For almost the first time since World War II, the film showed Nazis not as stupid fools “but as intelligent and clever opponents, who had their own truth,” however wrong and offensive. Its actors gave “Nazism a human face.” Indeed, it is said that the descendants of one of the Nazis portrayed sent a letter to the Soviet actor praising the way he showed their ancestor.
The film didn’t show the bestial face of the Nazi regime but rather the banality of its evil, all the better to highlight the challenges that the Soviet agent Shtirlits faced. But for many, his role was secondary; the different portrayal of the Nazis as human beings had a far greater emotional impact.
“Seeking to show how difficult it was to fight with a worthy and intelligent opponent,” the film’s directors “achieved an effect which they clearly hadn’t counted on: Nazis became fashionable in the last years of the USSR.” Children played them in the courtyards, and some university students began to study them.
As Russkaya Semerka recounts, “Soviet pioneers and komsomolites did not see anything shameful” in this or in having fake passes with swastikas on them. They didn’t link those things with Hitler; but this change in attitude means that his Mein Kampf began to circulate just like any other prohibited samizdat.”
Russian historian Konstantin Zalessky suggests that the film “made possible the glamorization of Nazism by making it attractive. And some Soviet citizens didn’t stop with external manifestations of German ‘ordnung’ or the study of the songs of the Third Reich.” They went much further.
“They began to study the theory and practice of Nazism, seeing in it a better ideology and system than the Soviet one of that time. The most intellectual neo-nazis in the USSR went into esoteric studies … or geopolitics.” But some were attracted by the Nazis’ “iron discipline” and sought to emulate that.
According to Russkaya semerka, “it is hardly possible to calculate how many people in the ranks of the Pamyat Society or the Russian Popular Unity (RNE) followed the television serial, “Seventeen Moments of Spring;” but that is became an impulse, an intial push which legalized Nazism in mass consciousness is beyond question.”