Back To The Future

A decade ago, after the Soviet collapse, Russia rushed to liberate itself from the namesakes of fallen idols. Leningrad became St. Petersburg, Gorky became Nizhny Novgorod. But today, in the river city of Volgograd, scene of one of the most momentous battles of World War II, the winds of change seem to be blowing the opposite way. "Volgograd? This is Stalingrad," says activist Zinaida Chistyakova. "We want our name back."

Commentators have noted the signs of a symbolic Soviet renaissance across Russia. President Vladimir Putin has already reinstated the Soviet anthem, with new words. The Defense Ministry has suggest-ed restoring the Soviet red star on military flags. Muscovites have considered returning Felix Dzherzhinsky, the dread founder of the secret police, to his pedestal in the square opposite the former KGB headquarters. But Stalin, the dictator who slaughtered tens of millions of Russians?

The controversial proposal to change the name of their city back to Stalingrad is spear-headed by a dwindling group of Volgograd veterans who helped turn back an attacking Nazi Army 60 years ago next month. More than 1 million Soviet soldiers and hundreds of thousands of German soldiers died in the six-month battle. "We were hungry and cold, the city was on fire," recalls 81-year-old veteran Zoya Kabanova. "There were a lot of tears and so many deaths. But we defended this city. That is why Stalingrad is dear to us." The city was renamed after Stalin's death in 1953, once the crimes of his regime were finally exposed.

The rehabilitation of Stalin says much about how the chaos of post-Soviet reforms has inspired nostalgia for the orderly ways of the Soviet Union. According to opinion polls in recent years, a majority of Russians either admire Stalin or are indifferent to his actions. "A lot of time has passed," says regional Gov. Nikolai Maksyta, who has, along with the local Parliament, petitioned Putin to consider a name change. "There is no reason to be afraid of the name Stalin or our history. The threat these days is terrorism, not Stalin."

That is still not a majority view in Volgograd. "These people should ask a victim of Stalin's repression how they would feel," says local businessman Yuri Krasnyanski, noting that no one has proposed a "Hitlergrad" in Germany. Volgograd's younger generation especially dislikes the idea. "We'll be stuck with this name for the rest of our lives," complains 18-year-old Albina Magomedeminova.

Indeed, the initiative looks destined to fail. Polls by the opposition SPS Party in Volgograd show that 80 percent of the populace is against the switch. The Kremlin has suggested the city hold a referendum. But "Stalingrad" proponents, true to form, prefer to settle the matter with a decision from above. "If I were Putin I would just decree the name change while visiting during the anniversary of the battle," says Deputy Gov. Yuri Sezov. That seems unlikely. Asked about the proposal during a recent call-in show, Putin--his soft spot for Soviet symbolism notwithstanding--responded that a name shift "would generate some sort of suspicions that we are returning to the times of Stalinism. I am not convinced that this would be useful to all of us." When it comes to Stalingrad, at least, it's heartening that these latest winds of change are not yet blowing from the Kremlin.