Thursday, 4 August 2011

Volgograd Voyage- Day 2- Water and Earth

The Volga Hydroelectric station strectching across the river.

 We arrived at one of Soviet Russia’s great flagship symbols. What could demonstrate the irresistible march of Soviet power better than the taming of the mighty Volga river itself. Finished in 1961 the GES hydroelectric power station outside Volgograd is the largest in Europe. Its dam spans the Volga, allowing trains and trucks to cross on its back. Its twenty two generators kick out 12.3 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year (leaving a 60 watt light bulb on for an hour would use 0.06 kilowatt hours).

The Turbine hall, showing the tops of the huge cylinders rotating beneath.

This is all very impressive. But it isn’t as simple as Lenin’s declaration that, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” This was Soviet progress writ large. But it wasn’t really the Soviets providing the muscle. It was the Volga. It still does it today, and at great cost.

The Volgograd hydroelectric station is only the most visible example of the damage industrialisation has done to the Volga. The river’s basin contains forty five percent of Russia’s industry and fifty percent of its agriculture. As a result it’s littered with industrial waste. Oil slicks, sunken ships and chemicals scatter its 3500km course. The resulting death of plant and fish species and the vast algal blooms that spring up have led some action groups to label some of the Volga’s tributary rivers ‘dead’.

There are eight hydroelectric stations along the Volga, each providing valuable power but also disrupting the river’s natural flow. Artificially holding back or suddenly releasing water has led to rapid erosion of the banks. Perhaps most famously of all the hallowed sturgeon, the source of black caviar was stopped from swimming upstream to breed, its course blocked by the dams, causing its numbers to plummet.

Within a year all of these houses will have fallen into the Volga.

When I asked the local ecologist Natalia Loponsova if she thought the Volga itself was dying, she shuddered. But, quickly gathering herself again, she refused to accept such a gloomy conclusion. She admitted the damage is extensive, but added, “the Volga is too important, I simply can’t believe she is dying.”

There are in fact new projects to try and regulate how often the hydroelectric plant ‘dumps’ water downstream. There are also studies trying to analyse the mess that needs to be cleared up along the river. But the schemes are woefully short of cash and their recommendations are frequently ignored by industry and the authorities. It seems belief alone won’t stop the banks collapsing, or the fish dying.

We next travelled out into the countryside around Volgograd, returning to the theme of the fight for the city’s survival when it used to be called Stalingrad back in World War Two.

In August 1942, as German troops approached the city the Red Army which had been retreating scrambled to try and create a defensive line. We arrived at the scene of one such attempt. It was a windswept farmer’s field, but around twenty volunteers were digging holes in it. As we drew closer we saw fifteen skeletons in the small clutch of holes they had dug along just a thirty metre stretch. It was a sombre and moving sight.

Sergei Kochetov one of the volunteers who explained the massive task ahead of them.

One of the excavation volunteers, Sergei Kochetov, explained to us that through painstaking research they had identified this as the place where, in 1942, part of the 120th division from Tatarstan to the North had been hurried into position. Hopelessly outgunned against German tanks and without time to create a proper defence they had lost 70% of their men to the Wehrmacht onslaught. We saw just a fragment of that loss, three of four feet under the sandy soil. They weren’t buried but lay twisted and crumpled where they fell. Sergei identified some of them as younger soldiers because their skulls, not yet fully set by age, had crumbled down over the years.

Among the bones we found the paraphernalia of war. Gas masks, helmets, shells, bullets, mines, mortar bombs, magazines full of bullets and grenades. The rubber soles of their boots were still intact on their feet. The belt buckles still rested on their waists and their spoons for their rations lay around them. As the bigger rounds of ammunition were found the projectiles were removed from their casings and the old cordite propellant lit, burning away with a hiss and an orange yellow flame.

With a rare whole boot still attached, a female volunteer removes the leg of a fallen soldier.

“For decades these bodies have lay here,” Sergei explained. “When they were killed there was no time to bury them. Every available pair of hands was fighting. There was a war to win.” But in more recent years teams have been steadily excavating the sites of the Stalingrad battlefront which could have claimed as many as two million lives. Sergei told me he thinks his children will still have hundreds of thousands of bodies to dig up, such is the long shadow of this horror story. Especially poignant are some of the personal mementos they come across. “Sometimes we find a bullet case with a body. Inside is usually a letter to be delivered to loved ones in the case of their death. It’s very moving.”

Some years ago one of their excavations was shown on local TV. The TV station received a call from a man who thought he recognised one of the fallen soldiers referred to. He came to see the group, and found it was his father whose body he had been searching for for years. He was finally able to give him a proper burial.

As Sergei says, that was a one off. But the volunteers, ranging from their teens to their sixties are trying also to give these soldiers some dignity in death at last. They’re also able to read something of each battle in what they find. We found two Russian soldiers collapsed on top of some German 88mm artillery shells, still potentially explosive all these years later. Bomb disposal would have to deal with them, but the excavators agreed that it was probable these men had captured a German gun position before being killed themselves.

At the end of each day the teams wrap up the remains and take them to a room where they lay them out and light a candle for each one. They call it the last post, after the famous bugle call. With a folklore similar to the soldiers’ own all those years ago, they say that the longer each candle burns, the longer that soldier fought on. Well the soldiers themselves wouldn’t have known it, but every second of each candle wasn’t burnt in vain.

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