Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former colonel in the KGB, doesn’t hide his nostalgia for the old Soviet Union, the collapse of which he has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” He even expresses admiration for Josef Stalin, one of the bloodiest tyrants of modern times, praising him for winning the Second World War and transforming the Soviet Union into an industrial superpower.
Now Putin is hinting that he would like to see the dictator’s name restored to the city of Volgograd, which was known as Stalingrad for 26 years, a period that included the monumental battle that stopped the Nazi advance into the USSR and helped turn the tide of World War II. When a Soviet veteran, meeting Putin during D-Day ceremonies in Normandy this month, asked whether the Stalingrad name could be reinstated, the Russian president voiced no objection. The city’s residents should “hold a referendum and make a joint decision,” Putin said. “We will do what the people say.”
Historical memories of the Battle of Stalingrad evoke understandable patriotism in Russia’s World War II-era veterans, but the historical record of Stalin’s human-rights atrocities should evoke universal revulsion. Tens of millions of victims died during the Great Terror over which Stalin presided, and the Soviet victory in the war trapped half of Europe behind the Iron Curtain for the next five decades.
Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961 as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s campaign to undo the former tyrant’s personality cult, and there is little evidence that most Russians want to bring back the old name. Surveys by the Levada Center, an independent Russian research organization, have consistently found strong opposition to the idea. In a 2012 poll, 60 percent of respondents were against it; only 18 percent in favor. Within Volgograd itself, city councilor Alexei Volotskov told The Guardian, three out of four residents are against restoring Stalin’s name.
The autocratic Putin may look back at Stalin’s reign with high regard. Most Russians know better. For 53 years, Volgograd has borne the name of one of Russia’s great rivers. It needs no other eponym, least of all that of one of Russia’s greatest villains.