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Published: October 11th 2012
The roadsides are littered with war memorials. They come in all shapes and sizes: tanks, rocket launchers, MIG fighter jets, large Soviet era statues, small star topped stones engraved with names. This, south-west, corner of Russia saw a lot of action during WWII and was occupied by the Germans. We tend to erect monuments honouring the people who fought but the Russians also genuinely honour the equipment too. We got pulled up by a young local for saying “another tank monument” they told us “this tank saved Russian lives, tanks like this helped us in the war, we are grateful to them, why shouldn't we honour them?”
We are on our way to Volgograd, still travelling across the Kuban steppe with its giant fields. We're on the E40, the big main road that runs from Rostov-on-Don up to Moscow, the same road that runs from Calais to Brussels only there's a few differences here in Russia. Its a big 2 lane dual carriage way full of traffic but then suddenly the car in the outside lane brakes and comes to a stand still and then executes and official U-turn – they are very fond of official U- turn spots and
the cars do like to use them. So to keep moving you swap to the inside lane and guess what? The bus in front of you brakes and stops to pick up passengers!! the bus stops occur with even more frequently than the U-turn spots and they invariably surrounded by a gaggle of people spilling out onto the E40 trying to tell if the next bus is their bus!!
The police have obviously decided that sufficient natural speed deterrents exist on the main road as we don't see any police on them. But when we turn off onto the smaller cross country roads its a different matter and they are out in force as our antipodean motorcycle riders discover. When they arrived in Sochi we warned them about the police checks and they assumed it was our riding that had caused us to be stopped so frequently, now they know different. The main topic of conversation each night is who has been stopped and how many times. Mostly nobody has done anything wrong, the police just routinely stop lots of vehicles. Now there's more bikes on the road we don't get stopped at all.
Volgograd is a pleasant,
as soon as the level crossing closes all the drivers are out filling up plastic bottles with Kvas (a sort of low alcohol homebrew)
modern city strung out along the banks of the Volga River (the longest river in Europe). Its all grand Stalinesque buildings & monuments and wide boulevards – classic Soviet Baroque style from the 1940s. Not surprising when you consider the city's history - of course the city is best known by its former name Stalingrad where, in 1942, the epic battle occurred that changed the course of WWII – The Battle of Stalingrad. The Germans wanted access to the Volga, the river would provide access to the Caspian Sea & the Absheron oil fields of Azerbaijan and a means of easily moving troupes into northern Russia.
The battle began on Aug 23, 1942 when heavy aerial bombardment reduced most of the city to rubble. By September, the Germans reached the city centre, fighting was intense: the central railway station city changed hands 13 times. By early Nov the Germans controlled 90%!o(MISSING)f the city but pockets of resistance remained. On Nov 19th
Soviet forces launched a massive counter attack, the weakly held flanks collapsed and the German 6th
Army was cut off and stranded in the city surrounded by Russian troupes. As the Russian winter set in with temperatures
down to -40C, the 6th Army weakened rapidly from cold, starvation and ongoing Soviet attacks. On Jan 31st
1943 German Field Marshal Paulus surrendered. The battle was the bloodiest of any single battle in the history of warfare – between 1.25 and 1.8 million soldiers & civilians were killed.
Mamaev Kurgan is the highest point of the city, it changed hands 8 times during the battle. The whole hill is a mass grave and monument to those who died. On the top stands The Motherland Calls, an 52m high statue of The Motherland wielding an 33m sword above her head. She is the symbol of Volgograd but the site is about so much more than the one statue The whole place is incredibly well thought out and each little corner has some symbolic meaning some of which really make you stop and think: a wall flanking a stairway with random images projecting from some only half-formed but still quite clear what they are and battle noises or marching songs emanating from it which symbolises a soldiers memories of what he has been though, 1/2 remembered, 1/2 forgotten. Going round with our guide you realise each statue means something and
tells a story, they are not just pretty statues. As you climb the 200 stairs (one for each day of the battle) the statues are perfectly placed – first you see The Motherland towering in the distance calling her sons & daughters to defend her. Then the bare-chested solider appears and grows taller than The Motherland, standing before her and defending her. Then she grows bigger and towers over him, in life or death she will always protect him.
Below The Motherland is the Hall of Soldiers' Glory – a plain circular concrete building from outside but amazing and incredibly beautiful inside. Circular walls covered in golden glass mosaic tiles, inset with red tile banners containing the names of 7,200 soldiers. You circle down to the eternal flame where visitors place single red carnations. On the hour an immaculately choreographed changing of the guards takes place, they approach the eternal flame they stand to attention then simultaneously lift their heads one notch higher, looking towards the names spiralling down the walls – a simple gesture but an incredibly powerful show of respect.
Back in the centre of town, amongst all the grand new buildings, is a derelict red
all those giant wheat fields need giant wheat silos
they really are giant, just look at the car for scale
brick building full of bullet holes - a German built flour mill, one of the few buildings left standing after the Battle of Stalingrad. Next to it is the Museum of the Defence of Stalingrad full of facts & figures and artefacts from the battle; an individual air raid shelter standing next to a lathe so the operators could continue to work during the battle. Photos of the tractor factor that kept on working mending all the tanks. Most interesting of all – the lithograph plates ready to print leaflets announcing the sucessful capture of Stalingrad
There are so many facts & figures, sometimes the numbers are difficult to comprehend but 2 things stick in my mind as we ride from one end of Volgograd to the other: the model in the museum showing how much of the city was destroyed, our ride takes us an hour and all this was once laid to waste. Up to 1.8 million soldiers & citizens died in the battle - that's almost twice the current population of the city – watching all the people going about their every day lives you can just about start to imaging how many people lost their
A few hundred yards from the museum is the Volga River lined with fun fair rides, bars and restaurants. As you sit with your sundowner you can't help but reflect that its thanks to those that gave their lives that we can sit here and do this. The words “They Shall Not Pass” are found here as frequently as “Lest We Forget” in the Somme.
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