If you haven’t visited Volgograd you haven’t visited Russia for if Moscow is its headquarters, this is surely its heart.
The name was changed from Stalingrad to Volgograd in 1961 as part of the de-Stalinization program of Nikita Kruschev but the spirit of the heroics of this battle hang over the city. Everyone here has stories of their grandparents or friends. By some estimates three million people died in this the bloodiest battle in the history of mankind.
My room at the hotel Volgograd, an upscale, well maintained hotel with a spacious, marble lobby overlooks a park and the central shopping center where in the basement, German Field Marshall Von Paulus finally surrenedered the city after 200 days of bloody fighting. One can wind past a minature Harrod’s of souvenirs, electronics, housewares and even food displays to a nondescript door that leads to a small, dark labrynith and down a stairs where a pretty Russian female soldier in a short skirt stand guard over the tiny rooms where Von Paulus lived the last months of this epic battle.
At the panaorama once can see the actual rifle that Soviet sniper Vasily Zitzev used to knock off 242 officers and soldiers of the Third Reich. Yes, the movie, Enemy at the Gates, is based on a true story. And there are the press clipplings of his exploits. How Hitler dispatched the European champion sniper and director of the Berlin School for snipers, to take out young Mr. Zitzev. They manuevered the bloody streets of Stalingrad for four days before youth beat experience and the pride of Russia beat the vaunted champion.
One can visit the statue to the Motherland here. The largest in the world, it towers over the Statue of Liberty. And 34,000 are buried on this hill which commands a view of the whole city and was bitterly contested by both sides.
But one of my favorite heroes here is Alexandra Cherkassova, who ignored the engineers and politicians who said that Stalingrad should be abandoned and started re-buildling one brick at a time. My own life has been in shatters at times and what choice to you have but rebuild?
Like San Francisco and other cities that have been destroyed and rebuilt, Volgograd has a remarkable spirit and has all the advantages of better planning. There are wide Parisian avenues, a beautiful road that follows the Volga for the 100 mile length of the city. And the Volga, all aflame during the battle, is fast moving and clean and blue and beautiful.
Restaurants abound. Bellagios is good and the Grand Cafe is too and it has internet available, which I am using now. The Bar and Grill is a little taste of America with three big screens showing black and white Hoppalong Cassidy movies, the best steaks I’ve had in Russia and Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash blaring in the background.
My favorite is a Russian village called the Pine Forest. It is outside of the city and has all the color and rommance of the region. Great Russia food and costumed singers and players offering plaintive folk songs. ” The cold is fierce,” they sang, “please don’t kill me frost. I must get home to my wife and children.” It is the cry of a hunter, braving the fierce winds and snow, to get back to his home.
They say that the time to come to Volgograd is May or in the summer. But I will never forget my cold journey in January, that time long ago when the German armies came within one kilometer of driving the Soviets into the river and securing the Caucuses and perhaps winning the war.
Now the Germans come and tell stories of their fathers and some of them stand on Mamaev and gaze out toward the Volga and ask their tour guides. “Why couldn’t we do it? Only one kilometer more.”
And the Russian guides smile and say, “You do not understand Russia.”