Russia's southern city of Volgograd – where the most desperate, protracted, and destructive battle of World War II unfolded – is restoring its controversial wartime name of Stalingrad for several days, beginning today, for its commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory that decisively turned the tide of war against the invading Nazis.
Marking World War II milestones is normally just about the least contentious thing the Russian government can do, but this event has triggered a storm of protest.
Opinion polls show that virtually the entire population, from the extreme left of the political spectrum to the hard right, are united in their veneration of Soviet grit, sacrifice, and ultimate triumph in the titanic struggle that Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders will attend a ceremony today marking the anniversary of German surrender in the city, joined by hundreds of surviving veterans. And Russia's state-run Rossiya network will air a new documentary about "the battle that changed world history."
"The word 'Stalingrad' has become a symbol of the steadfastness of the Russian Army [and] the courage of the Russian soldier," the network's announcement said.
However, Russian liberals worry that this particular anniversary is being used as a Trojan horse by the Kremlin and hardline nationalists, who they say want to revive the image of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. They point to the "temporary" name change, and other features of this year's commemoration, including Volgograd city buses adorned with huge portraits of Mr. Stalin, to back up their arguments.
"The authorities are not ready to openly support the Stalin cult, so they're using indirect approaches," says Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko party. "For those who are nostalgic for Stalin, this represents a temporary victory that will add weight to their campaign to have the name of Stalingrad returned to the city on a permanent basis."
A contested history
Russia's Communist Party has submitted a petition to President Putin, signed by 50,000 people, asking for the name of Stalingrad to be permanently restored.
Volgograd's city council, which is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, decreed the name change after receiving "numerous requests" from Stalingrad veterans, almost a thousand of whom still live in the region.
The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961, after then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tore the veil off the vast crimes committed against the Soviet people by Stalin's secret police, including mass executions and the Gulag, a sprawling system of political prison camps that held millions of people at its peak.
The new name change will take effect for six days each year, all of them associated with key turning points in the war. The council decision says that the Stalin-era title "Hero City of Stalingrad" will be used as a "symbol officially in our speeches, reports, and while conducting public events."
The battle for Stalingrad began in August 1942 and lasted six months, during which it turned the city's name into a byword for total ruination. A staggering 2 million people died on both sides before the ragged remnants of the Axis forces surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.
For Russians it is perhaps the ultimate symbol of national heroism. When the battle began, a handful of Soviet forces were clinging desperately to the west bank of the Volga River as a huge Nazi juggernaut roared into the strategic industrial city bearing the name of the USSR's leader.
For months the Soviets pushed the invaders back amid the city's wreckage and shattered sewer system, often fighting bloody hand-to-hand engagements in temperatures that plunged to negative 22 degrees F. when the bitter Russian winter arrived.
"The controversy over this is not about the battle, but about its current political uses," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "We know there have been discussions in the Kremlin for the past 10 years about giving the city back its famous name. The Communist Party is very much for it, and it's not an unpleasant idea for Putin.... So liberals see this as a trial balloon, to see how it goes."
Russian liberals also see the reappearance of positive Stalin images, however limited, as a bad sign for political freedoms in contemporary Russia.
On Thursday, the global monitor Human Rights Watch issued its World Report on human rights trends in 2012, with a section on Russia that claimed Putin's crackdown on human rights and freedoms was the worst the country has seen since the collapse of the USSR more than 20 years ago.
Pollsters say that while public enthusiasm for war anniversaries may be undimmed, fewer and fewer Russians appear keen on bringing back the name of Stalingrad.
"We've been studying this question for quite a while," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center in Moscow. In 2001, the group reported 22 percent of Russians in favor of returning to the name Stalingrad and 54 percent opposed. But by last year, the number of supporters had dipped to 18 percent, with 60 percent opposing the change. Mr. Grazhdankin says the number of supporters is falling because the older generation is dying off.
"But state propaganda is always trying to find some glorious historical event to focus on, probably to distract the public and media from real politics. It's always more pleasant to discuss great victories than some of today's burning issues," he adds.