2013: Welcome to Stalingrad

To celebrate Russia’s “victory” in World War II, the city of Volgograd has been temporarily renamed Stalingrad. Buses emblazoned with Stalin’s visage are plying Volgograd’s streets as you read this. Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza writes:

Russia’s ruling regime is persisting in its attempts to rehabilitate the name of Joseph Stalin. For Vladimir Putin, this has been a consistent course -- from the reinstated melody of Stalin’s national anthem to new school textbooks justifying Stalin’s mass purges as “adequate to the task of modernization.” In 2010, as Russia marked the 65th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, the authorities attempted to “decorate” the streets of Moscow with portraits of the dictator -- but were forced to back down in the face of strong opposition from veterans, civil society groups, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

You can call what happened to Russia in World War II “victory” if you want; it was certainly a victory in the sense that Russians don’t speak German now. But Soviet forces stood on the opposite bank from Warsaw and watched the Nazis liquidate the Polish uprising, then marched in when the dust settled and took the Nazis’ place for half a century. Every blade of grass in Stalingrad was flattened. France, which fell to Hitler, is now a prosperous leader in Europe. The USSR collapsed into rubble within a few decades, and Russia remains a backwater. If it was a victory Russia won in World War II, it was the most Pyrrhic victory in human history.

Stalin murdered more Russians than Hitler ever dreamed of doing. Yet Russians handed unchecked power to a proud KGB spy who worships Stalin within just a few years of the USSR’s downfall, and now they are doing all they can to rehabilitate the man who hated them more than any person who ever lived.

What's old is new again, all over Russia.

Ms. Tatiana Kozlenko worked for the Russian national airline Aeroflot until she posted a photo on her Vkontakte page (a Russian version of Facebook) that went viral. The photo shows someone flipping the bird to a cabin full of airline passengers, behind their backs. The airline decided this wasn’t the type of person who should be in customer service, and fired her.

If you stopped there, you’d feel better about Russia. Aeroflot has been infamous throughout the years for wretched customer service; this wasn’t a feature of the airline, but of the country it served. There’s an old Soviet joke: An American staying in a Moscow hotel confronts his desk clerk, complaining about shockingly bad services. The clerk responds: “Yes, but you lynch blacks.” The joke epitomizes the classic Russian hostility towards the whole notion of customer service, and the characteristic unwillingness of the entire nation to acknowledge fault and to seek reform.

So the Kozlenko story seems to hold out some hope. And there was some more good news for the company, when the readers of Skyscanner voted (German-language link) that Aeroflot’s flight attendants had the most stylish uniforms in the world. But if you look beneath the surface of the story, the Russian world seems as bleak as always, if not bleaker.

Upon getting the axe, here’s how Kozlenko responded:

I don't consider myself guilty! The photo was added to my page, I only tagged myself on it!!! The hand isn't mine, the plane is not my company's!!! I don't understand what they spoil my life for!!! I'm asking you for help and support!!

She’s a young person, but I for one fail to see any difference between her attitude and that of the hotel clerk in the Soviet joke. Does she really believe that it might somehow be proper for a flight attendant to publicize such a photo uncritically as long as the hand wasn’t hers?

And if you think Aeroflot has turned a corner, think again. Have a close look at the “stylish” uniform that Kozlenko is sporting in her photograph. See the gold emblem in the center of her cap? It’s the hammer and sickle, the symbol of Communist mass-murder and dictatorship, flanked by a pair of cute little wings. And red, of course.

Meanwhile, if all that happens to you when you board a Russian plane is that the flight attendant spits in your borscht, consider yourself fortunate. Russia operates the world’s most unfriendly skies, in the sense of actually killing passengers. Even state-sponsored propaganda outfit Russia Today has acknowledged that the country’s litany of air disasters has made it the most dangerous place in the world to fly. The planes are old, the pilots are drunk, and worst of all, the country simply doesn’t place the same value on individual human lives that other nations do.

And the West continues to look the other way. Would Skyscanner readers have chosen a German airline uniform most stylish if the young lady’s cap sported a tiny little winged swastika?

Such outrageous acts are deemed acceptable, even normal, from Russians. World leaders are turning a blind eye to Putin’s rehabilitation of Stalin -- particularly Barack Obama, whose “reset” policy smacks of Chamberlain appeasement.

Which is a big part of the reason why everything old is new again in Putin’s neo-Soviet state.