Vladimir Khotinenko's new film, The Priest, purports to lift the veil on a little-known episode from the German occupation of Soviet territory during the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1944, a small group of priests was dispatched by the Orthodox Metropolitan of Latvia on a mission to the Pskov region, then occupied by the Wehrmacht, to reopen churches closed by the Soviets. Known as the Pskov Orthodox (sometimes "Spiritual") Mission, the episode was written into Soviet history as a simple case of the Orthodox Church's treasonous collaboration with the Nazis. In recent years, however, the resurgent Russian Orthodox church has put forth a competing version of the episode, one in which the priests of the Mission are depicted as saintly men of God and true Russian patriots. Despite the appearance of supporting the Nazi occupation, the priests of the Pskov Orthodox Mission administered to the spiritual needs of the Russian Orthodox population in a time of national crisis, while actually supporting Soviet prisoners of war, the anti-Nazi partisan forces and the larger goal of Russian independence from both the German and Soviet empires. In just the last few years, the church has put forth its revisionist view of the Pskov Mission in documentary films, historical studies, memoirs, novels, and web sites.
Khotinenko's Priest, the first high-profile feature film to tell the story of the Pskov Mission, represents the latest stage of the Orthodox church's attempt to rewrite the history of its collaboration with the Germans during WWII. Reactions to the film in the press and the internet range from wholehearted approval (e.g., finally, the truth can be told) to wholesale rejection and outrage (e.g., a shameless attempt to whitewash Vlasovites and traitors). The story of the making of The Priest is complex. The late Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksey II, whose father served as a priest in occupied Estonia during the war, originally commissioned a novel about the Pskov Mission from the Orthodox writer Alexander Segen', although he apparently was thinking of a film version of the story from the very beginning. Based on the memoirs of a participant in the Mission, Father Aleksei Ionov, the novel is a poorly written and tendentious apology for the Orthodox priests who served in occupied territory.
The fictionalized main character of the novel and film, Father Aleksandr Ionin (Sergei Makovetskii), is a paragon of all the Orthodox virtues: wise, kind, generous, resourceful, completely committed to his Orthodox flock, and a Russian patriot: his wife (Nina Usatova) is the epitome of a devout but down to earth peasant woman.