Russia: The War Over World War II

Last Friday, on June 22, 2012, Russian television channel NTV broadcast a controversial film titled, “I Serve the Soviet Union” [ru]. The screening had been opposed by an array of concerned citizens that included patriotic-minded bloggers and angry letter-writers, who together led the nation's new Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, into a public dispute with Vladimir Kulistikov, NTV's general director.

The movie, which is based on Leonid Menakar's novel, “Dinner with the Devil,” tells the fictional story of a group of Stalinist political prisoners abandoned at a Soviet labor camp at the outset of World War II, left to be slaughtered by the approaching German invaders. Instead of dying or retreating, the prisoners rally to defeat the Nazis, only to be executed en masse by their Soviet guards, who return at the end of the film.

A woman looks at candles lit at a church in memory of WWII victims, early morning, at the time the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union 70 years ago outside St. Petersburg. 22 June 2011, photo by ELENA IGNATYEVA, copyright © Demotix.

Many opponents of the movie interpreted it to be a work of anti-Soviet or Russophobic agitprop. In advance of the screening, the Ministry of Culture reported that it received over 2,000 angry emails, protesting NTV's plans to air the film. On its website, the Ministry posted [ru] twenty such emails, which conveyed various worries about misinforming the public, betraying the memory of Soviet veterans, and so on.

Baubek Umirbaev, for instance, wrote from Kazakhstan to complain:

[…] показ фильма подобного содержания в такую трагическую дату смещает акценты в понимании молодежной аудиторией подвига народа, замещая его ненавистью к бывшей советской власти.

[…] showing such a film on such a tragic date [June 22, the anniversary of Operation Barbarossa] corrupts young people's understanding of the [Soviet] people's victory, replacing it with hatred toward the former Soviet authorities.

In Moscow, Danila Zubok took issue with the movie's historical accuracy:

Данная кинолента не имеет ничего общего ни с историческими реалиями того времени, ни какой либо художественной ценности. Более того считаю ее оскорбительной по форме и по содержанию, как для меня и представителей моего поколения, так и для старшего поколения.

This motion picture has nothing in common with the historical realities of the period, and has no artistic value whatsoever. Moreover, I consider it insulting in both form and content, for me and the representatives of my generation, and for those of the older generation.

Days before NTV's planned telecast, Culture Minister Medinsky published an open letter [ru] to NTV's general director, calling on the station to cancel the broadcast. After assuring Kulistikov that the state respects media outlets’ editorial rights, Medinsky explained:

В то же время я убеждён: свобода творчества должна опираться на уважительное отношение к мнению граждан; необходимо ответственно подходить к темам, вольная интерпретация которых может вызвать раскол в обществе.

At the same time, I am certain that the freedom of artistic expression should rest on a respect for popular opinion. It's necessary to approach responsibly subjects that, if interpreted too loosely, can provoke division in society.

One of the first individuals to draw attention to NTV's plan to show “I Serve the Soviet Union” was blogger Anatoly Vasserman [ru], a Moscow-based programmer and military analyst. On June 13, he caught the eye of Viktor Marakhovsky, chief editor of magazine Odnako's blogging project.

The next day, Marakhovsky posted [ru] his own article to Odnako's site, linking to Vasserman's discovery, and urging readers to appeal to the Ministry of Culture to pressure NTV into canceling the telecast.

Marakhovsky hoped to repeat the success of a similar campaign [ru] in early May against another controversial WWII film, “Four Days in May” [en] (which told the story of Soviet and German soldiers joining forces to stop Soviet officers from raping German schoolchildren). In that case, unlike with “I Serve the Soviet Union,” NTV ultimately agreed not to show the film [ru].

In addition to the perceived moral corruption that would result from airing the movie, several bloggers attacked it for historical inaccuracies. LiveJournal user dzecko dissected the geography and chronology of the film, arguing [ru] that, in the initial days of the invasion, Nazi troops never reached the territory that was supposedly the plot's setting. He even linked to research [ru] by human rights group Memorial, commenting, “[this information comes from] Memorial, that is, from a clear-cut anti-Stalinist social organization.”

