‘Dirt and filth’: Russia attacks film about Red Army in Afghanistan

Portrayal of Soviet withdrawal from country distorts historical facts, claims politician
A row has broken out in Russia over a film about the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, after politicians and former servicemen criticised its unflattering depiction of Red Army soldiers as unpatriotic.

Leaving Afghanistan, directed by Pavel Lungin, is based on the experiences of Nikolay Kovalyov, a veteran of the Afghan war who went on to lead Russia’s FSB spy agency. It tells the story of a group of Red Army soldiers whose departure from Afghanistan is delayed after they are ordered to free a Soviet general’s son taken captive by mujahideen fighters. Lungin told Variety magazine last year that the film depicts the “senselessness and cruelty of war”.

After an advance screening, Igor Morozov, the deputy head of the upper house of parliament’s committee for science, education and culture, said it was unsuitable for “educating young people with a sense of patriotism” because it portrayed Red Army officers looting and fighting among themselves. He also said Lungin was guilty of distorting historical facts but did not give details.
Gennady Shorokhov, the head of the Brothers in Arms association of former Soviet servicemen, accused Lungin’s film of portraying “dirt and filth”. Another group of Afghan veterans has written to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, asking him to ban the film, which they said would harm Russia’s image.

Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, said the film’s scheduled release date should be moved from 9 May, the day on which Russia celebrates victory over Nazi Germany in the second world war, to avoid social tensions. The holiday, known as Victory Day, has taken on increasing significance in recent years and is accompanied by a nationwide display of patriotism.
The Soviet Union’s nine-year military campaign in Afghanistan, which resulted in the deaths of about 15,000 Red Army soldiers, ended in 1988 when Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a withdrawal. In 1989, the Soviet parliament declared the war a “political mistake”.
Putin has, however, recently sought to rehabilitate the memory of the war in the minds of Russians. In February, a group of MPs introduced legislation that would have formally reversed the 1989 condemnation. The legislation stalled in parliament shortly after Moscow hosted Afghan peace talks involving the Taliban.
An outright ban of the film appears unlikely. Lungin said it may go on general release later in May, although an exact date has yet to be announced.

After the pre-release screening of his film, which he attended, Lungin accused Medinsky and other officials of being unwilling to take part in a honest discussion about the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which he described as a sore that was rotting inside modern Russia.

Leaving Afghanistan is the latest film dealing with historical issues to cause controversy in Russia. Last year, Armando Iannucci’s black comedy The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia after officials said it was offensive. In 2017, Matilda, a film about a love affair between Russia’s last tsar and a ballerina, prompted attacks by radical Orthodox Christian activists who described it as blasphemous.

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