MOSCOW - In October, Russia's controversial minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, called a Soviet legend about 28 soldiers who died defending Moscow from invading Nazis in World War II “sacred” and said anyone who questions it is "scum."
“Panfilov’s 28," a ministry-supported feature film dramatizing the story, was released to cinemas across Russia in November, despite Soviet archives published in 2015 that prove the legend was propaganda.
The official Soviet story goes like this, 28 Red Army soldiers in World War II, under the leadership of General Ivan Panfilov, bravely sacrificed their lives to fend off Nazi tanks attacking Moscow.
In reality, the story was grossly exaggerated and the details that made the 28 men uniquely heroic were fabricated. Some of the soldiers survived, at least one joined the Nazis, and Panfilov had thousands of men under his command.
But Russia’s Ministry of Culture backed the film as well as an exhibit in Moscow, belittling those who question Soviet legends.
At the entrance to the exhibit, titled "War and Myths. 1941-1945. There is no going back," guests walk over the names of people who publicly criticize Soviet history. One reads “Verkhovna Rada,” the name of Ukraine’s parliament, which last year banned Soviet symbols and criminalized sympathy for communism with up to five years in prison.
Ukraine’s dramatic effort to break from its Soviet past included the toppling of numerous statues of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, and came after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Ukraine’s east.
The Moscow exhibit included much praise for the legend of Panfilov’s 28, a sentiment echoed by volunteers who helped organize it.
“Well, Panfilov 28 is not a myth. They were a symbol of the defense of Moscow,” says Alexey Kachalov, a guide at the exhibit who quickly contradicts himself.
“When new facts appear they must be compared to the existing facts and we must study them as a system and carry out new research. It seems to me the deed remains a deed even if many more people perished then, not just 28 people, but the whole 316th division that fought defending Moscow.”
“It is not important how true to life they are,” says a woman visiting the exhibit who gives only her first name Alyona. “At present, it is important to bring up patriotism. Such films are important to my generation so that we don't forget and our children don't forget the war but keep it in memory.”
“There are always those who defend their heroes and there are always those who are against them, especially those who try to create a greater myth and drag it all through the dirt,” says Alexey Nosov, an exhibition volunteer and member of the Russian Military and History Club.
The Soviet Union taught the legend of Panfilov’s 28 to every child as a fact of history.
Russian authorities’ efforts to maintain such legends, to the point of insulting historians, is drawing criticism.
“My response is that I’m not going to use the same language, but I would say that those people who think that their nation deserves neither historical truth nor the knowledge of how it really was do not respect their people,” says history teacher Alexey Kuznetsov.
Russia's aggressive defense of Soviet propaganda exploits a public conditioned to celebrate heroes and dismiss uncomfortable facts, he says.
“Many people do not want to know [the] truth. They feel comfortable with those legends they have heard from their childhood. It’s some sort of nostalgia.”
At a war re-enactment staged for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Moscow, hundreds of people stand waiting for the fight despite the cold. A tent nearby sells chocolate guns and Russians pose for photos in front of a Nazi swastika flag spread out on the hood of a historic armored vehicle
“There is a historical necessity for some legends,” says director of the re-enactment Kirill Khairov when asked about Panfilov’s 28. “People did not go into battle without both legends, myths and ideas.”
In modern Russia, the battle is for the minds of the next generation, whether they will be taught factual history or simplified legends of greatness.
The truth will eventually be established, says historian Kuznetsov. He notes it took many years to dispel myths on the French Invasion of Russia in 1812. “The same will happen to the World War II stories,” he says. “But, it will take some time. Probably I will not see it. But, my grandchildren, I am sure, yes.”