MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday attended commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi forces in the battle of Stalingrad, a long and grueling fight that resonates in the current conflict in Ukraine.
Putin laid a wreath at the eternal flame of the memorial complex to the fallen Red Army soldiers in Volgograd, the current name of the city, which stretches along the western bank of the Volga River. The memorial is dominated by an 85-meter (279-foot) sculpture of a sword-wielding woman, Europe’s tallest statue.
The Russian leader is set to speak at a memorial event and have a meeting with activists later in the day.
The city was renamed in 1961 as part of the Soviet Union’s rejection of dictator Joseph Stalin’s personality cult. But the name Stalingrad remains inextricably linked to the historic battle that turned the tide of World War II. There have been calls for the restoration of the city’s old name, but they haven’t received the Kremlin’s blessing.
The five months of fighting in Stalingrad between August 1942 and February 1943 is regarded as the bloodiest battle in history with the death toll for soldiers and civilians reaching as high as 2 million. Most of the city was reduced to rubble before Nazi forces surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.
The Soviet victory was a major turning point in the European theater of World War II and the battle remains an immense point of pride in modern Russia, lauded as a demonstration of military might and moral seriousness.
As Russian forces struggle to gain ground in Ukraine, lawmakers from the dominant United Russia party have been told to liken the Ukraine fight to Stalingrad, the newspaper Kommersant reported.
Some Russians on Thursday made the connection explicit.
“The achievement of our fathers and grandfathers, showing unprecedented heroism, valor and self-sacrifice during the defense of Stalingrad, still inspires our courageous soldiers who carry out responsible combat missions on the fields of the special military operation and defend the sovereignty, independence and security of our country,” said Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Kirill, using the official characterization of the conflict that began nearly a year ago.
Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov, after laying flowers at the Unknown Soldier memorial outside the Kremlin, said that he hoped that Russian forces would prevail in Ukraine.
“To do this, it is necessary to adopt the unique experience of the victorious Red Army, the Battle of Stalingrad, Oryol, Kursk,” Zyuganov said.
Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency the SVR, said that “no matter how many years have passed, the image of the unconquered city on the Volga, Stalingrad, will forever remain a symbol of the resilience and courage of our people, a strong spiritual support in the face of any external threats and challenges, in the face of any enemies.”