Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dirty Shoes

Some people believe that a quick mind, the ability to be flexible in one's thinking and a sense of adventure are the most important things to have when traveling internationally. They are wrong. All a traveler needs is a good pair of clean shoes.

A good, clean pair of shoes is more important than anything else when going to foreign countries. For example, shoes should be comfortable because you can expect to be doing a lot more walking than you normally would, and they should be clean because you will be an unaccredited ambassador from your country and dirt makes you look like a street bum.

In the event that you are meeting new people, your shoes should be extremely clean and look nice, particularly if you're meeting foreign women. All women around the world look at a man's shoes. In fact, I have the secret to how women check men out. They look first at the face (including hair), then the stomach, and then the shoes. If one of those things are out of sync the man is shot down without even knowing it. Especially if his shoes are dirty.

If you get lost in a chaotic and disorganized Asian city, a good pair of shoes can help you get out. Some Asians, in my experience, are fascinated the first time they see a foreigner and may even give you directions in exchange for a chance to touch your shoes. Yes, foreigners wear the same shoes. Wow! Okay, turn left at the big wall, go past the shops with baked bats hanging in the window, go through the crowd of prostitutes and at the far end of a big empty space you'll see the bus depot.

If your shoes are dirty, then good luck getting directions in Asia.

Even in extreme cases, a good, clean pair of shoes can be a lifesaver. Say, for instance, that you are traveling Saudi Arabia but get lost in the Sahara desert. What will you do? Well, if you have good leather shoes you can suck moisture out of them to stay alive. Do you think you could do that if they were dirty? NO!

It's a war of attrition to keep your shoes clean in Russia during the spring. I have all the products; shines, watery sponges, spit clothes, and even a small furry animal I brush over my shoes to give them a nice polish. Actually I don't have a small furry animal but it's a good idea. We should breed "shoesters" and make them genetically pre-disposed to climb around people's shoes, thus cleaning them in the process. Why aren't I rich yet?

I digress...

The Russian spring is horrendously muddy. During the day it rains and the snow melts and there is no drainage in the streets or sidewalks, resulting in large, muddy puddles that are unavoidable (particularly if you're daydreaming and walking at the same time). Cars smash through lake-sized puddles at top speed, sending giant tsunamis flying across the sidewalks, engulfing pedestrians in the process with brown-grey road water. Sheets of black ice lie in wait beneath tepid rivulets of melting snow for unsuspecting English teachers listening to their ipod and walking really fast to not be late for school because they were too busy cleaning their shoes.

It seems like a real uphill battle to keep my shoes clean during this awful muddy spring. Back in January the winter was so peaceful and beautiful but that has all changed into a squalor of filthy, oozing, sucking, seeping slime that covers everything, particularly shoes. In the event of a giant chasm opening up in the center of Moscow due to a never-before-discovered tectonic plate-shift, millions of people would die because, where normally one could use a good, clean pair of shoelaces to dangle over precarious heights, their shoes would be too dirty to grip and thus they would plummet into the crevice.

Only one thing can save me in Moscow: either some really hot, dry weather comes and clears up the disgusting cesspool of polluted muck that covers everything, or we manage to genetically breed "shoesters". I put my money on the rodents.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Moscow Military Museums

For the history-enthusiast, Moscow offers unlimited insight into the epic 2000-year history of Russia. From the Moscow Historical Museum on Red Square to the quaint Pushkin Museum on the Old Arbat, both visitors and expats can follow the development of the rich Russian culture through it's often-times tragic historical legacy.

I'm an enthusiast of military history and the Second World War is one of my fortes. In fact, I am somewhat of an amateur historian (that is, I'm not paid) and can ramble off names and dates and facts from any period or theatre of the Second World War. I have, on occasion, shouted at my television when watching a documentary because of inaccurate information or pure pandering to the lowest common denominator of the audience (I tend to watch very hardcore war special graphics or glossing over the information for me).

So naturally enough I was super-excited to visit two of Moscow's biggest military museums: the Red Army Museum and the Victory Museum.

One thing that I should mention about Russian museums is that they are incredibly well thought-out and carefully maintained. Unlike in North America and Asia, where museums are a passing thought and there is little sense of history among the population, Europe is very much in touch with it's historical roots. This shows in the high level of expertise of museum curators in Russia and the importance given museums in government budgets. Russian museums are easy to navigate, they are aesthetically pleasing and their collections are among the most unique in the world.

