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Red Penguins: American Capitalism & Russian Hockey

red penguins

With Red Penguins, Gabe Polsky adds another Soviet hockey documentary to his filmography, though certain framing and biases will probably be divisive among some viewers.

A few years ago, I remember catching Gabe Polksy’s then most recent documentary, Red Army, a documentary which chronicles the rise and fall of the Soviet Union through the lens of its famous hockey team, and their subsequent takeover of the NHL. I recall finding it quite compelling with a focus on the players and their personal experiences of thriving in the CCCP, their agonizing defeat in the “miracle on ice,” and then adapting to life in the United States. It was an excellent documentary, focusing on the human experience with a clear love and admiration for hockey.

So, when I got the opportunity to review Gabe Polsky’s newest documentary about Soviet Hockey, I jumped at the chance. Red Penguins follows the Russian Penguins, a short-lived professional hockey team based out of post-Soviet Moscow, made famous by a partnership between the HC CSKA Moscow team and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Instead of focusing on the players, however, Red Penguins centers on the businessmen behind the team’s creation.

The story which the film is covering is probably the best thing about it: it’s honestly fascinating. Most of it is told through the lens of Steven Warshaw, who was sent to Russia on behalf of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ owners. Through him, we see not only how he had to build the team’s brand, but also the culture of post-Soviet Russia through the lens of an American businessman. To put bodies in seats, he brought in mass advertising and sponsorships, strip shows, free beer, even prize giveaways. He was so successful at turning the Russian Penguins into a potential cash cow that the team attracted the attention of both the Russian mafia and Disney. The film does a great job of delving into the events surrounding the Russian Penguins, and I could honestly recommend it based on just the story of what happened: it’s wild.

Red Penguins
Red Penguins (Gabriel Polsky / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

It is really interesting to see how Warshaw’s actions and methods are received by the other Americans, and contrasted to how they were received by the Russians: the Americans celebrated his ability to bring in new ways to make the team profitable while some of the Russians were disappointed in how the experience became less about the game and more about the bells and whistles tacked on to going to a hockey game. And this brings me to the most  divisive part of this review: the politics.

It could just be how I viewed and interpreted it, but it seems to me that Red Penguins loves Capitalism. It presents the American capitalists as the good guys trying to bring prosperity to the struggling Russians, while the Russians are the mysterious “others” who don’t quite know what’s good for them. The film definitely feels like it’s painting the Americans as honest businessmen unprepared to deal with how corrupt Russia is, and how important it was to protect their money and their investments. Like, the idea of a multi-billion dollar company like Disney needing protection from losing $100k a year to the Russian mob is laughable. 

It also goes out of its way to depict Russia as a lawless and yet totalitarian place that targets its own people. Now look, I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that the USSR and later Russia are perfect and are free of any sort of authoritarian rule: that would be a lie. They definitely have and had issues with power, violence, and corruption. However, this is largely an American production, and given everything that’s going on in the United States right now, it feels a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

If you like strong stories, you’ll probably get something out of Red Penguins, even if it’s just to marvel at how wacky the whole situation was. If you have a strong opinion about economic systems, however, you might want to proceed with caution on this one. Red Penguins is solid, but if you’re looking for a great documentary about Soviet hockey, I’d be more inclined to direct you towards Red Army; Seriously, it’s really really good.

Red Penguins: Trailer (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Red Penguins was released on Digital on August 4th, 2020.

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