Issue 56 (2017)

Kim Druzhinin and Andrei Shal’opa, Panfilov’s 28 (28 panfilovtsev, 2016)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2017

memorial 28 panfilovsNear the village of Dubosekovo, on the Volokolamsk highway, approximately 100 kilometers from Moscow, stands an impressive monument. Built in 1975, six massive soldiers standing 10 meters (32 feet) tall each, representing six different Soviet nationalities, guard the land where the legendary soldiers from the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, better known as Panfilov’s 28, stopped the 1941 German advance on Moscow. Signs pay tribute to the men and their deed of taking out 18 Nazi tanks and 70 German soldiers before they all perished. Many of the members of the division, which was under the command of General Ivan Panfilov, came from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All 28 men posthumously received the title Hero of the Soviet Union; the words of one of them, Vasilii Klochkov, became immortalized after 1942: “Russia is vast, but there is no going back, Moscow is behind us.” The memorial and the legend to which it pays tribute capture the Soviet vision of a brotherhood of peoples willing to sacrifice themselves to defending the socialist motherland.

The memorial helps to give shape to a particular Soviet-era war myth that still has emotional power today. It is also crucial to understanding the most talked-about and controversial Russian film of last year: Kim Druzhinin and Andrei Shal’opa’s Panfilov’s 28. Although it did moderately well at the box office, pulling in just over $6 million but finishing well below films such as David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, the film became a major talking point and took on a cultural significance that extended far beyond its box-office haul. Panfilov’s 28 helped to generate a new dialogue about the nature of patriotic cinema. It also became embroiled in heated debates about the nature of Soviet-era myths, historical truth, and historical falsification. 

From Blokbaster to Kraudfanding: The New Language of Cinematic Patriotism

panfilovs The movie generated headlines well before it was released. The project to re-commemorate the 28 soldiers who died in 1941 was a personal one for Andrei Shal’opa, who wrote a script in 2009 and then tried to get studio funding for it. Unable to secure official funds, Shal’opa turned to crowdfunding. In an interview in 2014 Shal’opa declared victory in this approach, for it gave him enough money to start the film and to convince Vladimir Medinskii, at the time head of the Russian Historical Society and later Minister of Culture, to fund the rest. Shal’opa thus claimed that Panfilov’s 28 was a true “people’s film,” and noted that the film’s financial backing came first from below and then from above. The relatively long time from the announcement of the film to its final edits, he explained, was because “our cinema must be unique” in order to make the right film (Kostomarova 2014).

In this mythic exercise devoted to the film’s history (which of course became an extension of the myth of the 1941 events), Shal’opa was staking out a claim to a new, more “authentic,” more “real,” and more “historical” version of contemporary cinematic patriotism. Kraudfanding became a means to highlight this “people’s movie,” which was a better form of the blokbaster films that had dominated Russian cinema for the last decade. In Shal’opa’s account, Fedor Bondarchuk’s Stalingrad served as a useful foil: in the same interview, the director said that Bondarchuk had relied on expensive computer technology to recreate the war while he had used “the opposite” (Kostomarova 2014). Part of this “opposite” approach involved an almost-obsessive attention to “historical accuracy”: the filmmakers scoured archives, photographs, and other documents to recreate dugouts, landscapes, uniforms, and weapons. Stalingrad also relied on stars, which Shal’opa declared to be a system that does not work in Russian cinema and that does not guarantee a quality film; by contrast, Panfilov’s 28 cast largely unknown actors. Shal’opa’s ultimate goal was not to just make money like other films (another dig at Stalingrad), it was “much more ambitious: we want to make a film that will be remembered for a long time,” citing Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (Beloe solntse pustyni, 1970) or Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought for the Motherland (Oni srazhalis’ za rodinu, 1975) as models (Kostomarova 2014).

panfilovsAt the time Shal’opa’s story about a new “people’s film” began to be taken up by major media outlets, the Soviet-era story of Panfilov’s 28 was coming under attack. Sergei Mironenko, the head of the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), responded to reports that the story had been fabricated by publishing documents from the archive in June 2015. The documents demonstrate that a Soviet journalist invented the story of the 28 Panfilov guardsmen, that a Soviet prosecutor named N. Afanas’ev found out the truth, reported it to other officials (including Andrei Zhdanov), but they decided not to make the findings public.[1] The documents reveal that the legend had been exaggerated, if not invented: at least six of the men awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union survived and one, Ivan Dobrobabin, had surrendered to the Germans and was later sent to the Gulag.

Vladimir Medinskii, who had been the first Russian official to back the film, responded to these revelations by stating that Mironenko was “not a writer not a journalist, not a fighter against historical falsifications,” and declared: “If he wants to change profession, we will understand this” (Balmforth 2016). In March 2016, Medinskii’s ominous warning took on new meaning when it was announced Mironenko had been demoted from head of GARF. Later, after the film’s premier in November 2016, Medinskii expanded his views, stating: “even if it was all made up and Panfilov never existed, it’s a sacred legend that people should not touch,” calling anyone who did so “washed-up scum” (Cichowlas 2016).

This controversy shaped the reaction to the film: Panfilov’s 28 became embroiled in the ongoing debates about “the falsification of history,” discussions Medinskii did much to advance. The filmmakers and Minister of Culture had to find a way to characterize the film as one that did not falsify the past. In his 2014 interview Shal’opa stated: “The feat of Panfilov’s 28 is part of our national culture, a myth that is so powerful it does not make any sense to argue about it. The historical dispute over Panfilov is senseless and immoral” (Kostomarova 2014). The legend, he added, “did not appear out of nowhere.” People really did die, many of the company were heroes, and that is what Shal’opa wanted to see on screen. Real heroism, he concluded, is needed “every day in our consumer society” (Kostomarova 2014). In the end, Shal’opa relied on his “people’s film” narrative: the opening credits thanked the 35,086 people that contributed to the crowdfunding campaign while the end credits listed them by name.

Renewed Imperial Nationhood in the Great Patriotic

panfilovs The film itself is a Soviet-era war movie throwback, more Sergei Bondarchuk than Fedor. Panfilov’s 28 certainly does not engage in a dialogue with other recent Russian war films: there are no women, no penal battalions, no war crimes, no poor leaders, no occupations, just everyday men being heroic. The plot is so straightforward it can be summarized in a sentence: we meet the Panfilov soldiers as they are training for battle, they are sent to the front, where they dig in to defend their motherland, culminating in the epic battle against the Nazi tanks. Very little character development takes place, and no backstories help us understand the soldiers. Instead, we hear them chat with each other, joke, share their fears, and then fight side by side. Shal’opa’s commitment to extreme accuracy and his dedication to recapturing the spirit of 1970s war films such as They Defend the Motherland are the primary components of the film.

Andrei Sidorchik, writing for Argumenty i fakty, while searching for the “truth [pravda]” told in the film, concluded that Panfilov’s 28 reminds us that war is nasty, dirty, hard, and that death is everywhere and expected (Sidorchik 2016). It also “shows what really happened”: soldiers dig trenches (a nod to Sergei Bondarchuk’s film), have real fear but also real courage. Andrei Arkhangel’skii concurred, and found it reminiscent of his childhood and as much as monument to the 1970s and its films, particularly They Fought for Their Motherland as to the war itself (2016). For the most part, Panfilov’s 28 stays away from the controversy over the legend from 1941: instead, it sticks to the retro-1970s war film feel.

panfilovsThere is one important twist to this retro aspect and one important acknowledgement of the debate about the story’s accuracy. In the case of the former, the word “Soviet” is never used: instead, Shal’opa’s script has his soldiers declare they fight for “Russia.” As the soldiers are about to head to the front, their commanding officer gives them a motivational speech where he declares that the Nazis now “know how the Russians love their homeland. They know how we will fight for it.” Once they are at the front, sitting in their trenches, Musa (Musabek Singirbaev, one of the 28 commemorated in the monument), a Kazakh soldier, engages in a discussion about what this “homeland” is with Vasilii Klochkov (who will later utter his famous words about defending Moscow). Vasilii offers that “the homeland is the home of the people, home to their ancestors centuries ago,” while “the land” “is a country where people live, and the country is how they live.” “And the nation?” asks Musa. “The nation is the set of people who want to speak the same language and live in the same country,” Klochkov replies. Musa is not so sure, noting that based on Vasilii’s logic, French and Germans would only need to learn Russian and move to the Russian land to become part of a nation.