The Red Army Museum

To get here, take the metro to Novoslobodskaya Station and turn left when you exit onto the street. Turn left again at the little intersection and walk down that street past a series of shops and restaurants. The street curves a bit but eventually you will come to the Red Army Theatre, a massive showcase building on your left, next to the construction site for a new metro stop.

Directly across the street from the Red Army Theatre is the Red Army Museum. Entrance cost about 400 roubles per person, and an additional 300 roubles to take photographs. The coat check is downstairs but after that return to the main level and begin your tour of Russia's military history.

Pre-war Stalinist propoganda touting the technical triumphs of the Red Air Force and it's ability to bomb targets in America and Canada.
The wreckage of a German Heinkel-111 bomber shot down over Moscow in late 1941.
A tank turret with battle scars.
Rubble from Stalingrad.
"Key to Amherst, Nova Scotia" Presented to the Red Army by this Canadian maritime town as a thank-you for the victory over the Nazis at Stalingrad.
Soviet anti-tank gun from the Kursk battlefield.
The famous eagle which adorned the top of the Reichstag in Berlin now rests in Moscow.
Nazi standards brought back from Germany were paraded through Red Square, thrown down at Lenin's Mausoleum and then trampled by Soviet generals on horses. They rest now in the Red Army Museum.

Mural depicting Russian soldiers carrying the nazi standards on their route through Red Square in 1945.

In 1962 an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Siberia and it's pilot taken prisoner. The ensuing debacle almost caused an outbreak of war before the pilot was finally returned to the U.S. This is the wreckage of that plane.

The Victory Museum

Smaller than the Red Army Museum, the Victory Museum takes a bit of travel on the Moscow Metro to find. Go to Park Pabodi (Victory Park) station and cross the large street using the underground walkway. You will emerge in front of an enormous square lined with Soviet-era statues. At the far end is a massive obelisk and behind that is a long building. This is the museum.

In front of the museum is the Eternal Flame, lit in 1945 and guarded by two army guards at all times, to honour the 30 million Russian soldiers who died in the Second World War.

Large artillery cannons flank the main entrance to the museum but the ticket booth is located along the outside wall to the left of the guns. Admission was 400 roubles but 300 for photographs.

The obelisk outside the museum has the name of every battle on the Russian front carved into it.
The Eternal Flame.
Russian soldier guarding the Eternal Flame.
The Hall of Tears. This hall greets the visitor with it's eerie silence and feeling of solemn respect for the dead.
Statue at the end of the Hall of Tears, commemorating the war dead.
Leningrad diorama. There are six large dioramas in the museum depicting the battles for Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Kursk, the crossing of the Dneiper and the battle of Berlin.
Battle of Berlin diorama.
The stairs leading to the second level of the Victory Museum.
A memorial to the victims of the Holocaust and nazi atrocities.
The Hall of Heroes, on the top floor of the museum, has the name of every recipient of the "Hero of the Soviet Union" engraved in the wall.
There are over 10,000 names here, with 8,000 of them awarded during the Second World War (many posthumously)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

я люблю москва!

я люблю москва (ya lyoublyou Moskva) is Russian for "I love Moscow!"

Moscow is one of my favourite cities in the world. Of course this is only one person's opinion but I have seen a decent number of cities and Moscow ranks high on my list. I'm not sure where it ranks but it might fit comfortably somewhere between Halifax and Seattle. People may argue that I haven't seen other European cities aside from Vienna and St. Petersburg, to which I reply by saying "Shut up." This is my blog.

Last summer I wrote an Ottawa POV (point-of-view) so now I'm going to give you a Moscow POV.

Moscow Positive:

Moscow has attitude in abundance. It is a ballsy and rude and aggressive and incredibly sarcastic city, and this is one reason I love it. It's like the New York of Europe. Traffic in Moscow is non-stop, day and night, and with 15 million people (officially...there may be an additional 3-5 million illegals in Moscow) all jostling to carve out a piece of life for themselves, a collective attitude is formed that makes me smile every time a taxi driver yells at me or a drunk guy passes out on the sidewalk or a grouchy babushka pushes me out the metro doors with her oversized purse.

