Anybody who has been to Russia, or who is into their military history, will know that Volgograd – known as Stalingrad during the Second World War – was the sight of a ferociously bloody battle.
My husband was going there on a business trip and, being a bit of a military history buff, he thought it would be fun for me to go too and make a weekend of it. So we took an Aeroflot flight down taking 1 and half hours. It was smooth, COVID-compliant and uneventful. One little note for anyone thinking of taking an internal Aeroflot flight you might want to know that in addition to your cabin bag you may also take a rucksack, a handbag, or a bouquet of flowers! Volgograd is almost 1000 km south east of Moscow.
To be honest, there is not much to see or do in Volgograd except visit the sights related to WWII, known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War. The Battle of Stalingrad took place over the particularly cold winter of 1942 – 43 with the fortunes of both the Germans and Soviets ebbing and flowing. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand within the city. By the time the Nazi commanders finally surrendered close on 2 million people, Germans, Soviets, soldiers and civilians, had been killed or injured. A staggering number. And the city was in ruins.
The main sight to see is the hugely impressive Mamayev Kurgan. This mound was the site of four months of fierce fighting and is now a memorial to the one million Soviet fighters and citizens who died defending the city. At the centre of the complex, on top of the hill, stands “an extraordinarily evocative 72m high statue of Mother Russia wielding a sword that extends another 11m above her head” (Lonely Planet). In addition to the towering Victory monument, “the kurgan (mound) is an entire complex of statues, reflection pools, a war cemetery, a church and a pantheon with an eternal flame and a stirring ‘changing of the guard’ ceremony on the hour.” The whole memorial is monumental in every way and so very different to British war memorials which are much more understated. But the scale of it suited the huge numbers of soldiers that died in just this one place. In spite of its somewhat brutalist soviet sculptures I found the place moving especially as we overheard a young boy asking his mother what it was all about and she replied “They saved us. They are our pride.” We were fortunate enough to be there when they changed the guard, a ceremony that was meticulous and full of military pageantry. However I have to say that I do find the high ‘goose step’ march extraordinary.
Sight number two in Volgograd is the Panorama Museum of the Battle of Stalingrad. Lonely Planet again: “This enormous museum has eight large display rooms filled with exhibits on WWII and the Battle of Stalingrad. There’s little English signage but each room has a short synopsis in English on the room’s particular theme.” The highlight of course is the Battle of Stalingrad Panorama. For those who haven’t seen one, a panorama consists of 360 degree background painting of various points in a battle with the foreground built like a stage set to blend into and be an extension of the wall painting, giving the whole battle a 3D effect. Outside the museum are various tanks and vehicles for children to climb on and standing next to the museum is the remains of a bombed out old mill that was destroyed in the fighting.
If you are serious military history buff you might even want to go and look at the famous grain elevator which was the sight of some brutal fighting as both sides fought for its control as it dominated the southern city.
After all of that you might opt for some light relief by wandering through the park down by the Volga river, sitting by the fountains or having a gentle swing in one of the outsized swings flanking another fountain. You might also wish, like us, to take a one hour evening cruise along the Volga river sipping on a beer or an Aperol spritz.
If you have a car, or hire one (delivered to our hotel), or you are happy on the buses, there are 3 sights outside of the city that you might want to visit. The first is the Rossoshka Memorial Cemetery 35km northwest of Volgograd. It is here that 60,000 Germans are buried along with 20,000 Soviet fighters and 2,000 Romanians. Previously the Soviet soldiers had been buried in mass graves however now any remains that are found are being buried in individual graves. While on the German side all their soldiers are in a mass grave with their names inscribed on the surrounding wall. The numbers and the size of the site are sobering.
On a slightly (but not much) lighter note we also drove to see the Volga-Don Canal. It was built in 1952 by one million people, including 236,000 Axis prisoners of war and Russian Gulag inmates. There is a huge Stalinesque neoclassical arch that marks the first lock in the canal which connects the White and the Black Seas via the Volga and Don Rivers. And there is one of the largest statues of Lenin that I have seen overlooking the Volga. It was previously a statue of Stalin.
Finally we went to see the Museum Reserve of Old Sarepta. Now an outlying suburb of Volgograd known as the Krasnoarmeysk (Red Army) district it was once the German colony of Sarepta. Today the entire quarter is a museum reserve set around a square and a beautiful Lutheran church dating from the late 18th century. The original settlers were German missionaries who arrived in 1765 with the aim of proselytising. Failing in that, they became the mustard tycoons of Russia. Although the last of the German descendants left before WWII they still make mustard in the area and we had lunch in the delightful pseudo-German cafe Glich where we ate several types of sausage with mustard. We were taken by surprise by the wedding going on in the church with the bride and groom and two flower girls gliding around in a cloud of dry ice!
At the end of our visit we returned to Moscow on the overnight sleeper train, a journey taking 18 hours rather than 1 and half on the flight! We went 1st class with a private 2 berth cabin and the price included both an evening meal and breakfast served in our cabin. It does not include alcohol but luckily the restaurant car with a bar was just 2 carriages away so we went along for a pre-dinner drink where I tried the ‘shite’ white wine! The first part of the journey, before it got dark, was across flat open steppe with scrubby bushes and stunted trees. In the morning, when we awoke, we were back to the birches, pines, and rivers of the north, lining the railway tracks.
I enjoyed the gentle pace of the train trundling along at a top speed of 100 km/hour (60 mph) gazing out the window and reading my book. I got a surprisingly good nights sleep and we arrived back in Moscow at the very civilised hour of 9.30 in the morning.
All in all an excellent weekend away, but a couple of days is all you need!