Later, two more soldiers engage in a similar discussion. When one declares that they are all about to show what Russians are made of, the second replies: “I am Kazakh, Sir.” The Russian jokes that we are speaking Russian before acknowledging that we are fighting for Kazakhstan and Kazakhs too. Panfilov’s 28 thus engages in a mythmaking exercise of imperial nationhood for the present: Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Ukrainians, and Russians no longer fight for the Soviet Union, but for a “Russia” that still connects them all.

The one way the film addresses the swirling controversy involves a debate throughout the film about the nature of war myths. Early in the movie, one soldier is reading a leaflet about the exploits of a Red Army soldier who sacrifices his life to kill as many Germans as possible. After reading, a second soldier said the leaflet made for better cigarette paper than source of inspiration. Over the course of the film, soldiers and officers disagree about whether their duty is to die for their motherland or to survive in order to keep defending it. Most want to live. After the first wave of attacks from the Germans, one officer utters the line that became the most-quoted online: “I do not want heroes here today, just burn those tanks [Spokoino zhgem tanki].” Only later do they all realize they have to die to protect Moscow and the motherland. They will have to become, in other words, the subject of a future leaflet meant to inspire others.

In the end, six of the twenty-eight survive, just as the archival revelations have shown. One of the survivors admits that he will engage in mythmaking in the future when he states to the others that he will no doubt tell his grandchildren they took out more than 14 tanks in one afternoon and 4 in one morning. The survivors note that they have been reduced from a company to a platoon and that the dead died as heroes and patriots for Russia, because “war is like that.” Panfilov’s 28 is ultimately an attempt to rescue the actual soldiers from the myths and debunking of myths that have surrounded them. As the movie concludes, the six survivors transform into the six giant statues in the Dubosekovo memorial.


1] The documents are still posted on GARF’s website

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Arkhangel’skii, Andrei. 2016. “Na voine kak na voinushke.” Kommersant 21 November.

Balmforth, Tom. 2016. “Russian Archive Chief Out after Debunking Soviet WWII Legend” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 17 March.

Cichowlas, Ola. 2016. “To be Great Again, Russia Resurrects Soviet Legends.” The Moscow Times 1 December.

Kostomarova, Elena. 2014. “Rezhisser fil’ma ’28 panfilovtsev’: ‘Otstupat; nekuda’.” Argumenty i fakty 16 November.

Sidorchik, Andrei. 2016. “Kogda my byli na voine … Kakuiu pravdu rasskazal fil’m ’28 panfilovtsev’?” Argumenty i fakty 24 November.

Panfilov’s 28, Russia, 2016
Color, 105 min.
Directors: Kim Druzhinin, Andrei Shal’opa
Script: Andrei Shal’opa
Producers: Andrei Shal’opa, Anton Iudintsev
Production Company: Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight, Gaijin Entertainment
Cinematography: Nikita Rozhdestvenskii
Music: Mikhail Kostylev
Editing: Vitalii Vinogradov
Cast: Aleksandr Ustiugov, Iakov Kucherevskii, Azamat Nigmanov, Oleg Fedorov, Aleksei Morozov, Anton Kuznetsov, Aleksei Longin, Maksim Belborodov, Dmitrii Murashev, Vitalii Kovalenko, Mikhail Pshenko, Amadu Mamadakov

Kim Druzhinin and Andrei Shal’opa, Panfilov’s 28 (28 panfilovtsev, 2016)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2017

Updated: 10 Apr 17