Forty years after its end, World War II remains a haunting presence in Soviet life. But there are few places where its presence seems so all-embracing and overpowering as in this Volga River city, site of the fateful battle of Stalingrad.

It is here that one begins to comprehend the almost mystical hold the war has on the hearts and minds of the Russians. In the struggle for a slice of territory roughly the size of Washington, D.C., more than 1 million combatants and civilians died in a single battle that lasted 138 days.

The battle of Stalingrad remains an appalling memory -- appalling in a manner few Americans can understand -- of the way war can be when it is fought in your own town, outside your own windows, in your backyard.

It was a battle that turned the tide of the war on the Eastern Front in Europe, transformed the Red Army from victims to pursuers of the German Wehrmacht and ultimately brought Soviet power into Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and eastern Germany, altering, perhaps forever, the map of Europe.

Yet here, too, is a good place to observe how the painful memories are blurred by Moscow's tendency to mold history to its own purposes and to use the extraordinary victory of 1945 to explain its behavior in 1985.

A huge statue of Mother Russia, about 260 feet high and waving a sword, dominates this city from a hill. More than 3 million tourists come here annually to view the monument and the panorama of the Stalingrad battle.

The authorities appear to nurture the memories of war because they appeal to the Russian sense of patriotism and at the same time legitimize Soviet power. The struggle against Hitler was a unifying experience for a country that was subjected to Stalinist terror, forced collectivizations and the gulags.

Yet patriotism seems to be only a part of the answer.

The war also seems to be exploited for more immediate purposes.

Its memory helps justify today's huge military expenditures by emphasizing the theme "never again," a reference to the lack of Soviet military preparedness in 1940.

Similarly, the Soviet stance at the current Geneva nuclear arms talks with the United States is based partly on Moscow's view that Hitler attacked because he was convinced Germany was stronger than Russia. Today's Kremlin leaders vow they will never again be put into a position of real or perceived inferiority by any potential adversary.

The huge casualties and destruction also provide a tacit explanation for other current shortcomings, particularly in the economic sphere. Most people are told, and believe, that life here would have been better and vastly different had it not been for the war.

Finally, remembrances of things past seem to provide some justification for the continued regimentation of society, for frequent "vigilance" campaigns against foreign subversion and, in a broad sense, for Moscow's "peace" policy.

For Volgograd's Pyotr Makarov, 79, the war seems to have ended yesterday; his dead friends and colleagues seem very much alive.

Makarov was among the defenders of a 300-foot-wide strip of land along the Volga, the Soviet-held sliver of Stalingrad that prevented Hitler from claiming victory and served as a beachhead for the Soviet onslaught on field marshal Friedrich von Paulus' army when it became trapped in the city. The last German forces surrendered on Feb. 2, 1943.

According to a 1985 issue of a Soviet military encyclopedia, the Germans suffered 840,000 dead or wounded in the battle. The Russians took 330,000 prisoners of war.

How many Soviets died in the battle is still a secret. In a census conducted 28 days after the battle ended, according to Makarov, only 14 persons were discovered living in the city, whose population in 1941 was 400,000. Until 1950, he said, "we were clearing the city of corpses." Makarov's sunken eyes turned misty when he recalled the deaths, the acts of destruction and the privations of those "horrible" five months. Nikolai Maznitsa, 63, also a veteran of Stalingrad, started to cry.

Yet, in almost the same breath, Makarov asserted that "we would not have won without our Communist Party; we would not have defeated Hitler without our Communist Party." When reminded that the Communist Party did not exist when the Russians defeated Napoleon, whose invading French army had managed to take the Kremlin in Moscow, Makarov replied: "You don't understand. People were joining the party in the midst of the battle to be able to die as communists."

A man born after the war, who had heard Makarov's remark, later disagreed with the old veteran. "The great Russian people defeated Hitler -- under the party's leadership," he said.

Figures, to some extent, illustrate the Russians' proprietary attitude toward the war, which they regard as their own -- the Great Patriotic War rather than World War II.

The scope of nationwide destruction was enormous, according to the encyclopedia's figures, which are at variance with published research in the West: more than 20 million dead and more than 25 million left homeless; 1,710 cities and towns and more than 70,000 villages either fully or partially destroyed; more than 6 million buildings demolished; more than 32,000 industrial enterprises and 99,000 collective farms destroyed.

At the same time, the Red Army destroyed 607 Nazi divisions on the Eastern Front while Anglo-American forces "destroyed or took prisoner 176 divisions," according to the Soviet encyclopedia. The Germans suffered more than 75 percent of their total losses in World War II on the Eastern Front, losing 10 million men, 62,000 airplanes, 56,000 tanks and assault vehicles, and 180,000 guns and mortars.

And yet, one also can see here how the authorities are selective about what war memories are nurtured and preserved.

For example, about 100,000 Romanian troops fought alongside the Germans in the battle of Stalingrad, but this fact is missing from the encyclopedia account. It is also missing on an enormous canvas, 40 feet high and 450 long that stretches along the magnificent panorama on the bank of the Volga and depicts every other conceivable detail of the battle.

Romania, a member of the Warsaw Pact, was an ally of the Axis powers during the darkest days of the war. To recall this apparently is politically embarrassing.

The same goes for Bulgaria, which was allied with Hitler until 1944. An outsider finds it puzzling when local television talks about the "Soviet and Bulgarian armies fighting shoulder to shoulder" in World War II while there is hardly a mention of U.S. aid to Russia in 1941 and 1942. Each Ally's Battles

It is understandable that the members of the anti-Nazi coalition tend to remember their own battles. For the British there is Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, North Africa and Normandy. For the Americans, Pearl Harbor, the Pacific campaign, Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.

