Calls for a return to ‘Stalingrad’ name test the limits of Putin’s Soviet nostalgia


Russian President Vladimir Putin leaves the Elysee Palace after his meeting with French President Francois Hollande in Paris on June 5. (Christophe Karaba/EPA)

During 1942 and 1943, the Russian city of Volgograd saw some of the heaviest fighting on World War II's Eastern Front. It has been described as a crucial turning point in the war, ultimately destroying Nazi Germany's 6th Army, but leaving the city itself ruined and causing the death of as many as a million soldiers.

You might not be so familiar with the battles that rocked Volgograd, however. That's because the city's important role in 20th century history is associated with a different, much more famous name: Stalingrad, a name it adopted in 1925 at the behest of Joseph Stalin. Volgograd hasn't been called Stalingrad since Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev renamed it to Volgograd in 1961, part of the "de-Stalinization" of the Soviet Union taking place at the time. Now a few words from Russian President Vladimir Putin have got everyone wondering if a return to Stalingrad could be in the cards.

On Friday, Putin was at meeting with veterans in Deauville, France, as part of the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Asked what he thought about potentially renaming Volgograd, Putin expressed support for a referendum on a name change. "In this case, residents should hold a referendum where they will decide on it (the change of the name),” Putin said, according to Itar-Tass. “We'll do as the residents say.”

Though Putin's spokespeople have followed up with clarification that the president was only offering support for a referendum, not the renaming itself, and that official procedure would still have to be followed, the news has been taken by many as a sign of official approval. "Now that Putin has weighed in on this issue," Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, explains in an e-mail, "I'd expect efforts to rename the city to gain a new momentum, which could lead to re-appearance of Stalingrad on the map of Russia."

Volgograd has taken some steps to acknowledge its old name more fully in the past few years – officially retaining the old name on certain anniversaries during the year – with much of the support for a change coming from Russia's still-significant Communist party and military veterans. The Orthodox Church has also voiced some support for a referendum, though the church also supports a return to the city's pre-Stalingrad name, Tsaritsyn.

The prospect of an official renaming still seems far away, however: Even if a referendum were held, it would likely not win enough votes to change its name (polls from last year suggest that a quarter of residents would support a name-change). Putin may have just been being diplomatic when responding to the veteran's question, but the attention heaped on his response shows the Russian president's uneasy relationship with Soviet-era excesses.

Putin himself has often shown a fondness for elements of the Soviet-era – he once described the fall of the Soviet Union as a "genuine tragedy," for example. This does not appear to be linked to political ideology, but a nostalgia for the days when Russia was truly a great geo-political power and the center of an empire. The Russian president recently drew on Russian history, including the Soviet era, when he welcomed Crimea back to the Russian empire this year. This sort of nostalgia appears to strike a chord with some other lawmakers and members the general public: There have even been calls to investigate Mikhail Gorbachev for his role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, and the defacing of Soviet war monuments in Bulgaria drew angry comments from all over Russia.

Stalingrad presents a special situation for Russians, however, and for Putin especially, who likely does not want his strong leadership style associated with Joseph Stalin. While the city name itself might be associated with wartime heroism, it is named after someone who oversaw government policies that left millions of people dead. Putin, for all his fondness for the Soviet era, has stopped short of praising Stalin, and he once described Stalinism as "connected with a personality cult, with mass violations of the law, with repressions and prison camps." During his protege Dimitry Medevev's time as Russian president, Medvedev publicly called on Russians to not gloss over the worst of Stalin's legacy.

Perhaps Medvedev's comments fell on deaf ears. One poll from last year showed that the number of Russians who described Stalin as one of the most prominent historical figures had increased from 12 percent in 1989 to 42 percent in 2012. Part of the problem is that Stalin's legacy has largely been ignored, rather than condemned. Khrushchev never quite finished his planned de-Stalinization of Russia (his bloodless coup-installed successor, Leonid Brezhnev, put the brakes on it), and while Gorbachev's government later made a more fully fledged attempt to address the legacy of Stalin's actions, it never quite seemed to stick: Just last year, history textbooks approved by Putin referred to Stalin as a "modernizer."

For some supporters of a name change, the hope seems to be that Stalingrad doesn't need to suggest Stalin. Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister of Russia, tweeted that the name change should happen "not for the sake of Stalin, but for the sake of Stalingrad's residents." And Putin himself might argue that Russian cities change their names plenty anyway: It's practically a Russian tradition. His hometown changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd  to Leningrad to St. Petersburg during the 20th century. That city, of course, played its own important role in World War II, and Russian Communists want to change its name back, too.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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