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27 July 2022

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: how Putin exploited a wartime myth

There are echoes of the invasion of Ukraine in the epic battle for Stalingrad, but this time Russia is on the wrong side of history.

By William Boyd

Ukrainian ironies and parallels accrue on almost every page throughout Iain MacGregor’s splendid new account of the Battle of Stalingrad – ironies that, of course, he could never have foreseen while the book was being written, although he notes the beginnings of the Ukraine war in his introduction and epilogue. Vladimir Putin’s crazed and bungled invasion has put the Russian armed forces back in the international spotlight and the verdict is both shaming and shocking.

The Red Army heroes of yesteryear who fought in the titanic conflict that raged in and around Stalingrad between September 1942 and the end of January 1943 would not recognise their successors. The drunken, terrified, mutinous conscripts who are being asked to fight in Putin’s self-glorifying war would seem utterly alien to them. The contrast between the martial myth of Stalingrad and the present tawdry – though still lethal – reality is astounding.

MacGregor writes with great fluency and narrative drive, and his account of the context to the battle and the complexity of its fraught swings of fortune and misfortune is compellingly terse. Stalingrad was attacked in the autumn of 1942 as a result of the relative failure of “Operation Barbarossa”, Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia. The new campaign against Russia was renamed Fall Blau (“Case Blue”) and it was once more an assault of many armies across an enormous front. The offensive had serious ambitions, not least of which was the push into the south towards the Caucasus and the rich oilfields between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Stalingrad was just over 400 kilometres due east from today’s border between Russia and Ukraine. The Germans had occupied Ukraine in 1941 and the geography of their push south rings with names familiar from the current headlines: Kyiv, Kharkov, Poltava, Izyum, Luhansk.

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In 1942 Stalingrad (Volgograd today) was a large industrial city some 60 kilometres by five kilometres with a population of close to half a million – but swollen to almost twice that size by refugees from the war. The city was on the west bank of the Volga. The huge river, about two kilometres wide, was at the Russian defenders’ backs – hence the desperate nature of their resistance.

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The German Army Group South quickly arrived at Stalingrad and stopped. The city was soon reduced to rubble by German air superiority and artillery bombardments. Paradoxically, this destruction aided the Russians. Every ruined house or apartment block, or demolished school or railway station, became a bunker – think of the recent scenes in Mariupol or Severodonetsk. Overwhelming force made little impact on the pockets of stalwart, improvised defence, and inevitably the battle became a costly slugfest. A few metres gained, a few metres lost. The casualty count on both sides was in the tens of thousands. The scale of the battle is almost unimaginable.

The Russian army, however, adapted to the survival tactics better than the Germans. The concept of “active defence” was born. General Vasily Chuikov, the commandant of Stalingrad, said in an interview that: “The peculiarities of the fighting in Stalingrad… can be applied to all combat situations. Any populated area can be turned into a fortress and can grind down the enemy ten times better than a garrison.” Sound familiar?

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Chuikov then developed the idea of shturmovye ottriady (“storm groups”) – aggressive patrols by a handful of well-armed soldiers, who used the demolished buildings as cover and harassed the German forces at night. It was remarkably effective counter-warfare. Slowly but surely, as 1942 drew to its end, the Battle of Stalingrad became a stalemate. The front line barely moved: German and Russian soldiers faced each other across a few yards of shattered masonry. Attacking ruined buildings became futile – they were unassailable death-traps.

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The title of MacGregor’s book refers to one of these staunchly defended outposts, today something of a shrine to the heroism represented by battle itself. Known as “Pavlov’s House” (codename “Lighthouse”), it was under the command of Junior Sergeant Yakov Fedotovich Pavlov. The ethnic mix of the soldiers under him encompassed the peoples of all Russia and, thanks to their endurance and cunning, they held out against overwhelming German opposition for two months. However, MacGregor has established that Pavlov himself was wounded fairly swiftly and evacuated. The legend of the “Lighthouse” was a deliberate act of propaganda that lasted long after the end of the war. Pavlov was heavily decorated and lauded for his uncommon bravery, paraded everywhere as a hero of the Soviet Union and cynosure of everything that Stalingrad came to symbolise.

The myth persists. Putin has visited Volgograd many times. The grim paradox for Putin is that the myth and values of Stalingrad that inspired his invasion have been turned on their head. This time it is the Ukrainians who are repelling the barbaric invaders and who are fighting for the honour and safety of the motherland.

In November 1942 the siege was broken by an audacious breakout overseen by General Georgy Zhukov. “Operation Uranus”, a large-scale attack on a 320-kilometre front, drove back the German and Romanian armies in the Caucasus and resulted in General Paulus’s 6th Army being surrounded in the very city they had been attacking for five months. The besiegers were now themselves besieged. It was only a matter of time before the hopelessness of their position was brutally manifest and Paulus and the wretched remains of his army surrendered. This was the Red Army’s greatest victory and, it can be argued, the turning point of the war. All Hitler’s hopes were dashed at Stalingrad – and the long endgame of the Second World War began to play out.

However, MacGregor’s real coup is not so much the exposure of the propaganda-myth of “Pavlov’s House” but the access he was given to the unpublished letters and memoirs of a German officer who was present at the battle from its inception to its end. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Roske is almost a Wehrmacht Officer from central casting. Cultured, intelligent, an able and dedicated soldier, his observations on Stalingrad add first-person authenticity to the familiar history of the battle. Furthermore, he officiated at the surrender of General Paulus, and his meticulous observations of the process are superbly and uniquely detailed.

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While he was fighting during the battle, news reached Roske that, back in Germany, his wife had given birth to a son. Roske became a prisoner after the surrender in 1943 and wasn’t released from the Russian Gulag until 1955 – at which stage his son would have been almost a teenager. It is a poignant coda to the whole story of Stalingrad that, despite surviving the horrors of the fighting and more than a decade in Russian prison camps, Roske found civilian life too much to bear. He died by suicide in 1956. Stalingrad was still taking its toll long after the battle was over.

William Boyd’s new novel, “The Romantic”, will be published in October by Viking

The Lighthouse of Stalingrad: The Hidden Truth at the Centre of WWII’s Greatest Battle
Iain MacGregor
Constable, 368pp, £25

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special