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

1 comment:

  1. thank you for this interesting review! much enjoyed.