Thursday, 26 May 2011

Volgograd voyage - Day 1 - The Lady with the Sword

The view from the Mother Russia statue's head.

It looked around us like we were deep in the bowels of a nuclear bunker. Stark metal and concrete were all we could see. Up we wound our way on rough grey steps and steel ladders, the room for manoeuvre becoming less and less. Eventually we reached the last ladder, with a hatch at the top. "Careful here," said our guide, Vitally Shumliansky, one of the keepers of this site, "this is the most dangerous part."

We poked our heads out of the hatch to dazzling sunlight and a panoramic view of Volgograd, one of southern Russia's big cities. The vast, sparkling Volga River cruised along beyond the foot of the hill we were on. In front of me was an enormous grey sword, connected to an enormous arm, connected the gigantic statue of Mother Russia which towers above the city. She weighs 8000 tonnes and stands 85 metres tall, and I had just popped out of her head.

The plaques at her feet commemorate particular heroes in the battle.

You might be more familiar with Volgograd's pre 1961 name, Stalingrad. Here, in 1942, was fought the largest battle the world had ever seen. It is estimated the dead from the battle could number as many as two million. It was the defeat for Nazi Germany that destroyed Hitler's largest army and proved the turning point of the fight to the death between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Mother Russia, standing on a hill called Mamayev Kurgan which was taken and re-taken by the Wehrmacht and Red Army many times, is one of Russia's most famous memorials to that war. The vast statue of a raging Russian heroine holding her sword aloft represents the strength of spirit and the wrath of the Russian and (when it was built) the Soviet people.

She was built in sections with huge steel pipes inside her back and shoulders for strength. At her feet is the hall of memory. With a daily honour guard of soldiers and a sad lament playing amidst golden mosaic walls and an eternal flame, this is the tragedy that sits at the foot of Stalingrad's triumph. Signs of the battle and its cost are littered throughout the city.

The guard of honour in the hall of memory.

Next to the museum dedicated to the battle is an old grain mill. Ironically it was built by German settlers in the 19th century. There were many 'Volga Germans' who moved out to this region of Russia. It stands today blasted and battered, deliberately maintained just as it was during the battle. Huge chunks have been blown out from the brick work by shells and bullets. It’s located about 100 metres from the river bank. This shows how close the Germans came to taking the city and how desperate this last defence was.

A burnt out tank track still lies next to the old mill which saw such ferocious fighting.

Our last memorial was another house, also left as it was. But this was further out from the centre, and had been completely ignored. It had only a few walls left standing, and was overgrown with bushes and weeds. As a local history student explained to me, this had been the makeshift headquarters of the Red Army's 138th division. This part of land, even though it wasn't in the river, was known in the battle as the 'fire island'. Outgunned and totally surrounded, the Soviet soldiers here were battered and blasted by German artillery and subjected to attack after attack. It's not precisely known how many survived or how many managed to escape. But the fire island, like Stalingrad itself, was like hell on earth.

Just as we were about to leave the site, we heard singing. We made our way to the bank of the Volga, only fifty metres away. There stood a ten year old boy, dressed by his beaming mother in the style of an old Red Army soldier, singing beautifully that most famous of Red Army songs, Katyusha. It tells of a Russian girl longing for her beloved who is away fighting at the front. It is a tender, moving song but nevertheless with a lively and catchy tune. Who knows how many times its sound drifted through the battle scarred buildings and across the tiny strips of no mans land to the Germans all those years ago. Every Russian knows the song, every Russian knows the battle, every Russian can picture that vast and terrible figure wielding her sword on the hill. The young boy was a living memorial to this city that had once seen so much death.

A young modern Russian sings a song of his grandfathers, next to the mighty Volga.

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