In ex-Stalingrad, many rally behind Putin’s Ukraine offensive

VOLGOGRAD: Vladimir Zotov, a resident of the southern Russian city of Volgograd, says he feels sorry for Ukrainian civilians who died during Moscow’s intervention but insists the Kremlin had no other choice.

“War, military hostilities always mean losses, heartbreak and tears,” the 68-year-old pensioner told AFP on a sunny morning following a visit to the dentist.

“Of course, I feel sorry for people,” he said, referring to the ordeal of the devastated port city of Mariupol that fell under control of Russian troops after a weeks-long siege. “But such is life.

“If you are surrounded on all sides, if you face danger, then you protect your life and your children,” he said, referring to Russia.

To raise support for his decision to send troops to Ukraine on February 24, President Vladimir Putin has compared Moscow’s military intervention in the pro-Western country to the Red Army fighting against Nazi troops.

Many Russians have enthusiastically embraced the rhetoric, and that sense of patriotism and support for Putin’s policies are on full display in Volgograd, known as Stalingrad in the Soviet era, scene of the bloodiest battle of World War II.

The 1942-43 Battle of Stalingrad raged for almost six months and when it was over the city was in ruins and more than a million soldiers and civilians had lost their lives.

The city’s legendary landmark is a hilltop memorial to the battle that includes the towering 85-metre (279-foot) sculpture of a woman with a raised sword known as “The Motherland Calls”.

Denis Stepanov, a 51-year-old visitor from the central city of Nizhny Novgorod, says he visits the vast memorial complex every time he is in town.

Stepanov sees parallels between Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine and other conflicts involving the Russian army – including in Chechnya, Afghanistan and World War II.

“Each time, young people achieved feats,” Stepanov said near the monument. “They did it for Russia, that means patriotism is not weakening.”

The Russian army has been tight-lipped on its losses in Ukraine, but in Volgograd and other cities local media frequently announce funerals for soldiers killed in combat in the ex-Soviet country.

Alexander Grachev, who has lived in Volgograd for the past two decades, also draws parallels with Russia’s fight against Nazi troops.

“Back then there was fascism, now there is neo-fascism,” said the 50-year-old, referring to Ukraine’s authorities.

He describes Russia’s relations with Ukraine – including the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – as the result of a messy “divorce” between Moscow and Kyiv after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

He considers himself a patriot and points out that his Ukrainian grandfather fought in the Battle of Stalingrad and reached Berlin.

Lenin, Stalin, Putin

Memories of the Soviet past are alive in former Stalingrad, with souvenir shops selling Soviet-era paraphernalia like magnets with Lenin and Stalin alongside portraits of President Putin.

Now, as in other cities across Russia, there are also banners with the letter “Z”, which has become a symbol of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine, displayed on buildings and billboards.

“For our people, Stalingrad!” says one of the patriotic signs, sporting the “Z” letter.

Zotov said his generation was brought up on patriotism and reverence of the Second World War.

Since the start of the offensive, prison terms of up to 15 years have been introduced under new legislation for spreading “fake news” about the Russian army, while television channels have ratcheted up production of anti-Ukraine propaganda.

Not all residents of Volgograd support Moscow’s military campaign, however.

“I don’t particularly approve of the special operation, because it has claimed so many lives,” said student Marina Kiryanova, 20, using the Kremlin’s term for the intervention.

“I think there were other ways to settle this issue.”

Ilya, a 30-year-old engineer visiting from the city of Samara, called the offensive “surreal”. “Both nations are suffering,” said the young man, refusing to give his last name.

He admitted that there were many supporters of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, however.

“I think society has been split in half,” he said.