Moscow Negative:

Babushkas are dangerous creatures. A babushka is a Russian grandmother, and following the Second World War, dangerous industrialization in the Soviet Union and high rates of alcoholism and cancer, most men in the past didn't live beyond 55. This means that there are millions of old widows roaming the streets of Moscow, barking at anyone they don't like the look of.

It is difficult to blame these small, round, squat old ladies with kerchiefs wrapped over their heads. They grew up in incredibly difficult circumstances and lived very hard lives. Since the fall of the USSR in 1991 chaos seems to have run rampant in Russia and these old ladies are simply trying to survive. They will, however, savagely beat with their big purses any unsuspecting passenger who doesn't give up his seat on the bus, or physically shove you out of a line at a ticket counter, or simply start shouting at you for no reason from down the street.

I should mention that babushkas are incredibly sweet grandmothers to their own families, and, with high unemployment, army obligations and rampant alcoholism rendering many fathers useless in family affairs, often form the rock around which family life functions. Every Russian loves his/her babushka, but remains wary of anyone else's.

Moscow Positive:

Red Square and the Kremlin are the most famous landmarks in Moscow and for good reason. Situated in the dead center of the city, the Kremlin is an awe-inspiring fortress city-within-a-city. Surrounded by a massive red wall, the towers of 15th-Century churches peek up alongside 18th-Century government buildings. Large Muscovy spires adorn the Kremlin wall while gardens and statues ring the outside to the north and east and the Moscow River runs along it's southern side.

Red Square takes up one whole side of the Kremlin wall, anchored at one end by the Resurrection Gate and at the other by St. Basil's Cathedral. Opposite the Kremlin wall is GUM and the Church of the Annunciation. Stepping onto Red Square always takes my breath away, regardless of how many times I do it. It never ceases to be one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing man-made areas in the world, and it reeks of Russian history and culture. I highly recommend visiting Red Square in the early evening and then sticking around for sunset, when soft floodlights light up St. Basil's and the red walls of the Kremlin.

Moscow Negative:

The highway that circles Moscow, the M-Kat, is a 108-km long circle of motorized mayhem. The traffic jams that occur on the M-Kat far exceed even those of Seoul or Tokyo. Trying to get anywhere in rush hour can take 4 or more hours! Nobody seems able to drive very well, either, resulting in confusion and chaos and pure, utter hell on the highway. After midnight the going is much smoother, but during the day I would highly suggest avoiding buses and taxis and opting instead for the metro and the elektrishka to points outside of the city center.

Moscow Positive:

Moscow is famous for it's nightlife, earning it the nickname in the early 2000s of "The Wild East". Moscow conjures images of insane nightclubs with spectacular light shows and jaw-dropping women and rave music pounding while alcohol and blatant sexuality pour freely. A lot of that hedonistic nightlife has since vanished but some traces of it remain. In addition, there is still a fantastic night scene in Moscow. Clubs open and go under rather frequently, to replaced by something completely new.

Expect to have a really good time in Moscow at night. I was never much of a club person, missing out on the scene almost entirely as a 20-something due to being a broke student, then a pot-head, then traveling to Asia. I have always had a phobia towards dancing but here in Moscow those personal barriers have been broken down. I love going out in this town. The women are incredibly approachable and even if they aren't interested in chatting they know how to turn a potential suitor down with charm and sensitivity. I don't mention the men in this case for two reasons: I haven't hit on any men at a nightclub, and men in any nightclub are usually approachable. My experience with Moscow women at Moscow nightclubs is that, once they hear me speaking English, they come up and talk to me. For that matter, so do the men...

Moscow Negative:

If the nightclubs are among the best in the world, then the prices reflect that. Going out in Moscow sometimes requires taking out a mortgage to finance one's libations. One Saturday night out on the town usually means waiting two weeks for my next pay in order to go out again. In addition to 290 rouble beers (nearly $9), 500 rouble cover charges and the cost of buying drinks for two or three super-sexy slavic girls you are bound to meet, there is the cost of getting home. My colleagues and I live outside of the center so by 4 am we are looking at 1000 rouble taxi rides home.

