences of consumers in an economy.

Early in the film we see the virtues of central planning, that is the intense hard work involved in the arduous team practice sessions where the players hone their skills.

The players are drilled seriously hard – practicing four times a day while in camp for 11 months of the year. However, besides the hard work, there is another component to the Soviet’s success. That is the ability of the Soviets to play with a beautiful collective fluidity which seems to emanate from the sublimation of individuality to the benefit of the team as a whole.

I am not a particular Ice Hockey fan but the film shows a sort of balletic poetry in motion between the players who appear to have a symbiosis with each other and an ability to run rings around any opposition on their way to the goal.

The case for the collective (or perhaps team culture is a better expression) is further demonstrated when a number of the players, including the legendary captain Viacheslav (“Slava”) Fetisov, migrate to the United States to play in the National Hockey League.

Initially the players are sent to a range of different teams and struggle to adapt to the more brutal style of play on offer in the NHL but when five Russians are recruited to play for the Detroit Red wings their fluid collective style of play leads their team to victory in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals.

This was the best of the collective ethos but the film also shows the Soviet players’ loss of fun under an oppressive new coach during the 1980s and how their desire to play in the NHL is initially hampered by a minister of sport who sees the relationship between him and the players as that of the master and the slave.

Then after acquiescing to the players’ requests, the cash strapped politburo tries to extract the whole value of the contract (and then 50 percent when this is refused) from the players.

While a strong collective culture can bring out the best of its participants it relies on those individual participants to buy into the wider collective culture.

The imposition of a centralised collective culture removes the voluntary aspect of opting in to the collective culture which makes it strong. Furthermore, as the group gets bigger, there is no direct feeling of association. This is an irreconcilable tension which the collectivist model writ large which seeks to impose collective virtues which may be appropriate for smaller groups on a grand and impersonal scale.

The film is a very good one, with excellent archival footage of the matches, and well worth a watch.

Here is the trailer:

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