When Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow in January to discuss pressing security issues, he and Vladimir Putin attended a screening of the film Sobibor, which is now being show in theaters in Europe and Russia. Funded and promoted by the Russian Ministry of Culture, the movie is based on a group of prisoners’ successful escape from the titular death camp in 1943, led by a Jewish Red Army officer. Its production comes as part of a general effort by the Kremlin to seize on Sobibór as a symbol of Russia’s connection to the Holocaust—breaking with the old Soviet model of papering over the Shoah’s distinctiveness—as Izabella Tabarovsky writes:
Russia today appears to be fighting for the right to be the holder of the memory of this one [aspect] of the Holocaust. . . .
The story of Sobibór must appeal to Russian officialdom because it so neatly fits into its historical-memory policy and state ideology, which view the victory in World War II as the primary legitimizing event at home. Internationally, the Kremlin has been hard at work projecting an image of Russia as the liberator of Europe from Nazism. In this narrative, Red Army soldiers as liberators occupy pride of place. The Sobibór rebellion supports that narrative in full, right next to the liberation of Auschwitz (something Moscow is traditionally wont to highlight as well). . . .
Yet, if we set aside the heavy ideological burden that has been placed on it, the film undoubtedly has inherent value. The level of knowledge about the Holocaust in Russia remains abysmally low. . . . Despite some criticisms on the part of historians, the film is a sincere and earnest effort on the part of its director, Konstantin Habensky. Among its virtues, it restores a measure of historical justice to [its real-life Jewish hero], Alexander Pechersky. Pechersky’s heroic action never was recognized in his lifetime by the country he served with such dedication—quite the contrary. In 1948 he was arrested in the anti-Semitic [purges and] prevented from testifying at a number of high-profile international trials of Nazi criminals. . . .
Will the Kremlin do more to stimulate further study of the Holocaust or drop the subject once it’s outlived its value? . . . Few in Russia realize that 2.7 million of the 6 million killed were Soviet Jewish citizens murdered in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories, including Russia proper, mostly by bullets. That part of the Holocaust is far more complex for Moscow to tackle. It raises difficult questions about local collaboration by Soviet citizens (including ethnic Russians), a wartime evacuation policy that left Jews sitting ducks in the face of the approaching disaster, and the long postwar silence.