Saturday, January 15, 2011
The final city on our cruise was Volgograd, better know by its former name Stalingrad, and infamous for the bloody battle that raged there in 1942 and 1943. Our arrival to the city was an eerie one. The river was too shallow for our ship to dock, and we had to be ferried to the city in a smaller boat, the same crossing German and Soviet troops would have taken almost 68 years ago. To see the city is a surreal experience. The city that saw such violence, not only as Stalingrad in 1942, but also as Tsaritsyn during the Russian Civil War, is almost completely gone. In fact, the only two things that exist from Volgograd pre-1945 are the bombed out shell of a WWII Era storehouse, and a tree. The tree, and the Eternal Flame that burns near it, is where we started our tour of the city. The flame, one of two in the city, in my opinion, was not nearly as moving a testament to what the city has suffered through as this one tree. The tree, small and gnarled, was the only one in the city to survive the five month battle that raged here.
While the tree and the storehouse were both fascinating, the main purpose of our tour was the Mamayaev Kurgan Memorial Complex. Mamayaev Kurgan, believed to originally have been a Tartar burial mound, and appearing on wartime maps simply as "Height 102", was the scene of some of the heaviest and bloodiest fighting of the War. The hill overlooked the central train station, and would provide its possessor with clear sight and firing lines over much of the city. The hill today serves as a memorial complex to the battle. The most impressive part of the complex by far is the statue that stands at its center. Standing at 279 feet tall, "the Motherland Calls" is the largest free-standing statue in the world. The Motherland Calls depicts a woman, bedecked in Grecian robes and wielding a massive sword, apparently calling to an invisible host behind her. The statue was modeled on a Volgograd resident who is apparently still alive today, and apparently still bears a startling resemblance to the statue.
The statue, while impressive, was not the most memorable part of the park, that falls to the second Eternal Flame. This Eternal Flame is housed in its own rotunda, and has a 24-hour honor guard standing over it at all times. Seeing the flame was an intensely powerful experience. The flame, with flowers always laying at its base (the stream of ordinary Russians coming to pay homage to the dead is touching to watch) is enrounded by a spiraling ramp. On the walls are mosaic banners, each filled with hundreds and hundreds of names of those who died.
In such a beautiful (at least the chamber with flame), peaceful place, it is hard to imagine the horrors that occurred here. The Battle of Stalingrad began in September of 1942, with German Sixth Army under Friedrich Paulus attacking the Soviet 62nd Army under Vasily Chuikov. The Soviet garrison, and the citizens of the city (Stalin refused to evacuate the city's civilian population) were tasked with holding the city while a relief force was organized. The battle quickly degenerated into a savage stalemate. Fighting wasn't from street to street, or even apartment to apartment, but by room to room, hallway to hallway over a few dozen gutted apartment blocks. It was in this landscape of death and suffering that Hell may have actually come to this earth, nearly 90% of the city was leveled, and human suffering occurred on an almost unimaginable scale. It was during the Battle of Stalingrad that the Red Army perfected its barbaric "blocking units". Blocking units were detachments of Red Army soldiers stationed not far behind advancing Soviet units. If those soldiers broke and attempted to retreat, it was the task of the blocking units to gun them down. After the dust settled in January 1943 with Operation URANUS, the full scale of the carnage came to light. In addition to the city being almost completely leveled, over 800,000 Axis troops perished in the battle, Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians. Of the 110,000 Axis troops taken prisoner, only 5,000 would return home, the rest would perish in the GULags of Siberia and the rest of the Soviet Union. Soviet casualties were even more horrific, over 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives, along with many thousands of civilians. "Height 102", was particularly hellish. The hill, and the train station below it, traded hands numerous times in those five months. So stained with human blood, legend holds that the hills soil remained dyed a dark crimson for years after the War's end. The amount of metal, gunpowder and blood in the soil made it completely inhospitable to life, and no grass would grow on the hill for decades. Even today, a few feet of digging will still yield the bloody harvest of War, bullets, shrapnel, and bone shards are still being pulled from the hill today. I remember standing on that hill with Hannah, the ethereal melodies of the Leningrad symphony drifting across the grass, watching the unceasing river of newlyweds, children, and normal Russians from every walk of life come to lay flowers by the Eternal flame and the numerous other graves that dot the hillside, and thinking that if any place on this earth is sacred, it was here. This one single hill where tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands payed the price for the collective failings of humanity. I had been most excited about visiting Volgograd when I heard of this trip, and Volgograd remains, by far, the most memorable city we visited on our trip.
