Vladimir Putin once confessed to the American filmmaker Oliver Stone that “Stalin was a product of his time.” The Soviet dictator was, in the eyes of the Russian president, a historical figure victim of “excessive demonization.” Now, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian authorities are pressing to rename the city of Volgograd and call it Stalingrad, as it was known until 1961. The president is visiting the city on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of a tide-turning victory in the war against Nazi Germany. The glories of the past, even those attributed to Stalin, have become a very valuable political asset for Putin as he seeks to justify his actions in Ukraine.
In 2013, the Parliament of Volgograd imposed a new tradition of changing the city’s name for 24 hours every February 2, the day of the defeat of Nazi Germany’s Sixth Army in Stalingrad, although the initiative did not quite crystallize into a tradition since it was not embraced every year, as in 2017. It was one of the initiatives undertaken at that time by the authorities to promote patriotism, but this year the campaign has gone much further and the signs in the city were already being replaced on Monday, January 30.
This renewed exaltation of Stalin is also evidenced by the approval in June 2022 of a law that prohibits drawing parallels between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, and between the actions of their armies during World War II. This includes up to 15 days in prison for “crimes” such as denouncing the territorial conquests that Moscow made in Poland through the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the existence of which was revealed by the government of the late Mikhail Gorbachev.
Putin, whom the editor of Russia Today has alluded to by the title Vozhd, given to Soviet leaders like Lenin and Stalin, once called the Stalin-Hitler pact “immoral” in an open letter to Poland. A decade and a half later, those statements are a crime, because in the new official version of events, the agreement with the Third Reich was just a way to buy time.
Despite this nostalgic fervor, polls conducted by the Kremlin show that the population rejects renaming their city after Stalin. According to polls by the VtsIOM state center, 67% of Volgograd residents reject the measure as a waste of money and see the move as nonsense. Most respondents criticized the initiative on the grounds that one should not live in the past.
The Kremlin is trying to link its war against Ukraine with World War II by reiterating that Kyiv is a regime that needs to be “denazified.” This drive is helped by the memory that every Russian home has of what is known locally as the Great Patriotic War and the millions of lives lost in the fight against the Third Reich. For this reason, Volgograd authorities have been trying to change the city’s name through various citizen initiatives, including several formed by veterans of the 80-year-old battle and of the current war in Ukraine.
Referendum on name change
The regional government is planning to hold a referendum on the name change. And Putin’s party, United Russia, has instructed its politicians to draw comparisons between the offensive on Ukraine and the battle for Stalingrad, “that line from which it is impossible to retreat.” Asked if Volgograd, the city on the Volga River, could once again honor Stalin’s name for good, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov avoided giving a clear answer: “I can’t confirm anything.”
Putin was scheduled to visit Volgograd on February 2. His agenda included laying a wreath before the Eternal Flame of the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex and strolling through the museum dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad. At its entrance, three busts of Stalin (as supreme commander of the USSR armed forces) and of the marshals Gueorgi Zhúkov and Aleksandr Vasilevski, responsible for the first great Soviet victory, were inaugurated on Wednesday.
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