Return to Stalingrad: Nostalgia for Uncle Joe alive and well in Volgograd

The name has changed, but the city remains defined by the brutal battle that ended 70 years ago

Volgograd

The events of 31 January 1943 will remain forever etched into the memory of Pyotr Alkhutov. After months of unimaginable horrors in one of the fiercest and darkest battles of the Second World War, the Red Army retook control of Stalingrad. Mr Alkhutov was one of the first to enter the cellar under Stalingrad’s main department store, where Adolf Hitler’s Fieldmarshall, Friedrich Paulus, surrendered.

The Soviets had won a decisive victory that turned the tide of the war, and Mr Alkhutov was designated the watchman to guard over the captured Nazi leader. He went on to fight in a number of other key battles, all the way to the march on Berlin in May 1945, but he always remembered Stalingrad as the worst of the worst. “The most horrific, the most difficult time of the whole war, was Stalingrad,” recalls Mr Alkhutov, now 89, his medals still proudly displayed on his lapels. He fought with the 38th rifle brigade of the Soviet 62nd Army, and says he was one of just three dozen survivors from an initial contingent of 5,500 men. “It was 200 days and nights that you can never forget. I still see those scenes in my head all the time. Those things never leave you.”

On Thursday, a costumed reenactment of Paulus’s capture will take place in Volgograd, as the city is now called, and on Saturday, huge ceremonies are planned to mark 70 years since the official surrender of the Nazis in the battle. For many of the 900 veterans of the battle who still live in the region, it will be the last major anniversary they will be alive to commemorate.

Volgograd’s skyline today is dominated by the colossal monument to Mother Russia, the ‘Rodina Mat’, sited on a small hill that saw some of the fiercest fighting. Her sword raised aloft and cloak billowing in the wind, Mother Russia’s lips are parted, issuing a rallying call (or is it a cry of anguish?) to the city. The battle still permeates the collective psyche of Volgograd, whether in memories of the bitter suffering, pride at the heroics of Soviet soldiers, or political capital exploited by regional politicians. After a ceremony honouring veterans on Tuesday, the Kremlin-appointed Governor of Volgograd Region, Sergey Bozhenov, spoke to the assembled local media. He promised that all veterans would receive special presents to mark the anniversary, and “every single one will feel like he is worshipped” during the coming week. “Without them, we would not have had the Soviet Union, and we would not have had the united Russia that we have today,” he said, making a presumably intentional reference to President Vladimir Putin’s political party, United Russia.

Mr Putin himself is due in Volgograd on Saturday to mark the anniversary, and veterans have appealed to him to hold a referendum on renaming the city Stalingrad. On Wednesday, Mr Putin was handed a petition signed by 50,000 people calling for the city to be given back its wartime name. “We fought to save Stalingrad, and that’s what the city should be called,” says Mr Alkhutov. “We demand a referendum.”

In addition to affection for the city’s old name, there is also nostalgia for Joseph Stalin himself, especially among the older generation. Behind the Mother Russia memorial is a museum dedicated to the wartime leader. No Soviet hangover, it was opened just six years ago by a local businessman (who was later shot in a contract killing), and features biographical data and a life-size waxwork of Stalin. On sale in the shop are Stalin calendars with soft-focus photographs of the Generalissimus in various modes: pensive, jovial, warrior-like.  “Don’t believe what people tell you about the cult of personality,” guide Irina Rubayeva told a class of 30 schoolchildren touring the museum earlier this week. “Yes there was a cult, but oh, what a personality there was too! Hopefully one day you or your children will be able to put the Soviet Union back together.”

The majority of veterans share this positive view of Stalin. For them, the Soviet leader was a military genius, and questioning his leadership is seen as sacrilegious. “Any normal person understands everything there is to understand about Stalin,” says the 91-year-old Vladimir Ananyev, a tall and wiry veteran of the Stalingrad battle, wearing a green uniform adorned with three dozen medals and shiny brass buttons depicting Soviet regalia. “Stalin saved the country. He was the one who meant we could win at Stalingrad.” Some say that while Russia’s current leaders have been quick to use the Second World War, known in the country as the Great Patriotic War, for political capital, attitudes to the dead are far from respectful. Denis Deryabkin, a 38-year-old translator, is one of dozens of locals who spend their weekends volunteering in the fields around Volgograd to look for the remains of fallen soldiers. Even now, 70 years after the battle, it’s rare that his group spends a day without finding the remains of at least one victim. Sometimes, they hit upon 20 or more in a single go.

Mangled by decades of farming, remains are usually in a poor state; a collection of bone shards perhaps augmented by a few buttons, or a knife. Mr Deryabkin bemoans that the only work to recover the remains is done by volunteers such as himself, who purchase the professional metal detectors required with their own money. “There is this Soviet slogan, which they will still be using this weekend: ‘Nobody is forgotten, nothing is forgotten’,” he says. “But the day after the festivities everything will be forgotten again. Thirty kilometres away there are tractors rolling over the corpses of our ancestors. The least we could do is offer these heroes a decent burial.”

The heroic deeds of Stalingrad are still a powerful rallying tool for modern-day patriotism, however. At the Battle Museum in central Volgograd this week, a guide gave a lecture about legendary Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev to a group of current-day snipers from the Russian Army, dressed in winter camouflage and listening intently. As they heard the tales of Zaitsev’s exploits, the modern-day snipers were filmed by Zvezda, the Russian army’s television channel, to “emphasise continuity between the Great Patriotic War and today”.

While memories of the battle are still crystal clear among the remaining veterans, attitudes towards the enemy have changed dramatically in recent years. Mr Alkhutov remembers a peacebuilding trip to Hannover, birthplace of Paulus, in 1985, for himself and several other Red Army veterans, to meet with Germans who had fought against them. “It was horrible. We were on one side of the room, and they were on the other, and nobody wanted to talk to each other. We just eyed each other with suspicion. But then someone started talking, and then we all did, and in the end it was OK.”

Now, there is a joint Russian-German cemetery in the city, and German veterans make periodic visits. A German symphony orchestra will play memorial concerts this weekend, and the city even has a German-themed beerhall. “For a long time, we didn’t want Germans to come anywhere near our city,” recalls Mr Ananyev. “But in the end you realise that they are different people now, and we have to be friends.”

Revisionism: The  battle of the battle

Western scholarship about the Battle of Stalingrad has always been controversial in Russia, with most in Volgograd unreceptive to the idea that Joseph Stalin’s decisions may have exacerbated casualties; or that there was extreme brutality from the Soviet side towards its own troops.

According to British historian Antony Beevor, the Soviets shot 13,500 of their own men for desertion and other “crimes”. But documents newly discovered by a German scholar suggest the picture might be more nuanced. Jochen Hellbeck gained access to a huge dossier of interviews carried out with participants of the battle by historians in 1942 and 1943.

“They change the prevailing view of Stalingrad enormously,” he told The Independent. “They challenge two dominant clichés in Western scholarship about the Red Army: firstly, that the soldiers were simple peasants with no real loyalty to the Soviet state; and secondly, that they were coerced into battle at gunpoint, and that is the only way that the Soviets got them to fight.

“Some of the soldiers compare Stalingrad to other battles they have fought in and say it is particularly horrifying.”

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