Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lords of the Jungle

In the summer of 2004 I went to Thailand for the first time. Together with my ex, her sister and her sister's boyfriend, we spent 4 frustrating days in Bangkok before flying south to the Pacific island of Koh Samui. A tropical paradise greeted us (and I learned to go directly to the islands first and finish up any Thai vacations with a few nights in Bangkok).

We spent a relaxing night on the east side of Koh Samui, drinking on the beach until midnight while we buried our feet in the sand and made up a trivia drinking game. The next day at 7 am we took a rusty ferry to the island of Koh Phagnang.

This island is famous for its Full Moon Parties in the town of Hadrin, but we weren't interested in being with crowds of people. We were on vacation from our teaching jobs in Seoul and we were all sick and tired of crowds, so we rented a "water taxi" which took us around to the east side of this tropical island and dropped us off at a non-descript resort tucked into the jungle along the beach.

Kaih's Beach, with the jungle behind it.

The resort had no name but the Thai owner was called "Kaih", so we simply called the resort "Kaih's Beach".The "resort", and I use the term loosely because it was nothing more than a dozen or so wooden bungalows perched on cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with heavy jungle at their backs, had a central dining area which consisted of an outdoor patio with a grass roof and a small kitchen tucked in the back. There were no seats; instead, guests reclined on incredibly comfortable mats with triangular pillows at one end set around low tables. It was amazingly comfortable and relaxing. We lounged on that patio all our first day.

Mr. Korea lounging on the patio.

There were a few other guests there. A large, hairy Australian man with his stunningly-beautiful Thai rent-a-girlfriend sat privately in a corner while a tall and very-fit American sat next to us. We began talking to the American.

After some jokes he joined us at our table, and we learned, over the course of many drinks and delicious homemade potato chips, that he was from Houston but hadn't been home in years. He had spent the past 5 years travelling Asia and had recently been living in Nepal. He claimed to have met and spoken privately with the Dalai Lama, a claim which we believed.

Mr. Houston was, well, strange. He spoke slowly and clearly with confidence. He was in fantastic shape: lean, muscular and athletic, as if though he had been climbing mountains all his life. It was his eyes, however, that kept his drunken Canadian English-teaching audience held captive. Set beneath a shaved head, Mr. Houston had deep, crystal blue eyes that spoke of things we could not imagine. There was so much wisdom and philosphy in those eyes that had seen mystical things that when he calmly recounted his story of meeting the Dalai Lama, after we pressed him, we readily believed him. Although I have never seen him since, to this day I still believe that this wanderer from Houston, Texas, had been engaged in deep conversation with the Dalai Lama in Nepal.

After a while we enquired of Mr. Houston where we could get some pot. He calmly called over Kaih, who said "Grass? No problem!" and promptly delivered a big bag of green weed to our table. Mr. Houston then said "If you want, I know where we can get some mushrooms." My ex's sister's boyfriend, Mr. Korea (although he's not Korean, he ended up marrying a Korean girl so the moniquer fits), looked at me and we both said "Sure!"

Mr. Houston then explained to us that on the next beach, over a jungle hill, there was another resort which grew their own mushrooms. He told us that a few years ago he and a group of tourists used to trek through the jungle every day for mushrooms, and that there was a well-worn trail to follow. He offered to take us there if we wanted.

Nicely intoxicated with alcohol, Mr. Korea and I readily agreed. The girls decided not to go so Mr. Houston, Mr. Korea and I, garbed in shorts and flip-flops, set off into the jungle.

Things quickly went wrong from Mr. Korea and I. We had been living fattening lives in Seoul and although we spent time on the Seoul Metro, we didn't really do anything athletic. Pale, slightly overweight from too much beer and sticky rice, and desperately out of shape, we tried to keep up with Mr. Houston. The trail he had talked about had been reclaimed by the jungle so gigantic branches, vines and very prickly bushes constantly clutched at our t-shirts.

At one point I stepped out over a small decline in the ground which I couldn't see because of the flora and immediately slid down a muddy hill, feet first. A strange bush with millions of thorns snatched onto my t-shirt and I was left dangling in the air, held up by this torturous bush with my legs kicking in the air over a steep ravine. "Help!" I cried. Mr. Korea didn't have the energy to laugh, he simply struggled through the bushes towards me and began snapping the branches off. After a few moments he freed me from the last set of thorns and I tumbled down the hill.

We looked up and saw Mr. Houston standing on another hill far away. "What's taking you guys? Come on!" He shouted. Mr. Korea and I looked at each other, panting with effort. Mr. Houston didn't have a scratch on him. He wasn't wearing a shirt and he hadn't broken a sweat (Mr Korea and I, by comparison, were drenched in sweat, blood, dirt and bits of branches). Mr. Houston simply glided in and out of the jungle. "Hang....hang on!" We panted as loudly as we could. "We need a breather!" Mr. Houston shrugged and called back "It's only a few more kilometres. I'll meet you at the beach!" and then he gracefully disappeared into the jungle.