Friday, January 14, 2011
Saratov was the second to last city on our cruise. Getting off the boat we were greeted by some rather impressive graffiti displays on the wharf front. I don't know why this graffiti impressed me so much, but I was rather taken by it, which is why I deem to mention it here. While I believe Saratov (it might have been Samara, unfortunately the two cities tend to run together in my head a little bit) is famous for its chocolate and its associations with cosmonaut Yurii Gagarin, we spent the morning at Saratov's Victory Park, a park commemorating WWII, full of period weaponry and machinery, and with a beautiful panoramic view of the city. As a lot of you probably know, I love history, so the Saratov Victory Park was like a playground for me. We could climb on T-34 tanks, see armored trains, and see all of Saratov from the overlook. Unfortunately, I am ashamed to admit, my memory as to what we did after that blends with my memories of Samara, and as such I'm not going to try and sift through what I did and did not do. I do remember a member of our group getting lost, and the ensuing panic that we might not only lose her, but miss our boat to Volgograd as well. Kelsey, Bronwyn, and I were not going to have any of this. Team Ballingrad, as we billed ourselves, were going to get to Volgograd not matter what the cost, and we were going to beat everyone else there. I believe our idea included stealing a police cruiser, and Kelsey choking someone out with a shoelace for food. Why such an action was necessary to procure food I do not entirely remember, but it certainly sounded good.
Meanwhile on the boat, our never-ending war against our server Vera came to a head during the last few days of our cruise. Among our many spots of contention, pitchers of water was particularly contested ground. It had all started the first day or two, when I had asked dear old Vera for another pitcher of water. She looked at me and said she would bring it "later" and stormed off. Later never happened, nor did after dinner tea, a veritable crime in Russia. This war continued, us asking for water, and Vera not bringing it with various degrees of surliness in her responses. By Samara, enough was enough. In a daring coup, Kelsey and I seized another water jug from a neighbor table after finishing ours, and triumphantly placed it on the table for the flabbergasted Vera to see while I muttered obscenity laced insults at her as she promptly ignored us for the rest of the meal. The Water Jug Revolt had its intended affect, thoroughly cowed, Vera was quite a bit nicer, or perhaps she just liked the love poem our RD Nathan wrote for her. The message seems to have even creeped up to Denis at the bar, who seemed to be a lot more accommodating when it came to us ordering drinks. And as such we spent many a lovely evening at the bar upstairs, one night Nathan and I even tried our hands at break dancing. We were none to good at it.
One of the things I really loved about the boat was going out on the deck at night. The boat would cover the hundreds of miles between cities in the dark, and if you sat on the deck, you could see hundreds and hundreds of stars. It was quite something to lie on the deck and just watch the night sky.
My computer is running low on batteries, so I'm going to wrap this entry up for now. If I have the time I'll revisit it and flush it out. But for now, I'm done, three entries in one day!
The city of Samara was the next stop on our cruise. I remember that we started out the day at monument to some figure of the Russian Revolution, I sadly forget his name, but I know that a rather famous Soviet movie was made about him, and it ends with him being shot and killed as he attempts to swim across the Volga to escape the advancing White Army. The monument itself has a rather funny story. It was originally planned to face in one direction (East or West), but that made it look as though the soldiers were attacking the party headquarters across the street. Some party bureaucrat found that to be subversive and unacceptable, and as such, the orientation of the entire monument was changed, with the soldiers facing a different direction, with only their heads turned to look at the headquarters.
The next stop was the Stalin bunker. As the Wehrmacht swept through the Soviet Union in late 1941, the prospect of Moscow falling to the marauding Germans was a very real one. As such, Samara, a railway center and a major Volga river port, as well as a major producer of automobiles and military aircraft, became the war time of the USSR until 1943, when Soviet victory on the Eastern front had all but been guaranteed following the Battle of Kursk. During that time, a top secret bunker had been built in Samara to house Stalin and key political figures. The bunker is amazing. Dug under an apartment block in complete secrecy, the bunker was only revealed to the public after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even residents of neighboring blocks did not know of the bunkers existence. Apparently work was done completely by hand (most likely by prison slave labor) and done completely at night. Dirt was shipped out every morning in tracks and dumped outside of the city. Some rumors hold that all involved in the project were shot following its completion. What Samara is left with today is an eight story deep bunker, complete with all the trappings of the Kremlin. The bottom holds an impressive personal office for Stalin, replete with fake doors to appease the paranoid General Secretary (he never used the office, or even set foot in the bunker) and an impressive conference room for the entire Politburo. I enjoyed the bunker immensely, and it was definitely the highlight of Samara, at least for me. The rest of the day was spent poking around the city. Samara, following the War, was the center of the Soviet space program, and as such it is full of statues of Yuri Gagarin, and even a rocket pointed to the sky.