Perhaps most controversially, dzecko insists that the film is an insult to veterans insofar as Gulag prison guards (members of the NKVD, the predecessor of the KGB) are veterans, too. He writes:

Уже 29 июня 1941 г. по инициативе Сталина и Берия Ставка Главного Командования приняла решение о немедленном формировании из военнослужащих войск НКВД СССР 15 дивизий, из них 10 стрелковых и 5 моторизованных. У меня возникает вопрос в связи с этим, являются ли ветераны НКВД, участвовавшие в боях, и погибавшие за нашу Родину, ветеранами Великой Отечественной? И отсюда второй вопрос, а как они бы восприняли этот фильм? Тем более 22 июня.

Already by June 29, 1941, on the initiative of Stalin and Beria, General Headquarters decided on the immediate creation of 15 divisions from NKVD troops — 10 infantry and and 5 motorized. The question occurs to me: these NKVD soldiers, who fought in battles and died for our homeland — are they veterans of the War? And here arises another question: how would they receive this film? What would they think of it airing on June 22?

Of course, not all Russian bloggers considered the movie to be anti-Soviet. LJ user nektonemo argues [ru] that that film was actually hyper-patriotic, drawing attention to the fact that it depicts political prisoners — ostensibly the group with the most reasons to hate the Soviet state — self-mobilizing to defend the country:

Главная выдумка конечно, супер-патриотичные зеки сражающиеся с “фашистами” =))) Но это тоже, даже наоборот, какая патриотичность показана! Что за годы сов.власти даже уголовники в нее влюбились и за нее умирают! (Чем сов.патриоты недовольны-то?).

The main story, of course, is that super-patriotic zeks [Gulag inmates] fight the ‘fascists’ :) But this is even the opposite [of what the film's critics say] — it's a big patriotic show! Why, over time, even the criminals fell in love with the Soviet authorities and were willing to die for them! (Why are these Soviet patriots so unhappy?)

Russia's contemporary political context seems to play a particularly significant role in this latest NTV scandal. The film's heroes, the oppressed intellectuals of the early Soviet era, represent the ancestors of today's Russian opposition. While the last Soviet dissident generation (whose survivors include Lyudmila Alexeeva and Aleksandr Podrabinek, among others) is aging and inching toward obsolescence, the new crowd of anti-Kremlin activists utilizes similar pro-democracy rhetoric, also campaigning against a perceived rise of political prisoners in modern Russia.

The parallels to Russia today, with all the heightened scrutiny on the Kremlin's apparently diminishing patience for protesters, inevitably make the state more sensitive to films like “I Serve the Soviet Union.” That phenomenon, however, does not rule out that Medinsky acted on his own, either in the hopes of impressing the Kremlin or better establishing himself in his new post. Indeed, a recent scandal involving a rogue outburst [en] from Russia's chief investigator, Aleksandr Bastrykin, is another example of risky behavior from a high-ranking state official.

Whether these acts are part of a larger plan or individuals’ attempts at populism, Russia's political climate is still settling in the aftermath of Putin's return to the presidency. How stasis will be reestablished — and whether it can — remains an unknown. However the authorities move forward (presuming they can peacefully resolve existing uncertainties), one can expect future appeals to the initiatives of patriotic bloggers.

Particularly on matters related to WWII, there is a readymade contingent of state loyalists, whose devotion to the USSR's military victory (the central justification for Soviet power for nearly four decades) embodies the main pillars of Putin's presidency — that strong leadership is required to steer the country clear of crisis, be it the 1940s, the 1990s, or perhaps even the 2010s.

1 comment

  • Arch Getty

    I haven’t seen the film.  I do know, however, that in the early stages of the war in the face of the rapid German advance, there were many executions of long-sitting political prisoners (like Spriridonova and many previously popular SRs) in the camps.  Apparently Moscow feared their liberation by the Germans so, like executing the tsar a generation earlier, they pre-empted these politicians from becoming anti-Soviet symbols or leaders.

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