Said to mirror the Russian soul, the Volga River stretches for almost 4, 000 kilometers across Europe and Asia. Passing through many cities and equally many cultures, its silent stream is a trustful witness of the tides in human history. Volga has seen it all; from the first civilizations trying to make sense of the world, to our time, trying our hardest to forgo it. But in August of 1942, the usually silent streams echoed the wartime screams of the two sides entangled in one of the bloodiest battles in history. Let us then press our ears to the river’s surface and listen through the eyewitness account to what it has to say about the infamous Battle of Stalingrad.
The Pain Toll
“Thousands of soldiers lay in the snow, unburied. Thousands upon thousands.” – a German soldier recounts his days at the Stalingrad front. And indeed, the battle took almost 2 million lives and destroyed many more. “Something shatters in you”, the soldier goes on, “that cannot be mended”.
The battle left an indelible mark on the world’s psyche. Not only because it was so decisive for the war’s outcome, but also for its unparalleled brutality and suffering. Taking a battlefield tour you can’t help but feel the victims’ pain, cannot flee from being awestruck by the solemn grandness of the battle. Sharing her experience from the fog of war, here’s Maria’s account of the details from the August of 1942.
Lucky to be alive by her own admission, Maria Georgievna Faustova had a singular, pang-like answer when asked what she remembered of Stalingrad. “All of it” she said. She remembers the shelling, the shouts not to cross the Volga, the machineguns, the torn and flying limbs and the young girls calling for their mothers. And most of all? “The ruins”. The ruined walls, ruined souls. The ruins of our collective mind trying to peer into the why of things.
If there’s no answer to why, there’s one to what next. Stalingrad, now Volgograd, is shadowed by Mamayev Kurgan, a mound that was the main strategic point in the battle. The hill saw so many soldiers killed that it is now turned into a vast memorial complex commemorating all the fallen in the battle. Mamayev Kurgan today entertains a large statue, The Motherland Calls by name, that stands tall at total of 85 meters. The Russian travel agency Pradiz can take you to experience this profound memorial complex and honor the ones who fell for the better future.
The Burning River
There was an immense shortage of food throughout the war in Russia, and particularly during the battle of Stalingrad. Desperate, people helped themselves with whatever came at hand. For the young Valentina Salevyeva clay was what she survived on: “we ate clay and nothing but clay” she recounts.
Besides hunger, for Valentina and a fellow Russian Konstantin Duvanov the image of Volga on fire is the most dominant from the battle. There was some oil spillage and the water that stood silent for God knows how many centuries have turned into its opposite. “Everything was on fire” Konstantin has it.
Thought the bigger death toll was on the winning Russian side, the Allied forces have also gone through hell. They were unaccustomed to the bitter Russian winter that the Russian soldiers, as recounted by the German officer Heinz Huhn, often battled by booze. The vivid image that he so strikingly remembers is the horses’ heads being blown off by airline grenades. The image he recounts is so gruesome that he barely had the strength to describe it. The bitter reality of warfare is often felt by horses just as by people, and the Stalingrad Battle took many of their lives, too. Their flesh was not wasted, mind you, but well put to use and eaten.
Numbering the Dead
Death had a field day for the 6 months that the battle lasted. The entire mash of death, war, hunger, desperation, made it increasingly difficult to keep track of where the loved ones were. Designated as missing, there could be no telling as to what happened to the dear ones in battle. Valentina, who we mentioned earlier and who was 5 at the time, continued to search for her missing father and only recently found out that he died in battle and was buried at Mamayev Kurgan later on.
Stories like these are woven into the war narrative. Stories of people who lived or died, but who gave their all for a higher purpose. There are many more to tell, just as there are numerous fascinating places to visit. Our World War 2 tours will take you through all the famous sights and monuments from the war including Mamayev Kurgan, the Stalingrad Battlefield Panorama Museum, Moscow Tank Museum, Minsk, Belarus battlefield places and many more. Meet the war heroes and their stories, but also get as close to human desperation and beauty as you can.
Back to the Volga
The grand victory for humanity is paid at too dear a price. From 1941 on, the name Stalingrad is forever wedded with blood. But also with remembrance, for it is up to us to make sure than the luckless thousands did not die in vain. With such knowledge we turn from the Volga, and let her slide silently by.