Volgograd has a long history of violence. Originally Tsaritsyn, it was a key southern outpost founded in the 16th century to serve as the guardian of the Volga River and a gateway to the Caucasus. It location at the empire’s underbelly also meant it was repeatedly subject to attack. The peasant rebel Stenka Razin held it for a month in 1670, and it was repeatedly sacked by Cossack chieftains in the 18th century. But it is perhaps best known for the Battle of Stalingrad (the city was renamed for the Russian dictator in 1925), one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, resulting in 850,000 casualties and building-to-building fighting that reduced the city to rubble. The Red Army’s victory in February 1943 here turned the tide of World War II. This blood-soaked battle is so central to the city’s identity, in fact, that last year local officials ruled that every February, Volgograd would be renamed Stalingrad for six days to commemorate the victory.
Today, Volgograd has become a battleground yet again, but this time the military front lacks definition and the targets could be anyone. The enemy moves silently and the attacks are sudden and intermittent. They serve no strategic purpose nor seek to capture territory. Rather, their impact is affective: to spread terror to disrupt the workings of the modern city.
Faculty Spotlight on the University of Pittsburgh’s historian of Russia and Central Asia–James Pickett.