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The Unknown War
WWII and the Epic Battles
of the Russian Front

Hosted by Burt Lancaster, 1978.
16.5 hours. $39.97.

In 1978, the Soviet Union’s leaders were miffed by the landmark series The World At War, which they felt slighted Soviet achievements in favor of the West’s. So the USSR’s Central Studio for Documentary Film organized this competing 20-part epic about the Eastern Front, with executive producer Isaac Kleinerman, who counted Victory at Sea and The 20th Century among his credits. Journalist-author Harrison Salisbury, a Russian expert, wrote the companion book; poet Rod McKuen adapted the script and composed the score.

The results vary from eye-opening and electrifying to pure propaganda. Rare archival footage, culled from 3.5 million feet of film, is the big hook here. Searing shots of entire cities like Kiev razed to the ground, tattered villages surrounded by scorched earth, maimed and skeletal survivors, stacked bodies, and corpse-filled pits spell out the costs inflicted by the bloodthirsty German crusade. Battle-field sequences caught by Red Army cameramen pierce the fog of war at the ground level with jolting, gritty moments. There are moments of tenderness too, which humanize the Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Poles who paid in blood while Stalin pushed for the pressure-relieving second front he didn’t quite get until June 6, 1944.

There are moments of whitewash and Big Lies. In 1978, the Soviet Union was presided over by Leonid Brezhnev and Andrei Kosygin (both, along with Marshal Zhukov and other Soviet luminaries who earned their status under Stalin during the war, share memories of their duties and the surrounding horrors during the series). Official dogma about Eastern Europe’s “liberation” still shrouded what really happened. So we’re told the Katyn massacre was a Nazi atrocity pinned on the Soviets. Episodes about Ukraine, the Baltic states, Belorussia, and Poland seem surreal, larded with Orwellian doublethink. Apparently, displaced millions cheerfully marched to collective farms and embraced Soviet overlords. This stuff can make you cringe, scream, or laugh. (From a Russian perspective, so can Western war sagas.)

The Unknown War aired briefly in America, yanked after the USSR invaded Afghanistan. This new DVD set marks the first time it has surfaced since. Despite the ideological blinders, most of the series’ powerful footage hammers home truths scarcely remembered in the West during the Cold War: Unimaginable Soviet losses, including some 20 million dead and vast regions desolated. Economic and logistical miracles, like relocating thousands of factories and millions of workers behind the Urals. And pivotal Nazi defeats like Stalingrad and Kursk that made victory attainable. The best parts of The Unknown War make those brutal realities as vivid and unforgettable as they should be.