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An exhibit honoring the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, 2023

Marching backwards to Stalingrad Local officials are lobbying hard to restore Volgograd’s former name. They might finally get their wish (but only after Putin’s reelection).

Source: Meduza
An exhibit honoring the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, 2023
An exhibit honoring the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, 2023
Artem Krasnov / Kommersant / Sipa USA / Vida Press

It’s looking more and more possible that Stalingrad will return to the map of Russia sometime after March 2024, supplanting “Volgograd” and undoing Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization of the city’s name, more than 60 years ago. Sources told Meduza that Volgograd Governor Andrey Bocharov has the personal motivation and the political connections needed to plow ahead with this initiative, despite objections from local residents and the Kremlin. Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev explains how the name of the USSR’s most brutal dictator became a priority in 2023.

One person familiar with Andrey Bocharov described him as a “fighter” whose interest in resurrecting the Stalingrad name is “sincere, not opportunistic.” Bocharov is a decorated former paratrooper who commanded a reconnaissance company during the First Chechen War. “He’s the real deal, not some armchair officer, albeit in the past,” another source told Meduza.

According to both sources, Bocharov has “dreamed” since becoming governor in 2014 of renaming Volgograd after Joseph Stalin. His associations with the name are apparently based on his personal devotion to Russia’s military and his love of Soviet legacy. His reasons aren’t exactly local: Bocharov had no connections to the Volgograd region before being appointed governor.

With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Bocharov sought to realize his renaming goal, but Vladimir Putin’s domestic policy team reportedly opposes the idea for three reasons:

  1. The presidential administration views the subject of Stalin as the Communist Party’s home turf, meaning that restoring the Stalingrad name would give the party a “bargaining chip” for no reason.
  2. There is a political rivalry between Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s domestic politics czar, and Kiryenko’s predecessor, Vyacheslav Volodin, who has close ties to Volgograd and Governor Bocharov.
  3. Most of the people living in Volgograd don’t want their city renamed.
Putin places flowers at a war monument in Volgograd honoring the fallen heroes of Stalingrad on the battle’s anniversary
Konstantin Zavrazhin / Sputnik / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

In February 2023, the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center published polling results showing that 67 percent of Volgograd residents oppose the Stalingrad renaming. Bocharov initially signaled that he would respect the popular will, but he later combined forces with regional parliament Speaker Alexander Bloshkin, orchestrating the adoption of legislation that changed the parameters of a potential referendum on renaming the city. Under the new rules (adopted in late November), the majority vote is opened to people living not just in the city itself but throughout the region (where ballot fraud is far easier to manage). 

But what about the presidential administration’s objections? Every person who spoke to Meduza agreed that Bocharov has the political means to plow ahead with his Stalingrad plan. Since working at the All-Russia People’s Front coalition, he has enjoyed direct access to Putin, allowing him to circumvent Kiriyenko’s team on an issue like renaming the city. The president “isn’t exactly a fan of Stalin,” said one source with ties to the Kremlin, but he could likely be convinced to see “something mystical” and “symbolic” in returning the Stalingrad name.

However, if and when the initiative is permitted, it won’t be until after Russia’s March 2024 presidential election, say Meduza’s sources. Before Putin’s reelection, pitting Volgograd’s city residents against the rest of the region’s population, thereby risking protests, is an unacceptable gamble for the Kremlin, says a source close to the governor.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Adapted into English by Kevin Rothrock

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