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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 12:41 GMT
The new battle for 'Stalingrad'
Tank monument on the banks of the Volga
The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in WW II
By the BBC's Ray Furlong in Volgograd

A campaign is under way to change the name of the Russian city Volgograd back to its earlier name of Stalingrad.

The name Stalingrad is the eternal pride and glory of our people!

Suren Mirzayan

The city, renowned as the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, was renamed Volgograd in 1961, after the former Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, was disowned by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev.

The campaign is being led by a group of veterans, with the support of the communist regional governor, who plan to exploit a Yeltsin-era law often used to reinstate Tsarist-era names.

Suren Mirzayan
Mirzayan: The Volga is just a river
I had hardly managed to introduce myself to 78-year-old Suren Mirzayan, before he began breathlessly explaining his mission.

"The battle of Stalingrad liberated the world from fascism!" he said, waving his arms with passionate energy.

As he spoke, a row of medals jingled on his chest and his left eye glistened with emotion.

His right eye did not move - it was hit by a bullet in the war and still bears the disfigurement left by crude battlefield surgery.

Million dead

Over a million soldiers were killed in bitter hand-to-hand fighting at Stalingrad.

Mamayev Kurgan
Victory: The world's tallest free-standing statue
Others perished of cold, hunger and disease. The conditions were so bad that the Germans called it "Rattenkrieg" - rat warfare.

So it is not surprising the battle still engenders strong feelings in the survivors.

"The name Stalingrad is the eternal pride and glory of our people!" Suren said, as he showed me the names of his fallen comrades on a monument in the centre of town.

"The Volga is just a river."

But it is not just a river. The name Volgograd, means "the town on the Volga" - and it is a fitting name.

The city is a slither, just five kilometres wide but running 80km north and south along the banks of the Volga.

 Battle of Stalingrad Museum
Eternal flame: Memories of the battle loom large
It is an impressive, broad river - when I was there, birds sat on great chunks of ice floating on the water as they hunted fish.

The city has a large port, and the Volga is a major trade route.

There are also prosperous oil and petrochemical industries.

So it really is a lot more than just a place where there was once a battle. Nevertheless, the memory of that battle still looms large over it.

On the summit of the Mamaev Kurgan, a hill in the centre of town, the world's largest free-standing statue - a female figure brandishes a giant sword.

Below, in a great swirling oval hall, a huge marble hand clenches an eternal flame.

Stalinist past

But there are also signs which tell of a different history.

Take the Volga-Don canal, for instance - an impressive feat of engineering which connects the two mighty rivers and provides an important transport link for the region's economy.

Ruined mill
A ruined mill is a reminder of the destruction
It was built with the slave labour of German prisoners of war - but also by Russian political prisoners.

As such, it is as much a monument to Stalinism as any of the heroic statues that honour the true courage of Soviet soldiers.

I met with one of the victims of Stalinist repression, Vadim Edelman.

His Jewish name was perhaps the reason his father was shot by the secret police and his mother sent to a gulag.

He was brought up by his grandmother - and branded by the authorities "a child of the enemy of the people".

Not surprisingly, Vadim is strongly opposed to giving Volgograd back its wartime name.

He said that even if all the monuments to Stalin were destroyed, the former leader would still cast a grim shadow over Russia.

To restore the name Stalingrad, the campaigners would need to win a city-wide referendum - and there are signs that many ordinary Volgograders, especially the younger generation, are opposed to the idea.

In this new battle for Stalingrad, Suren Mirzayan will need all of his vigour to win over the doubters.

See also:

14 Aug 01 | Europe
Reviving Stalingrad
11 Feb 00 | Europe
Stalingrad meets Hollywood
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