Today’s Guardian is running an article about the controversy of renaming Volgograd to Stalingrad for the annual celebrations of that particularly brutal period in World War 2. If anyone hasn’t read Anthony Beevor’s book on this topic, I strongly recommend it – I don’t know how factual it is but it’s an excellent read anyway. Apparently, according to this article, the decision to rename Volgograd to Stalingrad for this few days of the year (covering the time when the Nazis surrendered) is controversial because it is seen as honouring Stalin, who was in charge at the time. From the article:
Communists and other hardliners credit him with leading the country to victory in the second world war and making it a nuclear superpower, while others condemn his purges, during which millions were murdered.
Stalin was definitely a bad, bad man, who did bad, bad things, and although some have argued that many of the bad things he did were necessary conditions to enable the rapid industrialization that gave the USSR the power to destroy Hitler, others would probably just as likely argue that his excesses reduced the USSR’s power to resist invasion. Beevor doesn’t make a judgment either way but certainly describes how Stalin’s behavior before the war and in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa made the Nazis’ job easier, but by contrast Aly and Heim in Architects of Annihilation argue, at least by implication, that Stalin’s programs of “de-kulakization” and industrialization – which were accompanied by famine, mass relocation and the destruction of whole communities – were essential to the later war effort and were actually copied by Hitler’s planners and demographers as they set about the extermination of the Jewish race and the residents of Eastern Europe. So in this sense it could be argued that Stalin’s specific pre-war policy framework may have been an essential pre-condition to the victory in the war. If so, it’s a very odious fact but it does suggest that Stalin’s role was essential to winning the war, as were the sacrifices of the 20 million or so people who died as a result of his policies.
Beevor on the other hand quotes a general speaking to Stalin early in the war, when Stalin was panicking. I can’t remember exactly the quote, of course, but basically the general told Stalin “It doesn’t really matter how tough they are or how badly we fare now; just pack up our industry to the other side of the Urals, and eventually we’ll destroy them.” A lesson they learnt, of course, from Napoleon, though they did have help from vampires back then.
So reading that article on the reveneration of Stalingrad’s name, and the dispute about how much Stalin needs to be tied to the victory over Nazism (and, by extension, its fascist satellites), or whether the Soviet Union (and Russia) was/is the kind of place where it doesn’t matter who is in charge, no one will ever be able to conquer it. I guess it won’t change anything about the current debate (after all, since when are these debates ever actually about historical facts?) but it’s an interesting question about Stalin’s legacy, since implicit in it is the suggestion that the only way Russia could have defeated the Nazis is by a massive program of industrialization that cannot possibly be achieved without mass suffering. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to believe that the first half of the 20th century could have followed any trajectory that would not have ended in mass suffering – at least not once WW1 was over. And if so, that really is a sad, sad state of human affairs, and points to something cruel and terrible in the heart of modernity.
fn1: it sounds so innocuous when put like that, doesn’t it?
fn2: not to mention the massive contribution of the USA under lend-lease from 1941-1945, something for Americans to throw back in the face of unsympathetic foreigners who tell them they didn’t win the war.
fn3: another side reason that he may have been essential was that Hitler was obssessed with capturing Stalingrad because of its name, and had the city been named Puppygrad he might have been a little less focused on squandering hundreds of thousands of well-trained troops on it.