09.06.2014 | Halya Coynash

Stalingrad as latest step in re-glorification of tyrant


A bus with Stalingrad and a picture of Stalin for the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad in Feb 2013 (Photo: Itar-Tass/Barcroft Media]

The name of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin may once again take prominent place on Russian maps.  The move is purportedly linked not with the tyrant himself, but with the pivotal Battle of Stalingrad in February 1943, however it comes as part of a  general trend in Russia revising the public image of a man responsible for the deaths of millions.

The proposal to hold a referendum on changing Volgograd back to Stalingrad was first made during the events marking the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad in February 2013.  It received crucial seconding on May 6 2014, during the events marking D-Day in Normandy when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin told a Russian veteran that such a referendum was possible.  Veterans expressed their willingness to travel to Volgograd to help in holding such a referendum.  Putin said “by all means” and pointed out that there is a square named after Stalingrad in Paris, and other places carry the name in Europe.

The Battle of Stalingrad is generally understood as having not only been the Soviet Union’s greatest military success, but also the turning point in World War II.  It was a victory won at horrific human cost, with over 1 million dying over the 6 months of fighting.

The city on the Volga near which the battle took place had been Tsaritsyn, but was renamed Stalingrad in 1925.  Both the dictator and his henchmen had countless cities, streets, and buildings named after them throughout the Soviet Union.  In the case of Stalingrad, its name was changed to Volgograd in 1961, 5 years after Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and the ‘cult of personality’ around the tyrant was reversed. 

Not for good, it transpired.  Back in 2007 Putin gave his stamp of approval to ‘positive moves’ in the presentation of the country’s history. Up till recently, he said, you could read things in history books which made your hair stand on end.  The new history textbooks by Alexander Fillipov promoted for schools presented Stalin as “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR”.  The book asserted that “in essence, the aim of Stalin’s domestic and foreign policy was the restoration – political and territorial of the Russian Empire”.   It claimed that historians at home and abroad confirm that the main victims of repression from the 1930s to 1950s were the ruling class, and are “inclined to see rational reasons for the use of force in the efforts to ensure the maximum effectiveness of the ruling elite as the main player in mobilizing society towards the achievement of impossible tasks”.

“The outcome of Stalin’s purges was the formation of a new governing class, able to cope with the task of modernization given the shortage of resources – unwaveringly loyal to the upper echelons of power and irreproachable from the point of view of executive discipline”.

In 2007 the moves still aroused debate.  That has largely been silenced, and laws recently adopted make honest debate positively dangerous.  In May 2014 Putin signed into force a law envisaging up to 5 years imprisonment for attempts to ‘rehabilitate Nazism’ or denigrate Russia’s World War II record.  The Soviet Union, for many of us, our fathers and grandfathers, did indeed play a huge role in defeating Nazism - after the Nazi invasion put an end to the criminal Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allying the USSR with Nazi Germany. Stalin’s Terror and his military incompetence led to huge loss of life in the first months of the War.  The list of facts that Russians may now feel nervous about highlighting can easily be extended.

All of this is of immediate relevance to Ukraine since the bill is manifestly aimed at demonizing the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA] which viewed the Soviet Union, as well as the Nazis, as occupiers.  The role of UPA is contentious among Ukrainians also and strong views in support of its stand or against have obstructed honest historical investigation and debate for many decades.   The truth is needed, and laws aimed at retaining Soviet myths and deterring investigation are a tragically retrograde step.

That moves to return to the name Stalingrad are not merely out of respect for the ever-dwindling number of veterans can be seen clearly in the response from a Russian Orthodox Church spokesperson, Archpriest Vsevolod [Chaplin].  He told Interfax that he saw no problem in such a referendum, and then mentioned “arguments about Stalin”.  Yes, there was persecution of the Church and Stalin’s repressions “were to a large extent unfair”, however “we should not forget that in the last years of his life our patriarch and the Synod spoke of him with respect”.  He adds that many priests, monks and active believers “also see positive elements in Stalin’s activities”.

Adolf Hitler eradicated unemployment.  The suggestion that such ‘positive moves’ should be highlighted is monstrous. Any moves to ‘rehabilitate’ not the victims of a murderous regime, but one of its main perpetrators are just as profoundly offensive. 

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