MOSCOW -- Russia is weighing whether to block the release of a film about Soviet troops in Afghanistan that some say is unpatriotic, even as the director insists he created an honest account of the disastrous conflict.
"Brotherhood," to be distributed by the local arm of Walt Disney Co., sharply differs in tone from recent patriotic blockbuster films, such as "Crimean Bridge. Made with Love!", which a number of ex-Soviet states refused to screen due to its overt propaganda intent.
Shot by Russian director Pavel Lungin, "Brotherhood" shows Soviet soldiers getting drunk and looting during the chaotic final months of the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war, which cost more than 14,000 Soviet soldiers their lives.
The movie's release was initially set for May 9, when Russia annually 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 Afghan war, who say the film insults those who fought, have forced a change.
On April 17, 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 an "example of classic black Russophobia", he wrote.
"Brotherhood" depicts Soviet troops as "a rabble of degenerates, thieves, swindlers, murderers and scoundrels", he added.
Gromov heads an association of more than 10,000 veterans, which is demanding the ministry deny permission for the film's release.
Lungin "has made an unpatriotic film that deters young people from serving in the army", another former combatant, Igor Morozov, deputy chairman of the upper chamber of parliament's Committee on Science, Education and Culture , told AFP.
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.
Freedom of expression dwindles
The uproar over Lungin's unsparing film comes after years of dwindling freedom of expression under Russian President Vladimir Putin. His regime long ago stifled independent newspapers and TV channels, with the internet apparently Russian censors' next target.
In March and April, the Kremlin moved to restrict expression on the internet.
In April, the lower chamber of parliament approved a draft law that, if enacted, would "increase Moscow's sovereignty over its internet segment", as reported by Reuters.
In March, Putin signed a law prohibiting online content with "blatant disrespect" toward "society, the state, official state symbols and the Russian constitution", as reported by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
A new type of censorship
Russia's culture officials have stepped up efforts to fund and promote cinema that positively depicts Soviet history including World War II.
Other recent state-funded films have highlighted sporting triumphs and the space race and have put a positive spin on the illegal annexation of Crimea.
Last year, the Culture Ministry banned British writer-director Armando Iannucci's black comedy "The Death of Stalin".
This year, the director of a Russian comedy set during the siege of Leningrad in World War II 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 by 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.
The idea for the film came from a former director of Russia's Federal Security Service, Nikolai Kovalyov, who was involved in parts of the conflict, emphasised Lungin.
Shortly before his death at the age of 69 this month, Kovalyov "congratulated me on the result and gave his blessing to the film", Lungin said.
"We have to stop glorifying our history and start talking about the wounds left by the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya," he added.
The uproar over the film comes shortly after the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February.
Some former combatants have attempted to recast the painful historic episode as having been justified by the interests of national security.
Putin appeared to back the intervention in 2015, saying that the Soviet leadership was trying to confront "real threats" even though he acknowledged "many mistakes".
In late January, Russia's parliamentary Defence Committee backed a draft resolution saying that Soviet troops helped the Afghan authorities fight "terrorist and extremist groups".
Still, the draft resolution has yet to be voted on in full session, reflecting the authorities' reluctance to formally revisit this traumatic episode.
Amid heightened tensions with Western powers in recent years, "Russia is reviving its Soviet past to justify its new opposition to the West," Irina Shcherbakova, a founding member of Memorial, a Russian human-rights organisation, told AFP in February.