Russia has fired the longtime director of its state archives, less than a year after he made the uncomfortable revelation that the story of some of the country’s greatest World War II heroes was simply a newspaper-concocted fiction.
The story of Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen is the stuff of Russian legend. According to the traditional narrative, during the desperate battle before the gates of Moscow, 28 men in Gen. Ivan Panfilov’s 316th Rifle Division were attacked by a staggering 54 German tanks, but instead of retreating, fought to the bitter end, destroying 18 tanks and inflicting hundreds of casualties on the German army.
After their exploits appeared in the official Red Army newspaper, the 28 Guardsmen became national heroes. All 28 were posthumously named Heroes of the Soviet Union (the USSR’s equivalent to the Medal of Honor), streets are named in their honor, and there’s even a big-budget film coming out this summer about the battle, produced with the backing of Russia’s culture ministry.
Unfortunately, the tale is almost entirely fabricated, and the Soviet government knew almost from the beginning. A secret government report finished in 1948 concluded that the soldiers’ deeds were a concoction of a newspaper reporter and were “a pure fantasy.” In fact, several of the men who supposedly numbered among the 28 fallen heroes were found to still be alive, and one had even been arrested and charged with treason for surrendering to the Germans and then serving in the German military police.
But after the report was delivered to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, its findings were suppressed and the original narrative about the 28 Guardsmen remained the official one.
That changed in July 2015, when Russian State Archive chief Sergei Mironenko published the 1948 report and related correspondence, conclusively revealing the truth about the incident.
Unfortunately, Mironenko’s dedication to the truth appears to have irked the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin. On March 16, it was revealed that Mironenko had been sacked as head of the State Archive, a post he has held since 1992, shortly after the dissolution of the USSR.
Russian government officials had faulted Mironenko for allegedly using document releases to editorialize rather than being neutral.
“[Mironenko is] not a writer, not a journalist, not a fighter against historical falsifications,” Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky said at the time, according to Radio Free Europe. “If he wants to change profession, we will understand this.”
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