FEATURE-Stalingrad anniversary reignites debate on dictator
By Andrei Shukshin
VOLGOGRAD, Russia, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Russia readies for next week's 60th anniversary of victory at Stalingrad -- World War Two's most deadly battle -- arguing over whether the brutal rule of Josef Stalin was all bad.
The focus of the debate is a campaign launched in Volgograd -- as the city was renamed in 1961 to remove all associations with Stalin -- to restore the name associated with the battle with German invaders which cost two million lives on each side.
Was the renaming of the city by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev an arbitrary move of a man jealous of his predecessor's vast popularity or historical justice being done?
"You young people just can't understand it. It's in our souls," said 81-year-old Anatoly Kozlov, an infantry platoon commander at Stalingrad.
"If they don't make it Stalingrad, they will be spitting in our faces. It means they have already buried us alive."
President Vladimir Putin, averse to any controversy which could cost him votes, offered a cautious "no" to the notion of restoring the old name last month. But veterans hope Putin, due at Sunday's (Feb 2) celebrations, will come around to the idea.
Stalin's role in overseeing a web of informers and camps to keep his people in line was unequivocally condemned by Khrushchev and during the "glasnost" of the end of Soviet rule.
But the debate, previously limited to muffled whispers in Soviet-era communal kitchens, has revived in recent years as Russians uncomfortably embrace what has turned out to be an often heartless market economy.
Volgograd's regional parliament is demanding that Moscow bring back the name of Stalingrad.
But a city official and local leader of the pro-Putin United Russia party dismissed the move as a ploy by the Communists, out of power since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, to set the agenda ahead of December's national parliamentary election.
"The political situation at the moment is not good for such a step," said deputy mayor Vladimir Ovchintsev. "Maybe in 10 to 20 years, when passions have calmed and strong centrist parties have established themselves, not now."
PUTIN RESTORES SYMBOLS
Putin had, in fact, raised veterans' hopes by advocating the restoration of a number of symbols embodying the Soviet era.
He pressed for and secured reinstatement of the music from the Soviet anthem and gave the Soviet Union's red banner back to the Russian armed forces.
"It cannot be otherwise. We will die but it will still one day regain its name of Stalingrad. I am sure," said Kozlov, who is also a leader of Stalingrad veterans in the city.
But Putin appears to have decided that restoring to the map the name of a merciless dictator, was unacceptable and would drive liberals from his camp.
"Many people will not understand it," he said in December during a country-wide televised phone-in programme.
Kozlov disagreed: "Let us not mix up form and substance. Stalingrad is just a word, a very patriotic word. It is a symbol of victory, a symbol of pride and glory for centuries to come. The whole world knows it as Stalingrad."
Stalingrad was viewed by the Nazis as a supreme prize as German tank armies pushed towards the Volga in a bid to cut supply routes between Moscow and energy-rich southern regions.
A showcase of Soviet industrialisation full of machine plants and bearing the Soviet leader's name, its capture was intended to erase memories of German defeat near Moscow.
Stalin, equally resolute, issued a "Not a step back" order under which the NKVD security police were to shoot anyone trying to desert the front line.
German General Friedrich Paulus's troops, backed by relentless aerial bombardments, fought for control of the city street by street. Soviet forces doggedly refused to surrender it.
Thousands of hungry, freezing civilians, caught in the cross-fire, hid for weeks in holes dug in the Volga's banks.
HELL ON EARTH
A granite block marking the line of Nazi advance 100 metres (yards) from the waterline shows how close Soviet troops had come to being crushed.
"It was hell on earth. It was a fight that tested the limits of human strength, of the human psyche," Kozlov said.
"Generals broke down, officers broke down, soldiers broke down. Some surrendered, others went mad, still others shot themselves. That's what it was -- Stalingrad."
In mid-November 1942 the Soviet army began an audacious operation to encircle the 6th German army. Paulus under estimated the attack and allowed the trap to close.
Over two and a half months, some 300,000 elite German troops died as much from Soviet bullets as from hunger, disease and temperatures plunging to minus 40 Celsius (Fahrenheit).
In a city dominated by crumbling Soviet-era tower blocs, the memory lives on in streets named for armies, divisions or individual soldiers, a preserved half-ruined house, the statue to Mother Russia towering several storeys over the Volga.
Younger residents show little interest.
"It's all history, what's the use of turning it over again. I was born in Volgograd and I like it that way," said 21-year-old Svetlana, an economics student hurrying past the Eternal Flame lit in memory of World War Two combatants.
Around the corner, in the cellar where Paulus gave himself up to Soviet forces, the "At Paulus's" does a roaring trade in fresh Bavarian beer on Sundays and offers visitors a glance at archive photos of the German commander's surrender.
Some veterans question whether the costs associated with renaming the city would be money wisely spent.
"Better give it to the veterans, who have been forced to eke out a miserable existence," said Anton Bukin, a tank driver in Stalingrad.
And even some prominent veterans have played down the notion that Stalin had inspired the city's defence.
"We didn't fight because it was named after Stalin, we fought for the country and for each other," Valentin Varennikov, a Soviet ground forces commander and Stalingrad veteran, told Reuters.
But the idea seems to have caught on with at least a few young people. Olga, a shop assistant, said she would vote for Stalingrad if the issue were put to a referendum.
"I just like the sound of it," she said. "Stalin-grad."