Volgograd: Symbol of Russian wartime heroism

AFP , Monday 30 Dec 2013

Captured Nazi servicemen stand in front of a damaged building in the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd), 20 December 1943 (Photo: Reuters)

The city of Volgograd, hit by two deadly suicide attacks in as many days, is known in Russia as a symbol of heroism during World War II when it was the scene of a critical battle with German forces.

The vast city of over one million which stretches for kilometres across the bank of the mighty Volga River was known as Stalingrad in Soviet times until the early 1960s when it was renamed Volgograd in a de-Stalinisation drive.

It was under the name of Stalingrad that the city endured its greatest suffering and ultimately its finest hour when it was besieged and occupied by invading Nazi forces who were then driven out by the Red Army.

The 1942-1943 Battle of Stalingrad, seen as a turning point of World War II, is commemorated by the iconic 87-metre (285-foot) high statue "The Motherland Calls" of a sword-wielding woman that overlooks the city.

An unforgettable assertion of Soviet power and might, it is one of the highest monuments in the world, unveiled in 1967 in a memorial park as a symbol of recovery from the ruins of war.

After six months of bloody combat -- including hand-to-hand fighting in the ruined streets -- the USSR's growing superiority in armaments production on the home front made itself felt and the Red Army encircled the Nazi troops.

The battle of Stalingrad is estimated to have cost up to 2 million lives on both sides including civilians.

German commander Friedrich von Paulus -- promoted to Field Marshal by Hitler on the expectation he would defend the city to the death -- capitulated on January 31, 1943. The full surrender was complete by February 2.

Some 91,000 Wehrmacht soldiers were taken prisoner, including Paulus himself who disobeyed Hitler's orders to die fighting. He later gave evidence against his Nazi superiors at the Nuremberg trials, was released in 1953 and lived in the communist German Democratic Republic until his death in 1957.

The surrender was the first major defeat sustained by the Nazis and marked the beginning of their retreat from Soviet territory after the lightning invasion of 1941 that had taken Joseph Stalin completely unaware.

The city, which had been known by its imperial-era name of Tsaritsyn up until the 1920s, was renamed as Volgograd in 1961 after the Soviet Union's leaders admitted the extent of the crimes of tyrannical leader Stalin.

Volgograd was left in almost total ruins after World War II but then benefitted from rapid rebuilding in the postwar years which left it marked forever by imposing Soviet architecture.

In a hugely controversial move, local lawmakers in January voted to revive its wartime name of Stalingrad for ceremonial purposes six days a year.

In recent times, the city has been known as the hometown of double Olympic pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva, who was born in Volgograd and was nurtured to stardom by local coach Yevgeny Trofimov.

Another famous local girl is the Russian spy Anna Chapman, who became known around the world in 2010 when she was arrested in the United States and booted out along with several other Russian spies.

Now back home, Chapman is better known for her sultry good looks than espionage activity and has carved out a career as a model and television personality.

Short link: