Yeltsin leads Russia up the hill to Victory

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The Independent Online
When you climb the hill, you understand why the Red Army shed so much blood wresting it from Hitler's troops. Whoever held its brow controlled Stalingrad and a great curve of the Volga river below, its last bend before the Caspian Sea.

Yesterday it was once again at the centre of a struggle to win the city - only this time, one waged by presidents.

It was Victory Day in Russia, when the nation remembered the end of the Second World War. But what this city, now Volgograd, remembered most was the 1.2 million Soviet soldiers in the battle of Stalingrad, one of the war's bloodiest episodes, which reduced the place to ruins.

Thousands of people trekked up the hill, now a monument, past the wreckage of their city walls, past giant speakers booming out the sound of Russian missiles, past the ornamental pond - yesterday coloured blood-red and full of floating tulips - and into the Pantheon, whose mosaic walls carry the names of thousands who died.

The journey, which ends at the crest beneath the statue of Mother Russia, a 170ft sword-wielding woman who is so tall that she carries aircraft warning lights, is familiar enough to almost every resident. Young and old make it every year, wandering quietly through the birch groves and lilac trees that now cover the trenches. What was new though, was the arrival of not one president but two: Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev.

With just over a month to the presidential election, both men had chosen to make the 500-mile journey from Moscow to campaign in this industrial city on the same day. Mr Gorbachev went to the hill first, surrounded by a small throng of onlookers. With only a few per cent in the polls, his campaign must only be deepening his sense of injured pride. Though some of the crowd showed polite interest, others heckled, with cries of "traitor".

The Volgograd region, though not in the deep red belt, has a strong pink streak; it voted Communist in December's parliamentary election. The party faithful have still not forgiven Mr Gorbachev for destroying the system that allowed them total control, and they probably never will.

Matters worsened when the former Soviet leader, accompanied by his gloomy looking wife, Raisa, ran into Viktor Anpilov, the head of Working Russia, a small but influential Stalinist ally of the mainstream Communist party. "I told him he was a traitor," said a grinning Mr Anpilov, as he strode down the hill, surrounded by a small gaggle of supporters carrying red banners.

But Mr Anpilov kept his harshest words for Mr Yeltsin. "Yeltsin has nothing to do with this holiday," he said. His only contribution to the war had been to steal a grenade as a 12- year-old and blow two fingers off his hand. The jousting of politicians for votes was a "struggle for the past" - in other words, an effort to reclaim the victory at Stalingrad for themselves.

At this Mr Yeltsin proved expert. He arrived on the hill in the evening and in a performance broadcast live on local television, went to the Pantheon to sign the remembrance book. It was solemn, even moving. A small girl beside him became restless. He picked her up and planted her on his knee.

This was a master stroke. Previously the city had been at best lukewarm to his arrival. Earlier several thousand residents had turned out in the afternoon sun to watch him walk down the Alley of Heroes, surrounded by security men.

As the president manoeuvred down the street, his words relayed to the crowd by a small black loudspeaker carried by two hefty security men, he was peppered with questions. One woman, a doctor, complained about her salary - a mere $70 (pounds 47) a month. "It's very little, very little," agreed the president.

But when a group of veterans from the Afghan war complained about the need for free apartments, Mr Yeltsin repeated a stunt he has used several times in the campaign. He promised to give them $2m towards buildings and jobs.

Whether the citizens of Volgograd were impressed enough by this performance to vote for Mr Yeltsin remains to be seen. Polls suggest he remains stuck behind the Communist Gennady Zyuganov, and he is especially unpopular in the provinces.

When the battle was being fought, Stalin ordered his men to carry on to the last bullet. He wanted to prevent the Nazis reaching the oilfields of Azerbaijan. Mr Yeltsin, who was last night preparing for the next leg of his whirlwind campaign, has proved that he, too, seems ready to fight to the end.