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Back to my Volga trip way back when in October, the next three days we traveled through a string of three cities, Ulyanovsk, Samara, and Saratov. The first city was Ulyanovsk, formerly know as Simbirsk, is most famous for the being the birthplace Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Vladimir Lenin. As such, the city remains as a sort of bizarre homage to its famous first son. The city itself is extremely quiet (I saw almost no one on the streets), and exhibits the same quiet melancholy that hangs over many Russian cities. The city is a decaying shrine to the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin's childhood homes are either enshrined in a museum, or covered over by a huge looming structure on the city's central square. The broken and pockmarked pavement of the square, hung with faded banners and displaying a decorative pool now filled with grime and sludge, leads to the hulking Lenin memorial complex. A Soviet Ere monstrosity that engulfs two of the 19th Century homes the Ulyanov family inhabited. My feelings about the city were rather mixed. While I enjoyed seeing the childhood home of Lenin, complete with his bed and a family croquet set (glad to see someone else shares my love of croquet), I found the Lenin memorial complex to be not only cult-ish, but a bit creepy and a lot depressing. Other sites in Ulyanovsk were few and far between, the highlights being a very large bridge that spanned the Volga, and a monument to the Russian letter "Ё". Why Ulyanovsk was saddled with the great honor of having this monument no one I talked to seemed to know, but it was there and we saw it.
Monday, January 3, 2011
So here I am in week 2 of life of post Russia, basking in the seemingly endless sunshine and warmth of tropical Beverly Massachusetts trying to finish up this blog. I last left off at the beginning of December after Katya's birthday. That leaves about two or three weeks of stuff, so I'll try to keep it as brief as possible. One of the major highlights of the last few weeks was our excursion to the Russian bath house, or banya. Banyas are quintessentially Russian, and in my opinion, are a must for anyone, even those who have absolutely no interest in Russian culture beyond consuming excessive amounts of vodka. Banyas have an endless history, and endless traditions associated with them. The banya we went to was a 'white banya', meaning the smoke from the wood stove was piped out of the building, as opposed to a 'black banya' where smoke is supposed to filter out through a hole in the ceiling. From what I can gather, the 'black banya' experience can be easily replicated by stripping down naked and setting the room you are in on fire. Obviously, 'white banyas' are more desirable.
The main room in the banya is the steam room. Unlike a "Finnish" banya, a dry heat bath house, the Russian banya relies on hot steam. The banya cycle then starts. Short periods of ten or so minutes in the steam room, alternated with either jumping in the snow, or a pool of water. The day we were at the banya was in the negative teens, with a healthy foot plus of snow on the ground, so I got to do both. The pool was the wildest part. Our pool was outside, so to get to it one first had to slip and slide over the ice. Once out of the pool, steam would come off your body in waves, and any water that dripped off of you would instantly freeze, whether it be to the ground (making a rather lethal ice slick) or the ladder leading out of the pool (often freezing your hands to the ladder as well).
Perhaps my favorite part of the banya however is the birch branches. It is a Russian tradition to beat ones self or ones friends with birch branches. I don't know why this ever struck someone as a good idea, but I found it to be a delightful experience. Not only do you get to channel all of your rage into beating your banya-mate, it feels great to!
The next week was the Baltica beer brewery. If you can remember back to the summer, I did an excursion to Balitca, which ended up being a rather delightful, if not slightly fuzzy day in my memory. This time around we were not so lucky. We arrived at the factory for the last tour (I have a hunch that this was planned) and as such, our "sampling" time was cut painfully short. But such is life I guess.
The last week was spent studying for/taking finals, which I feel no need to reminisce about here. Our time in Russia ended with a lovely banquet held on the last Friday. I won a beautiful Eдинная Россия headband, and took part in a significantly less beautiful reproduction of a scene from the classic film "Irony of Fate". Our plane flight home was also a nightmare, including, but not limited to, being diverted to another German airport because of snow, missing our flight, a mad dash across Frankfurt's airport to get on another flight, and my baggage being lost somewhere between St. Petersburg and Boston for nine days.
And that brings us to the present. This is not going to be my last entry, I still have my volga trip to finish up, so stay tuned!