Giovanni Cadioli investigates the controversial inheritance of the Man of Steel in today’s Russia.
The local authority of Volgograd raised eyebrows at the end of January when it voted in favour of a motion to rename the city “hero-city Stalingrad” on six days traditionally devoted to the memory of the Second World War. The name, adopted in 1925 to honour Stalin’s role in the defence of the city during the Civil War, became iconic after Hitler’s armies were dealt a strategic blow during the Great Patriotic War, as World War Two is known in Russia.
Now, the Russian Communist Party has submitted a petition calling for the permanent re-adoption of the name Stalingrad – currently bearing 50,000 signatures. Moreover, talk of a local referendum on the issue is gathering pace in Government circles. Indeed, supporters of this option include Valentina Matvienko, (President of the Russian Senate and member of United Russia), Vladimir Vasiliev, (leader of United Russia’s Duma faction) and Vladimir Churov (the controversial head of the Central Electoral Commission).
The potential reversion of Volgograd to its Soviet-era name is a contrast to the prevailing mood twenty-two years ago, when the people of Leningrad approved the re-adoption of St Petersburg as their city’s name. However, a 1999 decree restored the right of the former Russian capital to use the caption “hero-city Leningrad” in tandem with the city’s official name.
The Soviet legacy and Stalin himself continue to provoke heated debates in Russia.
Both Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev have in various ways rehabilitated Russia’s Soviet past, but at the same time both have publicly condemned Stalinism. In particular, Medvedev’s 2010 VE Day speech to a distinctly European audience condemned Stalinism in strong terms.
Nonetheless, the widespread use of Stalin’s image during celebrations connected with the Great Patriotic War, the restoration of an ode to Stalin on the walls of Moscow’s Kurskaya metro station, the appearance in St Petersburg in 2010 of buses nicknamed “Stalinmobiles” and featuring his portrait, and the introduction of new, ‘nationalistic’ history textbooks in Russian schools have all come in for criticism.
Recent years have seen an upward trend in Soviet nostalgia. As for Stalin, in 2011 a poll showed 40% had a positive attitude toward the Soviet dictator, outnumbering those who expressed a firmly negative opinion.
If in the 1990s the legacy of the Soviet Union was considered toxic by the Russian government, Vladimir Putin has consciously used it as a means of bolstering his support and stabilising the political system. The Russian government has used the Great Patriotic War to blend different political traditions and the Stalingrad issue has the attraction to Putin’s managed democracy of both flattering the Communist Party and stealing votes from nationalists. The Communist Party is Russia’s second largest political party and makes extensive political use of Soviet nostalgia.
Tacit support for Soviet nostalgia and Stalin-worship are therefore unlikely to be reversed until there is a change in the underlying political situation.
A brief documentary on The Motherland Calls can be viewed here: