My trip to Russia in 2006 finished with a short stop in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. It was the site of the third major battle that turned the fortunes for the Allies during World War II.
Volgograd was founded as Tsaritsyn in 1589, on the banks of the Volga River. It became a major river port and industrial city. In 1925 it was renamed Stalingrad, in honor of Joseph Stalin and his role in leading the fight against the White Army in the area during the Russian Revolution. In 1961, is was renamed again, as Volgograd.
The Battle of Stalingrad lasted from August 2, 1942 until February 2, 1943. German, Italian, Romanian and Hungarian forces attacked the city, in an attempt to a front between the Volga and Don Rivers and prevent Russian troops in Eastern Russia from joining the war. The Luftwaffe place the city under constant bombardment, and the Axis force quickly invaded. Over the next 200 days fight was carried out literally street to street and house to house, as the German troops slowly moved through the city.
By November 1942, 90% of Stalingrad fell under German control. Soviet troops had to sneak across the Volga to join the battle. At that same time, a counter offensive was launched, in the city and along the Don River. This put Axis forces into an unwinnable position, and they could not maintain the their advance in the area. By February 2, the Germans had suffered over 800,000 casualties. The Soviet forces lost 1.2 million soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians. The Battle of Stalingrad served as both a military and morale victory. It was the first major loss by the German Army.
In 1959 construction began on The Monument to Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad, on Mamayev Kurgen, a hit outside of town. It is one of the highest points and there was severe fighting for control of this hill. At the center of the monument is the 85 meter tall statue “The Motherland is Calling”. To get that magnificent statue, to climb 200 steps, representing the 200 days of the battle. The stairs are lined with statues and friezes depicting the suffering of the soldiers and citizens of Stalingrad.
At the top of Mamyev Kurgen sits “The Motherland is Calling.” Underneath is a hall of remembrance. As you walk down a ramp into the hall, you pass plaques with the names of soldiers killed in the battle. In the hall is the grave of Vasily Chuikov, who led the Soviet Forces at Stalingrad. When you visit, don’t forget to buy a small bouquet of flowers from one of the babushkas to lay in the hall.
Nearby is the Panorama Museum of Stalingrad. Here there are many documents and photos regarding the Battle of Stalingrad. At its heart is a 360-degree mural that depicts the battle. The museum sits on the banks of the Volga, and has wonderful views of the river. Next door is the ruins of a steel mill that was destroyed during the battle.
I can’t say that Volgograd is a major tourist stop. However, in contrast to both Moscow and St, Petersburg, it was the place that I felt was most authentically “Russian.” It was not trying to be something, or to impress outsiders. It just was what it was, and that made it worth visiting.
Title image: broken arrow in German indicating "To Stalingrad;" Russian arrow pointing the Red Army "To Berlin"