In a controversial new Russian film, 28 Soviet soldiers facing sure death singlehandedly defend the frontline outside Moscow against an onslaught of Nazi tanks in 1941.
“Everything’s clear here — the enemy is over there, and Moscow is back there,” says one soldier in the film “The Panfilov 28.”
But the events are far from clear cut and the film about a legendary unit of soldiers written into the pantheon of national heroism has sparked an angry debate.
A top historian says the derring-do depicted in the film — which received generous state funding and is playing in more than 1,000 theatres across the country — was in fact concocted by Soviet propagandists.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has launched a scathing attack on doubters.
“They are trying to knock away the foundations of our faith in things that are absolutely set in stone and holy,” Medinsky said on television.
“Even if this story was invented from start to finish… this is a holy legend, which is simply untouchable. And people who do this are the scum of the earth,” he told journalists, according to RIA Novosti news agency.
The film recounts the story of the outgunned and outmanned Panfilov rifle division, which was defending Moscow’s western front.
According to the official version, after suffering heavy losses, only 28 soldiers were left to fight with no possibility of getting reinforcements, knowing they would die.
The 28 were collectively endowed with the title Hero of the Soviet Union.
– ‘Made up heroes’ –
The head of Russia’s State Archive, historian Sergei Mironenko, was one of those who spoke out as the film was being shot last year.
He posted a Soviet military prosecutor’s report from 1948 that called the story “invented.”
The Soviets launched a probe after noticing that five of the 28 were still alive and one had surrendered to the Nazis, but kept the report top secret.
There was indeed fighting and more than 100 died, but the story of the 28 comes only from an army newspaper article, Mironenko told Kommersant daily.
“The problem with the Soviet regime was that made up heroes were a lot more important than real ones,” he said.
Mironenko, who had been in his post since 1992, left it for a less senior role shortly after he cast doubt on the Panfilov story.
Another historian, Andrei Isayev, who has written numerous books on World War II, told Lenta.ru news site that the official account has “no basis.”
Moscow still has a street named after these soldiers.
– ‘Moral guide’ –
In central Moscow, wartime songs boom from speakers at the opening of a street art-style painting promoting the film.
Vladislav Kononov, the executive chief of the Russian Military History Society, who attended the event, said he had little time for sceptics.
The society — founded by President Vladimir Putin and chaired by Medinsky — helped with research for the film and is now helping promote it.
Kononov calls the incident a “legend” and a “moral guide” for generations, while acknowledging that “possibly there weren’t 28 of them (and) possibly they didn’t all die.”
“The fact that they carried out a feat of courage and endurance, that should not be under any doubt,” he said. “Leave history to the historians.”
Producer and scenarist Andrei Shalopa agreed, saying that “in reality, there’s no doubt that it happened.”
He blamed what he called “attempts to debunk national achievements that started back in the 1990s.”
Putin, who created a commission tasked with preventing the “distortion of Russian history” and was one of the first to view the film, has condemned what he calls the “falsification of history” by those challenging it.
It is the latest in a series of patriotic war films made with state funding and aimed at youth audiences.
Last year, the film “Battle for Sevastopol” about a female sniper earned $7 million (6.6 million euros) in cinemas, according to the Exhibitors’ Bulletin trade journal.
“Stalingrad,” a special-effects-heavy drama about the long-running eponymous WWII battle, also earned more than $25 million in 2015.
At a recent showing of the Panfilov 28 film in Moscow, the audience applauded at the end, some in tears.
“We all remember this and we are proud, even the young generation,” said 27-year-old Ksenia.
The film made 154 million rubles ($2.4 million) in its first weekend. Unusually for a Russian film, the makers used online crowdfunding to get some of their initial financing.
This contributed some $536,000 – or a fifth of the budget, Shalopa said, and the donors are all listed on the credits.