In addition to the cost of enjoying Moscow's night life, there is the threat of being turned away by feis kontrol; large men in leather jackets who control who is good-looking enough and rich-looking enough to enter a club. I have posted an earlier entry about feis kontrol so I won't get into it, but being 'feised' from a nightclub can ruin an evening. Two weekends ago Quagmire, Wonderpants, Ms. Australia, Gem and I, along with A&A (a new male character I'm introducing now) and his Russian girlfriend Blondie and two British girls, Tash and Kat, went to a fancy nightclub on the roof of a massive shopping mall. This club shared the rooftop with two other clubs, one of which had glass windows through which we could see half-naked go-go dancers on tables while laser lights danced across the room. The place was packed, and a guy with a friggin' MP-5 submachine gun was standing at the door! That was the most extreme feis kontrol I have ever seen. Unfortunately we didn't go to that club...

Another downside to Moscow's nightlife is that there isn't a "downtown" core in Moscow. Every nightclub is situated randomly throughout the city, making it difficult to bar hop, and nearly impossible once the metro has stopped running (around midnight).

One Last Moscow Positive:

The simple fact that I am in Moscow, Russia, is a positive enough. I yearned to come here for a year before I finally made it. Like I said at the start of this post, the overall character of the city is fantastic. No other city has a personality like Moscow and it can be shocking at first but it grows on you very fast. This city doesn't suffer fools gladly but it does reward the adventurous with untold ethereal riches.

One Last Moscow Negative:

There isn't one. I love this city. If I had to come up with another negative it would be that Moscow forces a certain lifestyle on the person willing to let themselves get absorbed in it. If you let it, Moscow will suck you in until you are lost, even more than Bangkok. People who come here on one-year contracts stay for years without even realizing it, and have a difficult time tearing themselves away. The city, with it's mix of beauty and crudeness, sensuality and violence, charm and aggression, leaves an enduring mark on the traveller. Even more so if a babushka hits you with her purse.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Plain Zany

This is an attempt at an animation I made with one of my favourite students, B-Boy. This 11 year-old kid has fantastic
English and a wild imagination and we spend a large part of our one-on-one classes drawing crazy cartoons and laughing.

He has lived in England, done a driving tour of the U.S.A. and vacationed extensively in the Caribbean, and his adventures
show in the way he thinks. For instance, the day I met him he said, with his British accent, "My father thinks that Boston
is the cultural heart of America, but I much prefer Buffalo!"

He's been on a kick lately of drawing cartoons of Eddie Murphy, floating for all eternity through space and singing "I like
to move it move it!" and getting into random adventures.

So below is the zany imagination of B-Boy in the form of a cartoon that we made by drawing pictures on the white board
and taking photographs. The story is all his; I simply supplied the technical means to produce it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad was the single bloodiest battle in recorded human history, and it was also a defining turning point in the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad marked the end of the Nazi German conquest of Russia and the beginning of the Red Army's advance to Berlin. As Winston Churchill put it so eloquently in a speech to the House of Commons, Stalingrad marked not "..the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning."

Following the Wermacht's inability to capture Moscow in 1941 or starve Leningrad into submission, Hitler and the High Command decided to start a fresh offensive in the spring of 1942 to penetrate deep into southern Russia, capture the Caucausus, cross the Volga River and overrun the vital oil fields of central Asia. They believed, perhaps rightly so, that the conquest of southern Russia would inflict a massive strategic blow onto the stubborn Soviet war effort, which it would never be able to recover from. In addition it would allow German armies to flank Moscow from the south and east, and also to drive into the middle-east and capture the vital Allied oil supplies there.

By January 1942 the front lines ran from Leningrad in the north to Rostov-on-Don in the south, and after the fierce Battle of Moscow the Wermacht had reorganized and rested it's troops over the winter months.
Army Group South, which had conquered the Ukraine the previous summer, was given the task of achieving the bold aims, which was named "Operation Case Blue".

Army Group South was split into two groups, with Army Group South A, under the command of General Wilhelm List, tasked with penetrating south and capturing the Caucausus region and Army Group South B, under the command of Field Marshall Feodor Von Bock driving east and capturing the Volga region to protect the flank of the Caucausus offensive.

Case Blue couldn't start on time, however, as several pockets of Soviet resistance, notably at Sevastopol on the Crimea, which had been under seige since the previous July, required additional troops and supplies to capture. Case Blue finally got underway in June 1942.

The new summer offensive began exceptionally well for the Germans, with disorganized and badly-led Soviet forces offering little real resistance. There was no single Soviet theatre commander in the region and conflicting orders from different generals sent Soviet units scuttling back and forth in confusion across the German line of advance, to suddenly be pounced on by Stuka dive bombers and then overrun by fast moving and professional panzer divisions.

