Mick Garrett takes a break from life in Moscow and heads to Volgograd to see and feel the history of the people and the city.
Volgograd – Сталинград
“I was overjoyed that for whatever reasons, the pilot overshot the city and then looped around from the south, giving us a view down onto the Caspian Sea.
Amazing. I always had to pinch myself when I looked at sights I had never dreamed of in my earlier years.
True to his word, my Intourist friend arranged for transport from the airport to my hotel in central Volgograd.
He booked me into a comfortable but aged hotel that had seen the horrors of war but held her doors open to modern travellers.
I followed Rodion’s advice and walked the wide avenues. The stores were Soviet bare, but the streets were full of families walking along enjoying the sights and sounds.
I was immediately impacted by the history, losses, and courage of everyone who had been here in the war, as well as those who had remained and contribute to the future.
After walking and popping into two bookstores, where I bought a city map and a picture book of the city, I returned to the hotel to shower and have an early dinner.
When I sat down in the hotel restaurant and was handed my menu by a friendly waiter, I internally laughed at all the choices that didn’t exist in reality.
Only items with a price were available. The rest of the menu was face-saving and hopes for better times.
I enjoyed that I was sitting in Volgograd ordering Chicken Kyiv.
After dinner, I headed to my room, a good book, and sleep.
When I came down to the lobby for a morning coffee, I was immediately approached by a young lady with a smile as wide as the Russian steeps.
“Good morning Mr. Garrett, I am Avdotya. Your guide for your visit to our city. Welcome.”
“Thank you so much. Your cousin did a wonderful job booking me into this very comfortable hotel. May I offer you a coffee and a sweet?”
She paused before nodding her approval. I was conscious of her reluctance as approved guides, interacting with foreigners, are always monitored.
We enjoyed our coffee and sweets, talking about nothing of consequence. I was somewhat alarmed that I would hear government-speak versus the emotional guide I was hoping for as I absorbed the city and its history.
When we finished and headed to our car and driver, I could feel she would be that guide I had hoped for. When she said, “Come with me and walk down the history of this glorious place,” I knew it was going to be a good day.
“Where do we start,” I asked.
“We are going to drive to Mamai Hill, the highest point of Volgograd. You may know this city has had three different names. For ages, from 1589 – 1925, it was called Tsaritsyn. From 1925 – 1961 she was called Stalingrad. In 1961 General-Secretary Khrushchev inspired the name change to Volgograd. That means the city on the Volga River. The city has always been an important port on the western shore of the river.”
I was dying to ask about Stalin but knew it could cause her discomfort.
As we entered the “park,” she said, “during the war, this area was referred to as Hill 102. August 23, 1942, until February 2, 1943 brought the bloodiest battle fought in world history. A million plus died.”
Before she could continue, I was frozen by the sight of the “The Motherland Calls” sculpture that soars over everything.
She may have noticed my awe, saying, “she is 85 meters high. She is calling out to our sons to defend the Motherland.”
I had no words. I was overwhelmed by the sacrifices that took place where I was standing.
“The Battle of Stalingrad lasted for 200 days, during 135 of which the Soviet troops fought for ‘Height 102’. After the Battle, Mamai Hill became the final resting place of over 34,000 people who died defending the city and its population. This memorial complex, ‘To the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad’ opened here in October 1967. Two hundred steps lead up to the very top of the hill, signifying the number of days the Battle of Stalingrad lasted.”
“Avdotya, I hope this isn’t a trespass. Your cousin told me your family lost nine members here during the war. I am so sorry. Would you be comfortable sharing any of their stories?”
She gave me a long inspection as I presumed she was thinking of how and how much she would, or would not, share.
“Let us walk before we visit the museum.”
We walked quietly, looking out over the city and the river below. I could almost visualize what had occurred here.
“In reality, we lost many more than nine family. They were in the defense lines here and around spots in the city. My grandparents, uncles, distant cousins all died here. My father was terribly wounded but survived. My mother endured horrors but kept us safe, well, as safe as possible. Rodion’s family was devastated, with only the boys surviving. Terrible times.”
“I’m so sorry the world allowed such, “ I muttered.
“Thank you. Come, let’s look at the museum. Do you know that the reason the city was called Stalingrad was to honor his role in defending the city during our civil unrest, 1918 – 1920, he fought against the “White Russian armies.”
“I think I read that in the little book I purchased last night.”
When we joined the long line waiting for entrance into the museum, we did not go in front of those waiting, as foreigners often did. The silence embracing the hundreds of people waiting for entrance was profound.
I looked around the crowd seeing old men and women weeping silently. Many of them wore medals on their chests.
The two of us stood silently as the line slowly brought us to the entrance.
We entered the museum.
One of the most impressive sights in the Panorama Museum is the 360-degree painting of the battle diorama, which tells the battle’s story. The museum also contains military exhibits, militaries, documents, weapons and military equipment, vehicles, additional dioramas, besides the largest panoramic display of the battle.
Not being one for spending too much time in a museum, I gave it enough time to absorb the sacrifices, but I wanted to get a feel for more of the city.
“I plan on returning when I can spend more time after reading more about the city. I would like to see and hear about the city, the remaining buildings if that is ok with you.”
“Yes, I understand this is all overwhelming. Come, we’ll visit a couple of churches and neighborhoods where I can point out where my, our families, lived before the Germans arrived.
On our way to a church she wanted me to see, she pointed out shelled-out buildings preserved to show the damage that reigned down on the city and its people.
When we pulled into a parking spot in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, we walked up to a street vendor where I purchased grilled chicken and carrots for our lunch. We found a small spot near the Cathedral entrance to sit and enjoy our meal.
“Even though I have only experienced the very surface of the sacrifices here, I am aware and must remind myself, to never judge or be complacent about the opportunities I have experienced.”
“Thank you. Your history also has sacrifice and loss.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are from Ireland. She had many years of misery, correct?”
Yes, almost 800 years of British control that at times was harsh. You’re right. We all have our histories. You’d think we would be more kind to each other.”
She looked at me, saying, “my cousin speaks well of you. That is good in times when suspicions are still fed. My hope is that your short time here has helped you understand who we are as people.”
I told her about my trip to the cemetery in Leningrad and how I knew a few people in our company who had survived the war and were open to speak about it.
The balance of the day was driving around the city where she pointed out her neighborhood, her deceased relatives’ neighborhoods, and a couple of church stops and views at the river from a small park.
When we finished touring, I was dropped off at my hotel.
I told Avdotya that she was the best guide I had the pleasure of spending the day with and that I would return with hopes of seeing her again when I returned with friends.
She seemed pleased by our day together.
When I walked in the lobby, I decided on the fly to take a short river cruise in the morning, followed by a return to Moscow on an afternoon flight.
The hotel was able to confirm a half-day river tour and my transfer to the airport.
On the plane back to Moscow, I realized, more than ever before, how we are all connected and are not condemned by our lack of knowledge, empathy, or compassion when we choose to remain open to each persons history.”
© 2021 M. Barrett Miller All rights reserved.