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.