Russian President Vladimir Putin has led tributes in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. The six-month fight for the city is widely seen as a major turning point in World War II.
Soldiers dressed in World War II-era uniforms, led by an old T-34 tank, marched through Volgograd Saturday in remembrance of the battle between Soviet and German forces in which at least 1.2 million people are estimated to have died.
Putin flew to the city after the parade to lay a wreath and meet with veterans, the youngest of whom is 89.
During his address to veterans Putin called the battle "one of the greatest examples of world heroism."
"Stalingrad will forever remain the symbol of the unity and invincibility of our people," said Putin. "It is a symbol of true patriotism - a symbol of the great victory of the Soviet soldier-liberator."
The Red Army victory over Nazi German forces in the battle, which ended on February 2, 1943, was a major turning point in the war and is seen as a sign of national pride.
"I saw cities in Europe that were practically untouched by the war, countries that capitulated to the more powerful enemies even before war was declared," said First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in a speech at the parade.
"But we are not like that. Our grandfathers, our fathers, our older generation, our great leaders, fought here for each building, for each street."
Volgograd was renamed in 1961 as part of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's push to erase Joseph Stalin's cult of personality. It was initially called Tsaritsyn before the 1917 Russian revolution.
Nonetheless, the battle is forever linked to the Soviet dictator. After their victory, Soviet forces marched west, taking the German capital Berlin 27 months later.
The city council this week went so far as to pass a resolution under which it would use the name Stalingrad in official communiqués during the day commemorating the battle, as well as five other days marking World War II events.
The legacy of Stalin remains a delicate issue in Russia. Although widely despised for his decades of brutality and repression, many laud him for leading the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany in a time of immense suffering.
Stalin's image controversially adorns five buses that are to run in Volgograd until Russia observes Victory Day on May 9, and similar buses were to run Saturday in St. Petersburg and Chita.
dr/rc (AP, Reuters)