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Russian Minister Says Authenticity Of War Legend Beyond Dispute, 'Amoral' To Dig Further 

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has argued that the story's authenticity is not the issue.
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has argued that the story's authenticity is not the issue.

Russia's culture minister has revealed historical records that he claims prove the authenticity of a World War II legend largely debunked by historians, delivering the latest salvo in a long-running dispute that challenges the official narrative of the Soviet Union's war experience.

In an article published in the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta on December 2, Vladimir Medinsky cites passages from wartime accounts declassified this spring by Russia's secret services that purport to shed new light on heroics attributed to the 316th division of the Red Army under the leadership of General Ivan Panfilov. The documents form part of an investigation launched in the spring of 1942 by the NKVD secret police, the predecessor to the Soviet KGB, Medinsky writes.

Commonly referred to as "Panfilov's 28 men," the legend is among the most controversial episodes of World War II. According to a version long advanced by Soviet and Russian authorities, 28 soldiers of Panfilov's division gave their lives stopping a column of several dozen German tanks in its advance on Moscow in the winter of 1941. The men were posthumously named Heroes of the Soviet Union.

The legend was first popularized on the pages of the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star in a November 1941 article by Aleksandr Krivitsky, and was quickly spread by other journalists on the front line as an example of the bravery and sacrifice of Soviet soldiers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of state archives, it came under scrutiny from historians. In 1997, an article in the journal New World dismissed the story as a fabrication, claiming among others that many of the men listed dead were in fact still alive.

People attend the opening of a street-art-style painting promoting the new Russian film The Panfilov 28 in central Moscow in November 2016.
People attend the opening of a street-art-style painting promoting the new Russian film The Panfilov 28 in central Moscow in November 2016.

In 2015, the Russian State Archive published on its website the scan of an 11-page report to the Communist Party from the Soviet Union's chief military prosecutor, dated May 10, 1948, that describes the alleged feat of Panfilov's men as a fabrication by the Soviet press. Several months later, the longtime head of the State Archive, Sergei Mironenko, was demoted in a move that critics tied to his vocal opposition to the Russian government's promotion of questionable war stories.

After Mironenko authorized the publication of the May 1948 report, Medinsky said that the director of the Russian archive should not be "a fighter against historical falsifications." In his latest article, Medinsky called that report a politically motivated document that, due to its release seven years after the event, cannot be relied upon as evidence of the story's fabrication.

'Sacred Legend'

Medinsky has been one of the most vocal figures in the debate over the story's authenticity. As culture minister he has driven the public commemoration of many aspects of the Soviet World War II experience, which forms a key part of contemporary Russian identity. The legend of Panfilov's 28 men has inspired myriad books, poems, and monuments across the former Soviet Union, and in 2016 the Culture Ministry spent 30 million rubles ($460,000) on a drama promoting the legend of the famed Soviet division.

The film, which has been aired at special events at Russian embassies worldwide, provoked controversy upon its release and charges that the Russian state was promoting a story that had been proven false. In response, Medinsky argued that the story's authenticity was not the issue.

"Even if this story were made up from start to finish, even if there had been no Panfilov, even if there had been nothing at all," he said at the time, "this is a sacred legend, which simply cannot be touched. And those who do so are washed-up scumbags."

Medinsky advances a similar line of argument in his article. While he describes the release of the new documents as a "modest historical sensation," he argues that it's "amoral" to dig into the details of the famed legend. What's important is that these men died honestly for their country, he writes.

He concludes by renewing his attacks on those who seek to falsify the stories that form the foundation of Russian identity. Such critics' charges are not academic but ideological, he argues, and then rifles through the names of wartime heroes that Russia has placed on a pedestal.

"All of them were sacred martyrs outside of a religious context. They are our spiritual template," he writes. "Our national identity is based on the examples and the names of these civilian saints, and generally speaking the civic and historical unity of our country."

On December 3, in a press briefing aimed at promoting the new findings, Medinsky sought to make them the last word in a long-running clash between historians and Russia's official narrative on history -- a dispute in which he's played a primary role.

"The given materials prove that the events described by the Red Star correspondent have indeed more factual foundations than we had thought," Medinsky told journalists at the headquarters of the Russian Military-Historical Society, which he runs. "And they bring to naught the speculations of various publicists."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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