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'Unpatriotic' Afghan war film angers Russian veterans

Marina LAPENKOVA
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'We have to stop glorifying our history and start talking about the wounds left by the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya,' says Russian director Pavel Lungin

'We have to stop glorifying our history and start talking about the wounds left by the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya,' says Russian director Pavel Lungin (AFP Photo/JACK GUEZ)

Moscow (AFP) - Russian war veterans want to ban a film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan they say is unpatriotic, but which the director insists is an honest account of a disastrous conflict.

"Brotherhood", distributed by the local arm of Walt Disney, is sharply different in tone from recent patriotic war blockbusters.

Shot by renowned Russian director Pavel Lungin, it shows Soviet soldiers getting drunk and looting during the chaotic final months of the Soviet-Afghan war.

The conflict with the Mujahideen lasted from 1979 to 1989 and led to the deaths of more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers.

The movie's release date was initially set for May 9, a public holiday, when Russia celebrates its World War II victory over the Nazis with a massive military parade on Red Square.

But veterans and relatives of those killed in the war, who say the film insults those who fought, have forced a change.

On Wednesday, a marketing representative for Disney in Russia, Yelena Brodskaya, told Russian agencies that the film would come out one day later than originally planned, as agreed with the culture ministry.

Disney's official Russian website also announced a May 10 release.

Boris Gromov, former commander of the main Soviet contingent in Afghanistan, denounced the film in a letter to the culture ministry, which controls cinema releases.

It was a "classic example of mud-slinging Russophobia", he wrote.

"Brotherhood" depicts Soviet troops as "a rabble of degenerates, thieves, swindlers, murderers and scoundrels," he added.

Gromov heads up an association of more than 10,000 veterans, which is demanding the ministry deny permission for the film's release.

Another former combattant, Igor Morozov, now the head of the Russian upper house of parliament's culture commission, told AFP that Lungin "has made an unpatriotic film that deters young people from serving in the army".

The film "shows our troops looting caravans, fighting and drinking on every street corner," he said. It "sullies the memory of Soviet dead" and "damages the country's image".

The war ended with Moscow's humiliating withdrawal from the country and was denounced even by Soviet leadership at the time as a foreign policy blunder.

- Wounds of Afghanistan, Chechnya -

Russia's culture officials have massively stepped up efforts to fund and promote cinema that positively depicts Soviet history including World War II.

Other recent state-funded pictures have highlighted sporting triumphs and the space race, and have put a positive spin on the annexation of Crimea.

Last year the culture ministry banned British writer-director Armando Iannucci's black comedy "The Death of Stalin".

And this year the director of a Russian comedy set during the World War II Siege of Leningrad opted to release his film online rather than apply for a cinematic release, after it prompted outrage from lawmakers.

"Brotherhood" director Lungin told AFP that he was "shocked by this new type of censorship from below" -- led by influential veteran groups rather than culture ministry officials.

"I wanted to make an honest film for young people so that they could identify with those guys who were lost in the middle of the war," he said.

Lungin stressed the fact that the idea for the film came from a former director of Russia's security service, Nikolai Kovalyov, who was involved in parts of the conflict.

Shortly before his death aged 70 this month, Kovalyov "congratulated me on the result and gave his blessing to the film", said Lungin.

"We have to stop glorifying our history and start talking about the wounds left by the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya."

The controversy over the film comes shortly after the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal in March.

Some former combatants have attempted to recast the painful historic episode as having been justified by the interests of national security.