by Bill Hartley
Russian television news regularly carries stories covering the exploits of ‘our boys in Syria’. The bombed out buildings and general scenes of devastation are a backdrop as a flak jacketed general explains the situation. On the domestic front, the dividing line between fiction and fact can be rather blurred. We’re all used to American style crime shows which end with the suspects face down, wrists handcuffed behind their backs. Evidently the Russian police have adopted this as standard procedure; the difference being that they take a TV news camera team along with them. As the suspects lie prone and handcuffed on the pavement the camera takes a leisurely sweep along the row of bodies before attempting a close up of someone’s head. The hapless suspect squirms to avoid being seen on the evening news. Still on the subject of television, the Russian station RT has a multi-screen display at Moscow airport. ‘Missed a flight, lost a general election? Then blame us, reads one screen. Another says: ‘find out who we’re hacking next’.
Volgograd is a Russian city we don’t hear much about though it has had its fair share of terrorism. In 2004, a Moscow-Volgograd flight was blown up by Chechen terrorists with the loss of 90 people, then in 2013 the railway station was bombed by an Islamic terrorist killing 16 and injuring 50. The name may become more familiar in the near future since England has a FIFA World Cup fixture there later this year. It is designated as a ‘Hero City’ and for good reason.
The former name of the city will doubtless be remembered by those of a certain age. Between 1925 and 1961, it was called Stalingrad and was the site of the greatest battle of the Second World War. The German attack began in August 1942 and at one point they controlled 90% of the city. Fierce Russian resistance prevented total capture and bought time for a counter attack leading to the German surrender in January 1943. Estimates of casualties vary between 1,250,000 and 1,750,619. Whichever figure is accepted this produced the highest level of casualties for a single battle in the history of warfare. If El Alamein was the ‘end of the beginning’ for the Third Reich, then Stalingrad was the beginning of the end.
In terms of buildings there isn’t a great deal to commend the city and at the end of a tough Russian winter the place is grimy, with piles of dirty snow still dotted about the place. Some of the infrastructure is in a poor state; driving at speed after dark down certain roads risks encountering potholes of a depth capable of wrecking a car. However, there is much building work going on and the sense is that the infrastructure may be playing catch up. The cityscape also carries features which have largely disappeared in the West. In Volgograd there are chimneys, lots of them, indicating the smokestack industries still in operation. There was plenty of space on the steppes for Volgograd to expand and it is a big place running for 50 miles along the west bank of the Volga. Speaking of the river, it is immense. The statistics are impressive: 2,300 miles in length, the longest river in Europe and it links eleven large cities. Describing it as a Russian Mississippi wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
For the visitor the places to see are associated with the battle. Some of the preserved sights have a mundane quality, at least about their names: the Red October Tractor Factory, the Grain Elevator and The Flour Mill. Visit these sites though and choose your version of a soldier’s hell. In the Tractor Factory, Russians and Germans occupied different floors when fighting each other. The Flour Mill provided an excellent vantage point over the toehold the Red Army retained down by the river. A sensible commander would have withdrawn to the opposite bank given the vulnerability of the defenders but Stalin wasn’t bothered about casualties. Since the Germans wanted the mill as an artillery observation post and the Red Army were determined to deny them this, some soldiers had to occupy the place whilst the Germans used heavy weapons to try and get them out. It explains why the western side is the most battered.
Next to the ruins of the Flour Mill stands the museum. It is an impressive building consisting of a central rotunda obviously designed with official ceremonies in mind. Surrounding this are galleries containing weapons and equipment belonging to both sides, together with both German and Russian regimental banners, though the latter are in short supply since the majority were ceremonially burnt at the end of the war. There are a couple of dioramas depicting the fighting, with Red Army soldiers shooting it out with the Germans. Since no-one appears to be taking cover the effect is rather like boys’ weeklies of the 1960s. Absent are signs of NKVD blocking detachments, there to deal with anyone not keen on doing their duty to the Motherland.
Despite the current state of Anglo Russian relations, the locals in Volgograd and indeed elsewhere in Russia were friendly enough. Generally, there is a bit of Russian reserve to break through first. They aren’t a people who exude warmth but once they detect an interest from the visitor coupled with a few words of Russian they then become more helpful. In an industrial city with few tourists about there is no sense of visitors being viewed as cash cows. As a consequence, wherever you go you pay the same as the locals and the exchange rate is currently rather good.
Although Volgograd is dotted with memorials and sites of interest, the place to go is the Mamayev Kurgan, a mound overlooking the city. The amateur strategist can easily see its importance. Height 102 as the military called it dominates the city and was therefore a hugely important point to be seized by the attacking Germans or denied to them by the Russians. It is a relatively small area of ground and the fierceness of the fighting is illustrated by the fact that after the battle at least 500 pieces of shrapnel were to be found in every square metre of ground. Standing on the mound today is Russia’s and indeed Europe’s tallest statue. This mighty chunk of socialist realism ‘The Motherland Calls’ is a female statue stern of visage holding a huge medieval sword whilst looking westwards from where the threat came. It is only when the visitor gets up close that its 52 metres high immensity can really be appreciated. At the base of the mound lie the graves of some notables from the battle: Vasily Chuikov who commanded the 62nd army which defended the city and the ‘Noble Sniper’ Vasily Zaytsev who was credited with 225 kills during the battle.
Below this lies another piece of socialist statuary in the ‘Garden of Grief’; a mother holding her dead son. Unconsciously or otherwise it reflects the familiar Christian image of Mary holding the dead Jesus. This leads to the ‘Hall of Military Glory, a massive rotunda with similarities to the Pantheon in Rome. Here, listed in mosaic around the walls, are the names of those who fell in the battle. The dramatic centrepiece is a huge hand holding a torch containing the eternal flame and is the scene of a striking piece of military theatre. On the hour the guard is changed and those relieved along with their escort execute a slow goosestep up the ramp leading to the entrance, as the crash of jackboots echoes around the hall.
Volgograd doesn’t feature much on the tourist itinerary and in that respect is overshadowed by Moscow and St Petersburg. However, anyone prepared to travel deep into Russia and many miles south of the capital, can get to see a workaday Russian city with an extraordinary recent history.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service. He writes from Yorkshire