For the Russians, who deserve more credit than others seemingly are prepared to grant, this is profoundly annoying, the more so with the approaching 40th anniversary of victory over Hitler.

This may be one of the reasons that the Russians are reluctant to concede officially that any nation other than the Soviet Union made a major contribution to the defeat of Hitler and his allies.

What, they ask, could compare to the Battle of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, the Leningrad blockade, Sevastopol or Berlin? Soviet accounts of these battles are all heroism and valor. Children are reminded of a constellation of heroes who gave their lives for Mother Russia.

For the first time, Soviet television has provided details about the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939, which opened the way for the German attack on Poland that marked the beginning of World War II. But an embarrassing protocol calling for the absorption of a part of Poland is never mentioned. Other embarrassing events, such as the annihilation by Joseph Stalin of the entire leadership of the Red Army, also are ignored.

Perhaps the most difficult question -- why the Germans were able quickly to penetrate all the way to Moscow in 1941 -- is not discussed by Soviet historians. The role of Stalin likewise remains unclear, although he has been rehabilitated in the course of the past year as a diplomat and military leader.

Even the name of this city, which Nikita Khrushchev changed from Stalingrad to Volgograd in 1961 during his de-Stalinization campaign, is a point of contention. All residents of Volgograd asked about its name during a two-day visit declared unequivocally that they wanted the name Stalingrad restored. The city council has formally appealed to Moscow that this be done.

Judging by press accounts dealing with Stalin, the change will come eventually. A Soviet commentator, Igor Sedih, recently interviewed Stalin's English translator, Vladimir Pavlov, who spoke about his former chief in glowing terms.

Pavlov described Stalin as a man with a "great sense of humor" who was "calm and balanced" although "occasionally sharp."

"But one could argue with him, and he was able to acknowledge when his interlocutor was right, even though he did so in his own way, by keeping silent," Pavlov said. He described Stalin as "always being completely immersed in his work" and placing "above everything else the issue of Soviet security."

Stalin's portrait can be seen in many Volgograd homes, and questions about his initial reaction to Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union are sidestepped. One of the veterans, however, offered mild criticism of Stalin's destruction of the Red Army leadership headed by marshal Mikhail Tukhachevski in 1937. Glory and Suffering

What the veterans recall in talks and in countless meetings with young people, who have missed the war itself, are memories of glory and suffering that led the Soviet Union to victory in 1945.

Makarov, who was a party official at the time of the Nazi attack, recalled how he joined the Red Army without telling his wife. She learned about it three weeks later when he was fighting at Smolensk.

Zinaida Filipovna, 84, sent her children to Moscow and remained in besieged Sevastopol to fight the Germans, eventually going with the Red Army all the way to Prague and Warsaw. Her son-in-law, Nikolai Zabalotnev, 65, became a fighter pilot and also wound up in Warsaw at the end of the war.

On the day of the Nazi attack, Zabalotnsev said, he was with his aircraft in Lvov, in western Ukraine. "At 4 in the morning, the Messerschmidts swooped down on our military airport and immediately destroyed all 120 planes there," including his.

But after this sudden "sneak" attack, he said, the Soviet people quickly organized themselves and managed to win the war.

Maznitsa, who served in the midst of the Stalingrad battle at Mamaev Kurgan, the highest point in the city, recounted numerous examples of selfless heroism of his comrades. Leaving a devastated city in which all buildings were flattened, Maznitsa moved with the Soviet counterattack to the west. The confusion at the time was such that his family was notified of his death, since his entire unit had been wiped out.

Most of these recollections, however, echoed in tone and substance the countless recollections carried by the Soviet media. As the 40th anniversary approaches, the public has been bombarded increasingly with such stories, whose theme is the pride and glory that the Soviet people should feel in their collective effort.

An underlying message in all this is that the party and the people were united and that was what assured the victory. The "Russian Soul"

Why do the Soviets place such enormous emphasis on an event that took place such a long time ago? Why is this done in a way to suggest that the war was theirs alone?

Viktor Dobrotov, a local journalist and author who was 16 at the time of the Stalingrad battle, suggested that the answer is the "Russian soul" -- that is, Russian patriotism and attachment to the land.

The Russian love of country is more akin to a religious faith, devotion that always has tended to remain unshaken despite the persecutions that authorities so often have inflicted on individual citizens. Hardships and other evils traditionally made little difference to this attitude.

The greatest Russian poet, Pushkin, a victim of official persecution during his entire adult life, who even said that living in Russia was "like living in a privy," nevetheless swore that not for anything would he consent to change his motherland. More than a century later, Boris Pasternak viewed as the greatest calamity the prospect that he might be forced to live abroad when he came under vicious criticism over his Nobel Prize for literature.

There seems to be hardly any doubt that Russian nationalism more than Communist fervor was essential in bringing victory over Germany in the war. Stalin himself acknowledged this when in his Red Square speech on Nov. 7, 1941, he recalled the ancient Russian saints and heroes rather than luminaries of Marxism. At that time the Germans were 20 miles from the Kremlin and the troops taking part in the military parade were marched into the battle.

Rewriting history is an old Russian trait. The Great Patriotic War, however, is a collective experience that does not, at least at this stage, require major rewrites since the Soviets were victorious.