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MOSCOW, June 09. /ITAR-TASS/. Years-long debates over giving the Hero City of Volgograd, on the western bank of the Volga River, its previous Soviet name, Stalingrad, have flared anew after the Russian President Vladimir Putin answered a WWII veteran’s question during last week’s anniversary celebrations of the anti-Hitler coalition forces’ landing in Normandy. Though Putin only said the issue was within the local authority’s competence and should be resolved in a referendum, some interpreted the answer as an indirect support for the initiative.
In all likelihood, you will not see Stalingrad back on the Russian map. Even if a referendum does take place, the idea’s supporters have very slim chances of winning a majority to their side. But debates over Stalin’s role will hardly end soon as no other historical figure has ever caused such fierce debates among politicians, historians, journalists, and the general public.
The controversial question was asked on June 6, during the commemorative events devoted to the 70th anniversary of D-Day - the Allied forces’ amphibious and airborne assault in May 1944. The presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov later said Putin did not mean Volgograd should be renamed after Stalin, as it was beyond his competence.
But the spark has kindled a lively discussion. The Communist party politicians were the first to react as traditionally ardent supporters of Stalin’s rehab. The party’s leader, Gennady Zyuganov, approved of a referendum and also mentioned the issue of St. Petersburg’s previous name, Leningrad. The Communists have long fought to revive Stalingrad, announcing in 2011 it had gathered more than 600,000 signatures.
The idea received the Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin’s approval. “I have never doubted the need to give the great city of Stalingrad its name back again. Not for Stalin’s but for the people of Stalingrad’s sake,” he said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, Valery Trapeznikov, believes the current policy is sufficient to sustain historical memory. Presently, the city has its war name back during official ceremonies on Victory Day, May 9, and other commemorative days.
The presidential human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova believes renaming Volgograd is a delicate question subject to an all-Russia referendum. All advantages and disadvantages of renaming and other factors should be weighed carefully to produce “a conscious and level-headed decision.”
Human rights activists traditionally oppose the idea. “We should always remember the crimes Stalin committed against his own people,” said the head of the Memorial Civil Rights Society, Arseny Roghinsky.
First Deputy Chairman of Just Russia’s faction Mikhail Yemelyanov would rather avoid political celebrations and names after some leaders, “as there should be no holidays, names or other things that split the nation.” Putin’s evasion of a direct answer was a “diplomatic and wise” decision, the deputy believes.
Putin’s words were not an approval of the idea, agrees the Chairman of the Center for Political Technologies Boris Makarenko.
“He could not say no to a veteran, as this would be inhumane, but nor did he say yes,” the political scientist told ITAR-TASS. It is unacceptable for the government to revive the positive image of Stalin, even in the context of WWII victory, he believes.
However, he added, Stalin would long remain more than just a historic figure, “He is the person that splits the society as no one else. He is a hero for some and evil incarnate for the others.”
A Levada-Center poll conducted in February 2013 ahead of the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death showed 23% would like to see the city with its previous name, while 55% advocated the current name. Asked “What is your personal feeling about Stalin’s death?” more than a half of the respondents (55%) answered “the end of terror and massive repressions and release of millions of innocent people". Only 18% opted for an answer “the loss of a great leader and teacher”.
Volgograd received its current name in 1961, after bearing the name of Stalingrad since 1925, its historical name being Tsaritsyn. The city was a scene of what instantly went down in history as the Battle of Stalingrad - the bloodiest and longest standoff of Nazi Germany and the Red Army on the Volga that turned the tide of WWII.
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