The Nazi officers stroll down Kiev‘s main boulevard through cheering crowds and accept the welcoming gift of bread and salt offered by women in Ukrainian national dress. A man in the crowd nods approvingly. “There will be order,” he says in Ukrainian.
This is one of many scenes in a World War II soccer film that have riled Ukrainians as their country prepares to co-host the European Championship, the world’s second-biggest soccer tournament after the World Cup. The film, Match, which was made in Russia and released earlier this month in Ukraine, tells the story of a soccer game organized in Kiev in 1942 against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of what was then the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. A team of locals beats a team comprised of Germans — and some of the players are later killed for refusing to throw the match.
The film, which received a majority of its funding from the Russian government, is typical war-movie fare, with a tough-talking hero, a simpering heroine and underhanded villains. But what sets it apart from others in the genre is the portrayal of most of the Ukrainian speakers in the film as Nazi collaborators and sympathizers. The mayor of Kiev is depicted as a weak Nazi stooge who tries to steal the Russian-speaking hero’s girl. Ukrainian guards help Nazi killers at Babyn Yar, the ravine in Kiev where tens of thousands of Jews and others were massacred.
Ukrainians have reacted with outrage at such portrayals. Many call the film an attempt to humiliate the country, which was ruled for centuries by Moscow but is now trying to wriggle free of the Kremlin’s grip and form closer ties with Europe.
Ever since Ukraine declared independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has fought hard to keep the country in its sphere of influence. Russians trace the origins of their nation back to Kiev, which gives Ukraine a special meaning in the national psyche, and one of Moscow’s favored tools has been to appeal to the countries’ common history and culture. “Ukrainians now think of themselves as a nation that exists separately from the Russian nation, but the Russian nation thinks on the scale of the Soviet Union, of an empire,” says Stanislav Kulchytskiy, a Ukrainian historian. “Russia is a great state and wants to act like a lord. The European Union would provide Ukraine with some defense from Russia’s constant striving to swallow it.”
Ukrainian film officials initially said they would ban the movie over fears it might stir up ethnic tensions ahead of the Euro 2012 championship, which kicks off June 8. They eventually relented, but when the film premiered in Kiev on April 26, activists from the nationalist Svoboda party broke up the event. “Out, Muscovite occupiers!” “Shame on Ukrainophobic films!” a group of around two dozen young men chanted as they tore down posters advertizing the film.
Historians say that some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis during World War II. Some worked as auxiliary police; others formed armed groups to fight for an independent Ukrainian state and briefly hoped the Nazis would help them. But critics say the film is exaggerated to suggest that all Ukrainians who wanted independence were Nazi lackeys — and that Ukraine would be better off sticking with Russia. “It’s shot from the official Russian point of view that says all people who fought for Ukrainian independence are bad,” says Ukrainian journalist Oksana Faryna, who has written about the movie for the Kyiv Post. “It’s political propaganda to bring Ukraine back to Russia, to show we are one nation with one history. It makes Ukrainians look like ‘Little Russians‘ who should let their big brother show them what to do.”
Even the events surrounding the match are in dispute. The so-called “Death Match” depicted in the film took place on Aug. 9, 1942, between a Soviet team called Start and Germany’s Flakelf. According to the Soviet version of the story, Start players were warned that they should lose or face dire consequences. After they won the match 5-3, some of the players were sent to a concentration camp and shot. The story became legend in the Soviet Union, where it was used as a patriotic tale of loyalty and resistance.
But some accounts dispute this version of events. One theory suggests that the men were shot after glass was discovered in the bread of German officers made at the bakery where the players were working. “It’s a film that offends Ukrainian honor and attaches Soviet myths to us Ukrainians,” Ihor Miroshnichenko, a sports journalist and nationalist activist, said at the protest on April 26. “There was no ‘death match.’ It’s a fabrication of Muscovite propaganda, of Soviet agitprop.”
The film’s producers don’t shy away from the fact they are perpetuating the Soviet version of events, calling the movie “a historical patriotic drama.” “It’s a film about all of us and our shared Motherland,” they say in a joint statement on the film’s website. But the director, Andrei Maliukov, denies any political motivation behind the film or the depictions of Ukrainian characters. “I didn’t think about making a pro-Ukrainian or anti-Ukrainian film,” he told reporters in April. “It’s a film about love, about soccer, about how tough it was for some people to live in this historical moment.”
Ukrainians, meanwhile, lament the fact that no film has been made locally about the World War II match. “We don’t have our own film industry or any filmmakers with financing who can present real, complicated stories with different shades to allow the viewer to decide,” Faryna says. If Ukraine could do that, it would be one way to show Russia that it is truly independent.