Russia on Friday marked 75 years since the Soviet Union’s victory in the major World War II Battle of Stalingrad, extolled as a symbol of the country’s resilience at a time when President Vladimir Putin campaigns for his fourth term.
Putin flew to Volgograd, the current name of the city, which staged a military parade involving about 1 500 troops, armoured vehicles and jets flying over a crowd of spectators bundled up to protect against the sub-zero temperatures.
The 1942-43 battle in the Volga river city was one of the bloodiest in history. It was a disastrous loss for Nazi Germany, and is glorified by Russia as the event that saved Europe from Adolf Hitler.
“There was no other such battle in the history of mankind,” Putin told a crowd of veterans he met at the Volgograd philharmonic for a concert commemorating the event.
“The unified resistance and readiness for self-sacrifice were truly undefeatable, incomprehensible and frightful for the enemy.”
“Defenders of Stalingrad have passed a great heritage to us: love for the Motherland, readiness to protect its interests and independence, to stand strong in the face of any test,” he said, calling on Russians to measure up to their ancestors’ example.
To mark the occasion, traffic controllers in the city of a million people, one of the poorest in Russia, were dressed in Red Army winter uniforms, complete with felt boots.
Viktoria Rybakova, a 31-year-old dancer performing in the concert, said: “In everyone, there is gratitude for our future, for the fact that we are living today.”
Soviet victory and sacrifice in the war has been increasingly upheld by Moscow in recent years to stoke patriotism, which “has practically become a state ideology,” said political analyst Konstantin Kalachev.
Moscow needs positive symbols while ties with the West are at a post-Cold War low, so dates like war victory anniversaries are used to “promote the image of a country capable of accomplishments and defeating all of its enemies,” Kalachev said.
The anniversary comes less than two months before the March 18 presidential election, and Putin, who has been making near-daily trips to meet groups of workers and students, is set to visit the city’s war memorial Mamayev Kurgan.
He will also attend a historical exhibit and meet with local youth, his spokesman told journalists.
It will be his second World War II-associated trip in two weeks.
On January 18 Putin took part in an event marking the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad outside Saint Petersburg.
The battle of Stalingrad began in July 1942 and lasted 200 days, with aerial bombardments that razed the city, and house-to-house fighting.
German troops of Marshal Friedrich Paulus eventually capitulated on February 2, 1943, in the first surrender by the Nazis since the war began. Paulus was captured alive and became a critic of the Nazi regime.
The city was completely rebuilt after the war and renamed Volgograd in 1961, eight years after the death of Joseph Stalin, following de-Stalinisation reforms aiming to dismantle the dictator’s cult of personality.
In 2014, local lawmakers voted to rename the city back to Stalingrad on major war-related occasions six times a year.