The Academy Award-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov once said, “Cinema is the most powerful weapon.” In Russia, it’s a weapon wielded to excise uncomfortable truths about its Soviet legacy in favor of unifying the Russian people under a shallow, state-manufactured conception of national greatness. Russia needs heroes—that’s true. But under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, the Russian people don’t write the story. The Kremlin does.
Putin’s “movie wishlist” will tell you a lot about the narrative he wants to spin. Each year, Russia’s Ministry of Culture publishes a list of themes that filmmakers need to focus on if they want state funding. In 2015, these themes included the military glory of Russia, modern heroes, the roles of Crimea and Ukraine in Russian history, and the 100 year anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Two recent products of this wishlist are Panfilov’s 28 Men, released in November 2016, and Viking, released internationally in January 2017. Both received funding from the Russian government, scored at the box office, and got the thumbs-up from Putin.
Panfilov’s 28 Men deals with one of Russia’s favorite subjects: World War II. It tells the story of 28 Red Army soldiers who showed “uncommon bravery and unwavering dedication to protect Moscow and their Motherland” when they sacrificed their lives to fend off 54 Nazi tanks. The story, which was used in the Stalin era to promote a “no surrender, no retreat” policy, is now legendary—but it’s not true. A 1948 military investigation revealed that Panfilov’s division had 10,000 soldiers. The legendary 28 were only those listed as dead or missing.
This may not seem like a big deal. It’s not uncommon for Hollywood to spin heroic tales from dubious history. But Panfilov’s 28 Men is propagated as fact. When Russia’s chief state archivist Sergei Mironenko released the previously classified results of the 1948 investigation in 2015, he was fired from his job.
Why did releasing seven-decade-old historical documents earn Mironenko a pink slip? Because the point of the film, as with all historical propaganda, is to “build social consensus on the only correct version of Russian history: a version cobbled together by politicians and political scientists,” in the words of historian Miguel Vázquez Liñán.
World War II is a cornerstone of this narrative. In 2009, President Dmitri Medvedev even set up the “Commission to Counteract the Falsification of History to the Detriment of Russian Interests” in order to control the historical narrative of the Stalin years and World War II. The renowned historical and civil rights society Memorial—which works to record Soviet crimes and combat present-day abuses—pointed out that “falsification of history” is essentially a euphemism for exposing historical truths that the government wants to eradicate from national memory.
The government is working aggressively to control the narrative. One blogger was slapped with a $200,000 fine for “distributing false reports about the actions of the USSR during the Second World War” when he reposted an article about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. College professors have been sacked for teaching lessons contrary to the “correct” version of history, and the books of respected foreign Eastern Front historians are banned. Russia’s Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, called the story of Panfilov’s men a “sacred legend” and said anyone who discredits it is “filthy scum.”
Meanwhile, Putin traveled to Astana and watched Panfilov’s 28 Men with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in order to emphasize the film’s message of the unity between Kazakh, Kyrgz, and Russian soldiers. That’s the “true” story the Kremlin wants Russia and its neighbors to remember about the Soviet era: military greatness, self-sacrifice, and bonds of friendship across the Russian-speaking world. Forget that the Soviet Union signed a pact with Hitler that sparked World War II in the first place.
Viking checks another important box for the Ministry of Culture: it supports a Russian historical claim on Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014. The film dramatizes the story of Vladimir the Great, who brought Christianity to Russia in the late 10th century. While there is little actual evidence about his life, the filmmakers make a point of showing the Prince conquering an ancient city located in modern-day Crimea. Lithuanian Parliament members called out Viking for what it is: an “element of Russia’s informational war” against Ukraine.
While Viking is reportedly the most expensive Russian film ever made, the Ministry of Culture is getting a pretty juicy political ROI. Dubbed “Russia’s Game of Thrones,” the film earned a record $1 billion at the Russian box office in its first nine days. After he and Medinsky cozied up to watch it together, Putin remarked, “Definitely interesting. I’d enjoy watching it one more time.” Big surprise there.
In today’s digital age, the Russian government’s first point of contact with its citizens is no longer in schools but on screen. The major problem with ministry-approved films such as Viking and Panfilov’s 28 Men isn’t simply that they’re fabrications. Most people know that they shouldn’t believe everything they see at the movies. But when the government supports the fabrications, when it denies that the USSR originally allied with the Nazis, when it invents flimsy historical claims to justify current foreign policy, and when it criminalizes those who tell the truth, it commits fraud against the Russian people—who are great in spite of Russia’s Soviet past, because they resisted and they endured.
Photo: Russia Presidential Executive Office