Volgograd is commemorating the 75 th anniversary of the bloodiest combat of the second world war. Seen as a major victory for Stalins army, is it still being used to elevate the Russian government above criticism?

In some places in and around Volgograd, the battle with Nazi forces-out that started in July 1942 left so much shrapnel in the ground that nothing would grow for decades. Those who still search for unburied soldiers have recounted how their shovels would make metal or bone almost everywhere they dug.

Once called Stalingrad, this city on the Volga River was the site of the bloodiest combat of all time in which an estimated 1.9 million people, virtually twice the citys current population, were killed, wounded or captured. Since it was named after the Soviet leader, both Hitler and Stalin were determined to possess the city at all costs Stalin famously ordered his forces to take not one step back in defending it. At one point the Soviets were pushed back nearly to the rivers edge where they mounted a counter-offensive, surrounding the foe and forced into to surrender. The combat marked a turning point in the second world war.

The hero city

The tales of courage against impossible odds in Stalingrad subsequently declared a hero city by the Kremlin became central to the commemoration of the Great Patriotic War that undergirded Soviet power and now Vladimir Putins government. The misfortune is undeniable: the USSR lost at least 20 million people during the war, more than any other country. But the victory over fascism has also been cited to justify the excesses of Joseph Stalin and, some argue, to try to elevate the Russian government above criticism.

In recent years, Putin has stimulated the great victory a central theme of his regulation, invoking it during the annexation of Crimea and in backing separatists in eastern Ukraine. The approving rating of the chairman, who lost some of his own relatives in the war, remains above 80%, and Stalins popularity has also risen; in a Russian survey last month, the communist leader topped the list for the most outstanding person of all time.

A portrait of Josef Stalin against an Orthodox cathedral at the memorial built to honour those who died in the Battle of Stalingrad. Photo: Mikhail Mordasov/ AFP/ Getty Images

Volgograd hasnt been forgotten in the patriotic fervor. Speaking with veterans in 2014, Putin backed the long-simmering idea of a referendum to change the citys name back to Stalingrad. In February, he ordered federal-funded galas in honour of the 75 th anniversary of the combat. Almost 50 events exhibits, conferences, historical outings, television shows, quest games, school lessons given by army policemen, meetings with veterans, patriotic music and film celebrations and re-enactments will culminate on the working day the combat was won, on 2 February. There will be an artillery salute, military procession, laser display and a flower-laying ceremony in the sombre chamber of the eternal flame on Mamayev Kurgan, the hill above Volgograd that changed hands numerous times during the combat. The Volgograd city centre and river embankment will be renovated, as will The Motherland Calls, the iconic statue of a woman holding a sword that stands atop Mamayev Kurgan.

The Motherland Calls monument in Volgograd. Photo: Dmitry Rogulin/ TASS

Volgograd in numbers

45,000 number of seats in the arena the city is constructing for the 2018 World Cup

17,000 names of previously unknown soldiers buried in mass tombs on Mamayev Kurgan inscribed on a memorial wall opened in 2012

285 height in feet of The Motherland Calls, the tallest statue in Europe

225 Germans killed during the battle by sniper Vasily Zaytsev, whose tale became the basis of the Hollywood blockbuster Enemy at the Gates

4.4 duration in miles of the citys first bridge over the Volga, which finally opened in 2009

and images

The Instagram account Typical Volgograd mixtures beautiful scenes from todays city with historic photos, while vlgair has stunning aerial footage of the city.

The Battle of Stalingrad Museum also has an Instagram account to showcase its many constrains. Among these are Russias largest panoramic paint and the Gerhardt flour mill, a brick building nearly blown apart by German bombs that now serves as two examples of the citys total destruction.

History in 100 terms

First constructed as a fort against Turkish invasions by Ivan the Terrible, the city of Tsaritsyn was founded in 1589. Its early years were marred by huge flames and Cossack revolts, but the city grew into a trade hub thanks to its locating near the Volga and Don rivers. By the end of the 19 th century, more than 200 factories were operating in Tsaritsyn, and before the Battle of Stalingrad( the city was renamed in 1925) it was a main producers of tanks, artillery and ammunition. It was totally rebuilt after the war and today is a manufacturing centre with a population of more than 1 million.

Volgograd in audio and vision

After 2001 s Enemy at the Gates, the city was again featured in movie for Fyodor Bondarchuks Imax 3-D spectacular Stalingrad. Grossing $50 m on its release in 2013, the state-sponsored movie was the most successful Russian movie since the fall of the Soviet Union and the best socially meaningful blockbuster the culture ministry has been able to devise.

[ youtube https :// www.youtube.com/ watch? v= l5q8yiXK69I? wmode =op aque& feature= oembed]

Volgograd also hosted the grandiose annual patriotic motorcycle show and second world war re-enactment by the Night Wolves biker club in 2013.

Whats everyone talking about ?

Street improvements and public transport are the number one topics, tells urban activist Mikhail Solomonov, although people sometimes also remember the 75 th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Volgograd takes great pride in its streetcar network, which started in 1913 and at one point included more than 80 miles of way, some of it underground. Locals also rely on minibuses and electric trolleybuses to get around the sprawling city, which stretches more than 37 miles along the western bank of the Volga.

But the city authorities ordered most private minibuses to close the following spring and have been replacing the trolleybuses with buses. Residents have refused to give up these forms of transport, though, and many minibuses simply hung a charter sign in the window and continued to operate.

Whats next for the city ?

As one of 11 cities that will host matches for the 2018 World Cu in Russia, Volgograd is replacing its old stadium with a huge new football arena to house its Rotor-Volgograd team. Its also constructing a new international airport terminal, as well as rebuild the road to the airport and the river embankment.

Our curse is the roads, Arkady Grushko, the chairman of Volgograds World Cup organising committee, said in 2014, promising to renovate 11 roads and build a orbital road around the Volga.

But the orbital road wont be finished before 2020, and there are doubts whether the city will be ready for the championship in 2018. Reports have claimed that the reconstruction of the airport freeway is behind schedule. Last month, a fire broke out at the arena building site, following breakdowns in 2015 and 2016 that injured workers.

Close zoom

V1. ru is regarded as a good local news site, with detailed reporting on municipal issues. Volgograd doesnt have any English-language media. On Instagram, the account Hello_Volgograd covers local news, events and weather, often with a dose of humour. It had one of the first photographs of the World Cup arena site fire.

Do you live in Volgograd? What key facts and figures have we missed ?

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