Tuesday, May 28, 2024

WORLD | 01-02-2023 15:07

'Descendants of victors': Russia evokes Stalingrad for Ukraine boost

The Battle of Stalingrad, which turned the tide of World War II 80 years ago when German forces capitulated to the Red Army, remains a powerful symbol of patriotism in Russia as it presses its war in Ukraine.

The Battle of Stalingrad, which turned the tide of World War II 80 years ago when German forces capitulated to the Red Army, remains a powerful symbol of patriotism in Russia as it presses its war in Ukraine.

More than one million members of the Red Army died fighting for the city, a sacrifice that has seen it evolve into a symbol of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany and a mecca of modern Russian patriotism. One of the largest battles in history, the fighting raged for more than six months in 1942 and 1943 before the Russians defeated Nazi soldiers trapped in the ruined city in the depths of winter.

The first-ever surrender by the Nazis was glorified in Russia as the event that rescued Europe from Adolf Hitler. Today, some of the most enthusiastic supporters of President Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine are to be found in Stalin's so-called "Hero City" of Stalingrad, now called Volgograd.

But the anniversary on February 2 to commemorate that crucial battle has taken on added meaning this year as Russian troops fight in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has gone to great lengths to present the nearly year-long conflict there as yet another fight against Nazism, like the one two generations ago in the southern city now called Volgograd.

And many, including Andrei Oreshkin, a volunteer helping to retrieve remains of killed Soviet soldiers, are receptive to this narrative.

"Of course, we're fighting fascism," he told AFP at Rossoshka, a burial ground near Volgograd for Soviet as well as German and Romanian soldiers killed.

Moreover, he agrees with Moscow's view that the conflict in Ukraine is rooted in the West's miscalculation of Russia's resolve and capabilities, as in World War II.

"At the time, Nazi Germany and its allies underestimated... the Soviet Union, its power and the patriotism of its people," Oreshkin said. "The West is hoping that Russia is weak."


The Battleground

Located some 900 kilometres (559 miles) southeast of Moscow, pre-war Stalingrad was a crucible of Soviet industry with factories in the city of 600,000 people churning out military hardware. Stalingrad also acted as a gateway to the oil fields of the Caucasus as well as to Central Asia and the Caspian Sea.

For Hitler, who had in June 1941 pulled out of a German-Soviet non-aggression pact, its name alone made it a tantalising target and worthy of an epic fight.

The battle began in July 1942 and lasted for 200 days of grinding aerial bombardments and house-to-house fighting between the Germans and Soviet soldiers and civilians.

The Soviets were under strict orders from Stalin to stand their ground. "Not a single step back," he ordered, warning that troops who retreated would be shot.

The 6th Army of German general Friedrich Paulus managed to gain control of 90 percent of the city. But in November, the Red Army staged a forceful counter-offensive, overcoming the enemy troops who were trapped and left to starve in the Soviet winter.

In January 1943, the Soviets launched a final offensive, retaking the ruined city district by district until the last German troops capitulated on February 2, 1943.


'Fighting fascism'

Comparisons with the past are everywhere in Volgograd, a city of one million people where every street bears a reminder of the destruction 80 years ago.

Symbols of Russia's forces in Ukraine -– the letters Z and V -– are displayed side-by-side banners and memorials honouring Soviet troops.

The historical messaging -- that Moscow once again must fight European fascism – echoes the justifications by President Vladimir Putin when he launched the offensive in February last year, vowing to "de-Nazify" Ukraine.

At the Battle of Stalingrad Museum, employee Tatiana Prikazchikova said Western criticism of Russia was "nothing new" after centuries of confrontation.

Recently her museum has hosted ceremonies to give medals to the families of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine.

"The message is this: their ancestors were fighting fascism," she said, pointing to a 360-degree panorama depicting the battle. "They are following in this tradition."

The museum recently hosted a ceremony for the Youth Army patriotic movement, financed by the Defence Ministry, where leaders told the children: "You are the descendants of the victors of Stalingrad!"

The city's famous war memorials, such as the "Motherland Calls" statue, have also been used as send-off points for volunteer soldiers heading to Ukraine. 


Glorified battle

The city is steeped in nostalgia for the former Soviet Union, fuelling an emerging business in historical tourism.

Looming large over the city is a hilltop memorial to the battle that includes a towering 85-metre (279-foot) sculpture of a woman with a raised sword, known as "The Motherland Calls."

"Defenders of Stalingrad have passed a great heritage to us: love for the Motherland, readiness to protect its interests and independence, to stand strong in the face of any test," Putin said in 2018 on the 75th anniversary of the surrender.

The battle has also been the inspiration of several films, from German director Joseph Vilsmaier's Stalingrad, a brutal depiction of the battle as seen by German troops, to Russian director Fyodor Bondarchuk's 2013 take on the Soviet experience.

In literature, it inspired Vasily Grossman's acclaimed 1960 masterpiece Life and Fate, which was banned in the Soviet Union for over quarter of a century for drawing a line between Stalinism and Nazism.

In popular culture, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, one of the battle's heroes, appears in the cult video game Call of Duty.


'A tragedy'

Despite the city's glorification of the past, most Volgograd residents that spoke to AFP said they were glad of the commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the battle, though many did not want to make any comparisons with the Ukraine conflict. 

"We should think about it, so we do not repeat mistakes and draw some conclusions," said Yekaterina Sedova, a 21-year-old chemistry student, who said her great-grandfather fought at Stalingrad.

She has taken part in patriotic events linked to the commemoration but did not want to "mix" the events, adding that she was trying to limit her exposure to news about Ukraine so as "not to harm myself emotionally."

Others felt uncomfortable with the pomp.

"This is a tragedy for Volgograd and for our country," 31-year-old Maria Anshakova told AFP by the bank of the Volgograd river, saying it "should be marked quietly."

Local historian and activist Vyacheslav Yashchenko said the celebrations had become far bigger compared to those in Soviet times. He also said he was disturbed to see the government promoting the Ukraine offensive alongside the Stalingrad anniversary.

"It is true that the [World War II era] victories were really huge for our country," he said. "But the authorities now are using past victories and historical events that suit them for the image of the country and to manipulate peoples' consciousness."

Back at the Rossoshka memorial, Oreshkin, part of a group that recovered the remains of more than 1,000 Red Army soldiers last year alone, showed AFP the ID tags and other personal items he found in the clay ground outside Volgograd. 

"Future generations may have to do what we do," he sighed. "I just hope those in charge will learn from our experience and that the dead will not be left out in the fields."



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