Russia marks Stalingrad anniversary

A minibus decorated with a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin drives on a street in St Petersburg. Photograph: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

A minibus decorated with a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin drives on a street in St Petersburg. Photograph: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters.

Sat, Feb 2, 2013, 00:00

Stalingrad will be back on the map for a few hours on today, and Josef Stalin's face will be splashed on buses, as Russia remembers the epic battle that turned the tide of World War Two.

President Vladimir Putin is expected in the city, now known as Volgograd, for a military parade to mark 70 years since the German surrender after the six-month Battle of Stalingrad, which became a symbol for Russians of patriotic sacrifice and unity.

He will tap a vein of sentiment that harks back not only to before the collapse of Moscow's Soviet empire but to a dictator even Stalin's Communist heirs disowned as a genocidal tyrant; yet for all those faults, defeating Hitler remains a source of deep national pride in a country grappling for a new identity.

In power for 13 years but facing criticism over corruption and a lack of political freedoms, memories of Stalingrad fuelled by supportive media offer Mr Putin an opportunity to burnish his credentials as the man who restored the nation's glory after the economic chaos and small, local wars of the post-Soviet decade.

Yesterday, television showed him speaking to the head of the Orthodox Church about the battle's 70th anniversary: "At the heart of all Russia's victories and achievements are patriotism, faith and strength of spirit," Mr Putin said. "In World War Two, these true values inspired our people and our army." He also held a Kremlin reception for veterans of the war.

In a gesture to survivors of the great battle and to the patriotism that Mr Putin is trying to rekindle, the city will be referred to as Stalingrad during the official ceremonies, following a local council decision this week.

On the river Volga, 900 km south of Moscow, it was Tsaritsyn before the revolution and named after Stalin in 1925, becoming a centre of industry.

Succeeding after Stalin's death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev launched a campaign of "de-Stalinisation", easing back on repression and erasing the late dictator's name; the "hero city" became Volgograd in 1961.

The battle, however, one of the bloodiest ever in which up to two million died, remains immortalised as Stalingrad.

"It was our victory, the people of the Soviet Union, the people of Russia, who won this victory," Volgograd regional governor Sergei Bazhenov said in a television interview.

"The most important thing is to maintain this patriotic mood."

For 200 days, Germans and Russians fought hand to hand, street by street and from room to room, battling the winter cold at the end and, for the Germans, starvation too. Surrounded in the ruins, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus defied Hitler's final fight-to-the-death order and surrendered, on February 2nd, 1943.

The Nazi leader 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 army. After Stalingrad, the Red Army fought its way westward to Berlin, taking the German capital 27 months later.

"Hitler thought that because he had taken Paris in a few days he could take Stalingrad in about five or maybe 10 days," said Gamlet Dallatyan, a veteran of the battle.

"He was wrong.We had strong military leaders," the 92-year-old former soldier told Reuters in Volgograd. "I never woke up in the morning thinking we would not win."

The legacy of Stalin's three-decade rule remains divisive. His policies of forced farm collectivisation and political repressions killed millions, and an estimated 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed during World War Two.

But admirers underline his role in defeating Nazi Germany and will post portraits of the dictator on minibuses in Volgograd today, a move not approved by the authorities.

Reuters