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Soviet-Era Film On Battle For Moscow Premieres Again, 40 Years Later

A poster for the 1968 film "Za nami Moskva" (Frontline Moscow)
A poster for the 1968 film "Za nami Moskva" (Frontline Moscow)
"Za nami Moskva" (Frontline Moscow), a popular Soviet-era war drama, is making its return to the international stage, some 40 years after the film first debuted.

Mazhit Begalin's 1968 movie, which is being screened at a film festival in Moscow on November 7, is dedicated to the Red Army's battle to defend Moscow.

The screening of the film is timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of a military parade marking the Bolshevik Revolution held as Nazi troops approached the capital. From the Red Square festivities on November 7, 1941, Soviet troops went directly to the front.

Despite the traditional film culture of the time, which dictated that the main character of Soviet war films be an ethnic Russian, "Frontline Moscow's" main character and hero was an ethnic Kazakh.

Those close to Begalin say the Kazakh film director, a war veteran himself, had to overcome many intrigues and confrontations to get his movie made and released.

A Kazakh Hero

Baurzhan Momyshuly (1910-1982)
Baurzhan Momyshuly (1910-1982)
"Frontline Moscow" depicts a three-day battle fought in the village of Matrenino outside Moscow in November 1941. The movie shows how a military unit led by Bauyrzhan Momyshuly, an ethnic Kazakh, takes up defensive positions and forces the enemy to retreat from the area, suffering heavy casualties.

The unit was part of the Red Army's 316th Rifle Division, which played a key role in defending Moscow. Across the Soviet Union, the division was better known as the Panfilov Division, named after its commander, Red Army General Ivan Panfilov.

Begalin's problems began with the film's script, which was originally based on Russian writer Aleksandr Bek's novel "Volokolamskoye shosse" (Volokolamsk Highway).

In turn, "Volokolamsk Highway," a wartime Soviet propaganda book published in 1943, was based on Kazakh commander Momyshuly's accounts. By the 1960s, Momyshuly had published his own memoir, "Frontline Moscow. Commander's Notes."

Bek's friends and relatives recall that much to Bek's annoyance, Momyshuly had always considered himself a co-author of the book, a claim the Russian writer refused to accept.

'Frontline Minsk'?

The disagreements between Bek and the Kazakh commander set back Begalin's efforts to create his movie. The Russian writer claimed Begalin's script "smelled of nationalism," according to the film director's brother, Kasym.

Director Mazhit Begalin (left) talks on the set with actor Kauken Kenzhetaev, who played Momyshuly.
Director Mazhit Begalin (left) talks on the set with actor Kauken Kenzhetaev, who played Momyshuly.
"It was approved that the script would be based on Bek's book. One-third of the movie was filmed. Bek watched the material and said he no longer wanted to be part of the project, claiming it smelt of nationalism," Kasym Begalin says. "He said the movie depicts it as if it was only a Kazakh military unit that saved Moscow."

Bek left the project, and Begalin had to rewrite the script, this time based on Momyshuly's book. Bek continued to put pressure on the project, accusing Begalin of plagiarism.

There were further problems surrounding the movie, including the Soviet film authorities' initial reluctance to shoot a film about a living person, Momyshuly.

When Begalin finally managed to get the authorities' approval, a leading actor who played the main character refused to travel to Kazakhstan to film the first half of the movie. The crew had to shoot it in Minsk instead.

"Frontline Moscow" went on to become one of the most popular movies in the Soviet Union when it was finally launched in May 1968.

Many Kazakhs remember how national television would show "Frontline Moscow" almost every year on February 23, Soviet Army Day.

This is a condensed version of a piece written in Russian by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Aleksey Azarov
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