Putin tries to inspire Russia with the legend of Stalingrad
Ahead of an anticipated Russian offensive in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin is attempting to galvanize society by invoking the sacred legacy of World War II — or, as it is known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. Last week, Putin went to Volgograd, which briefly re-adopted its historical name of Stalingrad. In the wake of Germany’s decision to send tanks to Ukraine, Putin is trying to present his war as a continuation of the struggle against Nazism.
- For Putin, whose patriotic vision is based on the Soviet victory over Germany in World War II, the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad was too important a date to miss. The so-called Great Patriotic War is great for the Kremlin’s propaganda purposes because it lasted five years and there is always a big anniversary in the offing. This year alone will bring at least two more big dates that can be exploited by propagandists: July marks 80 years since the Soviet victory at the Battle of Kursk (every Russian school child learns about the biggest tank battle in history). And November brings the 80th anniversary of the liberation of Kyiv from the Nazis.
- Stalingrad, a game-changing Soviet victory after 18 months of defeat and retreat, suits the Kremlin well in a situation where Russia has suffered painful losses in Ukraine and is preparing for a new attack. This was the underlying message of Putin’s speech. “This was not merely a battle for a city — the very existence of a tormented but unvanquished country was at stake… Every person in the trenches and on the home front felt and understood this. And so, as it has happened repeatedly in our history, we united in the decisive battle and won,” Putin said.
- The anniversary also — fortuitously — coincided with the West’s decision to supply Ukraine with German Leopard 2 tanks. “The ideology of Nazism – this time in its modern guise — is again creating direct threats to our national security, and we are, time and again, forced to resist the aggression of the collective West. However incredible, it is a fact — we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses painted on them. There is again a plan to fight Russia on Ukrainian land using Hitler’s successors,” Putin said.
- Of course, in Putin’s telling, Germany is not the main enemy but merely a puppet in U.S. hands. “Those that are dragging European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia… apparently fail to understand that a modern war against Russia will be a completely different war for them. We do not send our tanks to their borders but we have to respond… [and our response] will not be limited to the use of armor. Everyone must realize this,” Putin said.
- This time, however, Putin did not speak about — or even hint at — Russia’s nuclear capabilities, as he has done more than once in the past. Apparently, sending tanks to Ukraine is not crossing one of the Kremlin’s “red lines.”
- Staging this event in Volgograd was a way for the Kremlin to target an important audience: people who are nostalgic for the Soviet Union. Ever since 1961, when Nikita Khrushchev gave Volgograd its current name, Communist hardliners have demanded a return to “Stalingrad.” The Kremlin is not about to restore that name permanently. However, since 2013, there have been frequent instances where the name is temporarily changed to mark significant wartime anniversaries. On approaches to the city, signs are changed from “Volgograd” to “Stalingrad.” This year, however, the “Stalinist” theme was more prominent than usual. The city was hung with banners featuring Stalin and a bust of the dictator was unveiled at the Battle of Stalingrad memorial. The latter is a rare event. All old monuments to Stalin in the Soviet Union had been removed by the late 1960s — new ones erected by authorities, rather than private enthusiasts, are extremely rare.
Why the world should care
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine there was a popular theory that Putin, obsessed with history, was trying to recreate the Great Patriotic War. That’s a possible explanation for Russia’s persistence: the World War II narrative demands that Russia be on the brink of defeat before recovering to win. Half of the story has been told – the Russian army has been defeated and forced onto the backfoot. Now, Putin is hoping to turn the tide. For this to happen, the Russian population needs to be convinced that its army is not invading a peaceful neighbor, but instead repelling a Nazi offensive coordinated from Washington.