Remembrance of World War II in Russia and Kyrgyzstan
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Exactly a year ago, a new war film hit Russian cinema screens. Dvatsat’ vosem’ panfilovtsev (Panfilov’s 28) tells the story of a handful of outnumbered Red Army guardsmen who make a stand against a German tank battalion closing in on Moscow on 15–16 November 1941.[i] In an heroic act of self-sacrifice, they destroy 18 tanks while paying the ultimate price.
This David and Goliath film is just one indicator of the war cult prevalent across Russia under President Putin. Under the current memorial climate, the Great Patriotic War (1941–45) has become both an existential narrative of Russia’s national identity and a metaphor for national unity as, more than ever, the state is staking a firm claim to ownership of war memory, as in the Brezhnev years. A black and white example of the forces of good against evil, Panfilov’s 28 is overtly supportive of the national war myth with its unquestionable heroes martyred in the defence of the Fatherland in the face of the fiendish enemy threatening its very existence.
This is an updated version of the 1967 film Za nami Moskva (Moscow is Behind Us), which appeared during the war cult of the Brezhnev era.[ii] The new film retells the story of an exploit which was widely reported during the war to boost the morale of the population. This myth was so powerful that it was taught in school history lessons in the postwar years. Streets, schools and villages were named after the heroic riflemen, monuments erected to them, and more than one book written about their courageous stand. Its heroes became a legend.
I knew that this film would be useful for my research project on myth making even before it was released.[iii] By sheer coincidence, the first opportunity I had to buy it was in Bishkek, where it took quite a lot of searching to track it down; locals simply had not heard of it. This in itself was strange, as Panfilov’s regiment was formed largely from troops mobilised in the Soviet Union’s central Asian south, thousands of miles from where they eventually met their death in the defence of Moscow. Why, then, is the film evidently not so popular in Kyrgyzstan as in Russia, where its production was partly financed by crowd-funding, presumably from the younger generation who are more comfortable with transferring money via the internet and who are literally buying into war memory in this way?
Apparently, remembrance of the war is less significant in Kyrgyzstan than in Russia. As the 75th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, ‘eternal’ flames in towns and villages are starting to die out. Where they are tended, they are not always the mandatory focus of respect as in the Soviet days: citizens of Bishkek have even been caught frying eggs and baking potatoes in the flame of the central war memorial.[iv] This would certainly never happen in Russia, where any such culprits would probably eat their next meal in custody.
Despite this, an unmissable statue to General Panfilov still stands in the centre of Bishkek’s Panfilov Park, while all 28 riflemen are commemorated in Almaty in Kazakhstan.
In the regional centre of the Issyk Kul’ district of Kyrgyzstan, details of five local members of Panfilov’s 28 are retained in the archives, their images dusted off and proudly brought out on display for the Victory Day season in May. Of especial interest is young rifleman Anan’ev, whose home village on the banks of Lake Issyk Kul’ was renamed in his memory. There, a giant Soviet mural recalls the exploit of all Panfilov’s men who died during that action in November 1941, just off the beaten track and obviously not tended as well as their more prestigious general.
These men were all made posthumous Heroes of the Soviet Union as the event was mythologised in Soviet history. This is the reason given by writer and director Andrei Shal’opa for wanting to make the film in the first place. However, during the lengthy filming process, archival evidence came to light suggesting that, although such a skirmish had indeed taken place, not all the Soviet soldiers had died. It appears that the encounter had been exaggerated at the time in a report by Krasnaia zvezda war correspondent Vasilii Koroteev.[v] Although Koroteev was probably doing his duty within the unspoken guidelines of the times to seek out examples of Soviet heroism in order to boost public morale, an investigation in 1948 into the incident proved that the whole affair had been wildly over-inflated. The findings of the investigation were, however, suppressed by the authorities in order to maintain the popular myth which had by then developed.[vi] Fast forward to today, when transparency is still apparently an issue in Russia. Shal’opa protested against mounting criticism of the resurrected myth by attacking those who seek to debunk instances of accepted national heroism, which in his view only serves ‘to weaken the people’s moral foundation’.[vii] According to the director, it is dangerous to pull the carpet out from under this widespread myth, a mainstay of Russian cultural heritage and the nation’s identity. Although Shal’opa recognises that the action is not strictly speaking historically true, he claims that the basic facts remain relevant: that the incident actually took place and real, heroic people definitely died.[viii] Accordingly, he has creatively reworked this longstanding myth to explore the nature of idealised patriotism as the Russian state wishes to see it disseminated today. My current research examines the impact and legacy of World War II in the countries of Central Asia. This film is a timely example of the different attitudes to war memory in Russia and the former peripheral Soviet republics. I have found that in Kyrgyzstan memory of the war has been eroded substantially as the history of the twentieth century has been revised since independence in favour of events promoting nationalistic pride rather than a distant conflict under the flag of the former Soviet Union. Here is a problem for families of veterans and war heroes, whose genuine courage may seem devalued with respect to that of their Russian counterparts.
An opposite mnemonic bias is evident in Russia. State sponsorship and endorsement by the president and minister of culture demonstrate the film’s utility in developing Russian national pride today.[ix] But it is notable that the film’s cast includes relatively few Asian faces; just like the ghostly figures re-emerging in the final scenes, only shadows of Panfilov’s 28 live on in their home country. Vicky Davis is an author and independent researcher. Her latest book is Myth Making in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia: Remembering World War Two in Brezhnev's Hero City. __________________________________________________________________________________ [i] Andrei Shal’opa, Dvatsat’ vosem’ panfilovtsev, Libyan Palette Studios: St Petersburg, 2016. [ii] Mazhit Begalin, Za nami Moskva, USSR: Kazakhfil’m, 1967. [iii] Vicky Davis, Myth Making in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia, London: IB Tauris, 2017. [iv] ‘Kyrgyz Authorities Looking For Men Seen Roasting Potatoes On Eternal Flame’, Radio Free Europe, 6/12/2016, [accessed 09/11/2017]. [v] Vasilii Koroteev, ‘Zaveshchanie 28 pavshikh geroev’, Krasnaia zvezda, 28/11/1941, p. 1. [vi] ‘Russian archives cast doubt on legends of Soviet war heroes’, The Moscow Times, 09/07/2015, [accessed 15/11/2016]; Shaun Walker, ‘Russian war film set to open amid controversy over accuracy of events’, theguardian, 23/22/2016, [accessed 23/11/2016]; and ‘Panfilov’s 28 Men: Is Russian war movie the whole story?’, BBC, 24/11/2016, [accessed 27/11/2016]. [vii] Andrew Pulver, ‘Russian film about disputed wartime action wins Putin’s support’, 11/10/2016, The Guardian, [accessed 11/10/2016]. [viii] Elena Kostomarova, ‘Rezhisser fil’ma "28 panfilovtsev": "otstupat’ nekuda”’, 16/11/2014, Argumenty i fakty, [accessed 11/10/2016]. [ix] Andrei Shal’opa, Dvatsat’ vosem’ panfilovtsev, Lenfil’m, 2016, [accessed 11/10/2016]. Harry Bone, ‘Putin backs WW2 myth in new Russian film’, BBC, 11/10/2016, [accessed 11/10/2106].