In Volgograd, It’s Stalin Who Lurks on the Sideline

Joseph Stalin's bust at a museum commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad. Stalin is inescapable in Volgograd.

VOLGOGRAD, Russia — The woman with the sword rises like an avenging angel over the skyline, so tall you can see her even from far below in Volgograd Arena. This is Mother Russia, and buried at her feet lie the remains of tens of thousands of casualties of the Battle of Stalingrad, the conflict that will forever define this city.

Joseph Stalin himself vanished from the city in 1961, when his name was erased from Soviet history books and, with the stroke of a pen, Stalingrad became Volgograd. But he lives in its soul.

He also lives in the visitors’ center just down the hill,next to the parking lot.

Here he is in the Stalingrad Hotel,his portrait in the cafe, beside a TV on which Portugal is playing Morocco in the World Cup. Here he is in the gift shop, his face plastered on the souvenirs: Stalin flasks, Stalin playing cards, Stalin wall clocks, Stalin key chains, Stalin lighters, Stalin T-shirts, Stalin mugs and Stalin commemorative plates. (Vladimir V. Putin, the current Russian president, is available, too; his plate is next to Stalin’s.)

And here he is, too, in the office of Irina Rubaeva, 67, a historian and tour guide and the proprietor of Volgograd’s Stalin Museum.

Ms. Rubaeva has a jolly “Uncle Joe” Stalin figurine on her desk and a more imperious Stalin bust against the wall. She says she likes having him around. More than that, she believes it is time to restore his name to the city whose history all but belongs to him.


“It’s a very difficult and complicated question, what you name a city,” she said. “But as someone from the older generation, I respect this name, Stalingrad, more.”

Part of it has to do with World War II, she said, and how hard it is to disentangle Stalin from the horrific, heroic events associated with a place that bore his name and that he refused to surrender to Hitler. The Battle of Stalingrad, which left some two million people dead, is considered one of the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, and it marked a turning point in the Allied effort against the Nazis.

But another part of it, Ms. Rubaeva went on, has to do with the man himself.

“Stalin is to be praised for his political and economic achievements,” she said. “We are nearing a time when people want to know more about him and his personality.”

Hers is a minority view in Volgograd, where two-thirds of the population supports keeping the city’s current name, according to Ivan Kurilla, a professor of history and international relations at the European University at St. Petersburg. (The remaining third are split between Stalingrad and Tsaritsyn, the city’s name from the 16th century until 1925.)


But the debate is heated and the issue real. There are perennial calls for a citywide referendum. Mr. Putin has not ruled it out, consistently saying that the decision should be left to the city’s residents. Five years ago, the city government voted to restore the old name — to resurrect Stalingrad — on six dates a year with resonance for the city’s history.

“These days are special not just for the city — they are special for the whole world,” said Volgograd’s mayor, Andrey Kosolapov.

In an interview in his office, Mr. Kosolapov said that he did not favor changing the name permanently, but that he did favor respecting history. “The most important event in the Second World War happened here in Stalingrad,” he said.

The conversation is about far more than just the war, of course.

“It’s also a matter of the pro-Stalin and anti-Stalin battle that is still important in Russia,” Mr. Kurilla said via email. “Some of the Stalin defenders would never admit that — so they use this debate about the city as a way to rationalize their position.”


The question of how to address the legacy of a man who, among other things, was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own people, has flared up in other parts of the former Soviet Union, too.

In Gori, Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace, the local Communist Party put back a Stalin statue after it was taken down. In 2014, Russia unveiled a monument in newly annexed Crimea that included Stalin alongside Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British and American leaders he met with during the 1945 Yalta Conference on the division of postwar Europe.

“They still consider Stalin a liberator there, and it is right that there should be a monument to him,” said Tamara Golovacheva, the secretary of Volgograd’s local Communist Party. The party offices are dominated by Lenin — pictures of Lenin, busts of Lenin — but if you look in the corner of the tea break room, you will find a photograph of Stalin just past the kettle.

In the case of Volgograd, there is also a branding problem.

“Nobody knows Volgograd, but everybody knows Stalingrad,” said Roman Shkoda, a local historian and media personality who favors a return to the original name, Tsaritsyn. Ms. Golovacheva, whose party branch changed its official name in 2013 — now it is the Stalingrad Regional Department of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation — said that Volgograd simply means “city on the Volga,” which is not very interesting.

Soon the World Cup will leave that question, and this city, behind, too; Volgograd Arena will host the last of its four matches in the tournament on Thursday. Mamayev Hill, the site of the Mother Russia statue, will no longer be inundated by tourists in soccer jerseys.

The issue of how to see history is so delicate when in so many parts of the city you find yourself walking on the dead.

Vilena Bryleva, 49, who grew up in Volgograd and runs a language school here, said that the older she gets, the more emotional she feels.

“When you grow up and have children, you understand how you would feel if this happened to your son,” she said. “You’re starting to experience this history within yourself, and it makes you crazy. It makes it very hard for some people to leave this place.”

But Ms. Bryleva favors keeping the current name, if only as a sign that the city has moved on, that it has a future and not just a past.

“I was born in Volgograd and I grew up in Volgograd,” she said. “To me, this name is connected with very simple, earthly things like the trees in the back garden, or going with my parents to the movies, or going to the beach along the Volga.

“It’s a very peaceful name for a very peaceful city.”

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