VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - The city of Volgograd re-adopted its old name of Stalingrad for a few hours on Saturday 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 February 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 (600 miles) 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 new identity.
“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 hours.
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 army.
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 society.
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. (Writing by Vladimir Soldatkin and Timothy Heritage; editing by Mark Heinrich)