ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There's a new documentary film that does a better job than I've seen anywhere else explaining what life has been like for Russians over the past few decades and how that experience has culminated in the leadership of Vladimir Putin. The movie is about hockey, which at times is about politics and not just for Russians. In 1980, when the U.S. hockey team upset the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics - the game they called the miracle on ice here - President Jimmy Carter called coach Herb Brooks to congratulate him.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JIMMY CARTER: Tell the whole team that we're extremely proud of them. They've come through like true champions.
HERB BROOKS: It was a great win, you know, for everybody and I think it just proves that our way of life is the proper way to continue on.
SIEGEL: The other way of life, the one that produced the best Soviet hockey players, arguably the best players in the world, only went on for another decade or so. And Gabe Polsky's documentary film "Red Army" is about those great players who played for the Red Army team, especially one of them. Gabe Polsky, welcome to the program.
GABE POLSKY: Thanks for having me, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, how good was the Red Army team?
POLSKY: Oh, they were incredible. They basically, for almost two decades, were almost unbeatable. They were dominating.
SIEGEL: And they had a style that was just different from the way the North American teams played hockey.
POLSKY: They originated from Anatoli Tarasov, who was the godfather of Soviet hockey, who was a philosopher. He took a very creative approach to the game and studied chess and ballet and applied these principles to hockey. And he really made it a very fun, creative, artistic game to watch with a lot of puck possession and weaving and just beautiful playmaking.
SIEGEL: So, like Sputnik or the Bolshoi ballet, Soviet hockey is one of the things that people took pride in even if the society it was part of was otherwise dysfunctional.
POLSKY: You know, it was created by Joseph Stalin in the '40s, who, at that time, wanted the Soviet Union to be number one in sports in the world. And he wanted that to be because, one, it creates a sense of national pride and, you know, when the team's doing well people unified inside the Soviet Union. And it also makes other countries, you know, think what are they doing there in the Soviet Union? It must be a more superior culture in certain ways. And it was a propaganda tool for the Soviet Union to show how dominant and superior their society was.
SIEGEL: The story of your film is mostly about Viacheslav - or, for short, Slava - Fetisov. Describe Slava Fetisov as a hockey player and as a person.
POLSKY: Well, as a hockey player, he is a defenseman. And he was captain of the Soviet national team for many years and was considered one of the greatest defenseman ever to play the game. And he's one of the most decorated athletes in Soviet history. As a person, he's a lot the same way he is on the ice. He's always keeping you on your toes. He's unpredictable. He's a little bit aggressive, but he's an intelligent guy, and that's how he was on the ice.
SIEGEL: Russia, the Soviet Union, entered the age of Gorbachev and the opening to the West - really, the end of the Cold War. And Fetisov and other Russians had shown that they could outplay National Hockey League teams. So the question was could they come and play in the U.S. or Canada? Describe what happened.
POLSKY: During the Perestroika times in the late '80s, the government could no longer afford to fund the sports programs in the Soviet Union. So they started to think about allowing some of the older Soviet players to go and play in the West. And they would sell them to NHL clubs for a lot of money and then basically take all that money for the government. So the players would make, let's say, a thousand dollars a month and then the rest of that money would go to the government. And some of the players were sort of so eager to get out of there that they would take that deal. But Fetisov held out and didn't want to be treated like a slave and basically work and be sold like a slave to the U.S. and then give all his money back to the Soviet government.
SIEGEL: Yeah. There's an amazing moment that he recounts in the film. He's playing for Red Army's - he's actually an officer in the army. And the ministry of defense calls him in, in uniform, to face the minister of defense of the Soviet Union, Dmitry Yazov, arguably the second most powerful guy in the Soviet Union of the day. And Fetisov feels that Yazov has double-crossed him by not letting him go play in the U.S. Here's Fetisov in your movie describing that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RED ARMY")
VIACHESLAV FETISOV: I said, Mr. Minister, if you not do what you promised, you're not the minister, you're not the officer. Release me from the army. Thank you very much. Turn and go. He would scream and yell and [bleep]. You try to play for our enemies. You know what I can do with you. I exile you to Siberia. You never get out. But then I will turn back. I left. You know what? In 10 days, they give me passport and I was free of the army. First multiple working entrance visa to United States.
SIEGEL: First multiple-entry work visa to the United States. He stared down the ministry of defense of the Soviet Union - my gosh.
POLSKY: He'd said he really knew that there was no other way than to do it the way that he did it. Otherwise, it was over, and who knows what would have happened to him?
SIEGEL: The rest of the story is Slava Fetisov does come to play in the National Hockey League. Like other Russians, at first he's kind of disappointing. They're all brought together, a bunch of them, by the Detroit Red Wings and in 1997 they win the Stanley Cup. Fetisov, I suppose at that point, could've decided to just remain an American - stay here, stay in Detroit.
POLSKY: Yeah, yeah. I mean, he was, at that point, making quite a bit of money and, you know, lived the American dream, won two Stanley Cups and he was actually coaching. He coached for New Jersey and won a Stanley Cup as assistant coach with them. And, you know, his life could've been great and fruitful, but he got a call from Vladimir Putin. And Putin asked him to be the minister of sport in Russia. And I assume that it was a difficult decision, but I think when you have a guy like Vladimir Putin asking you to do that, it's difficult to say no to, first of all.
Second of all, I think that Fetisov - he's probably one of the most famous people in Russia. And with that comes a lot of responsibility. You know, Russia was a country that needed heroes. You know, I think they suffered from a lack of people that young people look up to. And, you know, it was a country - it still is - that was rebuilding itself from the collapse of the Soviet Union and still trying to find itself. And I think Fetisov felt a sense of responsibility for his country and his people and he considered Russia his home. And I think he wants to help make the country as good as it can be.
SIEGEL: It seems that as minister of sport for Putin, part of what Fetisov is doing is trying to connect things that Russians took pride in in the past. And bring them back into the modern Russia and, at the same time, bring Russia some sense of order out of the chaos that he found when he came back from his playing days.
POLSKY: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, the story basically brings to life the difficulties that Russia has had after the collapse of the Soviet Union and finding its place in the world and being prideful and finding its national identity and regaining the prestige that it had during the Soviet years.
SIEGEL: Well, Gabe Polsky, thank you very much for talking with us about your documentary "Red Army."
POLSKY: Thanks a lot, Robert.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.