Hurrah for Zhukov?

Author: 
Colin Foster

On 2 February, a lavish “Victory at Stalingrad 70th Anniversary Night” is being organised by Philosophy Football (an enterprise run by former Communist Party activist Mark Perryman) and the Hope Not Hate anti-fascist group.

The keynote speaker will be Seumas Milne, associate editor of the Guardian and former business manager of the Straight Left, a Stalinist splinter publication.

The Battle of Stalingrad, between August 1942 and February 1943, was a turning point of World War Two. So were some British victories in North Africa, and US victories in the Pacific, around the same period.

More those other victories, Stalingrad is still used to cast credit on the political leaders of the winning side, and on Stalin’s marshal Georgi Zhukov.

At the time, as Antony Beevor reports in his book Stalingrad: “The triumph of the Red Army boosted the status of the [Communist] Party member and attracted fellow-travellers in droves. Even conservatives could not avoid praising the heroism of the Red Army. In Britain, King George VI commissioned a Sword of Stalingrad to be forged for presentation to the city”.

The Trotskyists of the Workers’ Party USA wrote (Labor Action, 1 February 1943): “Many minds have lost their balance and many eyes have acquired an unusual degree of starriness as a result of the recent Russian military victories. People who had clearly seen, or had begun to see, the tyrannical and anti-labour character of the Stalin regime... are now allowing themselves to be hypnotised into passive acceptance of the Stalinist dictatorship, because the Russian soldiers fight with ability and heroism...

“It is not the Russian soldiers alone who have displayed heroism and enthusiasm. It is a depressing fact, but a fact nevertheless, that on many occasions the German soldiers have displayed the same qualities. And the Greeks, and the British, and the Americans, and many others. Yet who would dare say that the countries for which all those soldiers fight have engaged in just and progressive wars?...

“Because the Russian soldiers fight well, does that in any way change the fact that Stalin is one of the bloodiest dictators of modern history, that he is the grave-digger of the Russian Revolution and the aborter of many other revolutions? Does that change the fact that he is the murderer of the Old Bolsheviks... that he has enslaved the Russian workers, that he has deprived them of every possible liberty and democratic right?”

As Beevor states: “The newspaper reports which claimed that frontoviki eagerly discussed the heroic leadership of Comrade Stalin in their trenches, and went into the attack with the battle cry ‘Za Stalina!’ (‘For Stalin’) were pure propaganda. Yury Belash, a soldier poet, once wrote a verse:

“To be honest about it —

in the trenches the last thing we thought about

was Stalin”.

Until later, maybe. The Russian command’s enforcement was brutal — it executed about 13,500 troops during the battle, for indiscipline — but at the height the soldiers’ life expectancy was so low, and their acceptance that they had to fight the anti-Slav racist Nazi-commanded army so full, that many reckoned they had little to lose.

“For a young Soviet citizen [newly conscripted to Stalingrad]. the most shocking experience was... the frank speaking of frontoviki on political subjects. Many expressed themselves in a way that prompted new arrivals to glance over their shoulders in alarm. They declared that life after the war should be different. The terrible existence for those who worked on collective farms and in factories must be improved, and the privileges of the nomenklatura restricted” (Beevor, p.288).

The Stalingrad victory, however, helped Stalin stabilise his regime, and soon to extend its model to the countries of Eastern Europe which came under the control of the Russian army as it pushed the German army into retreat.