The Volgograd airport gets straight to the point: you land, walk through a small corridor to get your bags and then walk right outside. No messing around. In fact, there’s not much messing around with anything in Volgograd. This city is about war– it has been for quite some time– and until the city gets a major facelift, that’s all people are going to think about it. There were a few times when I saw falling-down buildings and I thought, “Wait, is that a war ruin? No, that’s just urban blight.”
Volgograd was an ancient city called Tsaritsyn (pronounced tsar-EE-tsin). After the Revolution in 1917, the country was thrown into a nasty civil war between the Reds (Soviets) and the Whites (anything non-Soviet). So rather than let the communists have their experiments, we decided to back the autocratic czar. Not much to be proud of there considering the awful carnage. This is an American machine gun and a US-supplied hat.
After arriving at the front, it had these hatches you opened for machine guns. Look how the bullets came in these cases that automatically fed into the guns.
After the civil war the city was renamed Stalingrad. It appears that some good things happened in Stalingrad (like the establishment of the tractor factory, some universities, and a Pioneer Palace)! But then the city was destroyed by the Nazis.
Interestingly, even though the city was destroyed, it was never “won” by the Nazis. Which is weird, right? If you destroy a city doesn’t that mean you’ve won the battle? Apparently not if people keep showing up to fight you for the ruins.
My guide in Volgograd, let’s call him Andrei, is a specialist in the Battle of Stalingrad. It’s his latest unusual gig. He’s taught at the Institute of Physical Education, he’s worked under-the-table in the United States in some unspecified capacity, and he “sat and watched” while a bridge was being constructed. He says his brother is a criminal who has learned a lot about how to organize people into groups.
This is how he explained the Battle of Stalingrad. It was 1942 and the Nazis had already overrun large swaths of the Soviet Union. Hitler was headed towards the Caucasus so he could snatch all that oil. The Nazis also wanted to block the Volga to prevent transportation of supplies northward. They bombed the city into oblivion and figured they were done. But they couldn’t block the Volga. Soviet forces just kept resisting and getting in their way.
The bombing actually caused a huge problem for the Germans. Because of all the rubble, they couldn’t really move their tanks in the city or use any other heavy weapons. They were forced into man-to-man combat. It was grueling. It was cruel. It was seemingly never-ending. It turned out to kill more human beings than any other battle in any other war in history. Nearly two million people died in this five-month battle. That’s 13,000 people EVERY DAY. Can you imagine?
German newspapers kept announcing that Stalingrad was almost taken, which would have big a huge symbolic victory since the city was, after all, named after Stalin. Stalin himself dug in his heels and announced the policy of “Not One Step Back.” In other words, even if soldiers found themselves in a hopeless situation, they were to fight to the last man rather than surrender.
The violence was totally out of control. The life expectancy of each newly arrived Soviet soldier was less than 24 hours. And they kept arriving. Hitler must not have understood that the Soviet Union basically had an endless supply of people that could be brought in to fight.
Eventually, through stealth and careful planning, the Soviets staged a counter-attack that surrounded the Germans. The battle ended with the German commander surrendering from his bunker.
Stalingrad changed the course of the war. Hitler was no longer invincible and the Soviets had the upper hand in driving the Nazis not just out of the Soviet Union, but all the way back to Berlin.
After the death of Stalin the city was renamed because, well, STALIN.
There are flecks of memory scattered through the city. This is a damaged lamp-post that was left standing:
Here is a city block that was never taken by the Germans:
And here is the mighty Volga, which protected the constantly-arriving Soviet soldiers:
Because of the battle’s significance and the nightmarish human catastrophe, a monument of appropriately grand proportions was built. It is named, “The Motherland Calls,” and is affectionately known in Volgograd as “Mama.”
Our first visit was foggy, so you can just see her peeking out of the mist:
The Statue itself is larger than the Statue of Liberty and is made of concrete, reinforced with steel girders both inside and under the statute. Her sword is the height of a nine-story building. The next day was sunny so we got a better look.
The statue in front is called “Not One Step Back.”
I can’t believe the statute is made of concrete. Look at the amazing fluidity of her skirt:
Today, Volgograd is not victorious, it is hurting. The roads are a catastrophe and people drive on them like nothing matters. Because of a mild traffic jam, Andrei made a short cut through a muddy field. Miraculously, we did not get stuck or topple over. People double-park on cracked sidewalks. It’s a regular occurrence to sideswipe a few cars in your daily commute.
One of the most pitched battles in Stalingrad was for the grain elevator. The height made for a good watchtower and both sides wanted it. The German commander even went ahead and designed a “victory” patch for the Battle of Stalingrad and it bears a drawing of the grain elevator. This is the elevator today:
And the patch:
It’s still used as a grain elevator and has a brand new wing on the right side. Andrei notes that capitalism has accomplished what the war did not: the elevator has been sold to a foreign company and its profits are funneled abroad.
Another bloody battle took place at what is now known as “Pavlov’s House.” An apartment building that was tenaciously defended by Sergeant Yakov Pavlov through the entire battle. Andrei says this wasn’t really true, that it was really more of a myth to improve morale. Regardless, there is an impressive monument to the house:
But the neighborhood surrounding it is decrepit. I don’t have any photos because I just think it’s rude to take photos of falling-down buildings with a city resident standing right there. But Andrei himself is pretty disdainful of his city. “In Soviet times, we were ‘building socialism.’ Even if you went out on a fishing trip, you were ‘building socialism.’ But what are we building now? If we’re going to build capitalism then we need to help people start business and also put some social programs in place. I don’t know what it is that we have now and I don’t know what we’re building.”
What is arguably the most significant landmark, is the bunker where the German commander surrendered. It is located underneath the main department store. In the 1990’s the bunker was bought by a foreign company. I don’t completely understand how it all came about, but now it is a free museum. As you can see, it’s not particularly well taken care of. This is the entrance:
It’s that little hut-like thing with the metal door. That’s where the German commander surrendered to the Soviets in the most important battle of WWII.
In addition to its infrastructure problems, Volgograd has also recently been the victim of terrorism. Less than a year ago a suicide bomber attacked the train station, killing 18 people. The station has pretty strict security now, as you can see from the metal barrier.
Andrei explains it this way. He says that because Volgograd is close to the Caucasus, it is an easy target for disgruntled Chechens. He says he understands the Chechens because everyone needs a purpose in life. Since he feels like both he and Volgograd lack that purpose, it’s easy to see how you can get sucked into a cause greater than yourself, even if it’s not the right cause. “Everyone needs to be proud of something.”