Mr. Korea and I sat down and lit a cigarette (it seemed like the only thing to do at the time). After ten minutes we stood up and set out again, trying to follow the direction Mr. Houston had gone.

The going was treachorous and painful and exhausting. At one point we came across a massive snake skin that had been shed. It was at least 10 feet long and very thick. We shuddered at the thought. Soon, night began to fall and the jungle took on terrifying proportions. Bushes rustled next to us and strange creatures called out from nearby as we stumbled and crashed and swore our way through.

Finally, just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we emerged from that suffocating hell onto a beautiful beach with several bungalows dotted around. The journey had taken us nearly 4 hours!
Mr. Houston was nowhere to be seen so we approached the Thai staff at the dining patio and, sweating profusely and covered in grime and blood, asked "Do you have any mushrooms?" The old Thai woman we asked didn't answer; she simply stared at us with her mouth open. I suppose we were a sight to see, crashing out of the jungle at night, looking the way we were, and demanding mushrooms.

She collected herself and practically backed away from us, yelling for someone to help her. A large-set Thai man appeared, stared at us intently for a few moments and then said "What do you want?"
"Mushrooms" we replied. "We want mushrooms."
"I don't have mushrooms." He stated, with finality.
"Look, just give us some mushrooms. We'll pay you double." Mr. Korea demanded. After everything we had been through to get here, I was willing to sell my girlfriend if I had to.
"Oh, you mean mushrooms!" The man smiled. "Okay! Okay! I get you mushrooms!"

He disappeared and then reappeared with a large ball of tinfoil. He peeled the edges off and opened the package and inside were dirt-covered slips of purple, orange and blue mushrooms, sparkling under the bare light bulb that hung above us. "Perfect!" We cried and paid the guy some money. Then we turned and looked back at the jungle.

We turned back to the man. "Umm, how much for a boat ride back to our beach?" we asked (he knew where we had come from).
"Alot!" He replied. Damn. Okay. We accepted whatever price he was offering because we sure as hell weren't going through that jungle at night.

Thirty minutes later his boat pulled up on Kaih's sandy beach and, clutching our package triumphantly, we leapt over the side and waded ashore. Our girlfriends were waiting for us. "What took you guys so long?" They asked. We recounted the story and then began to eat the mushrooms, sitting on Kaih's Beach under a large moon as a soft surf licked our feet. Later, Mr. Houston appeared out of nowhere, unfazed and perfectly calm. "Hey guys. You made it. Good for you!" He declared, and then disappeared again.

We never saw Mr. Houston again.

That night, after returning with our package!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Battle of Kursk

The Battle of Kursk marked the beginning of the end of Hitler's Third Reich, and the rise of the USSR as a great world power. After the battle the Red Army would sweep across eastern Europe to Berlin and the Oder River in central Germany, and usher in 50 years of Cold War paranoia. The great battle in the open steppes of western Russia would usher in the modern age.

Following the German disaster at Stalingrad, Russian forces went on the offensive to take advantage of the huge gap in the lines. German Field Marshall von Manstein, commander of Army Group South, was forced to pull his armies out of the Caucausus to avoid getting cut off from the north. Marshall Zhukov and the Red Army harried his armies the entire way.After a brief but vicious fight in Rostov-On-Don, von Manstein retreated to the city of Karkhov with the Red Army close on his heels.

The Russian plan following the great victory at Stalingrad was to drive a massive wedge between German Army Groups South and Centre. The cities of Karkhov, in the south, and Orel, in the north, were key to this operation, but by March 1943 the Soviet forces were exhausted. Their drive on Orel ran into prepared German defensive positions and they were unable to break through.Nevertheless, they moved onto Karkhov. Von Mannstein had, by this time, managed to re-organize his armies and, with fresh reserves rushed to the front from Germany, the Wermacht fought a great battle in the streets of the industrial city and managed to hold. The Red Army pulled back.

While the Red Army had been stopped at Orel and Karkhov, they had managed to drive a deep wedge between the two cities. This bulge in the lines was 150 miles from north to south and stuck out 200 miles into the German lines. In the center of this salient was the agricultural city of Kursk.

After the horrendous fighting of 1942 and early 1943, with major battles in the Crimea, the Don River, the Caucasus, Stalingrad and Karkhov, both sides dug in along the new lines and for the first time in 2 years a relative calm settled over the Russian front.

While Germany had suffered serious setbacks in the war, she was still strong and the Wermacht and SS were still powerful forces. This situation was changing drastically, however. Russian industrial output was in full swing and by 1943 there were ten Soviet soldiers for every German. German industry, on the other hand, was under siege.By 1943 the western Allies strategic bombing campaign of Germany was in full swing. Following the Casablanca Conference between Churchill and Roosevelt, a policy of "Round-The-Clock-Bombing" was implemented, whereby day and night German factories and cities would be subjected to merciless pounding from the air.

During the day, up to a thousand or more American bombers would stream over the European continent and reduce factories, munition plants, oil production facilities and docks into rubble. German air defences were determined and every day massive air battles took place in the skies over Europe. At night another thousand British and Canadian bombers would cross the North Sea and raze entire cities to the ground in an intentional plan to disrupt German labour.

By the time the Kursk Salient was being formed, German industrial output was being severely disrupted, particularly when it came to ball bearings (a key element in any type of machinery) and oil production.
In March, 1943, Hitler met with his High Command in Berlin and assessed the situation on the Eastern Front.

The Army generals wanted to straighten out the lines by pushing the Russians out of the Kursk salient. This would give Germany the opportunity to dig in on the defensive and lick its wounds for a time. Hitler, however, had a different idea and despite the best arguments of his generals, he ordered plans be made for a renewed offensive in the east, anchored on the Kursk salient.
Hitler saw the salient as an opportunity to crush the Red Army once and for all by pinching off the bulge at the eastern ends and trapping the armies inside. Although his generals were reluctant, fearing what a defeat in this area would mean for Germany, Hitler ordered them to start planning. The operation was codenamed "Citadel".

Hitler had valid reasons for wanting to end the war in the east. Britain's 8th Army in North Africa had linked up with a large American army moving in from west Africa, and Tunis had recently fallen. Axis forces had been pushed off the African continent. Britain and the U.S. had gained complete control of the Mediterranean and Italy was threatened with invasion. Germany couldn't afford to fight a war on two fronts. The destruction of the Red Army at Kursk would be the final victory Hitler needed to swing the war back in his favour.

Operation Citadel called for 2 armies to attack the salient from the north and the south and link up at Kursk, thus trapping the Red Army in a vast pocket. From the north, Field Marshall Model's 9th Army was to strike south. His army consisted of mostly infantry with a few panzer divisions attached for armored punch. From the south, General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, experienced survivors of Stalingrad, was to drive north and link up with the 9th Army at Kursk.

Hitler was placing a lot of faith on his two armies, but he had some valid reasons to do so. Two new tanks types had been developed, so-called "wonder weapons", and Hitler wanted both his armies to be fully equipped with both types for the operation.

The first of these tanks was to become one of the best tanks of the Second World War. The Panzer V "Panther" tank was a reversed-engineered version of the vaunted Russian T-34. Featuring 80 mm-thick sloping armor and a 75 mm main gun, the Panther used revolutionary new suspension and transmission that allowed it operate over almost all terrain and in all weather conditions.

The second of the new tanks, and the most feared tank in the German arsenal, was the monstrous Panzer VI "Tiger" tank. This massive 64-ton machine featured 110 mm armor that was impenetrable to any gun in the Russian and Allied arsenal. Its huge 88 mm main gun could obliterate enemy tanks from ranges of up to 2 km.

The Tiger tank was practically unstoppable in battle, but the over-engineering of this monster would be its own undoing. The Tiger was a complicated machine and frequently broke down. The advanced technology in its design meant that specialist repair crews had to be called in to fix it, whereas the Russian T-34, although smaller, was a rugged and easy-to-repair machine that could be maintained by its own crew in the field.

Production on these two tanks was given the highest priority throughout the Reich's industry, and units at the front began to be equipped with them. As supplies, weapons and replacement troops streamed to the German positions around the Kursk salient, the stage was set for one of the biggest clashes of arms in human history.

In Moscow, Stalin had different ideas about the significance of Kursk. He placed his most able commander, Marshall Zhukov, in charge of the Kursk salient and Zhukov wasted no time in putting together a plan. The Russians were fully aware of Operation Citadel. A British spy ring, named "Lucy", was operating deep within the German command circles, and through information theft, seduction of ranking officials by young female spies, and the cracking of the German "Enigma" code by mathematicians, the British were feeding all their information to Moscow via embassies in neutral countries.

Zhukov's plan called for absorbing the massive German attack and then, once the enemy was bled white, launching a massive counter-attack to destroy the two German armies involved. To do this he streamed almost all the Red Army forces into the salient. Thousands of army engineers went to work building 8 lines of defense, one behind the other. The civilians from the local farming villages, mostly women, were drafted to dig trenches and giant anti-tank ditches. Concrete pillboxes and artillery emplacements were constructed. Nearly 4,000 miles of barbed wire was strung up and over 4 million land mines were laid.

The idea was that as each line was broken by the Germans, the next would be even stronger and more heavily defended than the previous. An entire tank army, the 5th Guards Tank, would be kept in reserve to counter any serious breakthroughs. Two entire army groups would be kept outside of the salient to supply the counter-attack following the initial German attack.

