Friday Photo: VIP Section

Nine years ago this weekend I travelled from Beijing to Changchun in order to attend the 60th anniversary of the founding of Northeast Normal University. The organization I worked for has a relationship with that school and had been invited to send a delegate. I was thrilled for the privilege to be the official representative because, ten years previous, I had directed our language program at the university.

Attending the event meant not just sitting through ceremonies, meetings, and banquets, but also getting to see old friends and colleagues as well.

The official ceremonies were held in the giant auditorium on campus, and I was given a special seat in the VIP section next to a former president and party secretary (who were also “old friends”). This was the view from my VIP seat in the auditorium;

changchun vip

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The Corner of Stalin and Freedom

Changchun Railway Station

The Corner of Stalin and Freedom

In the 1990’s I studied and worked at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, Jilin Province. We always got a chuckle out of the fact that the school was located on the corner of Stalin and Freedom.

There wasn’t much on that corner — our university entrance, the Friendship Store, and some government offices. Today there is a MacDonald’s.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia asked China to change the names of streets and other locations around China that were named after Stalin and Lenin. Stalin Street became People’s Street (Renmin Dajie).

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the same comedic value.

Stalin Street in 1990

I read with interest, then, this article in The Christian Science Monitor about a Russian Communist Party attempt to change the name of Volgagrad back to Stalingrad. They want the name permanently changed, but the city council has only agreed to change it for 6 days a year, to commemorate the battle of Stalingrad.

Russia’s Communist Party has submitted a petition to President Putin, signed by 50,000 people, asking for the name of Stalingrad to be permanently restored.

 

Volgograd’s city council, which is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, decreed the name change after receiving “numerous requests” from Stalingrad veterans, almost a thousand of whom still live in the region.

 

The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, after then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tore the veil off the vast crimes committed against the Soviet people by Stalin’s secret police, including mass executions and the Gulag, a sprawling system of political prison camps that held millions of people at its peak.

 

The new name change will take effect for six days each year, all of them associated with key turning points in the war. The council decision says that the Stalin-era title “Hero City of Stalingrad” will be used as a “symbol officially in our speeches, reports, and while conducting public events.”

 

The battle for Stalingrad began in August 1942 and lasted six months, during which it turned the city’s name into a byword for total ruination. A staggering 2 million people died on both sides before the ragged remnants of the Axis forces surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.

I’m guessing that no one, save the nutty foreigners who lived in Changchun in the 1990’s, as well as a few local old-timers, will be clamoring for a return of Stalin Street in Changchun.