Russian soldiers march past the Mother Homeland statue to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad (Reuters)
Russian soldiers march past the Mother Homeland statue to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Battle of Stalingrad (Reuters)

Thousands of Russians gathered on Saturday 2 February to mark the 70th anniversary of their victory over the Germans in the pivotal Battle of Stalingrad, in which an estimated one million people died.

About 200 veterans of the brutal sixth-month battle, most of them now in their nineties, were joined by Russian president Vladimir Putin, military leaders from Russia's allies Britain and the USA, as well as a handful of German veterans, for the commemorations.

A military parade through the centre of the town featured Soviet T-34 tanks and soldiers wearing 1940s Red Army uniforms.

The city's council recently voted for the town's name to revert from Volgograd, which it was renamed in the 1960s, back to Stalingrad for the commemoration

A special bus bearing Stalin's image will run in the city until Victory Day on 9 May; similar buses have been running in St Petersburg.

The German Sixth Army began their attack on the strategically vital south-western city in August 1942, aiming to encircle the Soviets, crush resistance, and take control of the oilfields to the south, strangling the Red Army's fuel supply.

The Germans also believed that taking the city, which had been named after the Soviet Union's communist leader, would serve as a crucial symbolic victory.

However, the Soviet Red Army fought ferociously to defend the city, and with most of the town reduced to smoking rubble, the battle became one of the bloodiest in modern history.

In 1943, the remnants of the Sixth Army, encircled by resurgent Soviet soldiers, surrendered and were taken into captivity. Most did not survive.

It is regarded as a turning point in the war, with many of the victors of Stalingrad then turning the tables and pushing deep into Nazi-dominated Europe, eventually defeating the Nazis and taking Berlin in 1945.

President Putin led commemorations with a stirring address to veterans, calling the battle "one of the greatest examples of world heroism".

"We are proud, Russia is proud of the defenders of Stalingrad," he said. "The Red Army lived and fought in that hell."

Some chose to emphasise the victory as one for the Russian people, not for Stalin, the Soviet leader whose military bungling some historians believe cost thousands of lives and who is now widely regarded as one of history's most brutal dictators.

Georgy Poltavchenko, governor of St Petersburg, said "victory was not achieved thanks to the 'military genius' of Stalin... but thanks to the heroic resistance of our people".