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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

Russia: What is there in the name ‘Stalingrad’?

Monday 18 February 2013, by M K Bhadrakumar

The famous scene from the Hollywood film Enemy at the Gates captured the zeitgeist well, when addressing a room full of the Soviet military officers right on the Stalingrad front in World War II, the newly-appointed Commissar of the Red Army, Nikita Khrushchev, who was sent by Joseph Stalin specially to stem the retreat in the face of the German assault, shouts: 

“My name is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city is—‘Stalingrad’! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans capture this city the entire country will collapse. Now, I want our boys to raise their heads.”

To be sure, the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II was one of the decisive moments of Soviet history. And Stalin’s name is indelibly linked with that heroic battle. No question about it. 

The seventieth anniversary of the event was marked on Saturday (February 2) with Vladimir Putin attending the ceremony. Interestingly, the city of Volvograd reclaimed its name of ‘Stalingrad’ (which was abandoned by Nikita Khrushchev in 1961) for the occasion. It has been an over-whelming local demand that the hallowed city-for the defence of which half-a-million Russian lives were sacrificed in a heroic saga lasting 200 days, should be remembered after Stalin. 

The Kremlin’s decision to call Volvograd as ‘Stalingrad’ for the occasion is imbued with political symbolism. It is a measure of Russia’s resurgence—and self-confidence—that it is coming to terms with its history. 

There is bound to be criticism in the West that Putin is ‘resurrecting’ Stalin. But the irony is that without Stalin’s iron grit, the Stalingrad battle would have gone either way and the West could have had a different history if he hadn’t turned the tide of the war. 

The Battle of Stalingrad was the turning point in World War II. Hitler had amassed the biggest strategic grouping of his armies between the Don and Volga rivers—14 crack Nazi divisions were deployed against Stalingrad—over a frontline as long as 850 kms. 

The Germans lost 1.5 million lives in the Battle of Stalingrad with the Red Army destroying 3500 Nazi tanks. Stalin literally broke the back of Nazi Germany and Hitler never recovered. 

The Russian sacrifices would not have been of such gigantic proportions if the Western powers—Britain in particular—had opened a western front. But then, Winston Churchill hoped that the Soviet Union would bleed to death without Western support. 

Why should a nation be shy of its history? Things come in good and bad parts. Stalin’s huge contribution to the build-up of the Soviet Union is also an incontrovertible part of Russia’s history. Slavery is not the quintessence of American history, nor the bloodbath of the Partition the salience of the Indian civilisation. 

The important thing is to remember the lessons of history. Russia today is again coming under enormous pressure. The United States refuses to accept Russia’s resurgence and there is no let-up in its drive to establish ‘nuclear superiority’, which is what the missile defence programme is all about. 

The US says it is ‘ignoring’ Russia, but the actual game-plan is to pull back from meaningful discussions regarding the global strategic balance. Again, the excuse is that Putin is ‘authoritarian’, but the agenda is to crack the Russian political system. The US estimates that there is discord within the Russian elites and amongst the middle class and the edifice that Putin tenaciously built is probably becoming shaky—like any divided house. Indeed, Russia has good reason to draw strength from the memories of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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