Released in 2010, Арифметика свободы (Arithmetic of freedom), was one of the earliest documentary films in the post-Soviet Russian Federation to document the uprising at Sobibór death camp in occupied Poland on 14 October 1943. Directed by Alexander Marutyan, professor of cinematography at Moscow State Institute of Culture, the film was also financially supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture. Though it remains unclear as to why Marutyan chose to direct this production, it sits within a broader context of state commemoration of Sobibór and the uprising’s leader, Alexander Pechersky, in the Russian Federation of the 2010s. Other individuals who played a prominent role in the production were Vladimir Dvinskii, chairman of the board of the Moscow Jewish Cultural and Educational Society, who was credited for writing the documentary along with Marutyan, as well as Leonid Terushkin, an archivist at the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Centre.
This blog post will highlight that Арифметика свободы, similar to Konstantin Khabensky’s 2018 dramatised film, prioritises the role of Alexander Pechersky in the revolt at Sobibór above that of his fellow Soviet Jewish comrades and other camp prisoners, including the revolt’s Polish co-organiser Leon Feldhendler. I argue that the film is imbued with Soviet patriotism from the very start, and that this reflects a broader emphasis on socio-political discourse of the Russian Federation on Soviet heroism during the war. However, this piece will also suggest that unlike Khabensky’s production, Marutyan’s documentary confronts some of the more difficult and taboo elements of the story of the uprising. I hypothesise that this can be explained through an examination of contemporary mnemonic and geopolitical developments in the Russian Federation.
Railway sign at the station in Sobibór village (Credit: Hannah Wilson ©).
The film, like Konstanin Khabensky’s 2018 film Sobibór, foregrounds the role of Alexander Pechersky in the uprising at the camp. Indeed, the first interviewee of the film, Arkadii Waispapir, credits Pechersky exclusively with the uprising, who is undeniably the principal protagonist in this production. The documentary provides extensive background information on Pechersky, including his life in Rostov-on-Don and more personal elements such as his interest in music. His memoirs are also read aloud, and much of the screen time is dedicated to an interview he conducted with fellow escapee Jules Schelvis.
However, the viewer does not learn about the background of the other interviewees in the film, including Pechersky’s Soviet Jewish comrades Semyon Rosenfeld, Arkadii Waispapir and Aleksei Waitsen, and Polish Jewish prisoners Chaim Engel and Thomas Blatt. This implies that the filmmakers do not consider those stories to be as important as that of Pechersky; rather, they only matter within the context of the uprising at the camp, as instigated and organised by Pechersky. The film also barely mentions the co-leader of the revolt, Leon Feldhendler, as is also the case in Khabensky’s 2018 production. Both films thus imply that Pechersky was the main figure leading the revolt, directing these other characters in their escape.
Alexander Pechersky (third from left) and other former Sobibór prisoners circa 1970. (Photo in the public domain)
Soviet patriotism permeates other elements of the lives of prisoners in the camp, as demonstrated in the film; Pecherksy even reminisces that they loved to sing Soviet patriotic songs. We see a clip of one such song at the end of the documentary: it is taken from the 1989 Soviet-Dutch documentary Opstand in Sobibor in which Pechersky and his fellow escapees gather to commemorate the uprising and sing the Soviet Red Air Force anthem Марш авиаторов (The March of the Aviators). The co-opting of this song by the Nazis is unsurprisingly not acknowledged in the production.
I hypothesise that several errors in the production can also be explained by the need to promote the heroism of Pechersky. For example, the film exaggerates the number of escapees (400), whereas historical sources utilised in this exhibition have placed the number at nearer to 300. The film also falsely claims that the revolt at Sobibór was the only successful revolt, ignoring other examples such as the 1943 uprising at Treblinka.
However, there are themes discussed in Marutyan’s film that do not feature in Khabensky’s production. I argue that the appearance of these themes in Marutyan’s documentary results from the difference in memory politics and the geopolitical environment between 2010 and 2018. For example, in Marutyan’s film Pechersky acknowledges the presence of Ukrainian guards at the camp, a fact which is missing in Khabensky’s more recent production. I suggest that this theme is mentioned in this context, yet not in the 2018 film, because of the deterioration in Russo-Ukrainian relations following the 2014 invasion of Eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Publicly acknowledging Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis in the 2018 film may have led to claims from some that Khabensky’s film was being politicised in light of this crisis.
Another taboo theme is the post-revolt life of Pechersky, elements of which play a central role in the latter section of the film. Pechersky’s daughter Eleonor Grinevich documents his suffering under the antisemitism of the Soviet period, including his expulsion from the Communist Party. The film also acknowledges that Pechersky spent three years out of work, and that he was not granted permission to travel to Nuremberg as a witness for the prosecution of Nazi officials. I believe that this was included in this film and not in Khabensky’s more recent production because of the increasingly positive assessment of Stalin since the mid-2010s in post-Soviet Russia.
In conclusion, it is evident that Marutyan’s 2010 documentary sits within a broader context of the promotion of Soviet war heroes. By focusing on the life of Alexander Pechersky, the documentary foregrounds his responsibility for a momentous escape, at the expense of commemorating other participants and organisers of the revolt at Sobibór. Khabensky’s cinematic version followed a similar pattern, however, Marutyan’s documentary does acknowledge some topics which complicate the story, particularly concerning the role of Ukrainians as camp guards and Pechersky’s post-war suffering under the antisemitism of the Stalinist era. Thus, I have argued how these topics could be discussed in 2010 but not in 2018 because of the more ambivalent attitude toward Stalin in 2010 as well as more amicable Russo-Ukrainian relations at that point.
The author would like to thank Mikhail Epstein for bringing this documentary to their attention.