By the end of May Hitler was not satisfied with the number of Panthers and Tigers that had been delivered to the front, and he postponed the start of Operation Citadel. Two massive Allied bombing raids on Bremen and a ball-bearing plant outside Prague delayed production even further, and Hitler pushed the start of the attack back until July. Each day that Hitler delayed gave Zhukov more time to prepare his defences.

By the end of June, with both sides facing off around Kursk and waiting for the great offensive they knew was coming, the tension was coiled tighter than a spring. The only piece of information Moscow didn't have was the exact date that Citadel would begin. In the early morning hours of July 5th, 1943, a small Russian raiding party snuck across no-man's-land and snatched a German sentry from his trench. They dragged him back across to the Russian lines and handed him over to NKVD intelligence officers. The terrified 18-year old private quickly told them that the offensive was to begin in two hours that morning.

Zhukov wasted no time and ordered a massive Russian artillery barrage of German rear areas. As German troops and tanks were moving forward to their jumping-off positions, the night air was suddenly torn apart by 2,000 guns. Shells began to rain down across the lines. German artillery answered and throughout the night a massive artillery duel was fought. Although thousands of guns roared and explosions lit up the night, little actual damage was done to either side and German forces were able to assemble, although four hours behind schedule.

At 8 am on July 5th, Model's 9th Army set off towards the Russian lines. Flights of Stuka dive-bombers preceded them to pound Russian positions into rubble, but for the first time in the war the Germans didn't have air superiority, and a swarm of Russian fighters met them. A gigantic air battle erupted in the skies above the entire salient.

As machine guns chattered, engines screamed and planes exploded above them, Model's troops smashed into the first Russian line of defence. From the outset, the Germans ran into difficulty. Russian troops fought to the death for each trench, each machine gun nest and each bunker. Well-camouflaged anti-tank guns easily picked off German vehicles, and acts of bravery by individual soldiers armed with magnetic mines and molotov cocktails started to knock out the vaunted Panthers and Tigers. Throughout that first day the fighting in the north of the salient was bloody and without mercy.

By the evening the 9th Army had only managed to advance 6 miles. 40% of its tanks were out of action, most of them due to mechanical failure. Model stopped his advance to reorganize.

The next day Model resumed his attack in the north, and ran into the second defence line. The fighting was even more ferocious than the day before, and it took 8 hours to break through this line and move onto the third line. The Russian commander of the northern flank, General Rossossovsky, rushed his reserves to the third line and the Germans were unable to break through. By July 9th, after four days of heavy fighting, Model's 9th Army had only managed to advance 15 miles at the cost of 42,000 casualties and 210 tanks.

On the morning of July 10th Model called off his attack and ordered his troops to hold the positions they had thus far taken. The northern attack had been stopped.

The situation in the south was much different. Hoth's 4th Panzer Army was made up of veterans of the battle of Stalingrad. Many of the crews were already experienced with using Panther and Tiger tanks and they had adjusted their tactics to allow for the heavier hitting power of the new weapons. As a Panzer army, Hoth had also received the bulk of the Panther and Tiger tank deliveries, with the result that during their attack they managed to sweep the Soviet defences aside.

The experienced veterans of the 4th Panzer easily picked off Russian tanks and bunkers with their long-range guns and by the evening of the first day they had broken through the first two lines of Russian defences. On the second day they renewed their attack. Little seemed able to stand in their way.

The heavy Tigers and Panthers would stand off outside of Soviet gun range and blast apart the defences before driving forward. Supporting infantry would swarm into the trenches and kill the dazed Russians cowering in the bottom. Whenever T-34s showed themselves the heavy panzers would destroy them with one or two shots. Most of the Russian shells that managed to make hits simply bounced off the thick armor of the Panthers and Tigers.

By the end of the third day Hoth's army was causing considerable alarm at Soviet headquarters. On July 10th, after advancing 30 miles into the salient, Hoth decided to change the direction of his attack away from Kursk and towards the small farming town of Prokorovkha, to the east of Kursk. His plan was to cut off enemy reinforcements from reaching Model's section of the front and allowing the 9th Army to resume its attack.The sudden change in direction took Zhukov by surprise, and by the evening of July 11th the situation was becoming desperate for the Russians. It appeared as if though the tanks of 4th Panzer were about to squeeze off the salient and trap the entire Red Army far away from Moscow and the Volga River. Zhukov called up his strategic reserve, the 5th Guards Tank Army, and ordered them into the battle.

5th Guards immediately sprang into action, their crews scrambling into their reliable T-34s and revving engines. Their goal was to assemble at a small farming village to the east of Kursk, Prokorovkha, the exact same village Hoth was aiming for. Unbeknownst to either side, the scene was set for the greatest tank battle in history.

