The return of Stalingrad: Russian region proposes renaming airport

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Stalingrad, a name that conjours memories both of the Soviet Union’s World War Two sacrifice and the murderous rule of dictator Josef Stalin, is making a comeback.

Cars drive past the sign reading "Volgograd. Stalingrad" on the outskirts of Volgograd, Russia, January 1, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko/File Photo

A Russian regional governor has backed a proposal to name the local airport Stalingrad, angering some Russians who say the country should not honor Stalin, who oversaw millions of deaths.

It was not clear if the initiative had the support of the Kremlin, but it would fit in with a pattern under President Vladimir Putin for officials to tap into nostalgia for a period of Soviet rule when the country was a global superpower.

Andrei Bocharov, who runs the Volgograd Region in southern Russia, approved a proposal from war veterans to rename the local international airport Stalingrad, though he said “more work still has to be done on this issue”, his official site said.

Stalingrad was the name given to Volgograd in 1925 in honor of Stalin. It was changed back to Volgograd in 1961, when Stalin’s successor denounced him.

The city became a symbol of Soviet resistance during World War Two, when the battle of Stalingrad stopped the German advance into the Soviet Union and marked the turning of the tide of war in favor of the Allies.

Svetlana Gannushkina, a senior member of Russian human rights group Memorial, told Reuters: “Airport Stalingrad is a disgrace. It would imply justifying Stalin’s repressions, which is indamissible.

“I am overwhelmed with sadness, because we are returning to our past; we do not remember those pages of our history that we should be proud of, but rather the most shameful ones; we restore the names which indeed must be remembered - but remembered as villains.”

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The way Russia views Stalin’s legacy has gone through several shifts since he died in 1953.

In 1961, Nikita Khruschev, who took over as Soviet leader after Stalin’s death, had his preserved body removed from the Red Square mausoleum, where it lay alongside Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, and ordered that Stalingrad be renamed Volgograd.

A loosening of political restrictions in the 1980s allowed Russians for the first time to freely discuss the millions of people who died during his forced collectivization of farmers and his bloody purges of the 1930s.

By the time the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, most Russians viewed Stalin as an odious figure.

That changed as many Russians grew disenchanted with capitalist Russia, lamenting the gap that emerged between rich and poor, a collapse in public order, and a decline in Russia’s standing in the world.

More people began to see Stalin as an efficient manager who implemented an industrialization drive that transformed a peasant nation into a nuclear superpower, and as a national leader who defeated Nazi Germany.

His grave, now alongside other senior Soviet officials next to the Kremlin wall, is sometimes bedecked with flowers.

Exploiting nostalgia for the Soviet era, Russia’s Communist Party - the second largest faction in the legislature - is widely using Stalin’s image in its campaign in the run-up to the Sept. 18 parliamentary polls.

Putin, who worked as a Soviet spy in eastern Germany during Communist rule, has said that he saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy. He has said repression carried out under Stalin was unacceptable, but that his legacy was not all bad.

There have been some proposals for the city of Volgograd itself to be renamed Stalingrad. Commenting on this in 2014, Putin said residents should hold a referendum on the issue, and that the Kremlin would respect the outcome.

Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Jermey Gaunt