How Russia Won the War and Is Still Losing the Peace

Putin lays flowers at Stalingrad memorial

On the 70th anniversary of the surrender of General von Paulus’s German Sixth Army this weekend, President Putin declared, “Russia is proud of the defenders of Stalingrad.”  Rarely do I agree with Putin but he is absolutely right about the two hundred day battle of Stalingrad.

 Russia’s critical role in the defeat of Nazi Germany helped create the very conditions by which I can write in freedom, even if in victory Moscow tried so hard for so long to deny that very freedom to millions.  The danger for a Russia that lost perhaps as many as twenty seven million citizens fighting Nazi Germany is that again Russia could slide away from freedom and its rightful place in Europe.   

Soviet Russia eventually collapsed in 1991 because it came to represent an impossible contradiction: the centralization by bureaucratization of utterly disparate peoples.  It is a lesson Brussels might learn today.  However, the fact the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) stumbled on for so long after 1945 had much to do with the narrative Stalingrad established at the heart of Soviet politics.  The Great Patriotic War became an alibi for uncontested Kremlin power and locked Russia and its satellites into the political stasis that would in time consume it.

In spite of the immense sacrifice of the war generation, the moment a leader emerged who did not and could not base his political legitimacy within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on his war service Soviet Russia was doomed.  In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev took power and immediately set out to modernize a Soviet Union that could honor Stalingrad but move beyond it.  It was simply too late and to this day Russia has grappled with the same dilemma.

The tragic irony for the heroes of Stalingrad is that they are still not allowed to rest in honored peace in the Pantheon of Russia’s history.  With the announcement that Volgograd will resort to its wartime name Stalingrad, at least for the period of the anniversary, the danger is that contemporary Moscow will once again endeavor to ‘legitimize’ its power on the cult of the strong leader Stalin exploited and which Stalingrad came to represent. 

Joseph Stalin had no less blood on his hands than Hitler, with whom he penned an infamous pact in August 1939 to keep Russia out of war.  Indeed, Stalin almost destroyed the very Red Army that would play such a crucial heroic role in defeating Hitler through brutal purges in the 1930s.

It is sometimes said of Britain (mainly in Germany, for self-evident reasons) that until the British stop looking back to World War Two they can never take their place in the new Europe.  There is some truth to that, even if for those who make such a criticism new Europe is often a metaphor for a bureaucratic Europe that could bear striking similarities to the sclerotic USSR.  It is certainly true of Russia.

Lacking real political legitimacy, Vladimir Putin could take Russia back into a sacrificial nostalgia and lock Russian society and his leadership in anachronistic aspic.  Such a political strategy may just last long enough to keep Putin and friends in power and wealth, but it will do nothing to prepare Mother Russia for the twenty-first century.

Stalingrad was really the victory of ordinary Russians over a foreign, western criminal occupation.  It is a powerful story and utterly seductive to the Russian mind.  However, even the most cursory of glances at a map will demonstrate that the West is Russia’s one true friend.  Even the most cursory of glances at Russia’s economy demonstrates Moscow’s utter dependence on Europe for its fossil-fuelled wealth.

Every year Russia steps backward towards Stalingrad, the longer and more painful the difficult journey will be for the Russian people to embrace political modernity.  And, the greater the unnecessary suffering and unwarranted poverty the Russian people will face.

Russia must honor the fallen of Stalingrad, as must we all. However, it is time to let the dead rest and the memory of their suffering, sacrifice and immense achievement take its honored place in Russia’s past not in Russia’s present.

At Stalingrad Russia won the war and then contrived to lose the peace. Here the snow continues to fall, each flake reflective of a lost Stalingrad soul.  For their sake the Russian people will always be welcome in freedom. 

One million people were killed during the battle of Stalingrad and I honor and respect every one of them.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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