New Director of the Brest Hero Fortress Memorial Complex Aleksandr Korkotadze: ‘You have to let the tragedy pass through yourself. And not with ice cream in hand’
On July 20th, 1941, not far from the Bialystok Gate of the western part of the Central Island of the Brest Fortress, the following words were inscribed on the brick wall of the barracks: ‘I am dying, but I do not give up! Farewell to Motherland!’. This inscription, which became a symbol of courage and perseverance in the fight against Nazism, was discovered in 1952. Today it is enough to say two words ‘Brest Fortress’ — and all the horrors of the first days of the war will rise before your eyes from the books you read and the films you watched. This is one of the largest and most revered museum complexes in the post-Soviet space. Over its half-century history, it has been visited by more than 26 million people from 140 countries. At the same time, according to historian Aleksandr Korkotadze, appointed Director of the Brest Hero Fortress Memorial Complex in August 2023, the time has come to protect the Citadel — from lies for the sake of political expediency and historical oblivion.
‘I, the fifth fort, testify’
The fortress was surrounded by a ring of forts with a circumference of 45 kilometres. We are going to a unique site — Fort No. 5, located in the southwestern part of Brest near the border with Poland. Before the Great Patriotic War, the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 44th Infantry Regiment was located here. These soldiers and officers also had to engage in battle with the enemy. Battalion commander, senior lieutenant Yakov Vorobyov, organised the defence. According to one version, it was his words that became famous: ‘I, the fifth fort, testify: the enemy is advancing, but will be repulsed’. Nonetheless, the forces were not equal...
“The fate of the defenders of the fifth fort is less studied than the heroic defence of the Brest Fortress. This is a task for us in the near future. Today we talk about the heroic defence, will, and fortitude of people in the museums of the memorial complex, but here we talk more about the power of fortification thought, the professionalism of engineers and builders,” Aleksandr Korkotadze, who headed The 5th Fort Museum branch for 13 years out of 20 years of serving the truth in the Brest Fortress, clarifies.
In 1995, the fort was included in the list of historical and cultural values of Belarus. In 1999, it became a branch of the Brest Hero Fortress Memorial Complex. And in 2021, after restoration, a permanent exhibition was opened in six casemates on the left side of the rear barracks. It was possible to maintain the integrity of the perception of the fortification object; the fort did not lose its authenticity.
The fort is very popular with tourists. The most visited year before museumification was 2019 — more than 24 thousand people visited. And in 2022 there were already over 34 thousand visitors, about 900 excursions were conducted. Pavel Bogush
He didn’t allow the scriptwriters to ‘virtualise’
Over the 20 years of work at the memorial complex, Aleksandr Korkotadze had the opportunity to participate in many endeavours: creating exhibitions, a unique tourist route on Pogranichny Island, and also being a historical consultant for the Brest Fortress film.
Aleksandr Korkotadze says that the scriptwriters intended to ‘virtualise’, “They wanted to make the film bright, sometimes to the detriment of historical truth. We did not agree with this. As a result, work on the script lasted for a year and a half. Filming began only in July 2009. I was very worried that the film would be great. As well as realistic and patriotic...”
“And already in 2010,” I emphasised, “on June 22nd at 4 o’clock in the morning we watched it in the open air on the site at the Terespol Gate. Those present were given flasks of water, which at the end of the film we poured into the soldier’s helmet with the memorable composition Thirst...”
Aleksandr Korkotadze agreed, “It was touching. Tears welled up in my eyes. I realised that everything is not in vain. And when I read reviews about the film, I felt proud that we took part in its creation. We managed to reflect the spirit of that time. The Brest Fortress film turned out to be popular, according to reviews, even ‘very Soviet’, but with the capabilities of modern cinema.” Pavel Bogush
A guide who does not replenish his knowledge on the topic, does not work on himself, and does not establish contact with the group, according to Korkotadze, can be considered an audio guide, “Now new works are appearing, archives are being opened. We need to analyse them carefully and critically. Many German documents became known. By the way, illegal guides, whom we have not yet completely dealt with, believe them very much. But there is no need to look there for the final authority, the truth. It was beneficial for the invaders to downplay the ferocity of the fighting. They hardly write about their failures. About the fact that instead of one day they took the fortress for much longer. After all, only on July 23rd, 1941, the last known defender of the fortress, Major Pyotr Gavrilov, was captured by the Germans.”
— Aleksandr, please, share your opinion about the collection Brest. Summer 1941 published in 2016 by German researcher Christian Ganzer.
“We met the leader of the group of authors and compilers, Christian Ganzer, at the fortress very kindly at one time. However, it later became clear that our views on the defence of the Brest Fortress were opposite. I told him personally, and I can repeat it again with confidence: everything that is written in his introductory article strikingly contradicts the German documents published in the book. But he doesn’t want to see it. He accused us of being propagandists, not historians. And I address this message to him. Because the introductory article is precisely an article not by a historian, but by a propagandist. In the ‘best democratic traditions’, Gantzer did not want to include an article from the Belarusian side of the compilers in the collection. What moral right did he have to give assessments of the defence of the Brest Fortress that went beyond the scope of ‘purely scientific work’? It is obvious that today the political situation in the West is as follows: to downplay the contribution of the Soviet people to the Victory over Nazi Germany and its satellites,” Aleksandr Korkotadze recalls.
“For the sake of this task, Ganzer concludes that the defence of the fortress and our museums are a Soviet myth. And this is his mistake. At the same time, the documents published in the book, especially the memoirs, show the heroism of our soldiers. German soldiers wrote about ‘defence to the last bullet’ and that ‘the Russians fought extremely selflessly’,” Korkotadze continues emotionally. Pavel Bogush
Come and see
Aleksandr Korkotadze sees one of the main tasks in his new position as upholding the truth about the contribution of the Red Army to the victory over fascism, the truth about the heroic defence of the Brest Fortress, as well as the civic-patriotic education of the younger generation.
During our conversation, Aleksandr repeated more than once that the memorial will not lower the bar in working with visitors, “Our task is to make sure that when people visit the memorial, they think about the high price of the Victory, about the feat, about the victims of the war, and do some spiritual work on themselves...”
The position on ‘entertainment content’ in the memorial complex will not change with the appointment of a new director of the memorial. This means there won’t be a jumble of benches, as some would like, and no modern music for light-hearted fun.
“This is a memorial. A heroic place, a cemetery, not an entertainment facility. Go and look. Bow at the Eternal Flame, honour the memory of the heroes and be proud of the feat of the fallen defenders. You have to let the tragedy pass through yourself. And not with ice cream in hand,” Aleksandr Korkotadze emphasises.
TO THE POINT
The creation of the Republican Patriotic Centre, being built on the Kobrin Fortification of the Brest Fortress, cannot be done without consultations with the memorial staff