1200 Russian tanks and 800 German tanks raced towards Prokorovkha. On the morning of July 12th, 1943, they met.

The Germans had stopped their tanks on a series of low hills overlooking sunflower fields that stretched over the horizon, and as the sun rose on that morning, the first green T-34s appeared to the east. Soon there was a sea of Soviet tanks streaming towards the German position. The German tank crews watched as the Russians formed up into waves and then, like cavalry of old, charged the hills.The long 88s of the Tiger tanks boomed and T-34s began to explode. The first wave of Soviet tanks were destroyed but the next simply drove around the burning hulks and continued the attack. As each wave was destroyed and the following wave moved around them, the Russians came closer and closer.

Nobody knows who gave the order, or whether primal battle-rage took over, but for some reason the tanks of 4th Panzer revved up their engines and charged down the hill towards the advancing Russian tanks. The two sides met as in a medieval battle, and all organization or control over the front was lost.

Tanks swirled around each other, blasting away with their guns and machine guns. Explosions filled the air as German and Russian tanks exploded. Men who bailed out of their burning machines were crushed under the treads of other tanks. Two thousand tanks tore at each other in the sunflower fields beneath a sunny blue skie. Columns of smoke soon filled the air from hundreds of burning vehicles.

During the battle the Russians learned to use the German tanks' strengths against them. The long guns of the Panthers and Tigers were almost useless at close range, and the shorter guns of the T-34s packed a devestating punch at close range. Nimble T-34s would smash into the monstrous German tanks, crushing both tanks' hulls, and their guns would fire round after round until the shells finally penetrated the thick armor. In this way the battle began to swing towards the Russians. More and more German tanks were being destroyed.

After 4 hours of intense, dizzying and merciless fighting, the surviving German tanks turned tail and retreated over the hills. The Russian tanks followed and captured the positions the Germans had held that morning.

In the fighting at Prokorovka, the largest tank battle in history, nearly 800 Soviet tanks had been destroyed with 11,000 lives, while the Germans lost 500 tanks and 4,500 lives. The Russians were able to replace their losses that same night, while the Germans had no reserves.

Hoth called off his advance.

Two days later Zhukov unleashed his counter-attack. In the north a massive Russian army group attacked towards Orel and captured it within a few days. To the south another army group struck towards Karkhov and after a week of fighting that city also fell to the Red Army. Both Model and Hoth were forced to pull out of the Kursk salient and the entire German army retreated westwards to avoid being encircled.

The Battle of Kursk was over. Germany would spend the rest of the war on the defensive, being driven backwards, out of Russia, across eastern Europe and into Berlin itself. Germany never recovered from the resources lost at Kursk, and although the Wermacht was still able to cause considerable difficulties for the Red Army, the days of German blitzkrieg victories were finished.

A few days later Hitler was awoken by his secretary, clutching a telegram. Hitler slowly read the telegram and then let it drop to the floor near his bed. He put his head in his hands and stayed like that for a long while. His secretary quietly backed out of the room and closed the door.

The telegram had brought news of every German general's greatest fear since the days of Bismark. War on two fronts. The telegram read "American, British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian troops landing in the south of Italy."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Orthodox Churches of Moscow

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the eastern orthodox patriachates and the second largest christian church after Catholiscism. The Russian Orthodox Church maintains close relations with the other eastern orthodox churches, such as the Greek Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox churches, and the home of orthodoxy in Istanbul.

The word "orthodox" simply means "true" or "original", and it is not a far stretch to say that the Orthodox church has stayed close to Christianity in it's original, pre-political form. In fact, one of the main differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism is the strongly-held belief in the Orthodox church that no man can answer for God on earth. It was the very establishment of Papal Supremacy and the institution of a Pope in Rome that split the eastern and western churches, so while the west fell under the domination of the Vatican, the east maintained the original loose organization of independently operating parishes working together for a common goal.

The capital of the eastern church had always been Constantinople, the new Roman capital founded by Emperor Constantine to keep his new Christian faith safe from the corruption and vice of Rome. For nearly a millenia, Constantinople provided all eastern Orthodox churches with guidance and canon. It was a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox priests and monks, and eastern European kings would sometimes consult with the Metropolitans of Constantinople.

In 1439 there was a council in Florence between Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders with a focus on reuniting the two churches of Christianity, and for several years after there was progress but church leaders found it impossible to reconcile the schism between the Catholic faith in their Pope and the Orthodox refusal to subjugate themselves to one man.

Reunification attempts finally ended in 1455 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and the spiritual capital of Orthodoxy was gone. The Orthodox church began to look for a new city to call its capital. It had to be a city of faith, with political influence and a large population. It also had to be easily defendable. There was just such a city far to the north-east of European conflicts. That city was Moscow.

