Russian authorities have taken a step towards returning the name of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to the city where the bloodiest battle of World War II turned the tide against Hitler.

On the 70th anniversary of Soviet Army’s victory at Stalingrad, the lawmakers in what is today Volgograd voted to use the wartime name of the city for ceremonial purposes six days a year — on memorial dates linked with the past war.

The five-month Battle of Stalingrad ended on February 2, 1943 with the humiliating surrender of senior-most German commander Field Marshal Paulus. Earlier, the Germans had captured 90 per cent of the city in fierce hand-to-hand fighting before the Red Army, in a pincer counter-offensive, encircled and destroyed the Nazi’s largest Sixth Army, whose strength exceeded 1,000,000 men at the peak of the battle. As many as two million people were killed or wounded in the Battle of Stalingrad and almost 100,000 Germans were taken prisoner. The epic battle opened a string of Soviet victories that two years later led to the fall of Berlin.

The Volgograd legislators also decided that portraits of Stalin will adorn public buses in the city from February 2 to May 9, when Russia celebrates the defeat of Nazi Germany. ‘Victory Buses’ with Stalin’s portraits will also appear on the streets of St. Petersburg and Chita in Eastern Siberia on February 2.

Civil rights activists and liberal politicians have criticised the initiative as glorification of the Soviet tyrant, but it appears to have support of the Kremlin as it increasingly relies on patriotism to shore up support for President Vladimir Putin in the face of mass protests against his return to power last year. Mr. Putin is expected to attend V-Day celebrations in Volgograd-Stalingrad on Saturday.

Communists have led the campaign for Volgograd to be permanently renamed Stalingrad. Earlier this week, they handed over to the Kremlin a petition to this effect signed by 50,000. The city name was changed in 1961 after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev exposed Stalin’s atrocities.

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