Russian war film set to open amid controversy over accuracy of eventsArchive
MOSCOW: Every Soviet schoolchild was taught about the heroic feats of the last 28 members of Ivan Panfilov’s division, which in late 1941 fought to the death to stop a Nazi tank assault on Moscow in one of the best known episodes of the Soviet war effort.
“Russia is vast, but there is nowhere to retreat — Moscow is behind us,” one of the Red Army soldiers, armed at the end with just Molotov cocktails and grenades, said as the attack was halted.
But as a film about the events, Panfilov’s 28, opens in Russia this week, controversy rumbles on over the fact that many of the details of that last stand — both in the film and versions pre-dating it — appear to have been invented.
Arguments over the upcoming film and the mythology around the episode in general began last spring, when Sergei Mironenko, the director of Russia’s state archive, gave an interview stating that while there had indeed been a bloody battle outside Moscow, not was all as many had understood it.
His words provoked such outrage that over the summer the archive posted online a 1948 internal Soviet military report into the events, which came to the conclusion that a journalist from the Red Army’s newspaper had made up the particulars of the story, inventing quotes and ignoring the fact that some of the soldiers had survived and one was believed to have surrendered to the Germans.
The legend was cooked up to fit in with the Soviet demand that soldiers should fight to the death rather than surrender.
Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, reacted furiously to the intervention, saying it was not the job of archivists to make historical evaluations, and if Mironenko wanted to change professions, he should do so. Shortly after, Mironenko was fired.
The nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky said in recent weeks that he had called at a government meeting for Mironenko to be fired. He claimed his uncle had fought in Panfilov’s division and said those griping about the exact numbers were missing the point.
“It’s unacceptable for someone from the archives to start telling the whole country that there were no Panfilov heroes,” he said.
Medinsky later went further in his defence of the film and his disgust for those who questioned the story.
“It’s my deep conviction that even if this story was invented from the start to the finish, even if Panfilov never existed, even if there was nothing at all, it’s a sacred legend which it’s simply impossible to besmirch. And people who try to do that are total scumbags.”
Medinsky said he would like to send such people, who “poked their dirty, greasy fingers into the history of 1941” back to the war period in a time machine and leave them in a trench to face Nazi tanks armed with just a hand-grenade.
Panfilov’s division included many central Asians, and last month Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev watched the film together.
Under Putin, victory in the Second World War has become the main building block of modern Russian identity, and criticism of the Red Army or mentions of the darker sides of the war effort are unwelcome.
The war’s huge place in the national psyche is understandable, given the Soviet Union lost more than 20 million citizens during the war years. But some are uncomfortable that the mythology has overtaken the facts.
Alexander Morozov, a history teacher and the chair of the editorial board of a magazine on the teaching of history in schools, called the film a “big mistake”, and said mythologising the war would only confuse children.
He told Ekho Moskvy radio: “We should try to tell the truth, of course. Yes, there was a battle, yes there was heroism. This is what they should have made a film about... But as it is, they’ll watch this film, go online and find a whole load of different information about this battle, and it will undermine their trust in these kind of things.”
By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn November 24th, 2016