As more and more Orthodox congregations began to call Moscow the new home of eastern Christianity, more and more churches were built in the city. The lands of Russia and Ukraine had always been very spiritual places, and Christianity has been practised there since the 7th Century. By the time of the fall of Constantinople, nearly all the inhabitants of Muscovy Russia were Orthodox Christian, and they had a rich tradition of building cathedrals and monestaries in the original Byzantine style. Tsar Ivan the Terrible had St. Basil's built to commemorate the liberation of Russia from Mongol-Tatar rule, and Moscow became known as the "Third Rome". For 500 years Moscow remained the bustling spiritual capital of Orthodoxy, but that ended in 1926 when Stalin began to rid Russia of churches and Christianity.

It wasn't until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union that the Russian Orthodox Church was able to become a significant factor in Russian cultural life again. The number of believers who flocked to the remaining churches in the early 1990s was staggering; out of a population of 150 million, nearly 75 million Russian people were baptised Orthodox between 1991 and 2001! Religion had been suppressed by the Communist governments, but the spiritual life of the Russian people had never been destroyed.

The modern Orthodox church is the fastest-growing Christian religion in the world, and they have adjusted their values (the church doesn't issue laws or canons like the Vatican) to meet modern-day issues. The Church's stance on human rights and environmental issues is incredibly liberal. The place of women in Church life, although traditional, is much more egalitarian than the Catholic church. It is interesting to note that Mary Magdellan is viewed as a saint in the Orthodox church, and not whore as in Catholicism. The tradition of women covering their hair with a scarf when entering an Orthodox church is viewed not as sexist but as a recognition of feminine grace and power, and it is a sign of respect to not take away from the beauty of the church.

The focus of the modern Orthodox church is on spirituality and not politics, making it a very refreshing change from the scandals of the Vatican and the right-wing Christian fundamentalism of conservative political parties in the west.

Today Moscow is an incredibly spiritual city, despite all the vice and rampant selfish capitalism that permeates through society. Most of the old churches destroyed by the Communists have been rebuilt, and there is a very rich spiritual tradition in the city that goes back 2000 years. One aspect of Moscow that every visitor to the city notices is the large number of beautiful Orthodox cathedrals, some of them newly built and others as old as the city of Moscow itself.

Two Orthodox churches near the bustling center of Moscow

The Kazan Cathedral, built in the 17th Century, was destroyed by Stalin so tanks could drive through Red Square. It was rebuilt in 1993.

The most famous of all Orthodox cathedrals, St. Basil's on Red Square is no longer a functioning church but an inspiring and beautiful tourist stop.

This small church near Park Padyodi (Victory Park) was built in the late '90s.

Original monestary at Kolomenskoe, a tsarist country estate in Moscow.

A beautiful cathedral at Kolomenskoe, built in the mid-17th Century and still a practising church today. Bells chime in perfect symetry with the Gregorian chants that you can hear when you walk past.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Since I was about 14 years old, I've dreamt of visiting Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), site of the biggest and most strategic battle in all of human history. Stalingrad represents a nexus point in the course of time for our little planet, where history went in one direction instead of a completely different one, and last week I got to go there!

friends from Canada, Q and Dutchie, arrived in Moscow last Monday and after 2 hectic days of taking them to the sites in Moscow, we met up with Katya and flew to Volgograd.We booked 4 seats on S7 airlines for 2800 roubles each (about $90) but, in that uniquely-Russian way of organizing things, they couldn't give us our seats together. It didn't matter because it only took 1 hour 20 minutes to fly the 1000 km or so. Unfortunately I had an aisle seat so couldn't see out the window, but when when we stepped off the plane at Gumrak Airport, scene of so much fighting during the last days of the battle, I knew I was in Stalingrad.

first thing we noticed was the heat. While it was 15 C in Moscow, the thermometre at Gumrak read 31 C. The sky was blue and the sun burned down on us, deep in the Russian steppes. Katya had searched, found and booked an apartment to rent for three days for 700 roubles a room a night (rather than 3000 roubles a night at a hotel), and we had a hard time negotiating a fare with the only airport taxi driver around, who was asking for a ridiculous amount of money. Eventually we settled on 1000 roubles, and he drove us into Volgograd.

getting settled and paying for our rooms we walked out to the main street near our apartment and caught the crappiest little bus I've ever seen. I ended up stuck near a giant broken window, crammed into a little space between a girl and the front of the bus, and the only thing that kept me from flying out of the window was the fact that my spine was hooked firmly against a hard metal pole. The roads in Volgograd are atrocious, switching from paved to dirt and back again, and both are filled with car-swallowing potholes and cracks the size of small canyons.

occupies the high ground over the west bank of the Volga River, and the city slopes down to the water. Our bus bounced and rattled its way down to the center of town, and when I saw a giant monument set against blue waters, I was only too happy to jump off the torturous vehicle.We got off at the right spot: Chuikov's headquarters!

against the Volga, in the center of town, is the landing area for Russian troops being ferried across from the east bank of the Volga, and Chuikov's HQ were situated right there. Of course today the entire area is a long strip of patios, bars and a shopping mall, all flashing lights and blaring trance music, but it didn't matter. I was standing on the actual ground!

found a second-story patio to the left of the mall and ordered beers, soups for the girls and 1.5 kilos of barbecued pork for Dutchie and I, which had us both running to the toilet at six the next morning.

