The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War. Although the coronavirus has put a temporary halt to any plans for a massive victory parade in Moscow, make no mistake, May 9 will be remembered by every person—young and old—in Russia. The Russians mark VE-Day (Victory in Europe as opposed to VJ-Day, Victory over Japan) on May 9, one day later than we do in the West. During the war, the Russian people bore the brunt of the Nazi wave, and at least twenty million Soviet citizens were killed in the war (eighty percent of German military deaths in WWII were on the Eastern front against the Red Army). Check out the following interactive graphic to see about civilian and military deaths in the Second World War.
May 9 has assumed even greater importance since the fall of communism in Russia. The Great Patriotic War is the one thing all Russians (and non-ethnic Russian citizens) can still be proud of. For them it is a combination of the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day all rolled into one. Stalingrad was undoubtedly one of the most important and decisive battles in history. I had long wanted to go and see the city, and to find what remains of the battle which raged from July 1942 to February 1943. More than half a million Russian soldiers and citizens died at Stalingrad (more than all American deaths in the entire war).
I became interested in the story of Stalingrad in speaking with either veterans, or with people who had close relatives who were veterans of the battle. A German friend of mine had an uncle captured there. More than 500,000 German soldiers perished in Stalingrad and approximately 100,000 Germans were captured. Eventually only 6,000 made it back to Germany by the early 1950s. Incredibly, my friend’s uncle was one of them. He made it back, evidently, through sheer will power, and by the fact that he was able to guard a locket with his wife’s picture. Every morning he tied it to piece of string that he tied to his tooth and he swallowed it. He would later extract it after daily inspections by the guards. He claims it helped him to continue living.
So, on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the end of the war, I packed my bag and caught the train to Volgograd on May 8, 2000. On the way south the birch forests that ring Moscow and define that part of central European Russia, gave way to the steppes of southern Russia. The Volga River flows as wide by Volgograd as the Mississippi does by Memphis. The western bank of the Volga is hilly, while the eastern bank is flat and full of marshes and small streams. Almost all the population lives on the western, hilly side, undoubtedly due to floods. The city stretches about twenty miles along the Volga. The horizon on the eastern bank of the Volga goes on and on. Many Russians consider this the true beginning of Asia. Kazakhstan is about 100 miles beyond the river, which flows into the Caspian Sea.
Dominating the city is a hill rising 100 meters above the center. This is called Mamaev Kurgan. On top of it sits the world’s largest statue – Mother Russia. The statue is 85 meters high, and it is of a woman wielding a sword above her head, urging soldiers to destroy the Nazi invaders. It is impressive and moving. Because of the height and the central location, Mamaev Kurgan became one of the focal points of the battle, and one of the bloodiest spots in the city. The hill contains a mass grave of 36,000 unknown Russian soldiers (almost as many American soldiers as were killed in the Korean War). The Germans succeeded in taking the hill, but soon thereafter, the Red Army executed an encircling movement, entrapping the Germans against the banks of the Volga. The battle raged in an urban landscape of heavy cement buildings. The acts of heroism and bravery demonstrated by soldiers on both sides were matched by an equal number of barbarous acts, also perpetrated by both the German and Soviet forces. The Soviet NKVD (Secret Police) executed 13,000 of its own troops in the city, who were suspected of cowardice or espionage. Meanwhile, Soviet prisoners falling into the hands of the Germans awaited the same fate, sometimes drawn out over a longer, more painful period of time.
The view from the top of the Mamaev Kurgan is impressive. Not only does it give a good look out over the beautiful Volga River, but you also get an idea of the scale of the fighting. The front, just in the city alone (not including the flanks where armies faced one another for over a hundred miles), stretched for miles along the river. Imagine the entire island of Manhattan being the battleground for almost 2 million men, and you have Stalingrad. The Red Army fought most of the time with its back against the river. Consequently, the Volga became a vital artery for the Russians. Across it they received reinforcements, food, ammunition, and other supplies. There was a constant traffic of ferries traveling to and fro across the Volga, and they made good targets for German artillery and Stuka dive bombers. The Russians doggedly continued the round-the-clock operations across the river. Many of the heroic stories that I spoke about were of the boat captains and crews who were asked to pilot these slow-moving craft across a shooting zone. Their best friend was the cold weather which rendered visibility low and which eventually froze the river, allowing trucks to come across. Amazingly, many of the factories in Stalingrad continued to work during the battle, and T-34 tanks would literally roll off the assembly line and directly into battle. Two of these factories still exist—at least their shells exist. They have been left as reminders of the battle.
As I boarded the train to return to Moscow, I came across a veteran. When he found out I was American, he told me that during the battle he drove a truck manufactured by GM. It was brought to Russia on the Lend Lease Program. He used it to fire Katyusha rockets at the German troops. I extended my hand to him and said, “Spasibo,” thanking him and all Red Army veterans for what they did.