MOSCOW — History is a sensitive subject in Vladimir Putin's Russia, where the search for a national identity is accompanied by an effort to smooth out the rough parts of a long and difficult past. And the history of the Red Army's heroics in World War II is considered sacrosanct.
So when one of the most enduring and well-known legends of Soviet bravery — a heroic stand by 28 outgunned, outnumbered infantrymen who gave their lives to stop an armored Nazi assault — was exposed as a fabrication, it resulted in cries of Russophobia. And when the debate continued even as a major motion picture dramatizing the legend hit the screens last week, it resulted in anger directed at the usual target these days.
“It’s no secret that the West has opened up a frontal attack on the results of the Second World War,” Mikhail Myagkov, a Russian military historian, said at a presentation this month called “Mythologization of Russian History: New Challenges from the West.”
Russia's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, has gone further, saying that anyone who interferes with the “sacred legend” of Panfilov's 28 men is “filthy scum.”
Putin has led a concerted effort to embrace all of Russian history, creating a commission tasked with preventing the “distortion of Russian history.”
The message Putin emphasizes is that the Red Army saved the world from Nazi Germany — with an assist from the other Allies — which was not just the Soviet Union's greatest achievement, but also Russia's, and that of all nations in the 20th century.
And one of the finest hours of that history is the legend of Panfilov's 28 men, which produced a line every Russian learns as a child and never forgets: “Russia is vast, but there's nowhere to retreat — behind us Moscow.”
For seven decades, these words were attributed to a Red Army officer during the 1941 Battle of Moscow, urging his comrades, armed with little more than rifles and handheld firebombs, to stop a breakthrough by the Wehrmacht's tanks. According to the story, Panfilov's 28 men — the name refers to the general in charge of the division — all died, but they destroyed 18 tanks, and halted the German advance.
And then suddenly, last year, while the movie about “Panfilov's 28 Men” was in production, Russia's chief archivist published a top secret 1948 memo by Stalin's senior prosecutor stating that Panfilov's 28 men had been made up by Soviet journalists looking for a propaganda coup.
There was a battle, but there were more than 28 men, everyone didn't die, and some surrendered.
That didn't stop the filmmakers. Nor did it deter Russian officialdom. The archivist later lost his job. Medinsky argued that the legend is true.
Russia's liberal opposition spat back.
“They’ve decided that we don’t need the truth; we need a myth,” commentator Anton Orekh said on Echo Moskvy radio. “We need sacred legends instead of history.”
Myagkov, whose group, the Russian Military History Society, helped fund the movie, pointed out that other cultures overstate the role played by their soldiers.
He also pointed out polls that suggest many in the West believe the United States or the United Kingdom played the major role in liberating Europe from Nazism, instead of the Soviet Union, which had been fighting the iron of the Wehrmacht for three years by the time the Allies landed at Normandy.
He pointed to “Saving Private Ryan” as an example of “America's successful propaganda about the war.”
For all the politics surrounding the movie, the film itself is as apolitical as war movies get. There's one tank with a Nazi flag draped on it; mostly the Germans chatter about the problems facing them, and get shot up.
And the Red Army? They're just guys, some from Russia, some from Central Asia. They joke, they fight, they die.
“They did the main thing,” writer and historian Armen Gasparyan told the conference about the West's purported effort to mess with Russian history. “They stopped the enemy, they did that which no one had done yet, they stopped the Germans.”
At this, the assembled reporters applauded.