Sniping at the Truth; Sebastian O'Kelly Reveals How Filmmakers Are Taking a Leaf out of the Soviet Propagandists' Book as They Rewrite History Yet Again

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

Sniping at the Truth; Sebastian O'Kelly Reveals How Filmmakers Are Taking a Leaf out of the Soviet Propagandists' Book as They Rewrite History Yet Again


Byline: SEBASTIAN O'KELLY

Among the Soviet soldiers closing in on the stricken Germans besieged in Stalingrad, the story of 'Noble Sniper' Vasily Zaitsev had been told and retold, acquiring the potency of a myth.

Of all the 'heroes' whose improbable feats were trumpeted by Stalin's propaganda machine, none was more popular than the legendary killer from the 'Siberian' 62nd Army.

A master of his black art, Zaitsev had notched up 149 German dead by the winter of 1942 - then lamented he had not made the number a round 150 for the anniversary of the October Revolution. And every Soviet soldier knew how the story had unfolded.

Fear of Zaitsev - who, like other marksmen, had earned the title Noble Sniper when he killed more than 40 of the enemy - had gripped the Germans as they fought house-by-house, room-by-room in the southern Russian city where the fate of the war in the East would be decided. In desperation, the Wehrmacht command flew in SS Colonel Heinz Thorwald, head of a sniper school, to rid them of their deadly predator.

In his account of their duel in noman's-land - almost certainly dictated by a Communist Party hack - Zaitsev, whose name means 'hare' in Russian, tells how he became aware that he had turned from hunter into prey. Several of his 'leverets' - marksmen he had trained - had been picked off by the killer.

For four days, the former shepherd from the Urals swept the desolate battlefield with his telescopic sights from the safety of his hide. To the left was a burned-out German tank, to the right was a shattered pill box.

Neither seemed a promising position for a sniper. 'But between them, on a stretch of level ground, lay a sheet of iron and a small pile of broken bricks,' Zaitsev recalled. It seemed an ideal position.

'One had only to make a firing slit under the sheet of metal, and then creep up to it during the night.' Zaitsev raised a plank with a glove attached and a shot rang out. He had found his adversary. That night, Zaitsev and a fellow sniper worked their way round to a position overlooking the spot. 'The sun rose, but we decided to spend the morning waiting so as not to give ourselves away with the sun on our telescopic sights,' he said. By the afternoon, the sun was shining directly on the German's position.

Under the sheet of metal, something glittered. Zaitsev's comrade carefully raised his helmet, and almost immediately it was pierced by a shot. The man screamed as if hit, and then the Germans' supposed master killer incautiously peered out.

'That was what I had been banking on,' Zaitsev said. 'I took careful aim.

The German's head fell back, and the telescopic sights of his rifle lay motionless, glistening in the sun.' According to Anthony Beevor, the award-winning historian who wrote Stalingrad, this account of Zaitsev's duel is almost entirely fiction, invented by Soviet propagandists. Nonetheless, it forms the basis of a [pounds sterling]60 million film, Enemy At The Gates, to be released in March. It stars British actors Jude Law, as Zaitsev, Rachel Weisz, as his Red Army love interest, and Joseph Fiennes as a manipulating political commissar.

American actor Ed Harris plays the German sniper, renamed Major Koenig.

'There's no doubt that Zaitsev was an incredibly brave sniper at Stalingrad,' says Beevor. 'And he may well have been involved in some battle of wits one afternoon in no-man's-land against a crack German sniper. But all this stuff about a Nazi officer who's head of the sniper school being flown in is complete rubbish. A lot of Russian heroes just had their lives written for them for propaganda. After the war many felt they were being forced to live a lie, and tragically a few ended up hitting the bottle.' Zaitsev, good-looking and with impeccable proletarian credentials, having been educated in the bleak city of Magnitogorsk, was ideal material for the propagandists to base their fiction on. …

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Sniping at the Truth; Sebastian O'Kelly Reveals How Filmmakers Are Taking a Leaf out of the Soviet Propagandists' Book as They Rewrite History Yet Again
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