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Sunday, 2 February, 2003, 15:44 GMT
Russia marks Battle of Stalingrad
Two war veterans (centre) who fought in Stalingrad prepare to board a train to Volgograd,
War veterans came to the city from all over Russia

Russia has been marking the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad which is believed to have been the turning point in the course of World War II.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observes a moment of silence as he lays a wreath
President Putin led the ceremonies
President Vladimir Putin, war veterans, political leaders and foreign envoys laid wreaths at a memorial in the city, which is now called Volgograd, and took part in a military parade.

Stalingrad became the symbol of Soviet perseverance in the face of the prevailing enemy.

On 2 February 1943, an entire elite German army group surrendered at Stalingrad after one of the fiercest battles of the war.

Honouring defenders

Stalingrad - a large industrial centre on the way to the oil fields of the Caucasus - was to be Hitler's prized possession, ever more so because it carried the name of Stalin.

Ruined house
A ruined house is a reminder of the fierce battle

Its fall would have been a deadly blow to the Soviet Union.

The battle was savage with hand-to-hand fighting for every street corner, carpet bombings that left the city in ruins, hunger and frostbite that killed tens of thousands on both sides.

Few of the two million German and Soviet troops that fought in the battle survived.

On Sunday, the celebrations got off to a slow start after delegations from abroad and other Russian cities were delayed by bad weather.

But the spacious Central Square in Volgograd was packed to capacity when the anniversary military parade began.

Even more people came to the Stalingrad war memorial, one of the largest in the world, to honour the defenders of the city who, in Winston Churchill's words "tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine".

'Need for reconciliation'

Wreaths were laid by dignitaries from Moscow and the capitals of the wartime anti-Nazi coalition.

 Battle of Stalingrad Museum
Eternal flame: Memories of the battle loom large

A delegation from Germany emphasised the need for reconciliation.

As if to support this plea, Russian television showed several German documentaries about Stalingrad which gave the Russians a rare insight into what the battle meant for their former enemy.

To more and more people, the interest is purely historical though.

They are questioning the wisdom of large-scale celebrations of past battles.

The most fitting monument to Russia's war effort, they say, would be better care for the veterans, many of whom feel abandoned.

President Putin has urged his government and the public to give more support to those who fought in their name.

New battle for 'Stalingrad'

For the city of Volgograd, this celebration is a chance to remind the world of its role in defeating Nazism, but even more so, of its own existence.

Mamayev Kurgan
Victory: The world's tallest free-standing statue

But the city is in two minds about its own name which was changed from Stalingrad to Volgograd after the dictator's death.

Some people, especially the veterans, want the old name to return.

Not exactly to honour Stalin, they say, but to re-establish the link with the heroic battle.

Others - including President Putin - are apprehensive.

They say the resurrection of Stalin's name would send a wrong signal about which way Russia is going.

Local observers say the battle for Stalingrad will be truly over when the last soldier to have fought in it is laid to rest.

See also:

14 Aug 01 | Europe
03 Jan 02 | Europe
11 Feb 00 | Europe
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