Founded in 1589 as a stronghold to defend Russia's newly acquired land along the Volga, the city was originally called Tsaritsyn. It fell to the Cossack rebels under Stenka Razin in 1670 and Yemelyan Pugachev in 1774. In the 19th cent. it became an important commercial center. During the Russian civil war the city was defended (1918) by Soviet forces under Stalin, Voroshilov, and Budenny, but White troops under Denikin took it in 1919-20. The city was renamed Stalingrad in 1925, then Volgograd in 1961, following Nikita Khrushchev's denunciations of Stalin's dictatorship.
During World War II, the city was nearly destroyed in a battle that marked a major turning point in the war and a landmark in military history. In Sept., 1942, a German army exceeding 500,000 men (including Italians, Hungarians, and Romanians) and commanded by Gen. Friedrich von Paulus began an all-out attack on Stalingrad, which was defended by 16 Soviet divisions under Gen. Vasily I. Chuikov. Stalin ordered that the city be held at all costs. After two months of house-to-house fighting, the Germans had taken most of the city; but the Soviet garrison, receiving supplies across the Volga, held out, thus giving Gen. Georgi Zhukov time to prepare a counteroffensive.
Hitler reaffirmed his intention to take Stalingrad, despite great losses and lack of reserves. He refused, against his general staff's advice, to allow Paulus to withdraw. In Nov., 1942, two Soviet forces, advancing from the north and south in a pincers movement, encircled the Germans. In December a German relief force was routed. Paulus surrendered the remnants of his army on Feb. 2, 1943. The combined German and Soviet losses during the battle were staggering—the Germans alone suffered approximately 300,000 casualties. The Soviets followed up with a westward drive and generally remained on the offensive for the remainder of the war. Rebuilding began immediately after the city's liberation.
See A. Beevor, Stalingrad (1998).
The city was the scene of heavy fighting during the Russian Civil War. Bolshevik forces occupied it during 1918, but were attacked by White forces under Anton Ivanovich Denikin. During the battle for Tsaritsyn the Bolsheviks were pushed back and surrounded at first, and only the actions of Joseph Stalin, then local chairman of the military committee, saved the city for the Bolsheviks. Stalin did so by recalling Zhloba's 'Steel Division' from the Caucasus which attacked the White Forces in the rear. In honor of Stalin's efforts in defending the city, it was renamed Stalingrad (literally: "Stalin city") in 1925. The name change is typical of the way towns and cities were re-named after Bolshevik leaders and heroes during Soviet times. (See also List of places named after Stalin.)
Under Stalin, the city became heavily industrialized and was developed as a centre of heavy industry and trans-shipment by rail and river. During World War II (Great Patriotic War), the city of Stalingrad became the center of the Battle of Stalingrad as well as the pivotal turning point in the war against Germany. The battle lasted from August 21, 1942 to February 2, 1943. 1.7 million to 2 million Axis and Soviet soldiers were either killed, wounded or captured, as well as over 40,000 civilians killed. The city was reduced to rubble during the fierce fighting, but reconstruction began soon after the Germans were expelled from the city.
For the heroism shown during the battle, Stalingrad was awarded the title Hero City in 1945, and King George VI of the United Kingdom awarded the citizens of Stalingrad a jeweled sword in appreciation of the bravery that they had shown. A memorial complex commemorating the battle, dominated by an immense allegorical sculpture of Mother Russia, was erected on the Mamayev Kurgan, a hill that saw some of the most intense fighting during the battle. A number of cities around the world (especially ones that had suffered particularly badly during the war) established sister/friendship/twinning links (see list below). It was part of the world's first such link when it formed a twinning relationship with the English city of Coventry during World War II (as both suffered heavy bombing).
The Panorama museum, which is located alongside the Volga river, contains artifacts from World War II. These include a panoramic painting of the battlefield from the location of the monument "Mamayev Kurgan." Here a rifle of the famous sniper Vasily Zaytsev, can also be found.
In 1961, the city's name was changed to Volgograd ("Volga City") as part of Nikita Khrushchev's programme of de-Stalinization. This was and remains somewhat contentious, given the fame of the name Stalingrad, and there were once serious proposals to change the name back during Konstantin Chernenko's brief administration in 1985. There is still a strong degree of local support for a reversion and proposals have been made from time to time, though as yet none have been accepted by the Russian government.
Volgograd is a major railway junction with links to Moscow, the Donbas region of Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Siberia. It stands at the east end of the Volga-Don Canal, opened in 1952 to link the two great rivers of Southern Russia.