Alexander Pechersky, left, with fellow Sobibo
Alexander Pechersky, left, with fellow SobiboYad Vashem

Russia was set to mark Monday the 70th anniversary of a revolt at the Sobibor death camp led by a Red Army officer, the biggest and most successful prisoner escape under the Nazi regime.  

Ahead of the anniversary, President Vladimir Putin ordered the defense ministry to come up with a plan to "immortalise the memory of heroes who raised a revolt" at the extermination camp in occupied Poland on October 14, 1943.    

The order came after the Kremlin rights council urged Putin to posthumously decorate the leader of the revolt, Alexander Pechersky, with a Hero of Russia award, the country's highest honor, after decades of oblivion.

In a country where the liberating role of the Soviet army in World War II has long been a key plank of state doctrine, few knew about Pechersky, a Russian officer of Jewish origin, who roused his fellow prisoners to rebellion.

Not only was he never decorated for his role in the revolt which saw half of some 600 prisoners break free, he was persecuted during the Stalin-era anti-Semitic campaign.  

"Apparently, the totalitarian regime was not interested in this heroic act," head of the Kremlin's rights council, Mikhail Fedotov, told AFP.  

After Stalin's death in 1953, Pechersky's name remained tainted and "no one wanted to take upon himself the risk of calling attention to him," added historian Yury Dombrovsky.

On Monday, a ceremony at a memorial synagogue in western Moscow will commemorate the anniversary of the uprising in the presence of representatives of the Kremlin and defense ministry.

The tribute comes as Putin seeks to imbue a sense of pride upon Russians about their past in a bid to rally support.

To help raise awareness about the revolt, state television will on Tuesday broadcast a new documentary about the rebellion.

Lieutenant Pechersky was sent to the extermination camp along with other Soviet prisoners of war after Germans learnt of his Jewish roots.

Less than a month after arrival, he helped a core group of plotters devise a plan to kill, one by one, a dozen key SS officers and overpower Ukrainian guards.

Some 300 inmates managed to break free. Of them scores were killed by mines surrounding the camp and many more were re-captured and killed by the Nazi and local Polish population.  

Those who did not flee were killed, and the camp was torn down. Fifty three of the escapees are believed to have survived the war.  

A British drama about the revolt, "Escape from Sobibor", was released in 1987, with Dutch heartthrob Rutger Hauer receiving a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the Soviet officer.    

In other tributes to Pechersky, a street in Israel and a memorial in Boston bear his name.

'Complicated relationship with history'  

"Is not it strange that the heroic act known to the entire world has not been acknowledged even with the most modest of state awards at home?" the author of the new documentary, Leonid Mlechin, wrote in mass-circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.    

Like Fedotov, Mlechin said that he had only recently learnt of the story.    

To this day, World War II known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War is an extremely sensitive subject, and the country's history - as Russians darkly joke - remains more unpredictable than its future.    

"Our society has a complicated relationship with history," Mlechin confirmed.    

After his escape, Pechersky went back to the front. During the anti-Semitic campaign after the war he struggled for several years until landing a job at a factory.    

He remained in touch with other camp survivors but was never allowed to travel abroad for commemorative ceremonies or to take part in trials of Nazi criminals.  

He was invited to attend the premiere of the film "Escape from Sobibor" in 1987 but was too infirm to travel. He died in 1990.  

More than 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibor. Those who escaped testified against many notorious suspected war criminals, including the Ukrainian guard John Demjanjuk.

A Munich court in 2011 sentenced Demjanjuk to five years in prison for complicity in the extermination of Jews at Sobibor. But he was released from jail pending an appeal and died in March 2012 aged 91.