Aleksei Simonov: 'No one knows the whole truth about the Great Patriotic War' (Narodnaya gazeta, Belarus)

posted 10 May 2015, 12:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 10 May 2015, 13:01 ]
29 April 2015

Interview with Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, by Nina Katayev

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group

Original source: Narodnaya gazeta (Belarus)

At the 21st Festival of Literature and Film in Gatchina, Aleksei Simonov, the prominent human rights activist, author, film director, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, took part in the round table discussion on “Military Glory: Facts and Paradoxes” and answered journalists’ questions.

– Aleksei Kirillovich, did you find out anything new during the round table discussion?

– We discussed such pressing problems as the truth about the war, and I can tell you that there is no answer to this problem upon closer examination, since no one knows the truth to the full extent. My father devoted his whole life to investigating the history of the war, and he ultimately came to the conclusion that no individual could ever know the whole truth about the war – only the nation in its entirety was capable of this task. Yet the nation is not united enough to express this truth, and that’s why Pushkin’s words are so fitting; "There is no truth on earth, but there is no truth above it either".

– You said that Konstantin Simonov worked on the film “If Your Home is Dear to You” for one year and then handed it over to state officials for 11 months. How did that come about?

– The script was originally called “Add Nothing and Take Nothing Away” after the Tvardovsky poem, but my father thought it best to give it a title from one of his own poems since Tvardovsky was out of favour at the time. This film was made to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Battle of Moscow, and the starting point for making a film about how we survived the battle was to have an understanding of what we were forced to overcome.

Conditions on the front are more or less common knowledge, but it is hard for modern-day audiences to understand what we were faced with in terms of the fight against ourselves and the general morale of the army after the events of 1937-1938, when the majority of officers were arrested and placed in prison camps. The army’s low morale was one of the reasons behind its failures during the Finnish campaign. The result was that Voroshilov, the People’s Commissar for Defence and an advocate of deploying cavalry at the front, was replaced by Timoshenko. By 1941 he had managed to repair some of the damage, but by no means all.

It’s interesting to ask where the idea of a blitzkrieg came from, given that all anyone was talking about was the fact that we would soon be at war with the Germans. Everyone knew it and Stalin knew it, and yet everything happened suddenly for us - the gleaming new technology of the German army, the concentration of its forces, the extent to which they breached our defences and the speed at which they moved. The only thing that saved us was the heroism of individual units, which kept on fighting even when they were surrounded and subjected to hideous conditions. The film discussed all of this, surreptitiously querying why our all-conquering army suffered so many casualties – 7 million, to use Stalin’s official figure.

The film shows people fighting to the death rather than fighting for their lives, and in response general after general produced reams of evidence that Simonov and his comrades were telling a story about the war which did not need to be told because all that mattered was that we had won. Yet victory in Berlin cannot be considered in isolation from our situation in 1941, or without taking into account the horrific and dramatic breach of our defences which the nation overcame, but only at the price of incredible self-sacrifice and bloodshed. The generals demanded change after change from my father, and he made them, with the utmost reluctance and with his eyes full of tears. There are scene cuts which he never forgave himself for – in particular those relating to the disappearance of high-ranking military officers in 1937-38. The film featured two photographs showing officers who died, gradually fading them into silhouettes with an accompanying commentary and music. On a photograph of the Revolutionary Military Council only 6 of the 24 officers remained visible, and more than 70 of the 84 trainee officers on the other photograph disappeared. These frames were cut from the film. The film was not shown to the army – not a single copy was ordered.

– Did Soviet cameramen film our troops retreating?

– No, they were unable to film the retreat, but there’s one story I can tell you. Roman Karmen, official filmmaker during the Great Patriotic War, asked my father for help on more than one occasion, and in the late 1960s they made a film together about the Spanish Civil War, “Grenada, Grenada, my Grenada!” When it was suggested to Karmen for the first time that he should make a film about the history of the Great Patriotic War, he asked my father to watch some German newsreels, and my father took me with him.

I saw a ravine full of human bodies – the bodies of our prisoners of war. I remember my father saying to Karmen: "Look at this ravine photographed in 1942 and the parade of Germans through Moscow photographed in 1944, when exactly the same number of Germans were led through Moscow followed by cleaning trucks to remove their traces. Put the two together, and you can see the sheer magnitude of what was achieved, but also the truth about how it was achieved. This is the whole drama of war." Karmen was not sure about the project, and so nothing came of it. But they did work together at a later date, when Karmen asked my father to write a script for the "The Unknown War", filmed together with the Americans. By then he had already been awarded the Lenin Prize. My father refused with the following words: "I feel that historical war studies have lost their reason and their direction, and so it would be wrong – putting it mildly – for me to turn my attention to the history of the Great Patriotic War.”

– Do you have any interest in modern war films?

– I’m afraid not. Yet Aleksandr Sholokhov, director of the M. A. Sholokhov Museum-Reserve in Vyoshenskaya and grandson of the great author, said something I found interesting during our round table discussion, namely that the war did not end in 1945, but in about 1961, when its aftermath had largely been overcome and the USSR sent the first person into space. I am used to the idea that it was a crime for Stalin to ban celebrations of the victory, and after the parade in June 1945 there were no more celebrations on the grounds that there was nothing to celebrate and people needed to get back to work. It was a surprise for me to hear this thought echoed in Sholokhov’s speech – it was indeed the case that the country still had to find some way of surviving, and victors would have been able to relax. Instead of this, they had to return home to their scorched strips of Smolensk land where nothing remained and they had to sleep on woodchips. And yet these were the victors! But that's the question, where were they victors, there or here? And how much do the circumstances in which you celebrate your victory affect your feelings about it?

– What is your take on “total reconciliation” with the German nation – the idea that the war should be laid completely to rest, because no one can continue raking over past evils forever? 

– People have dreamt of burying the hatchet of war since ancient times, but no one has managed it yet. Just look at how many mines were planted by Stalin’s agreements – mines which continue to explode to this very day. Is it not the case that the echoes of these agreements on the "peaceful liberation of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus" resound throughout this whole Ukrainian saga? The hatchet of war was buried but not dead; now it has been unearthed and is once again hanging over us.

No matter how strange it may seem, no one gets off scot-free, and ultimately cosmic justice will ensure that the guilty are brought to account.

– How will you celebrate 9 May?

– I will drink two glasses, exactly as my father told us to: “Take one sip – /So the dead can sleep in the earth, /And so that in future/ The living can still walk it. /Then take a second sip, /And consign his remains to peace, /Bury him with a flag – /So that he has it close by. /So that on Victory Day he can, /Just like the rest of us, /Take a sip for himself / With his cold lips”.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds