As countries across the globe observe the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis, the Second World War looms particularly large in Russian cultural memory. Its popular designation as the “Great Patriotic War” highlights the perception that, without Soviet efforts – and losses – there would be no Victory Day to celebrate.
In particular, the Battle for Stalingrad, in which Soviet forces repelled the German army for 200 days between July 17, 1942 and February 2, 1943, is seen as the point that turned the tide of fighting in the Allies’ favor. Marked by the loss of nearly two million lives, it is one of the most devastating battles of human history.
But on maps today you won’t see Stalingrad. In the aftermath of Khrushchev’s drive for de-Stalinization, starting with his “secret speech” in 1956, the city was, in 1961, re-christened as Volgograd. This was not its first identity change: known as Tsaritsyn in pre-revolutionary days, it was re-named for the ascendant Stalin in 1925. And in recent years movements to restore the city’s wartime name have been gaining momentum.
Why bring back a name associated with a dictator? Those in support of the change cite the honor associated with the victorious city, memorialized not only in Russia itself, but also in international exhibits and artwork, even a poem by Chilean Pablo Neruda. Citizens’ letters call for restoring the “world-renowned name of the city-hero” as “a symbol of the victorious people” – a way to “preserve that history for new generations.”
And they have met with some success. In 2013, the year marking the 70th anniversary of the battle, the Volgograd City Council voted to use the name “city-hero Stalingrad” on annual holidays associated with WWII. Plus, while a 2012 poll by the Levada Center tallied 18 percent of the population in favor of the former name, and 60 percent against, a poll in 2014 saw a shift – to 32 percent for and 50 percent against (with 19 percent unsure).
But can the name Stalingrad be separated from Josef Vissarionovich Stalin? A majority of citizens maintain that honoring the lives lost in the Battle of Stalingrad should not necessitate honoring a leader responsible for so many deaths during both war and peacetime.
Human rights organizations such as Memorial and the Helsinki Group have argued that any signs glorifying Stalin should be seen as “blasphemous.” According to a public statement by Memorial, “Stalin’s crimes have no analogues in the country’s history. Their scale is such that the appearance of his image in the public space, in any positive context whatsoever, is unacceptable and should be prohibited by law.” Their argument: the tragedies associated with the man are inseparable from the name of the city.
Many Russians agree. Yet many feel the tragedies of the War more sharply than the tragedies of Stalin’s repressions. And indeed, Stalin’s role in “winning” that war only fans the flame of controversy; in fact, the man associated with securing Allied victory and elevating the Soviet Union to superpower status has seen a recent resurgence of popularity.
This of course relates to Russia’s position on the global stage today. While the Putin-Stalin analogy has been overstated more than once, the importance of having a strong leader is important in the Russian political psyche. While President Vladimir Putin seems unlikely to make a push for re-naming the city, he did declare support for a referendum to change the city’s name in 2014.
But the city on the Volga need not dust off its former signs just yet. In February of this year, the Duma rejected a move to rename the city, though the title “city-hero Stalingrad” continues to be used on war-related holidays such as Victory Day.
And it is just such days that underscore the tension around cultural memory. The Great Patriotic War, culminating in the Battle of Stalingrad, symbolizes Russia’s ascent as a great power, even a savior of the Western world. And as current tensions around Ukraine and elsewhere increasingly color Russia’s relations with its former allies, the desire to re-assert that power has at times had dangerous consequences.
What is more, while Victory Day is meant as a celebration of restored peace, this year’s festivities have been marked by the refusal of many Western leaders to attend Moscow’s parade. The territorial dispute in Ukraine, according to those leaders, undermine peace efforts in the region. And throwbacks to the glorification of Stalin suggest uncomfortable parallels to an era of global politics that both sides would rather consign to the past.
And so the battle for Stalingrad continues. Russians must struggle about whether it is possible to memorialize a city-hero separately from the human villain for whom it was named, and the West must struggle with how to commemorate 70 years since the arrival of Peace in Europe, while a bloody war rages in Eastern Ukraine.
ALICE E.M. UNDERWOOD is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where she specializes in twentieth-century Russian and Soviet literature and politics. In addition to teaching courses in Russian language and literature, she has written on contemporary and late-Soviet culture for The Harvard International Review and boundary2, and has a cluster of forthcoming translations on Soviet postmodernism in The Russian Review.
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