By July the Soviets had managed to piece together a few strong units and two counter-offensives were launched: one near Rostov and one in the open steppes to the east of Rostov. Like the summer before, the fast-moving German panzers were able to completely surround and destroy these two Soviet armies thrown into the battle.

In late July the General List crossed the Don River and Von Bock followed up with a dash to the Volga River and the strategically placed city of Stalingrad, on the west back of the Volga. Allied Hungarian, Romanian and Italian armies were posted to the north of the advance to protect the flanks, a displacement that would have serious consequences a few months later.

As List encountered stiffening resistance in his Caucausus campaign, Hitler ordered that General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, originally tasked with capturing Stalingrad and driving across the Volga, turn south to help out Army Group South A. This left the German 6th Army, under General Freidrich Paulus, the task of capturing Stalingrad. Reserve artillery and panzers were rushed to the front to reinforce the 6th Army, and in the process much of the Army's logistical supplies were left far behind at the Don River crossing, another serious factor that would have dire consequences in the near future.

As German intentions became clear, Stalin met with his supreme commanders and finally organized the southern defences into two "fronts" (army groups), placing the Stalingrad front in charge of Marshall Yeryomenko and future Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev. Wandering and leaderless Soviet units were gathered up and organized into the 62nd Rifle Army, tasked with defending Stalingrad.

Stalingrad itself was never supposed to be a major focus of Case Blue. It was important as it offered a base for Soviet counterattacks on the German's flank, and because it offered a convenient crossing point of the lower Volga River. The city occupies a long but thin strip of land along the Volga. To the north of the city were three massive factories: the Red October, the Tractor Factory and the Barricades. The south of the city was mostly residential while the center was occupied by government administrative departments as well as a department store, overlooked by a low hill named "Mamyev Kurgan".

As German intelligence reported the movement of Soviet divisions to Stalingrad the city took on new importance. Paulus was urged to capture the city quickly and to get across the Volga before Soviet defences could be organized.

The battle for the city began with a massive German air raid. 900 Luftwaffe bombers of all types streamed over the city for four hours on August 23rd. A firestorm was started in the city center and near the industrial sector in the north of the city, and it is estimated that over 40,000 civilians were killed.

Paulus' 6th Army managed to capture the banks of the Volga to the north and south of the city, and effectively put Stalingrad under seige. He then began to move his reserve panzers into the suburbs.

His advance was met with fierce and determined opposition. While Soviet forces were still unable to beat the Germans in the open fields, they had mastered the bloody art of city fighting. German tanks became sitting targets in the narrow streets and parks of the city, and the infantry was forced to fight house-to-house, room-to-room. As the 6th Army pushed into the city, the front lines became streets and hallways.

Paulus was forced to capture the three factory complexes in the north, where significant Soviet forces were holed up. The Red October fell in September after brutal fighting, but the Tractor Factory and the Barricades held out. Fighting inside the factories happened around machinery and walkways and administrative offices. The simpler weapons of bayonets and grenades were used instead of tanks, artillery and aircraft, and the German soldier had not be thoroughly trained for this type of close combat. Instead, the Soviet infantryman held the upper hand, and casualties inside the factories were horrendous.

In the south the Germans managed to take most of the residential areas at great cost in men and materials, and in the center German forces advanced all the way to Mamyev Kurgan and the department store complex, capturing both by the end of September but being thrown out of both by determined Soviet counterattacks. The top of Mamyev Kurgan gave whoever occupied it a view of the entire battlefield, hence it's strategic importance, while the Department Store controlled the flow of supplies to the hill. Both locations changed hands repeatedly during the battle.

The sewers under the city also became a strange, subterranean battlefield. Machine gun nests and sporadic infantry firefights broke out as both sides attempted to get under the other, and soon thousands of rotting corpses were floating around with human waste and garbage in what German soldiers started calling the Rattenkreig, the War of the Rats.

By early October Paulus controlled nearly two-thirds of Stalingrad but the Soviets still held the Tractor Factory and the all-important center of the city, where reinforcements and supplies were ferried across from the east bank. One apartment building near the Department Store frustrated German attempts to get onto the Soviet flank. The defenders inside were commanded by a man named Sergeant Pavlov, and despite repeated attacks by tanks and infantry, the Germans could not dislodge the Russians. This came to be known as "Pavlov's House" and the ruined building is still in the city today as a testament.

The center of the city was in range of both sides' artillery, the view of the city from a distance made it resemble a boiling, blazing place with constant explosions and geysers of dirt and rubble erupting into the air. Both Russian and German troops nicknamed the city "the Cauldron".

Another area where the Soviets were able to excel during the Battle of Stalingrad was in the efficient use of snipers. Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev was popularized during the battle and after, but there were nearly 1,000 expert Russian snipers ranging around the battlefield. They were placed under their own command and allowed to hunt Germans wherever they wanted. Officers and artillery spotters were their favourite targets, but opposing German snipers were the most prestigious prey. Amidst the ferocious battle for the city a sub-battle of snipers stalking each other through the rubble was raging.

By late October List's offensive in the Caucausus had petered out, as all the grand objectives depended on Paulus taking Stalingrad and crossing the Volga. Soviet defences in the city were getting stronger, however, and more and more German supplies and reinforcements had to be trucked across the steppes from Rostov to keep the pressure on. What the German High Command failed to foresee, and what German intelligence failed to notice, however, was the massive Soviet build-up happening on the east bank of the river.

Once again Stalin called in Marshall Zhukov, defender of Leningrad and hero of Moscow, to rescue the situation at Stalingrad. Zhukov, a man of energy and daring and conviction, decided that he would not only push the Germans back from Stalingrad, he would annihilate the entire 6th Army and punch a massive whole in the 2000 km-long German line. From every theatre of operations, units were stripped to half-strength and sent to positions to the north and south of Stalingrad. A truly Soviet army was created, with divisions from every Soviet republic streaming in. Factories all over the country were producing weapons and tanks at maximum capacity and these were all sent to the Stalingrad front.

By early November Zhukov had assembled nearly 1 million troops and 7,000 tanks, as well as over 4,000 pieces of artillery of all different types and calibres. His plan was to attack to the north of Stalingrad, defended by the weak and demorilized Italian, Hungarian and Romanian troops, and to the south of Stalingrad, which was not sufficiently defended to hold back such a massive force. The two attacking forces would loop around to the west of Stalingrad and link up near the Don River crossing where, unbeknownst to Zhukov, most of the 6th Army's supplies were based. With the 6th Army trapped at Stalingrad he would then squeeze the pocket closed and destroy it completely.

On November 19th a massive blizzard swept across the steppes and Zhukov unleashed "Operation Uranus" in the north. Following one of the largest artillery bombardments in history, 2 Soviet armies crashed into the dazed and battered Romanian and Italian armies, which simply vanished beneath the onslaught. Over 100,000 Italians "disappeared" in the battle and nearly as many Romanians. The Hungarians, situated a little further west, turned tail and retreated.

Two days later the southern attack commenced and again the Soviets crossed the Volga and completely destroyed the defenders. Two gigantic Soviet pincers now raced west and south for the Don River, with Stalingrad at it's center. They overran the 6th Army supply depots and linked up with each other at the town of Kalach, completely encircling the 6th Army. The progress of the battle had turned completely upside down, with the aggressor suddenly becoming the defender.

Soviet forces then began a slow and methodical advance outwards and inwards, squeezing the 6th Army into a tight pocket while increasing the distance it would have to travel if it were to break out. In the event the Soviet plan worked, for Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, which had been turned south in the late summer, was sent racing to Stalingrad to rescue Paulus.

Hoth's experienced army smashed into the Soviet army and attempted to drive through to Stalingrad, but the Soviets held their ground and after two weeks of heavy fighting Hoth was forced to retreat.

The news of Hoth's retreat hit the German soldiers inside the Stalingrad pocket hard. Moral started to sink and as the winter became worse more and more German soldiers were surrendering to Soviet soldiers. Nevertheless, most German units were determined to hold out, extolled by Radio Berlin to "fight to the last man".

For German soldiers inside the pocket this wasn't such an easy task to accomplish. Within a week of the Soviet encirclement food and ammunition started to run out, and officers were forced to ration their soldiers to 12 bullets a day for riflemen and 200 for machinegunners. Tanks ran out of fuel and artillery used up all their shells and became useless. Fighting in the city was still raging, and soldiers with no food or ammunition and lacking proper winter clothing were unable to fight for long. By December the Soviets had pushed the Germans off Mamyev Kurgan for the last time and Soviet artillery was able to range across the entire battlefield without any response from the Germans. Paulus holed himself up in the basement of the Department Store.

