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21 May, 2012  ▪  Oleh Slabospytsky

The Death Match Myth

Ukraine’s State Agency for Cinema issued, with some restrictions, a distribution permit for the scandalous $10-million-budget Russian-Ukrainian film ‘The Match’ in April this year.

The film caused a tsunami of criticism from the Ukrainian public, historians and independent film experts due to its anti-Ukrainian character and the plot being built on a propaganda myth invented in the USSR. Several NGOs even urged Ukraine’s Minister of Culture to ban this film from distribution in Ukraine altogether. In their turn, the producers accused mythical Ukrainian “ultranationalists” of stirring up a campaign against their film.

So what was all the fuss about? Well, it was the fact that a dubious war episode was picked for the film’s plot: a game between Ukrainian and German football teams in Nazi-occupied Kyiv in 1942. The filmmakers assert that their desire was to instill patriotism and pride for the historical past in Ukrainians prior to the Euro-2012 tournament. However, all attempts to find the historical basis for the film’s plot run up against a web of soviet myths which Russians are once again trying to spin in Ukraine.

As always, all accusations of historical untruthfulness are rebuffed by the producers with references to the artistic component. At the same time, the pre-premiere viewings and individual frames from the film’s trailer suggest the exact opposite. For example, in the film Ukrainian is spoken only by Kyiv policemen, while average Kyiv residents are all Russian-speaking. All collaborationists carry blue-and-yellow bands, even though they were no longer used in 1942. Ukrainian actor Ostap Stupka’s character wears one of them. And this is not the first time he has played in dubious Russian films: he also played the part of a blood-thirsty UPA fighter in ‘My iz budushchego-2’ (We Are from the Future – II) several years ago.

So what actually happened in 1942? The fact is that Ukrainian sporting life continued under Nazi occupation: over 150 football games were played, and there are even known cases of boxing matches being held during that time. The inhabitants of the city were setting cultural life on its track, and all these events enjoyed a relatively calm atmosphere.

On 22 June 1941, a Dynamo-TsSKA match was scheduled to open the Stalin Republican Stadium (now the Olympic Stadium) in Kyiv. However, war broke out against the USSR, and most players volunteered for the Red Army, and only some stayed in Kyiv after the Wehrmacht entered the city.

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They had to earn a living under German occupation; so many noted athletes took up jobs at the bread-baking plant owned by Czech Josef Kordik (who was recognised as a Volksdeutsche – Ed.). He was particularly keen on football, so the ‘Start’ team was put together with eight Dynamo and three Lokomotyv players who practiced at the Zenit stadium. It is sometimes claimed that they played in red uniforms to emphasise their commitment to the Soviet Union, but this is nonsense and the claim was even later denied by the players themselves.

The team played a total of 10 games: against the Ukrainian Rukh on 7 June (7:2), a team of Hungarian soldiers on 21 June (6:2), a German artillery unit team on 28 June (7:1), Kyiv’s Sport (11:0) on 6 July, the RSG team of German railroad workers (6:0) on 17 July, the Hungarian MSG Wal (5:1) on 19 July, a rematch against the Hungarian GK Szero (3:2) on 26 July, the Flakelf team of German antiaircraft gunners on 6 August (5:1), a rematch against Flakelf on 9 August (5:3) and a rematch against Rukh (8:0).

And it was the particular game on 9 August  that official soviet historiography built the myth about the Death Match around. Propaganda had it that the Ukrainians played against a specially trained team of Germany’s Luftwaffe, while in truth, it was actually Flakelf; a team composed of ordinary antiaircraft gunners, pilots and mechanics. Eyewitnesses Makar Honcharenko and a son of one of the football players, Mykhailo Putystin, negate testimonies about Germans conducting themselves in a rough, provocative manner on the field. Moreover, both teams went home after the match. The main claim – that the Ukrainians won the game for which they were later shot by the Germans – is very much opposite to reality, because the Ukrainian team then played their next game on 16 August.

Indeed, after the abovementioned victorious series of games, seven ‘Start’ members were actually put in the Syrets concentration camp on 18 August 1942. The exact reason for their arrests remains unknown. However, there are several versions as to why. Shvetsov, the coach of the Rukh team, believes that the arrests took place after his team played against Start. It was revealed at this time that Start included former Dynamo players who were NKVD agents. Another cited reason is the theft of meal from the bread-baking plant for which the football players were blamed. Six months later, on 24 February 1932, the Nazis began to carry out mass shootings in Kyiv after another attack by the communist underground, and three Dynamo players – Oleksiy Klymenko, Ivan Kuzmenko and Mykola Trusevych – happened to fall victim to this tragedy.

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The lives of other Start players took different paths, but they were not directly linked to the 9 August match and its result. Some of them were forced to work at enterprises located in Kyiv; others were shot for being NKVD agents, while two (Heorhiy Tymofeev and Lev Hundarev) even served in the German police for which they were later repressed by the Soviets.

For some strange reason the Ukrainian government clearly enjoys such Russian films as ‘The Match’, with their updated interpretation of Soviet myths about the Second World War. The “international heroic-patriotic campaign” under the title “St. George’s Ribbon 2012” was launched by some organisation called The General Military Union of Ukraine before 9 May. In December 2011, the Ukrainian government said it was planning to show, free of charge, feature films and documentaries about the Great Patriotic War in state and community-owned cinemas and cultural institutions. So it was expected that The Match would have no problems obtaining a distribution permit. Despite another portion of social populism the electoral support for the ruling party is still critically low, and thus it is forced to urgently mobilise, as it has done before, the “patriotic” resource.

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