Not even local cops cosplaying as Soviet secret police and a newly installed bust of Josef Stalin were enough to prop up Russia's Vladimir Putin as he emerged from his bunker on Thursday to deliver a speech marking the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory in Stalingrad.
The Russian leader at times appeared to be tired of hearing himself speak as he repeated the Kremlin's tired narrative that its war against Ukraine is really a war to save humanity from Nazis.
"Unfortunately we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country," Putin said during a ceremony in Volgograd.
"Again and again we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It's unbelievable but it's a fact: we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them. And again they are planning to fight Russia on the land of Ukraine using the hands of Hitler's followers, the hands of Bandera," he told the crowd of army officers and youth groups.
"Those who draw European countries, including Germany, into a new war with Russia, and ... expect to win a victory over Russia on the battlefield, apparently don't understand that a modern war with Russia will be quite different for them," he said, mostly staring down at prepared remarks.
Though the city has been known as Volgograd since 1961, signs upon entry to the city were changed to Stalingrad ahead of the celebration on Thursday. Volgograd had initially carried the name Stalingrad since 1925 to honor Stalin, before it was changed as part of a nationwide de-Stalinization campaign.
It was the site of the fiercest battle of WWII in 1942-43 when the Soviet Red Army defeated German forces but suffered staggering losses in the process. The Kremlin has relentlessly sought, against all logic, to draw parallels between such WWII battles and its modern-day missile strikes on Ukrainian civilians, presumably to bolster support for its fledgling war effort as it drags into its second year.
Ahead of Putin's visit, it seems that local authorities pulled out all the stops to pamper his well-documented nostalgia for the Soviet Union. A new bust of Josef Stalin was erected in the city, just a short distance from the monument to Victims of Political Repression, according to local media.
MediaZona reported that Soviet symbols appeared throughout the city, and local police donned historical uniforms of the NKVD, or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, otherwise known as the secret police responsible for the extrajudicial killings and purges of the 1930s.
During a military parade, an announcer explained that the men were dressed as members of the NKVD's 10th Rifle Division, which was credited with defending Stalingrad against Nazi forces.
But many commentators blasted the re-enactment on social media, arguing it was not a good time to evoke kill squads from the past when Putin is once again accused of using such tactics to control troops in Ukraine.
"Now they are honoring retreat-blocking detachments at parades in Russia. That fired upon their own. That's all you need to know about contemporary Russia," one wrote.
"Next year Wagner Group will be marching there," another quipped.
Opposition activists in the city and demonstrators who've spoken out against the war in Ukraine said they were visited by police ahead of the parade and warned not to "make any mistakes"' during the president's visit, Kavkaz Realii reported.
Prison inmates, however, were a different story. On the eve of Putin's visit, prison officials let 12 convicts out on an "excursion" in a bid to stoke their patriotism, local media reported.
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