In Berlin the High Command panicked, but Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe (Air Force) reassured Hitler that his planes could keep the 6th Army supplied by air. In the event, the 6th Army required more than 300 tons of food and supplies a day, but the Luftwaffe was only able to bring in 20 tons a day, and only in good weather. In addition, when the German planes were flying, they were being met by the latest model Soviet fighters determined to shoot them down. For the first time in the war the Germans no longer had complete air superiority over a Russian battlefield. After devestating losses to Luftwaffe aircraft, which German industry couldn't replace, Hitler ordered a stop to the attempted airlift. Instead he promoted General Paulus to the rank of Field Marshall because, as Hitler said, "No German Field Marshall has ever surrendered."

The day after Paulus' promotion, on February 2nd 1943, with his army in tatters and starving in frozen cellars, Paulus surrendered what was left of his once-powerful 6th Army to Marshall Zhukov.

Field Marshall Paulus surrenders at Stalingrad

German prisoner

The Soviets took over 500,000 prisoners, few of whom ever saw their homes again (the last Stalingrad POWs were repatriated in then there were less than 3,000 of them alive). The victory had created a 400-mile wide salient in the German lines which would lead to the Battle of Kursk in the summer. An entire German army had, for the first time, been completely destroyed. Germany would advance no further into Russia and, after the battle of Kursk later in the same year, would spend the rest of the war on the defensive.

Stalingrad marked a turning point not just in Russia's war but also in the overall war effort raging across the globe. The middle-east oil fields had been saved and the bulk of Germany's war machine was now devoted to the Russian front. Stalingrad also marks a moment in human history when savagery was welded together with modern industrial technology to created a bloodbath that has never been seen before or since. Nearly 1.2 million people lost their lives in the ruthless 6-month long battle for control of the city and the detritus of war still litters the fields surrounding modern-day Volgograd (renamed when Kruschev came to power in 1955). The rubble of Stalingrad has been recycled to build a fantastic memorial on Mamyev Kurgan, a hill which was terraformed by the constant artillery and fighting and a symbol of the struggle against fascism and of one of the most strategic victories in modern history.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ballet & Hockey

On Saturday I took Katerina to see the world-famous Moscow Ballet Company perform Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite". I wanted to be sure to see a ballet in Russia because it's sort of a cultural institution. Russia is famous for ballet!

I had never been to a ballet before Saturday and I wasn't sure if I would like it or not but, as it turns out, I had a great time! Not only was the entire story of the Nutcracker told through dance (none of that retarded modern interpretational dance), but the music was fantastic and I had managed to secure front-row seats which made the show more intimate and allowed me to see up the ballerinas skirts.

Russians have a cultural habit of clapping in unison when a performer has impressed them, rather than in the thunderous outburst of individual applause that most of the rest of the world does. I found this uncomforting and didn't partake in many of the applauses, although silently in my head I was applauding the performances. I need to look into where this comes from. Is it a uniquely Russian way of applauding, is it a leftover from Communist times, or is it one of those instances of Russia borrowing from another culture and making it slightly weird (like their toilets)?

No photography was allowed, so I couldn't take any pictures, but on Sunday I joined Quagmire, Wonderpants and Ms. Australia at a knock-off "Irish" bar in Mytischi called Temble Bar to watch the big gold-medal game in Olympic men's hockey between Canada and the U.S.A.

It was a fantastic game with America tying it up in the last 20 seconds of the third period, and Canada going on to win 3-2 in overtime. I had to work Monday morning but we stayed there until 2 am watching the game.

Katerina became very pissed off at me around 1 am because she also had to work in the morning. I had warned her beforehand that the game would likely go until 1, but apparently she took this to mean that, regardless of the score, we would leave at 1. She was in a huff for the rest of the night.

Nevertheless, despite the pissy girlfriend, the hockey game was fun and I presented Wonderpants and Quagmire with silver medals Katerina and I had made before the game. That was a venue I do have pictures from, and below you can see how this Canadian hockey fan in Moscow helped cheer his team to a gold-medal victory!

The game on TV at Temple Bar Mytischi

My lucky mittens (knitted by my girlfriend) with a Canadian dollar (AKA: loony)

Decked out super-fan in Moscow, Russia.