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Panfilov's Twenty Eight

Salisbury Cathedral and Magna Carta Exhibition
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 11th December 2016

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 11 December 2016 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11)

A few weeks ago a film was released, which most of us will never see. Its market will be largely in Russia, and it's about 28 men who demonstrated self-sacrificial heroism in defending the Soviet Union during 1941. The film about Panfilov's 28 adds its weight to innumerable articles, statues, monuments which have immortalised these ordinary men, who like the ancient Spartans who died defending their bridge, were prepared to fight to the very last drop to hold back the overwhelmingly powerful alien invader.

 

These men, whose details you can easily look up, and who were ordinary Soviet citizens from around that vast communist state, gained their exalted status very quickly after they fought and died, and that was largely because the great machinery of Soviet propaganda swung behind publicising their exploits. In the darkest days after the Nazi invasion, following defeat after catastrophic defeat, the loss of thousands of square miles of territory and facing the prospect of complete conquest by the most hostile and cruel oppressor, these few ordinary soldiers who could inflict terrible damage on the invader's tanks and soldiers, using little more than rifles and Molotov cocktails - these were beacons of hope and sources of collective pride. They were all posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.

 

This resonant narrative does however come with some inconvenient elements. As the war progressed, one or two of the 28 began to reappear, still alive: one claimed to have been knocked out during the battle, then escaped and made his way to join another unit; another was discovered to have gone back in his home village in Kyrgyzstan, where he had become chief of the occupying German police, prior to deserting and finally reenlisting in the Red Army as the war came to its end.

In 1948 a military prosecutor led an investigation into the whole affair and came to the conclusion that in almost all particulars it had been a fabrication; the creation of Communist Party operatives based with the army, who had worked it up to boost morale.

 

The 1948 report, seen at the very highest level by Stalin, was suppressed, and official Soviet histories continued to record the events as wartime facts. The report was finally published as the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago; but the version which people want to hear, and the version which underlies the film I mentioned as I began, remains the one which that report described as 'fantasy'.

 

In the story of the heroes of the Panfilov Rifle Division we have a fascinating example of the power of artifice to touch something far deeper than can be reached by mere facts. Yes, the bald truth is that the events which have become so powerful in this narrative were simply invented. But the bald truth has less power than the story of simple heroism which so many people could both understand and - perhaps more importantly - wanted to hear. And one might ask whether ultimately this matters very much. These 28 men may never have been or done the things for which they are revered and celebrated, but if we look at their story as representing something bigger and ultimately true, there is quite a lot of truth in it. Moscow was not taken by German forces as 1941 drew to its bitter end; millions of ordinary Soviet people did give their lives in heroic struggle in defence of the state; and an under-equipped mass army did ultimately defeat the forces of the brutal invader. That greater story of loss and heroism cannot be denied, even if the Panfilov division's heroes never existed.

 

So there are facts, and there are facts! In this case, the fact of an existential crisis crystallised around hope found through a simple story, and this trumped and continues to trump the data recorded by diligent and respectable historians; by people who like me whose training is always to treat convenient narratives with scepticism.

 

I used the word 'trumped' intentionally. If you cast your mind back past the weirdness of the last year in politics, you may remember that Donald Trump first came to national and international prominence as a flamboyant figure in business and the media, and who entered into his nation's homes by having a TV series which turned business processes into cartoonish narratives rooted around catchphrases such as 'You're fired!' There's nothing new about the appeal of these figures who seem to be taken from mythical narratives rather than from the tediously humdrum ambiguities of life as we actually know it: the Greeks and Romans had their classical myths, from our own history we've got King Alfred and Robin Hood, the 20th century brought us the cult of film stars, Elvis and the Beatles, the 21st has brought us Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump. And it isn't only in American politics that such people find a niche: you may remember that Britain's own TV firer of apprentices, Alan Sugar, made it into our national government two Parliaments ago.

 

The so-called 'post truth politics' of Donald Trump and others are also nothing new. Works of imagination and mythical narratives have always existed in politics, as in other dimensions of life, because they touch nerves and meanings which are often not expressed elsewhere. We can be as rude and disparaging as we like about these people and the fabrications on which they often build, but we need also to ask why the Panfilov story was so powerful in 1942, and why it remains powerful in the Russia of today; and we need to ask why people are so engaged with someone like Donald Trump that his mythical power has been translated into political power. In the insecurities and disappointments of many people in our societies, there is evidently a hunger for a simple power which cuts through, a story and a hope which dispels the fog.

 

These myths and the responses to them have something to say as we go deeper into Advent. Take the myth of the Panfilov 28. On one level, their story is a horribly jarring contrast with the underlying purpose of Advent, if we understand the work of the prophets and of John the Baptist to be to tell home truths to God's people, and call them (and us) to confront the realities of what is wrong with both the world and our own lives. The search for ultimate truth is perhaps not best done through denying the facts and embracing a fiction.

 

But remember why their story had such power in 1942, and why it still does: it showed the value and power of endurance, and brought hope in the darkest times. As our first reading reminded us, much of Advent is about hanging on, enduring, staying the course in the darkest hour; and we can do that because we know that hope is justified, hope is coming. John the baptist is a prophet, telling the truth, but more than a prophet, because he helped prepare the way, enable Christ's coming. And in that we find our hope: a world transformed not by political power, nor by works of fiction, but by the power of love.