. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Candidates Join Battle For Past in Stalingrad

VOLGOGRAD, Southern Russia -- Fifty-three years after the Red Army turned the tide of World War II at Stalingrad, Russia's political leaders flocked to the city this week in an effort to use its symbolic power to turn the presidential election campaign in their favor.

After 200 days of some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II, between November 1942 and February 1943, Soviet forces finally crushed the German army and turned the war, leaving 2 million dead from both sides on the battlefield.

And on Victory Day on Thursday, three campaigners were in Volgograd to lay claim to the legacy of that achievement in the hearts and minds of the voters: President Boris Yeltsin, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and Working Russia leader Viktor Anpilov, campaigning on behalf of Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov.

"Today is the day of struggle for the past," Anpilov told journalists on Mamayev Kurgan, a hill to the north of the city where 38,000 soldiers died in the fighting to take German artillery positions, now a giant memorial to the battle, crowned with a 30-meter statue of Mother Russia with sword raised aloft.

"And whoever can win the past will have the future, because this country cannot exist without its past, with "All the country now sees the continuity of the times represented in our symbols, the proud spirit of the motherland in the unity of the generations, in every one of us," Yeltsin said in his speech carried on national television.

On arrival in Volgograd the same afternoon, his first engagement was a meeting with the public in Heroes' Avenue, a wide central boulevard dedicated to honor the 1.2 million Soviet dead in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Marksmen manned rooftops, rifles with telescopic sights at the ready, while security troops checked flower beds with spikes and metal detectors in case of bombs, but Yeltsin seemed confident and in good humor as he listened to questions from a crowd of several thousand pressing around him."The worst is behind us," he assured the crowd. "We have now come out of the pit. Life will get better. Improvement is slow, but life will be better in 1997."

In contrast to previous provincial visits, where Yeltsin has faced bitter heckling from impoverished pensioners, his reception in Volgograd was generally warm, especially from the young, who began cheering when the presidential ZiL appeared and pressed forward to get close to him, breaking through lines of blue-uniformed Cossacks struggling ineffectively to hold the public back.

Nonetheless, he faced some tough questions on pay, housing, pensions, student grants, savings and taxation. He listened to each grievance in turn, before addressing them with a hand-out here and a pledge of tax-relief there, but above all exhortations for patience for better times ahead.

"The state will defend you. It is the state's duty to protect its people. It is a state debt to the people," he said.

But the main emphasis of the visit was on the Victory Day celebrations. From Heroes' Avenue, Yeltsin went to Mamayev Kurgan, where he spent some two hours touring the memorial complex. The occasion was carried live on provincial television, which showed him climbing the steps by the "wall of suffering," where the sound of Katyusha rockets mingled with funeral music played from speakers hidden in concrete reliefs of battle, before pausing at a circular lake where the water had been dyed red to symbolize the blood of the dead.

In the round Pantheon, where the walls are engraved with thousands of names of the dead and a huge white stone hand holds up a flaming torch, Yeltsin stopped to write in the Book of Respects. For 10 minutes he sat in silence, with a little girl sitting patiently on his lap, while he wrote his inscription.

Such prominent coverage was denied his rival campaigners, who also made the pilgrimage to Mamayev Kurgan -- and indeed encountered one another there.

"I told him, 'You are a traitor!'" Anpilov said after meeting Gorbachev. "'You betrayed the party, a great power, the state. You betrayed the flag, which gave you your executive power.'"

Anpilov said he had offered flowers to Raisa Gorbachev. "But she said 'I won't take them from you.'"

If Gorbachev was expecting a rapturous welcome in Volgograd, he was disappointed. Even before his unfortunate meeting with Anpilov, he was greeted at every stage with calls of "traitor," mainly from pensioners. A planned visit to Heroes' Avenue on Wednesday evening was cancelled after communist demonstrators gathered with placards showing a fist clenched in an obscene gesture.

Anpilov was no less critical of Yeltsin, who he said had no right to associate himself with the Victory Day holiday, and whose sole contribution to the war effort, he said, had been to blow off his finger and thumb with a stolen hand-grenade at age 12.

Anpilov also dismissed the Western image of Yeltsin as a democrat and said he could not rule out the possibility of his cancelling the elections altogether.

"All these Western leaders, [U.S. President Bill] Clinton, [British Prime Minister John] Major, [German Chancellor Helmut] Kohl are calling Yeltsin a champion of democracy in Russia. And when he shot up his own parliament? Again he was the champion of democracy. And again, in Grozny, when he spilt the blood of his own soldiers? Again, the great democrat.

"And now, when he is considering whether to postpone the elections, all of you in the West recall what a democrat he is. Recall by all means, but remember, if you really want to support democracy in Russia, give the people the chance to vote."

Renewed doubts were raised last weekend about the election going ahead as scheduled with the publication of remarks by Yeltsin's security chief, Alexander Korzhakov, who said he believed the election should be postponed for the sake of the country's stability.

Yeltsin has since insisted that there are no plans for postponement and upon arrival at Volgograd airport, he made a point of rebuking Korzhakov publicly. "Korzhakov is part of the presidential team," he said. "He is in charge of security. And on any other matters, he is to keep his mouth shut."