JULY 2009 — A television documentary about the Red Army’s enormous death toll during World War II has drawn a fierce backlash in Russia, where the “Great Patriotic War” has been viewed in recent decades as a time of noble sacrifice. The film, Rzhev: Marshal Zhukov’s Unknown Battle, aired on Russian television in February. It tells the story of the little-known battles of Rzhev—a town on the upper Volga River—in 1942 and 1943, in which more than a million Soviet soldiers were killed. Along with battlefield reenactments, the film includes interviews with veterans on both sides, notably several German survivors who said the Red Army’s human-wave attacks used Soviet troops as little more than “cannon fodder.”
This depiction of Soviet tactics has infuriated many Russians, some of whom demanded the arrest of the film’s narrator, Russian news anchor Alexei Pivovarov, calling him a traitor. Several high-ranking members of the Russian government have even called for a new law, based on Holocaust denial legislation in Germany, that would criminalize any reference to the Soviet Union not winning the war. Several legislators, with the support of the Russian prosecutor general, have agreed to present the idea to the Russian parliament this year.
“It has become the fashion to smear the heroic deeds of the Soviet people and to defame the Soviet way of life,” said Ivan Korbutov, a retired general who heads the Russian council of war veterans. “Such actions, orchestrated at the behest of the West to discredit our glorious past, must be brought to court and the journalists responsible punished.”
Tensions have been flaring throughout Eastern Europe in recent years over some of the lingering grievances of the Second World War, but many outsiders are baffled by the furious response to the new documentary, which most observers consider to be fair and balanced.
“The name Rzhev should resound in the consciousness of Russians in the same way that the Somme does for Britons,” Adrian Blomfield, the Moscow correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, wrote in a recent issue of the Moscow News Weekly. “This cataclysmic death toll was largely the result of Josef Stalin’s disdain for the lives of his own men and of the atrocious bungling of Soviet commanders. Yet most Russians know little of the Rzhev battles because they have largely been airbrushed from official history.”
That airbrushing, it seems, is likely to continue.