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.
The battle, however, one of the bloodiest ever in which up to two million died, remains immortalized 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 2, 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 collectivization 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 on Saturday, a move not approved by the authorities.
The bravery of the Soviet troops and the endurance of the civilians trapped during the battle are, however, things on which almost all Russians can broadly agree and take pride - at a time when many Russians complain of big divisions in society.
In Soviet times, television frequently showed wartime footage of what is known in Russian as The Great Patriotic War to build unity. Russian television this week has helped stir nationalist fervor by repeatedly showing footage of the battle.
In Volgograd, reminders of the battle are everywhere - on television, in newspapers and in the re-enactment by enthusiasts on Thursday of the capture of Paulus in the department store where he had set up his headquarters.
On a hill overlooking the city centre, now topped by a giant statue of a sword-wielding “Motherland” calling her children to battle, locals say they are still finding human bones at what was the site of some of the fiercest combat in 1942.
The name of Stalingrad is ubiquitous in the city today - on red Soviet-style banners and posters bearing slogans such as “Glory to the Heroes of Stalingrad.” A large Communist red star with a similar slogan greets visitors who enter the city along a road named after Soviet wartime commander General Georgy Zhukov.
There is also nostalgia for the Soviet era, with roads named after communists, a statue of Lenin still dominates the city centre and one street bears the name of the NKVD, the secret police that enforced Stalin’s repressions and was a predecessor of the KGB, which Putin served before he entered politics.
Almost no attention is being paid to the Soviet soldiers shot for cowardice because of Stalin’s Order 227, saying no one should take a step back, or of the deaths of tens of thousands of German soldiers in Soviet captivity after the battle.
It is little surprise that Putin is expected to attend the anniversary events. He said in a speech in December that Russians should “not lose ourselves as a nation” and look for guidance in Russia’s historic and traditional values.
Since returning to the presidency last May after a four-year hiatus as prime minister to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev, he has moved closer to the Russian Orthodox Church and taken a tough stand in disputes with the United States to try to rally support among conservative voters after months of protests by mainly liberal middle-class demonstrators that have hit his ratings.
Many in Russia feel Westerners overstate their own historic role in defeating Hitler and fail to recognize the full price paid by the Soviet Union. Putin has said he sees Stalingrad as the “fundamental turning point” of World War Two and in 2004 ordered “Stalingrad” to replace “Volgograd” on a list of names of “hero cities” on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow.
Many of the Stalingrad veterans want the city’s wartime name restored permanently, as does the Communist Party, which has 20 percent of seats in parliament. Some veterans are also critical of Putin and yearn for stronger leadership of the country.
“I’ve had enough of Putin,” Dallatyan said. “All that he does, he does for himself.”
Putin, 60, has criticized Stalin but has also praised some of his achievements, urging Russia to take a “leap forward” to rejuvenate its defence industry - a comment harking back to the 1930s industrialization led by Stalin at the cost of many lives.
Additional reporting by Thomas Grove in Moscow; Editing by Alastair Macdonald