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    From Real Heroism to Film Reel: Archives Reveal People Behind Soviet WWII Epics

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    The archival materials, declassified on the eve of Victory Day, when people across the former Soviet Union celebrate the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, reveal that while Soviet film directors may have taken some artistic license with their characters and storylines, the stories they told were often based on real-world heroism.

    The documents, published on the Russian Defense Ministry's website, include dozens upon dozens of archival papers, commendation lists, tactical planning papers, battlefield reports and other papers which would become the basis for legendary Soviet World War II epics on the Red Army's war against the Nazis  on the ground, in the air and at sea.

    Among the films mentioned by the Defense Ministry is The Night Witches in the Skies, a 1981 historical drama telling the story of Soviet women aviators of a night bomber regiment nicknamed 'Nachthexen' ('the Night Witches') by the Nazis.

    Scene from The Night Witches in the Skies.
    Scene from The Night Witches in the Skies.

    The film's director, Yevgeniya Zhigulenko, fought through the entire war, and carried out 773 combat sorties, rising to the rank of commander of the 46th Guards night bomber aviation regiment. She was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union (the country's highest honor) for her service. Her regiment carried out a total of 23,672 sorties, dropping nearly three million kg of explosives on the enemy. 

    The archival documents published by the Defense Ministry include the commendations of Zhigulenko and her fellow pilots, photographs, a guide on the pilots' combat training, and operational reports.

    Captain Evgenia Zhigulenko.
    Captain Evgenia Zhigulenko.

    The Crew of the Battle Machine

    1983 saw the release of The Crew of the Battle Machine, a film dedicated to the exploits of tankmen during the Battle of Kursk, the titanic summer 1943 tank battle which shattered the Nazis offensive capabilities in the East. The plot of the film was based on the experiences of screenwriter Alexander Milyukov, who fought at Kursk.

    Scene from The Crew of the Battle Machine
    Scene from The Crew of the Battle Machine

    Milyukov himself was awarded the medal For Courage, and fought his way to Berlin, wounded three times in fierce battles. The documents released by the Defense Ministry include intelligence reports on enemy tanks, rare newspaper clippings on how to defeat the Wehrmacht's fearsome Tigers, and battle reports.

    Order conferring Milyukov the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
    Order conferring Milyukov the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

    One-Two, Soldiers Were Going…

    The 1976 film directed by Leonid Bykov is one of the most famous WWII films in Soviet cinematography, and is based on real events which took place in March 1943, when a platoon commanded by Lieutenant Pyotor Shironin held out for several days and nights against the Nazis near the village of Tarankovka in the region of Kharkov, Ukraine. Armed with a lone 45-mm anti-tank gun, the troops destroyed six enemy tanks and seven armored vehicles in one day. Only four of the 25 members of the platoon survived. The entire platoon was presented the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. 

    The MoD documents released include the original commendation list, operational summaries, and the front page of Stalin's Guards, the newspaper of the 25th Guards Rifle Division which featured a full-page spread on the platoon's exploits.

    Commander of the Lucky 'Pike'

    This 1972 film tells the story of submariners of the Northern Fleet and their defense of the Arctic. The film's main character, Captain Strogov, is based on an amalgamation of two real-life officers – Lieutenant Semyon Kovalenko and Captain 3rd Rank Fedor Vidyaev. The stories of the real-life submariners included an incident in the Barents Sea, where Shch-403 under Kovalenko's command came up against for two German destroyers and proceeded to engage in combat. Receiving a severe wound to the leg, Kovalenko was unable to descend from the bridge of the sub, but ordered his crew to dive anyway. The Kriegsmarine picked him up in the water, interrogated him, and put him in a POW camp, where he was executed in 1944.

    Captain Semyon Kovalenko
    © Photo : Russian Defence Ministry
    Captain Semyon Kovalenko

    The other sub, the Shch-421 under the command of Vidyaev, hit a mine in the spring of 1943, and was scuttled after its crew transferred to another vessel. Vidyaev was the last to leave the vessel, after which it was torpedoed and sank by the enemy.

    The plot of Commander of the Lucky 'Pike' is similar but more romanticized, with the fictional Captain Strogov's sub considered lucky, repeatedly escaping from difficult situations against overwhelming odds. Similarly to Kovalenko's story, however, the main character ends up saving his boat and crew at the cost of his own life.

    The fictional Captain Strogov of the film Commander of the Lucky 'Pike'
    The fictional Captain Strogov of the film Commander of the Lucky 'Pike'

    The declassified documents released by the Defense Ministry include battle logs, personal profiles and commendation lists.

    Battalions are Asking for Supporting Fire

    This 1985 miniseries was written by Yuri Bondarev about the 1943 battle for the Dnieper. A veteran of the war himself, Bondarev participated in the crossing of the Dnieper River and the subsequent liberation of Kiev. The film provides a detailed, unembellished, often-times brutal account of the fighting. 

    The documents released by the Defense Ministry serve to support the authenticity of Bondarev's artistic work, and includes journals of combat operations by units involved in the fighting, detailing the difficult river crossing, as well as enemy armored and aerial attacks to try to kick the Red Army from its hard-won bridgehead. The freshly-released documents also include commendations lists on the personal valor displayed by soldiers and their commanders.

    Overall, the newly available archive serves as a goldmine for historians, historical film buffs, and others interested in the Eastern Front as depicted in works of art.

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    Tags:
    movies, films, Great Patriotic War, Second World War, Soviet Union
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