Drenched in history, Volgograd is the city whose cultural significance rivals that of any other in Russia. The vast hill looming over the city is one of the premier reasons for this, standing witness to the many trials and tribulations its residents went through down the ages. Mamaev Kurgan by name, today the hill hosts a modern memorial complex dedicated to people who fell victim to the Battle of Stalingrad. It is considered one of the seven wonders of Russia and is in many ways the beating heart of her people.
There is something unmistakably profound about this place. Is it the thousands that lie dead at every strata of its 102 meters height? Or maybe the hollow hum pervading the air while taking the 200 stairs to the top? Whatever it is, visiting Mamaev Hill is an experience you won’t forget anytime soon.
Video by Extreme.tv & Kultura State TV channel
Not a Step Back!
But first, let’s brush up on some history.
Historically, this cap-shaped hill has been significant to all people who lived here. Russians, for their part, defended it with all their might during the Stalingrad battle. They had to because ‘to retreat further means to waste ourselves, and our Motherland’ – as Stalin pointed out in the order No 227. During majority of the battle, defending Mamaev Kurgan meant the difference between victory and defeat.
Consequently, the hillock venued some of the fiercest shelling and killing in the battle. It is recorded that its soil remained black long after the battle was over; no snow or grass could lend their respective colors for all the blood and metal that was ingrained in it. Mamaev Kurgan was the only way for Germans to reach the Volga, and Nazis poured their forces to get hold of it. Today, built in almost 2 decades, the hill is turned into the largest WWII memorial complex anywhere in the world. It offers a mention and a resting place for the unfortunate thousands who fought, defended, and died heroes here.
Climbing the ‘Height 102’
The ‘Height 102’, as the war maps named the hillock, is the highest point in Volgograd decorated by the stupendous Motherland Calls! statue. To get there, to experience the full magnetism of this fascinating place, we ought to take the fated 200 stairs, one for each day that that the battle was fought.
Bur before we set our foot to the first of the 200, we are greeted by the Memory of Generations stone composition. It depicts people, young and old, walking in reverence and paying their respects for the victims. Head bowed in reverence and held high in pride, let’s take a walk with them.
Check out this great Mamaev Kurgan Interactive Map to plan your visit there. It is available in English too (click the language switcher at the bottom). Adobe flashplayer will be required to take this Mamaev Kurgan online tour.
Stand to Death!
Walking along more than 200m-long Alley of Poplar Trees, the distant view of the Motherland Calls! opens up to our first stop – Standing to Death Square. The focal point here is the statue is the middle, showing a soldier fearless in the face of danger. He’s dynamic, caught mid-action as he’s about to plunge a grenade into the heart of his enemies.
History buffs might recognize the soldier as Vasily Chuikov, one of the foremost protagonists of the Stalingrad battle and later designers of the memorial. He stands in the middle of a 35m round pool, his back facing the hill top, defying the odds with his strength and courage.‘Only Forward’
Continuing our ascension, we ought to pass though the Hot Gates of Mamaev Kurgan – the Ruined Walls monument. It is a stair passage framed by massive, 17,5m high stone walls on both sides. The walls depict fragments of war, figures affected by and slogans people chanted in defiance of it. Various Inscriptions and audible war songs portray the sentiment of the people during the first half of the 1940s.
‘The Iron Wind’
The walled passage leads to our most significant stop before we reach the top of the hill. Square of Heroes is marked by a huge pond in the middle and the banner-like wall to one side.
The other side is columned by 6 statues each standing 6 meters tall. The figures come in pairs and are emblematic of the archetypal war situations – a wounded soldier carrying on with his comrade, a nurse helping a soldier up, or another one picking up a banner from his fallen comrade. Gazing back at the wall and reading its larger-than-life inscription, 3 words in particular stand out; the words read: ‘are they mortal?’ Only one answer to that.
From the square leading to our next destination we see a grand wall showcasing the Soviet victory. Here, sealed by its stony safety is a capsule, due to be opened at the WWII victory centenary. It contains a letter for future generations, and we’ll find out its content on May 9, 2045.
You can visit Mamaev Kurgan as part of our Volgograd Day Tour, but for now, we extend our hand in an attempt to give you a snippet of this fascinating place.
Fire Eternally Lit
The entire journey is spiced by some remarkable views of the Volga River stretching into distance. But now we enter an enclosed space, a round hall with the immortal Shubert humming in the background. This is the Hall of Military Glory, the home of the eternal fire lit on a torch supported by a large hand-shaped marble. The hall resembles a shrine, a temple, with the fire safeguarded by an endless array of the 46th Infantry Company who change their posts every hour until 8 pm. The banners you see hanging all around contain more than 7000 names of the city defenders.
The Sorrowful Mother
We leave the solemn atmosphere of the Military Hall only to arrive at Square of Sorrow. The central figure here is a large female statue surrounded by the lake of tears, weeping, weeping for her loved ones who sacrificed for the better world. She might also be weeping for the great Soviet Marshall Vasily Chuikov, whose grave adorns the garden nearby. Therefrom we are almost there, almost at the summit of Mamaev Kurgan.
Covering some 1.5 km from hill foot to hilltop, we’re finally there. Like lost ship the North Star, we followed where she beckoned us, always keeping one eye on her mighty posture. The Motherland Calls! statue is the center piece of Mamaev Kurgan – its largest and most celebrated monument. At 85m it is the tallest figure of a woman in the world, and still the tallest one in Europe and Russia.
Crying a patriotic call in defense of the land, she extends her mighty sword towards the blue. Eternally pompous, ‘Mama’ as the locals call her is the greatest symbolic portrayal of the Russian people during the World War 2. Resolute, defiant, not unlike them, she presides over her beloved city, safeguarding it from any potential danger.
Erecting such an enormous statue is no small feat. A few structural inventions had to be pulled off in order for the statue to safely stand. These went successful though, and resulted in an impressive figure that can be seen from almost any point in the city.
We dare you to climb down from Mamaev Hill and not be a changed person. It’s just that sort of place, where tragic historical significance finds solace in majestic sensory experience. Our Volgograd Day Tour devotes 2.5 hours to the complex, but you can spend days here and still be dazzled by the new. Still, don’t be daunted by its scope, but rather be intoxicated by its beauty. Come, the ‘Mama’ calls!