Putin plays with the Holocaust

Russia does not make movies for the sake of art, but for the sake of politics.

A historic sign at the railway spur in Sobibor. Credit: Jacques Lahitte via Wikimedia Commons.
A historic sign at the railway spur in Sobibor. Credit: Jacques Lahitte via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Back in January, the unlikely figure of Paddington Bear—the cuddly, bright-eyed cub much adored by young children down the years—ran afoul of the Russian government. As part of its policy of limiting the influence of foreign culture on Russia’s citizens, Vladimir Putin’s regime delayed the release of the movie “Paddington Bear 2” by two weeks to prevent it from competing with locally produced films that hit the screens at the same time.

A historic sign at the railway spur in Sobibor. Credit: Jacques Lahitte via Wikimedia Commons.

That decision was enabled by legislation from 2015 that also permits Russia’s rulers to—in the words of culture minister Vladimir Medinsky—“set financial, political or ideological priorities” for Russia’s own film industry. Nine out of every 10 films produced in Russia are funded by the regime, under regulations that forbid movies “defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order.”

Russia’s use of film as an instrument of propaganda is nothing new; the same policy prevailed in its Soviet predecessor. That doesn’t mean that the films lack artistic merit—Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” about a 1905 mutiny of Russian sailors, is regarded by some critics as the greatest film of all time—but it does mean that Western audiences should understand that their fundamental purpose goes far beyond entertaining or informing. According to culture minister Medinsky—a Russian nationalist and admirer of the late Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin—the goal of films, art and other media in Russia is to “consolidate the state and society on the basis of values instilled by our history.”

Those of you planning to see the Russian movie about the uprising of inmates in the Nazi death camp of Sobibor in October 1943, which is being released in the United States this week, may wish to bear that quote in mind as you take your seats. The film, titled “Sobibor,” was, according to the publicity accompanying it, “largely funded by the Russian government.” Why? Apparently, continued the press release, “Russia [read: Putin] hopes to raise awareness of the uprising, which a Jewish Red Army officer led, but which has never received wide public recognition.”

Putin’s regime sadly resembles the tyrannical Soviet Union in many ways, but differs in one important respect. Unlike his predecessors from the days when Russia was the USSR—Stalin, Brezhnev and Andropov, especially—Putin himself has shown little evidence of personal anti-Semitism and seems well-disposed to his country’s Jewish community.

But he is also a former KGB officer and a current dictator—one who is wedded to the ideology and theology of Russia’s elevated place in the world, in common with Tsarist ministers, Russian Orthodox clergy, Communist Party apparatchiks and, not least, his own culture minister. So giving a Russian dictator control over how a historical episode—like the awe-inspiring Sobibor uprising—is reconstructed for a modern audience is a bit like appointing an arsonist as a fire-safety warden: really the last person you want in charge in a situation like that.

Located in eastern Poland, Sobibor was one of three camps dedicated solely to the extermination of its prisoners—the other two being Belzec and Treblinka—that were constructed in 1942 as part of “Operation Reinhard.” The operation was named for the leading Nazi official, Reinhard Heydrich, who was assassinated by the Czech underground in June of that year. Gas chambers were used to murder Sobibor’s inmates, and the corpses were then burned by grate fires in open pits.

In September 1943, a fresh batch of Soviet Jewish prisoners of war found themselves in Sobibor, among them Alexander Pechersky, who had served in the Red Army as a lieutenant. With extraordinary bravery, Pechersky and his comrades coordinated a camp uprising the following month, killing several SS officers and Ukrainian collaborators in the process. Three hundred of the inmates, including Pechersky, then escaped into the nearby forests. Pechersky and about 50 of the other Sobibor escapees went on to survive the war and tell their tale of courage.

There is no question that the Sobibor uprising was a critical example of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, and one that flies in the face of the demeaning “lambs to the slaughter” myth about Jewish behavior under Nazi occupation. It is, therefore, a tremendous subject for a movie—depending, of course, on who is behind it.

Again: Russia does not make movies for the sake of art, but for the sake of politics. American Jews should be wary of this latest attempt at seduction by Putin’s regime. After all, we’ve kind of been here before: during World War II, Stalin correctly calculated that American Jews could be an important source of support for the Soviet war effort, and so he sent members of the “Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee” to the United States on a successful awareness-raising tour. But after the war ended, that committee was brutally liquidated by the Soviet authorities, along with most of its members.

With that began a half-century of Soviet distortion of the Holocaust, as the Communist authorities viciously persecuted their Jewish citizens in the name of “anti-Zionism.” The extermination of the Jews was swallowed into a general tale of Russian heroism against the Nazis, which, of course, left out the inconvenient detail that Stalin and Hitler negotiated a non-aggression pact in 1939.

Anyone who described the Holocaust as a Jewish event was denounced as a “Zionist.” Similarly, “Zionists” were depicted as the real authors of the Holocaust because they had willfully collaborated with the Nazis. This appalling manipulation of the historical record was defied rather beautifully by the Soviet writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in his poem about the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in Ukraine—an episode that was officially commemorated as the extermination of “Soviet citizens.”

Putin’s regime, even as it reinvents World War II as an epic solo fight against an enemy bent on exterminating the Jews, has never acknowledged (let alone apologized for) the abuse of the Holocaust in Soviet propaganda. Moreover, far-right and far-left forces across Europe today—all of whom deny or exploit or abuse the Holocaust in their messages—look to Putin as a source of financial, logistical and political support. So however uplifting and exciting the “Sobibor” movie is, any claim that its purpose is to commemorate Jewish heroism should be balanced against Russia’s shameful record of Holocaust abuse, as well as its present geopolitical ambitions.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

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