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).
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