Stalingrad victory offers Putin patriotic platform
By Timothy Heritage
VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Stalingrad will be back on the map for a few hours on Saturday, 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 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.
On Friday, 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," 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 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 (600 miles) 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. Continued...