A portrait of Josef Stalin against an Orthodox cathedral at the memorial built to honour those who died in the Battle of Stalingrad. Photograph: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images, via The Guardian.

Is Stalingrad being used as propaganda once again?

Volgograd is commemorating the 75th anniversary of the bloodiest battle of the second world war. Seen as a ‘great victory’ for Stalin’s army, is it still being used to elevate the Russian government above criticism?

By Alec Luhn

In some places in and around Volgograd, the battle with Nazi forces that started in July 1942 left so much shrapnel in the ground that nothing would grow for decades. Those who still search for unburied soldiers have recounted how their shovels would hit metal or bone almost everywhere they dug.

Once called Stalingrad, this city on the Volga River was the site of the bloodiest battle of all time in which an estimated 1.9 million people, almost twice the city’s current population, were killed, wounded or captured. Since it was named after the Soviet leader, both Hitler and Stalin were determined to possess the city at all costs – Stalin famously ordered his forces to take “not one step back” in defending it. At one point the Soviets were pushed back almost to the river’s edge where they mounted a counter-offensive, surrounding the enemy and forcing them to surrender. The battle marked a turning point in the second world war.

The ‘hero city’

The tales of valour against impossible odds in Stalingrad – later declared a “hero city” by the Kremlin – became central to the commemoration of the Great Patriotic War that undergirded Soviet power and now Vladimir Putin’s government. The tragedy is undeniable: the USSR lost at least 20 million people during the war, more than any other country. But the victory over fascism has also been cited to justify the excesses of Joseph Stalin and, some argue, to try to elevate the Russian government above criticism.

In recent years, Putin has made the great victory a central theme of his rule, invoking it during the annexation of Crimea and in backing separatists in eastern Ukraine. The approval rating of the president, who lost some of his own relatives in the war, remains above 80%, and Stalin’s popularity has also risen; in a Russian survey last month, the communist leader topped the list for the “most outstanding person” of all time.

Volgograd hasn’t been forgotten in the patriotic fervour. Speaking with veterans in 2014, Putin backed the long-simmering idea of a referendum to change the city’s name back to Stalingrad. In February, he ordered federal-funded celebrations in honour of the 75th anniversary of the battle. Almost 50 events – exhibits, conferences, historical excursions, television shows, “quest” games, school lessons given by army officers, meetings with veterans, patriotic music and film festivals and re-enactments – will culminate on the day the battle was won, on 2 February. There will be an artillery salute, military parade, laser show and a flower-laying ceremony in the sombre chamber of the eternal flame on Mamayev Kurgan, the hill above Volgograd that changed hands numerous times during the battle. The Volgograd city centre and river embankment will be renovated, as will The Motherland Calls, the iconic statue of a woman holding a sword that stands atop Mamayev Kurgan.

The Motherland Calls monument in Volgograd.
The Motherland Calls monument in Volgograd. Photograph: Dmitry Rogulin/TASS

Volgograd in numbers …

45,000 – number of seats in the arena the city is building for the 2018 World Cup

17,000 – names of previously unknown soldiers buried in mass graves on Mamayev Kurgan inscribed on a memorial wall opened in 2012

285 – height in feet of The Motherland Calls, the tallest statue in Europe

225 – Germans killed during the battle by sniper Vasily Zaytsev, whose story became the basis of the Hollywood blockbuster Enemy at the Gates

4.4 – length in miles of the city’s first bridge over the Volga, which finally opened in 2009

… and pictures

The Instagram account Typical Volgograd mixes beautiful scenes from today’s city with historic photos, while vlgair has stunning aerial footage of the city.

The Battle of Stalingrad Museum also has an Instagram account to showcase its many holdings. Among these are Russia’s largest panoramic painting and the Gerhardt flour mill, a brick building nearly blown apart by German bombs that now serves as an example of the city’s total destruction.

History in 100 words

First built as a fort against Turkish invasions by Ivan the Terrible, the city of Tsaritsyn was founded in 1589. Its early years were marred by huge fires and Cossack revolts, but the city grew into a trade hub thanks to its location near the Volga and Don rivers. By the end of the 19th century, more than 200 factories were operating in Tsaritsyn, and before the Battle of Stalingrad (the city was renamed in 1925) it was a major producer of tanks, artillery and ammunition. It was completely rebuilt after the war and today is a manufacturing centre with a population of more than 1 million.

Volgograd in sound and vision

After 2001’s Enemy at the Gates, the city was again featured in film for Fyodor Bondarchuk’s Imax 3-D spectacular Stalingrad. Grossing $50m on its release in 2013, the state-sponsored film was the most successful Russian movie since the fall of the Soviet Union and the best “socially meaningful blockbuster” the culture ministry has been able to devise.

Volgograd also hosted the grandiose annual patriotic motorcycle show and second world war re-enactment by the Night Wolves biker club in 2013.

What’s everyone talking about?

“Street improvements and public transport are the number one topics,” says urban activist Mikhail Solomonov, “although people sometimes also remember the 75th anniversary” of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Volgograd takes great pride in its streetcar network, which started in 1913 and at one point included more than 80 miles of track, some of it underground. Locals also rely on minibuses and electric trolleybuses to get around the sprawling city, which stretches more than 37 miles along the western bank of the Volga.

But the city authorities ordered most private minibuses to close this spring and have been replacing the trolleybuses with buses. Residents have refused to give up these forms of transport, though, and many minibuses simply hung a “charter” sign in the window and continued to operate.

What’s next for the city?

“Our curse is the roads,” Arkady Grushko, the chairman of Volgograd’s World Cup organising committee, said in 2014, promising to renovate 11 roads and build a orbital highway around the Volga.

But the orbital highway won’t be finished before 2020, and there are doubts whether the city will be ready for the championship in 2018. Reports have claimed that the reconstruction of the airport highway is behind schedule. Last month, a fire broke out at the arena construction site, following collapses in 2015 and 2016 that injured workers.

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V1.ru is regarded as a good local news site, with detailed reporting on municipal issues. Volgograd doesn’t have any English-language media. On Instagram, the account Hello_Volgograd covers local news, events and weather, often with a dose of humour. It had one of the first photographs of the World Cup arena site fire.

Published by The Guardian

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