|The Volga Hydroelectric station strectching across the river.|
|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.
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.|
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.
|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.”