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MOSCOW -- They were known as Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen -- a legendary unit of Soviet soldiers written into the pantheon of national heroism after they died battling German tanks just two hours outside Moscow as the freezing winter of 1941-1942 set in.
Seventy years after the war ended, streets across Russia and other former Soviet republics are named “Panfilov’s Heroes.” Last month, filming began on a feature movie backed by the Culture Ministry lauding the valor of Panfilov’s guardsmen. A couplet in Moscow’s anthem proclaims: “And in eternity shall live the 28, the most courageous of your sons.”
The only trouble is, the legend looks to be a lie.
Some of the soldiers said to have died valiantly, in fact, lived on for years after the alleged feat, according to new documents that have come to light.
On July 8, the state archive published a scan of a formerly top secret, now declassified document from 1948 in which the chief Soviet military prosecutor informed powerful Soviet politburo member Andrei Zhdanov that the legend “does not correspond with reality,” saying it is based on the "fiction" of a Red Army journalist.
Historians have long said the legend of the 28 guardsmen contained glaring inaccuracies.
But the publication of these documents serves as long-sought hard evidence that lays to rest any remaining doubts, according to Andrei Zubov, a prominent Russian historian.
"This is very important because we all knew about this, but of course not all the documents were open,” Zubov, who was dismissed as a history professor of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations last year for criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, told RFE/RL.
“Now all doubts have faded away and this myth will disappear,” said Zubov. “I hope so anyway, although astonishingly there are streets named in honor of the ‘Panfilov Heroes’ and now they're going to have to rename them somehow."
The storied 28 of the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division led by Major General Ivan Panfilov posthumously received the title Hero of the USSR in July 1942 following articles in the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) detailing how they died while destroying 18 Nazi tanks and repelling the attack.
A memorial to the men was raised in their honor.
But several years after the war, unbeknownst to the public in the secretive Soviet Union, inconsistencies came to light.
According to the text of the 1948 report to Zhdanov, one of the men listed as dead and awarded the title of “Hero,” Ivan Dobrobabin, was later found to be alive when he was arrested for “betrayal of the motherland” in 1947.
It was subsequently established Dobrobabin had surrendered to the Nazis, reads the report. It says that another five of the 28 survived the battle, and that one had been killed in combat two days earlier.
The 1948 report traces the first reference to the heroic deeds of the 28 soldiers to the Red Army’s newspaper in articles authored by a correspondent with the surname Koroteyev.
The report concludes: “it has been established by the investigation that the deeds of the 28 Panfilov guardsmen reported in the press are the fiction of correspondent Koroteyev."
Zubov was adamant that the emergence of this hard documentary evidence means street names in their honor should be changed, but was unsure how that might happen.
President Vladimir Putin’s government bristles at attempts to question its black-and-white narrative of World War II and the victory over Nazi Germany, a source of immense pride in a country that lost millions of soldiers and civilians.
Meanwhile, the makers of Panfilov’s 28, an upcoming film, are brushing aside the publication of the archival document note. The filmmakers have promised to push ahead with the movie despite what they say are attempts to “undermine this heroic feat.”
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.