Stalingrad gets its name back — but only for special days

For a few days every year, Volgograd will don its World War II name: Stalingrad. The first day honors those who fought in the battle that turned the war to the Allies' favor.

 VOLGOGRAD, Russia — Josef Stalin and the city of Stalingrad are making a comeback — if only for a short time.

The Russian city of Volgograd has approved the use of its wartime name at events Saturday commemorating the 70th anniversary of the 200-day Battle of Stalingrad that turned the tide of World War II.

In a move not sanctioned by the city authorities, admirers also plan to display portraits of the late Soviet dictator in minibuses to honor his role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The city council's decision is designed to please war veterans, but is unlikely to have been taken without the approval of President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to attend the events in the industrial hub of 1 million on the River Volga.

There are also plenty of other signs of nostalgia for Stalin and the Soviet era in Volgograd, despite the millions of deaths from collectivization and the murder of political opponents.

"I categorically do not justify Stalin's repressions, but you have to recognize the positive things he did, whether you want to or not," said Gamlet Dallatyan, a 92-year-old veteran of the battle that Russian historians say killed nearly 2 million.

"It would be good to go back to the name of Stalingrad, though not so much because of Stalin himself but because that is how the city was known during the war."

In a sign of the fascination Stalin still holds for some Russians, a businessman in Volgograd has opened a Stalin museum. Many streets still honor Soviet leaders such as Vladimir Lenin or harken back to communist ideology.

On the corner of Worker-Peasant Street and Trade Union Street, the USSR restaurant — next to a branch of the U.S. fast-food company McDonald's — welcomes diners with a sign declaring: "Eaters of the world unite."

Named after Stalin in 1925, the city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, during Nikita Khrushchev's "de-Stalinization" campaign.

That outraged veterans of the battle for Stalingrad, which was flattened by relentless bombing, tank fire and heavy artillery during fighting from July 17, 1942, until the German surrender Feb. 2, 1943.

HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT

In what is said by some historians to have been the bloodiest battle in history, soldiers fought in trenches, streets and buildings, sometimes room to room. Some soldiers who survived the fighting succumbed to the cold and hunger.

About 920 Stalingrad war veterans still live in the region. They not only praise Stalin for firm wartime leadership, which they said helped unite them, but have urged Putin to restore the name of Stalingrad to keep memories of the battle alive.

"It was awful, but I never doubted we would win. We were all patriots," said Dallatyan, who was responsible for communications. "I am full of pride. I never thought of it as just our victory but as the victory of the Soviet people."

The decision by the city government this week will allow the name Stalingrad to be used officially at public events Feb. 2 and on four other days every year, including May 9, when Russia marks the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

This is not enough for the local communists. They say they have, in the past two months, collected 35,000 signatures for a petition calling for Volgograd to be renamed. They plan to take their demands to court in the next few weeks.

"People admire Stalin, with all his pluses and minuses," said Nikolai Parshin, the regional Communist Party leader in his office, where a red banner hung on the wall showing Stalin's face and a large painting depicting Soviet state founder Lenin.

A poll in 2008 ranked Stalin, who died in 1953, the third most popular figure in Russia's history. An opinion poll in October found 48 percent of respondents thought he had played a positive role in history, a big rise in the past 25 years. Only 22 percent saw it as very negative.

A local group of Stalin admirers will put up posters of Stalin Saturday in five "marshrutka" minibuses used for public transport, something they have done before and that has been repeated in other cities such as Putin's native St. Petersburg.

"You should not make a saint of him," said Dmitry Pikalov, who coordinates the group's actions. "But facts are facts, and he was the leader during the war that defeated fascism."

Some residents welcomed the decision to revert temporarily to Stalingrad, but did not want a permanent change.

"I would rather they used the money to repair the apartment block where I live," said Valentina Olekhina, who was born in the ruins of the city on Feb 2, 1943, the day Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered.

PUTIN AND STALIN

Local enthusiasts Thursday re-enacted his capture by Soviet troops in what was then the cellar of the TsUM supermarket and is now a museum. Saturday's events include a military parade, a laser show and fireworks, and German and Russian musicians will perform a concert Sunday.

Little is being made of the deaths of Soviet soldiers shot for cowardice during the battle because of Stalin's order 227 that no one should take a step back, or of the deaths of tens of thousands of Germans soldiers in captivity after the war.

Putin has criticized Stalin, but has also praised some of his achievements, including urging Russia to take a "leap forward" to rejuvenate its defense industry, harkening back to the 1930s industrialization led by Stalin — at the cost of many lives.

He has described the Battle of Stalingrad as the turning point of World War II, and in 2004 ordered Stalingrad to replace Volgograd among the names of "hero cities" on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow.

The city provides a perfect platform for the president's campaign to rally support after months of protests by stoking patriotism and underlining traditional and conservative values.

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