Russian soldiers march at the Mamayev Kurgan (Mamayev Hill)
World War Two memorial complex, with the statue of Mother
Homeland in the background during commemorations in the
city of Volgograd. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
The city of Volgograd re-adopted its old name of
Stalingrad for a few hours today as Russia commemorated the
70th anniversary of the epic battle that turned the tide of
World War Two.
The victory in the six-month Battle of Stalingrad, which
killed about 2 million people, is a symbol of national pride
that has produced an outburst of patriotic fervour and, for
some, nostalgia for the Soviet era and dictator Josef Stalin.
President Vladimir Putin flew to Volgograd, which was known
as Stalingrad from 1925 until 1961. He laid a wreath and met
veterans after a military parade led by soldiers in World War
Two uniforms and featuring a wartime T-34 tank.
"I saw cities in Europe that were practically untouched by
the war, countries that capitulated to the more powerful
enemies even before war was declared," First Deputy Prime
Minister Dmitry Rogozin said in a speech at the parade.
"But we are not like that. Our grandfathers, our fathers, our
older generation, our great leaders, fought here for each
building, for each street."
Hundreds of war veterans turned up for the parade on
Volgograd's central Square of the Fallen Fighters, their
coats weighed down by medals, the youngest of them now 89.
After Stalingrad, Soviet troops fought their way westward to
Berlin, sweeping into the German capital 27 months later.
For many of the veterans, the ceremony was bittersweet as
they had lost so many comrades-in-arms and loved ones.
"It's very important to remember this battle," said Valentina
Olekhina, who was celebrating her 70th birthday.
She was born in Stalingrad on Feb. 2, 1943, the day German
Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus told his forces to cease fire
after he was captured in a cellar by Soviet troops.
"I think my mother went into labour out of relief or
excitement. I was born outside but I don't know exactly
where," she told Reuters.
Putin did not attend the parade but flew to the city, 900 km
south of Moscow, after holding a reception for veterans in
the Kremlin on Friday.
He hopes to tap a vein of sentiment that harks back not only
to before the 1991 collapse of Moscow's Soviet empire but to
a dictator disowned as a genocidal tyrant even by his
Communist heirs. For all Stalin's crimes, defeating Adolf
Hitler is a source of immense pride in a country seeking a
"Using this example we have to consolidate our society and
our country. And we will do it," Putin told the veterans and
young activists in a war museum in Volgograd.
"Historical knowledge is very essential from the point of
view of preserving our statehood... Patriotism is the love
for the motherland. Without it, this love will just melt as a
piece of sugar in this tea," Putin said while drinking tea.
Under a decision by the city council intended to please the
veterans, Volgograd was referred to as Stalingrad at the
official events. Admirers of Stalin posted his portrait in
minibuses - a move not approved by the authorities.
For 200 days, Germans and Russians fought hand to hand,
street by street and from room to room, battling subzero
winter cold, snow and sometimes starvation too.
Russian historians say 40,000 people were killed on the day
of fiercest bombing and at the height of combat the average
survival time of Soviet soldiers sent into battle was 24
Hitler had seen capturing Stalingrad as a prize that would
sap Soviet morale, partly because of its symbolic name, and
help secure control of oilfields in the Caucasus to fuel his
The city was called Tsaritsyn before the Bolshevik Russian
revolution of 1917. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev launched
a campaign of "de-Stalinisation" after Stalin's death in
1953, easing political repression, erasing the late
dictator's name and renaming the "hero city" as Volgograd.
Pride in the bravery of Soviet troops and the endurance of
civilians trapped during the battle unites almost all
Russians - at a time when many complain of big divisions in
Putin, in power for 13 years, is facing criticism over
corruption and a lack of political freedoms. Memories of
Stalingrad offer an opportunity to burnish his credentials as
the man who restored the nation's glory after the economic
chaos and conflicts of the first post-Soviet decade.
Russian television has repeatedly shown footage from wartime
Stalingrad and broadcast films and documentaries about the
battle. Even the crew of the orbiting International Space
Station congratulated the war veterans.
"We will always be grateful for your heroic act. The memory
of it will live on down the ages," cosmonaut Roman Romanenko
said in video footage shown on Russian television.