On the banks of the Volga, on the exact spot where, 67 years ago, Russia fought a desperate battle to stem the Nazi conquest of the world, Katya, Q, Dutchie and I got drunk. After dinner we walked to some lit-up monuments erected in honour of General Chuikov and the Soviet crossing point, and in the warm night air, with a gentle breeze blowing down the Volga and soft yellow lights illuminating the area, we horsed around and took pictures and generally enjoyed being out of Moscow. Then we found a taxi driver to take us home for 150 roubles and offered him 300 roubles an hour to drive us around the next day. He was happy to agree and with that we had secured a private driver.

A road in Volgograd.

The river crossing area, now a shopping centre.

The river crossing area from our restaurant patio.

Dutchie and 1.5 kilos of barbecued pork.

Monument to the river crossing area.

The next day our driver met us and took us to Mamaev Kurgan, the huge Tatar burial mound that became the centre of the battle of Stalingrad. We made our way up the first flight of steps and there before us appeared the most awesome war monument I have ever seen: the rodina matr (motherland) monument.

Perched on the very tip of Mamaev Kurgan, the rodina matr is an impressive and inspiring dedication to the people who fought and died on the strategically important hill (see my previous post about the Battle of Stalingrad). She was still a long way off, so we walked along a flag-lined path to the Lake of Tears, which was closed as it was being prepared for the May 9th Victory Day celebrations.

Around the Lake of Tears we entered a massive concrete complex under the rodina matr, and a huge hand holding a flaming torch, flanked by two live soldiers at attention, greeted us. There were a lot of people taking pictures but we snatched a few photos and then made our way up a spiral walkway and emerged back under the sun and at the feet of the motherland statue.

We wandered around the crest of the Kurgan for a while, inspecting a beautiful golden-domed Orthodox cathedral and a hole-riddled tank turret marking the site of the bloodiest fighting on the hill. Katya pointed out Vasily Zaitsev's grave to me.

One thing I couldn't help but notice on Mamaev Kurgan was the carefully groomed contrast between the epic, violent history of the place and the serene, gentle atmosphere today. The tank turret sat next to the church, surrounded by tulips and daisies. Sparrows twittered from the branches of young trees that grew out of shell craters. The graves of heroes from the battle are laid out peacefully on perfectly manicured grass.

We spent 20 minutes at the top of the hill, which offers an unparalleled view of the entire city (the reason the hill became such an important target for both sides during the battle), and then we made our way back down. This time we threw away our veneer of respectful homage to history and became complete tourists, buying knock-off red army hats and bullet key-chains from the vendors that lined the route.

Our driver was waiting for us at the bottom, and he next took us to the ruins of Pavlov's House, which is nothing more than a part of a brick wall with a plaque next to a modern-day apartment building.

Across the street from Pavlov's House is the ruins of the Flour Mill, left in its battle-scarred condition as a monument to the battle. Flanking the Flour Mill were Soviet tanks and airplanes and the Stalingrad Museum. It's forbidden to enter the Mill but it is possible to walk right up to the south wall and look in the windows, so of course I did that!

After touring the Stalingrad Museum, which has, among other things, Vasily Zaitsev's rifle, our driver (whose name we still hadn't learned) then took us to a place of his suggestion: the Univermag Department Store and Paulus' headquarters in the basement. It was dark and damp, although I suspect this is on purpose for effect because there's a gift shop at the far end, but the German conference rooms and radio rooms are still there, and the room where Paulus finally had a nervous break down and allowed himself to be taken prisoner by Russian soldiers is mocked up with all sorts of gimmicky manequins in nazi uniforms, etc. It was in Paulus' headquarters that I played with an actual German MG-42 dug up from the battlefield, until an old lady bored a hole in my head with her hateful stare.

Next our driver, as of yet unnamed, took us to the grain elevator where Russian soldiers held out against artillery, tank, infantry and air attack for 3 months. We couldn't go in it so we snapped a few pictures and then, exhausted, asked our driver to take us to a nice restaurant. He found us another great patio overlooking the Volga, we paid him for the day, felt bad for a minute about how little money he was asking for, and then got drunk.

I need to plug a restaurant here, if only for the reason that it was the best restaurant in Volgograd, and perhaps in all of Russia. It is near the Chuikov monument on the Volga, and it is called "Mayak". This circular restaurant with a long steeple on its roof has a nice patio, fantastic service and incredibly cheap prices. The food is wonderful, and it was on this patio that Dutchie fell in love with Russian hot pot stew, which became the only meal he would eat for the rest of his trip.

