Russia’s ruling regime is persisting in its attempts to rehabilitate the name of Joseph Stalin. For Vladimir Putin, this has been a consistent course—from the reinstated melody of Stalin’s national anthem to new school textbooks justifying Stalin’s mass purges as “adequate to the task of modernization.” In 2010, as Russia marked the 65th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, the authorities attempted to “decorate” the streets of Moscow with portraits of the dictator—but were forced to back down in the face of strong opposition from veterans, civil society groups, and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Now, the attempts are being repeated in connection with the 70th anniversary of victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, a turning point in the war that stopped the eastward advance of Nazi Germany. Once again, just as in Soviet times, the regime is trying to equate the heroism and sacrifice of the people with the name of a mass murderer. In advance of the anniversary, the Volgograd City Duma passed a law that officially renames the city “Stalingrad” for six days of the year, including the anniversary of the end of the battle (February 2nd), Victory Day (May 9th) and the day of the end of the Second World War (September 2nd).
But six days, it appears, was not enough. Putin’s deputy prime minister, Dmitri Rogozin, has called for reinstating the name Stalingrad on a permanent basis. Valentina Matvienko, a longtime Putin ally and the speaker of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, has urged the city to hold a referendum to effect the name-change. While no polls have yet been taken in Volgograd itself, a recent nationwide survey showed that 60 percent of Russians oppose returning the name of the dictator to the city, with only 18 percent in favor. However, with Putin’s election chief Vladimir Churov in charge of the referendum—as he has indicated he will be—it is unlikely that the official result will bear any relation to the actual votes cast.
Meanwhile, residents of Volgograd, Chita, and St. Petersburg are already seeing Stalin’s portraits on city buses. “Any glorification of Stalin, any justification of Stalin’s crimes and mass purges against our people is a crime in itself,” a group of lawmakers from the opposition Yabloko party wrote to Kremlin-appointed St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko. “A bus with a jovial mustached butcher is a personal insult to me and to millions of Russians,” concurred writer Viktor Shenderovich. “Those who organized this hideousness are wrong to think that it can be pushed through effortlessly.”
It often seems as if the Kremlin is purposely testing public opinion—be it with the blatant election fraud, the ban on US adoptions of orphans, or the rehabilitation of Stalin. In all of those instances, the regime has been playing with fire. One day, it is bound to get burnt.