The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions; a statistic. (Joseph Stalin)
February 2nd, 2013 marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, a landmark Russian victory that was instrumental in turning the tide of World War II against the seemingly invincible Third Reich . In commemoration of this historic event, the city of Volgograd will return its name to Stalingrad for 6 days a year. The five remaining dates will commemorate other Russian victories during the Second World War. On June 22, 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa: Drive to the East, which unleashed the Wehrmacht across western borders of Belarus and Ukraine. This massive invasion quite suddenly opened Germany’s war on the Eastern Front. Stalin was reportedly shocked and in denial when confronted by this blatant betrayal by his supposed ally. The Russian dictator soon realized that The Fuhrer’s targets, within the southern sector of this invasion, under code name Operation Blue, included vast resources of oil and gas located in the Caucasus. Another target under Blue, for reasons of propaganda and prestige, was Stalin’s namesake city of Stalingrad, which extended itself along 30km of the west bank of the Volga River.
The Volga, Europe’s largest river, divides it from Asia , and is said to mirror the very soul of Russia. Prior to the 1917 Russian Revolution, this city 600 miles south of Moscow ,was known as Tsaritsyn and then renamed after Stalin in 1925 when it became an important industrial center. Adolf Hitler, who had served as a corporal in World War I, believed himself to be an infallible military tactician. In keeping with this unchallenged delusion, he directed his Sixth Army south to take Stalin’s city as a symbolic prize intended to demoralize the Russians . This ill-conceived plan was also a concrete expression of his racist conviction that Slavic Bolshevism and Judaism presented the greatest threat to the Aryan race. In essence, the German dictator’s goal was nothing less than total erasure of his enemy’s name from the map of Europe.
The bloody Battle of Stalingrad raged from August 23rd – February 2, 1943, and involved staggering losses on both sides. Despite massive civilian casualties, the Russians held at any cost and their defenses changed the face of modern warfare. Seemingly endless slaughter, culminating in hand to hand combat, finally ended in a nightmare of a frozen, starving, massively traumatized city, reduced to ashes and rubble. Germany’s once powerful Sixth Army was defeated , driven to the edge of madness and it’s 91,000 survivors were soon incarcerated in Soviet labor camps. After this war ended in 1945, only 6,000 of these POWs survived disease and captivity long enough to become finally repatriated between 1950 and 1956. More than a million Russian soldiers died in Stalingrad . Many have been interred there within a centrally located Tartar burial mound, beneath a giant , sword bearing statue of Mother Russia. Still unidentified others remain in mass graves at the outer edges of the city. This “Hero City” was renamed Volgograd in 1961 after Premier Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign declared Stalin to have been mass murderer and genocidal tyrant. Nevertheless, Russia’s decisive defeat of Germany remains as an ongoing source of deep nationalist pride and the battle which took place in today’s Volgograd is still immortalized under the name of Stalingrad. (David Glantz: Stalingrad Trilogy, 2009-2011 )
As part of Volgograd’s anniversary celebrations, official ceremonies included a military parade along with massive heroic posters of a god-like Stalin on trains, buses and buildings throughout their city. According to some accounts , local officials planned to ask visiting President Putin to allow this celebratory name change to become permanent. In addition, the Russian president has received petitions from thousands of communist party members requesting that their Comrade Stalin be rehabilitated. ( Tom Parfitt, “Stalingrad Anniversary, www.telegraph.co.uk:2/2/2013 )( Andrew Roth,” Russia Revives the Namesake of ‘Uncle Joe’, www.nytimes.com /2013/02/01)
These recent signs of nostalgia for the authoritarian regime of patriarchal, resolute , “Uncle Joe” who transformed the former Soviet Union into a major industrial and military power is cause for concern. Stalin’s victories were achieved at a staggering cost in suffering and loss of human life. While Adolf Hitler is most often evoked as an icon of evil, many of Stalin’s crimes have been overlooked, covered up and minimized for reasons of political expediency. This was especially true during the Second World War when the Allied Powers turned a blind eye to Stalin’s crimes in order to not alienate the Russians at a time when their co-operation was needed. I wrote more about this in my chapter on the Katyn Massacre in Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals.
It is now known that Stalin, who made himself the very face of communism , was in fact one of the bloodiest despots in modern history. During the years of his tyrannical rule , (1929-1953 ) and “holocaust of terror” the brazenly paranoid dictator was responsible for deaths of over 20 million of his own people. Stalin saw enemies everywhere even amongst his closest associates. These mass murders were the result of forced collectivization , deportations and re-locations of ethnic groups, starvation, political purges, secret police , show trials, and a brutal, filthy, de-humanizing system of gulags. More about these prison and labor camps can be found in Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn ‘s Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. (Also: Simon Sebag Montefiore: Stalin: The Red Tsar,2005)
Stalin’s paranoia extended throughout the population and citizens came to fear each other as well as the regime. Many innocent people were denounced as dissidents and sent to gulags or worse. All records of their ever having existed were also destroyed. Years ago I watched a biopic about Stalin with several Russian colleagues. Their main concern was that the film did not adequately convey the pervasive atmosphere of dread during those repressive times. Soviet terror, they explained, had a different quality than that carried out by the Nazis . The Nazis sought control by sadistically dragging people out into public and “making examples” of their terrorized victims. Soviet terror had a different quality. Black cars would arrive in the middle of the night, footsteps on the stairs, a knock on the door, and people would simply disappear and no information was available as to the fate or whereabouts of these now “non-persons”. People soon learned to inquire no further lest they be next. Having any information which might be of interest to the authorities became a liability and personal survival often meant a policy of denial and eventual amnesia. To this day, remnants of this fear induced amnesia give rise to a nostalgia for the former USSR.