MOSCOW -- Russia has begun questioning witnesses to the monumental Battle of Stalingrad as part of a criminal investigation into what authorities term the "genocide" of Soviet citizens by invading Nazi forces in World War II.
Officials have cast a series of investigations into events that occurred in wartime more than 75 years ago as part of an effort to establish facts and pursue justice. But they have also indicated that the probes are part of a continuing push by President Vladimir Putin's government to enshrine a positive narrative of the country's history, and counter what it claims are efforts abroad to equate the Soviet Union's wartime role with that of Nazi Germany.
News of the summonses sent to Stalingrad witnesses was first reported by the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta. It cited the grandson of a 94-year-old man who was identified only as Vasily N. and lives in Volgograd, as the city of Stalingrad is now known, as saying that the family had received a letter on November 28 instructing Vasily N. to appear for questioning on December 1.
"Surely they don't have to summon him to be interrogated by an investigator if they want to question him, a [former] camp inmate, about Stalingrad?" said the grandson, Denis Chistyakov. "I think this work could be done by historians and archivists."
Chistyakov said he didn't show the letter to his grandfather, who he said had been taken prisoner by German forces at age 15 or 16 and sent to a labor camp in eastern Germany. When he contacted the investigator, he said, he was told that such summonses are being sent out across Russia.
Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for Russia's Investigative Committee, a rough equivalent to the U.S. FBI, said that as part of its investigation, the agency hoped to interview more than 1,000 Nazi concentration-camp survivors living in Volgograd region. "Investigators would like to speak with everyone who survived those terrible events," she told Russian media outlet RBK.
Wanted: Dead Or Alive
The five-month Battle of Stalingrad became a symbol of Soviet resilience in the face of the Nazi onslaught and marked a major turning point in the war. More than 1 million soldiers and civilians are believed to have died in the 1942-43 battle, as Soviet forces halted and eventually defeated the German forces in the city on the Volga River in southern Russia.
The probe into alleged Nazi atrocities in and around Stalingrad was announced in July, when the Investigative Committee released a statement saying that it aimed to "identify specific individuals among the German-fascist invaders and their collaborators who were involved in the murder of civilians but managed to avoid responsibility for their crimes."
The agency said the criminal inquiry concerned a wave of incidents in 15 towns and villages across what is now the Volgograd region, including the massacre of 50 children aged 4 to 15 at an orphanage. It said that the army would be deployed to assist in exhumations, with a view to ascertaining the identities of those who died and those who killed them.
The statement did not make clear how it plans to bring to justice the perpetrators of the crimes, very few of whom are likely to still be alive and fewer still, if any, to be living in Russia.
In addition to the effort in Volgograd, the Investigative Committee has launched similar probes in other regions that were overrun by German forces in the war, including Rostov, in the southwest, and Novgorod and Pskov, in the northwest.
Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin said that in 2019 his agency launched multiple criminal cases concerning the killings of 30,000 Soviet citizens during the war, and that the task of law enforcement now is to identify those responsible. "It doesn't matter if they're alive or dead. We need to publicize these names and show what these individuals did," Bastrykin told state news agency RIA Novosti in July.
Russian officials have long railed against what they say are Western attempts to understate the Soviet Union's role in defeating Nazi Germany in the war. They have repeatedly accused other former Soviet republics -- mainly the Baltic states and Ukraine -- of lionizing nationalist leaders who fought against the Red Army or collaborated with Axis forces, or of portraying the Soviet and Nazi governments in an equally negative light.
Critics of Putin in Russia and abroad, for their part, accuse his government of seeking to whitewash the role of the Soviet Union in the war and gloss over alleged crimes of the state under dictator Josef Stalin. In the July interview with RIA Novosti, Bastrykin said one of the aims of the investigations was to set the record straight and to counter what Russia views as historical falsifications.
The probes also appear aimed to establish, at least in the eyes of Russian law, that Adolf Hitler's German forces and those fighting alongside them committed genocide against the people of the Soviet Union. The Volgograd investigation and others are being conducted under the "Genocide" statute in the Russian Criminal Code, and officials including Putin and Bastrykin have appeared to emphasize that aim.
In what was billed as a first, a court in the Novgorod region ruled in October that the killing of at least 2,600 people in various locations there during the Nazi occupation in 1942-43 was genocide.
That ruling and the investigation in the Volgograd region, among others, come after Putin secured changes in the constitution in an early-summer vote, including the introduction of a clause obliging Russia to counter all attempts, domestic and foreign, to distort its history. The day after the weeklong vote ended on July 1, Putin instructed Russia's ministries and government bodies to work toward that goal.
"The crimes of Nazis and their accomplices -- genocide against the peoples of the Soviet Union -- have no expiration date," he said.