MOSCOW (AP) — The southern Russian city where the Red Army decisively turned back Nazi forces in a key World War II battle will once again be known as Stalingrad, at least on the days commemorating the victory, the regional legislature declared Thursday.
The city was renamed Volgograd in 1961 as part of the Soviet Union's rejection of dictator Joseph Stalin's personality cult. But the name Stalingrad is inseparable with the historic battle, which was among the bloodiest in history with combined losses of nearly 2 million people.
Regional lawmakers' decision to use the historic name in city statements on Feb. 2, the day of the Nazi defeat, as well as several other war-related dates each year, has angered many in Russia where Stalin's name and legacy continues to cause fiery disputes nearly 60 years after his death.
Russia's human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin sharply criticized the move, saying it should be declared void by court.
"This is an insult of the memory of those who died," he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Nikolai Levichev, a senior federal lawmaker with the leftist Just Russia party, condemned the restoration of the old city name, saying "it's blasphemous to rename the great Russian city after a bloody tyrant who killed millions of his fellow citizens." Levichev added that the country won the war "despite rather than thanks to" Stalin's leadership, whose errors multiplied the Soviet losses.
Stalin led the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. Communists and other hardliners credit him with leading the country to victory in World War II and making it a nuclear superpower, while others condemn his brutal purges that killed millions of people.
President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has avoided open public praise or criticism of Stalin, but he has restored Soviet-era symbols and tried to soften public perceptions of the dictator. Kremlin critics have seen attempts to whitewash Stalin's image as part of Putin's rollback on democracy.
In recent years, many in Russia were outraged by government-sponsored school textbooks that painted Stalin in a largely positive light and the reconstruction of a Moscow subway station that restored old Soviet national anthem lyrics praising Stalin as part of its interior decoration.
In addition to the Volgograd legislature's move to restore the old name of the city, authorities in Volgograd, St. Petersburg and the Siberian city of Chita ordered images of Stalin to be put on city buses on Feb. 2 to commemorate the historic battle.
Yan Raczynski of Memorial, a leading Russia's human rights group, was quoted as saying by Interfax that the authorities' moves highlighted the nation's failure to "legally and politically recognize the crimes committed by the Bolshevik regime, particularly Stalin and his inner circle."
In turn, communists said the decision to restore the name of Stalingrad for just a few days each year is just a half-step. Communist lawmakers met with World War II veterans and sent a letter to Putin urging the government to fully rename the city, the party said in a statement.
But Sergei Zheleznyak, a top lawmaker with United Russia, the main Kremlin party dominating parliament, said there were no plans to fully restore the old name.
On Saturday, Russia plans extensive ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle, which raged for half a year in 1942-43 with the Red Army resisting the Nazi onslaught in fierce street fighting and then encircling and capturing more than 100,000 Nazi soldiers.
Jim Heintz contributed to this report.