The In-Transit Report

Russia Part Two: Volgograd

Volgograd  Square of the Fallen Soldiers 2

After the Olympics (which I will write about later), I made a stop in Volgograd, a city southwest of Moscow with a tragic and complex history. This city, one of the biggest on the Volga river, was formerly known as Stalingrad. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you might want to brush up on your World War II history.

Stalingrad was the site of one of the bloodiest battles in human history. It was invaded by the Nazis from August 1942 to February 1943, and the loss of this battle marked a major turning point in the war. Ignoring the lessons of the past, much of this battle was waged by the Nazis in winter, when temperatures could be as low as -30 celsius (-22 f) with fierce wind, constricting mobility and resources. Hitler also vastly underestimated Soviet resistance, resources and reinforcements, and demanded that Paulus’s 6th Army hold the city at all costs.

Although initially successful, the logistically impaired, undersupplied Germans were unable to resist Soviet counterattacks in the dead of winter, and Paulus requested to be allowed to surrender. Hitler refused, instead promoting him to Field Marshal, implying that since no Field Marshal had ever surrendered, nor would Paulus. However, the battle ended with a surrender and Soviet victory in February 1943, with staggering casualties on both sides.

With all of this in mind, I stepped off a night train in late February 2014. It was about -20 (celcius) with a heavy wind, and I walked around for a while in the wind trying, unsuccessfully, to find a hostel. Finally, I succeeded, and happily relaxed in the warmth, particularly appreciative that I have the option of shelter, and reflecting on the irony of my first hours in Volgograd.

I’ve read a lot about the history of Stalingrad, mostly from an academic perspective, and so have approached this place with a particular interest and a desire to see it from a more human, more personal perspective.

On a recent flight I watched a Russian film about the battle (Stalingrad, released early 2013), and found the plot strangely familiar. Apparently, part of the plotline was based on Soviet journalist Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a fictional book about the losses of various soldiers and families in Stalingrad. That book also happens to be inspired by War and Peace, one of my favourite books. The movie wasn’t the best, but since I watched it after my visit to Volgograd, it was interesting to watch, being able to see some of the places where I’d walked, and the memorials I’ve seen.

Volgograd  Mamayev Kurgan 26

Volgograd was named a “Hero City” of Russia, and its dizzying array of monuments and plaques, memorials and historical sites speak to the grandeur of Russian victory. But the size of the monuments, including Mamayev Kurgan’s impressive 91 meter tall statue, also conveys the extend of the losses. This statue, The Motherland Calls (pictured), stands atop Mamayev Kurgan, a hill overlooking the city that was the site of fierce fighting due to its strategical importance.

The statue is around the same height as the State of Liberty, and is thoroughly vertigo-inspiring to stand under. Her face, twisted in rage, and those of the other statues that populate the hill, convey various themes such as strength, camaraderie, and grief.


Volgograd  Flour Mill Ruins 8

Almost everything standing was destroyed in the battle, and thus all but a few of the buildings are newer Soviet structures. There are a few remnants, though, including the ruins of a flour mill, which stand next to the Panoramic Museum that details the battle. When you walk to the top of the museum, a panoramic painting depicts what the battle would have looked like from where you are standing. The museum is also holds an array of artefacts, including famed sniper Zaytsev’s rifle. Snipers were used to inflict further casualties, including Zaytsev, who is commonly portrayed as a hero in books and films about the battle. 

Everywhere you go in this city, there are more memorials, making a walk through like a history lesson. It’s open to debate if this is a celebrate of victory, or a city not letting go of its past. Though meeting people and talking about it, I’ve heard about both the pride of the Soviet triumph, and the desire to let the past be the past. It’s a complex history to reflect on, especially for someone who lives here.

Either way, I’ve never been to a place where I so often am reminded of its history. Coming here in winter was completely appropriate for me. To walk through Mamayev Kurgan and see everything in bloom would contradict the tragedy of war. To feel the chill is to be reminded of how lucky we are to have shelter, hot food and drink, and the choice of how to live our lives, not the prospect of a certain and painful death because of the mistakes of our leaders.

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