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Ukrainian War-Film Hero: Soviet Victory 'Was By All'

  • Valentin Baryshnikov
  • Daisy Sindelar

Ukrainian actor Vladimir Talashko in the 1973 film Only Old Men Are Going To Battle

Ukrainian actor Vladimir Talashko in the 1973 film Only Old Men Are Going To Battle

Russian state television is promising a special treat for military veterans for Victory Day on May 9: a newly colorized version of the 1973 film classic Only Old Men Are Going To Battle, the powerful story of a doomed squadron of World War II fighter pilots.

There's just one problem. The movie, arguably one of the best of the Soviet war genre, was directed by a Ukrainian, filmed in Ukraine, and stars more than a half-dozen Ukrainian actors -- including Vladimir Talashko, whose character, an aspiring opera singer, is killed after deliberately crashing his plane into a Nazi supply train, shouting, "We will live on!"

"An enormous number of movies have been made, and are still being made, about the war," says Talashko, 69. "But this one is so strong and so important that Russia wants to tie it to its own success."

Talashko recently returned to the screen as a World War II veteran in a patriotic television ad that draws parallels between Ukraine's World War II sacrifices and its current battle against Russia-backed separatists in its eastern Donbas region.

The ad, which includes several visual nods to Talashko's role in Only Old Men, is part of a Ukrainian campaign aimed at rebuffing attempts by Moscow to erase Ukraine's role in the victory over Nazi Germany and brand current Ukrainian fighters as modern-day "fascists."

Talashko, a native of Makiyivka, a small city located just 25 kilometers from Donetsk, was born a year after the end of World War II. But he says even the enormity of that conflict, which claimed an estimated 8 million Ukrainian lives, never prepared him for what's unfolding now in his country.

"My grandmother, who lived through the occupation, who lived through the war, always said the most important thing was that there never be another war," he says. "I don't think anyone my age ever imagined that a war would come from across the Russian border."

Talashko continues to travel to film festivals and other engagements in Russia, where he says the cultural elite remains quietly dismayed by the war in Ukraine. "I know a lot of smart people who don't support the Kremlin's habits," he says. Still, he admits such cross-border trips are likely to grow less frequent.

"I never saw any Ukrainian soldiers anywhere in Russia," he says. "And yet there are Russian soldiers standing in my Donbas, in my Makiyivka. My brother still lives in Makiyivka, and he has a lot of problems and grief."

Vladimir Talashko in recent advertisement

Vladimir Talashko in recent advertisement

Adding to his resentment is Russia's rampant revisionism when it comes to the Soviet World War II victory. Current Russian accounts make little mention of troops from the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, which was not only a source of soldiers but the site of some of the war's bloodiest battles.

As early as 2011 -- a full three years before the start of the Donbas conflict -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was casting doubt on Ukraine's contribution to the Nazi defeat, saying Russia "would have won regardless."

Talashko says such assertions are a grave insult to all of the war's Soviet veterans.

"Maybe the lion's share of that great victory in fact goes to the Russian people," Talashko says. "But let's put a stop to offending other nations -- Armenians, Georgians, Jews, Ukrainians -- by saying that the great Russian nation could have achieved victory alone. That's unfair and wrong, and most importantly, it's a blatant lie."

The fame of Only Old Men has earned Talashko countless appearances at Victory Day commemorations through the years. But this year, he says, he's turned down invitations from both St. Petersburg and Makiyivka, saying he doesn't want to participate in the film's growing politicization. (Ironically, many Ukrainians have disavowed the film as "Soviet" rather than purely Ukrainian.)

At the same time, Talashko says Only Old Men disproves Putin's claims of Russian exceptionalism. The "singing squadron," as the film's musically inclined pilots are known, include not only Ukrainians but Russians, an Uzbek, and a Georgian -- all of whom rally around Talashko's character at a moment when his courage fails him.

"My character really showed that the war, and the winning of the war, wasn't the work of a single person, a single army, or a single nationality. Just as wars are won not only by tanks, or only by weapons, but also by songs, love, faith, and hope," he says.

"This was one victory, a victory by all the nations of the former Soviet Union," he adds. "Because we will live on."

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