After big servings of food, several rounds of cold draft beer (Siberskaya Korona, to be exact) and a few cocktails, plus desert, we paid 2100 roubles for everything and then took a river boat cruise on the Volga. The cruise was alright, costing only a few hundred roubles a person for an hour, but the boats all insisted on blaring night club music so loud that we couldn't speak. It spoiled the mood for us but we made the best of it by drinking more beer during the trip up the Volga.

After we disembarked we made our way to the central square where some Russian guy tried to convince us that he was hanging out with Black Sabbath, who were waiting for us at his apartment and we should go with him, or at least give him our cameras so he could take pictures for us. We laughed in his face and walked away, looking for another fantastic restaurant. We stopped in to every patio we could find but none of them offered anything like Mayak had, so we went back there as the sun set and ate another four course meal with rounds of beer and cocktails.

Then we called our dependable driver to take us home. Finally, we asked his name. "Kak vash zavut?"
"Nikolai" he answered.
"Ah! Nikolai!" We cheered. "Za Nikolai!" We toasted him once we were home.

Mamaev Kurgan and the Rodina Matr statue.

Wall of Glory built from the rubble of Stalingrad.

The Eternal Flame under the Rodina Matr

Guard of Honour at the Eternal Flame

The Rodina Matr statue

Beauty on the site of the bloodiest battle in history.

Battle-scarred T-34 turret marks the location of the bloodiest fighting for the hill.

View of the factory district from Mamaev Kurgan

Q, Dutchie and I get touristy on the way back down the hill!

The ruins of the Flour Mill.

A model in a Victory Day photo shoot near the Flour Mill.

Touching Stalingrad

The Grain Elevator

Univermag Department Store, where Paulus was captured.

Katya relaxes at Mayak restaurant.

Volgograd from the river boat.

Volgograd is a quiet, friendly, peaceful town

The next day, our last in Volgograd, Nikolai picked us up wearing shorts and sandles and carrying a camera. He was going to take us to the factory district which, despite growing up in Volgograd, he had never seen. Careening around massive pot holes with all the expert skill of a Star Wars fighter pilot, he took us to the Red October (rebuilt after the war and still in use today). Dutchie and I had our pictures taken outside the front gates, but there wasn't much to see, so Nikolai took us to the Barricades.

The Barricades today produces armaments so it is off-limits to the general public, but Nikolai found a side road that led behind the massive complex and suddenly we found rusting monuments, overgrown with trees and obviously forgotten. The dilapitated signs read "This spot marks the easternmost advance of the German Third Reich." We were standing on the front lines!

Nikolai took us around to the Tractor Factory next. There are two parts to this factory; the one that still produces tractors and car parts today, and the one that was left in rubble as a testament to the ferocious fighting that happened in it.

The rubble is accessible although overgrown (and a litter of stray puppies yelped from inside). At the same instant, without saying a word, Dutchie and I had the same thought and began digging around the rubble while the girls looked at us with puzzlement.

I staked off a pile of bricks near a gigantic anti-tank shell hole in one wall and after digging down two inches or so, I came across a jagged piece of lead shrapnel. About the same time Dutchie found nearly the entire side of a tank shell. Feeling a little guilty about grave robbing, we both pocketed our treasures. We both grabbed a brick for good measure.

After that it was off to the train station and our first class sleeper cabins for the 18-hour trip back to Moscow. Before leaving Nikolai we paid him a couple of thousand roubles extra for his help and friendliness and shook his hand (the girls gave him a hug and he blushed). He told us that we were his best customers and had heard that Canadians were friendly but now believes it. Then he wished us luck and with that we left Volgograd.

First class on the train was fantastic, and only cost 2800 roubles per person. Katya and I shared one room while Q and Dutchie had the next room. There was room service but we spent most of the time drinking in the restaurant car, looking out the windows at the vastness of the Russian steppes as they drifted by and listening as the rails sang below our feet (and yes, they do actually sing, as Dutchie and I discovered while we smoked between the cars; it sounds like a disembodied choir chanting a chorus).

The next day, after a strange rocking sleep and a dazzling lightning storm on the steppes, we arrived in Moscow around 10 am and made the dreary trek back to Mytischi.

Surrounded by angry people, honking cars, polluted air, over-priced restaurants and gigantic skyscrapers, I suddenly missed the sunny, friendly, serene atmosphere of Volgograd, and vowed to go back again some day.

Red October factory

Standing on the front lines, the extent of the Third Reich. The Russians held the river bank below me.

The rubble of the Tractor Factory

The Tractor Factory today.

The Russian steppes

First class, baby!

Back in over-crowded Moscow