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World Cup diaries: The Battle of Stalingrad lives on outside the museums

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Changing of the guard at the Mamaev Kurgen memorial, Volgogard (0:52)

Executive editor Jayaditya Gupta takes us to the Battle of Stalingrad lives on outside the museums. (0:52)

The Battle is nowhere in town and yet it's everywhere. Nowhere because almost the entire city was destroyed, so pretty much everything you see in Volgograd today is new, post-War construction. And yet everywhere, because the Battle defines this city. It is, to begin with, the reason this city reverts to its former name half-a-dozen times a year (including today, the day Operation Barbarossa began), when Volgograd and Russia pay homage to the men, women and children, soldiers and civilians, who died defending this city from the Nazi onslaught, thereby turning the tide of World War 2 and, by extension, determining the fate of the world.

The battle that changed the fate of the world. That's a fairly weighty title to place on one battle in a war that saw so many of them but the facts are clear: After nine months of bloody and intensive conflict, beginning with carpet-bombing and ending in house-to-house, door-to-door battle, Hitler's unstoppable war machine suffered its first defeat. Its superior strategy, organization and capabilities could not overcome Soviet spirit, pride and self-belief.

Hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides were killed, and hundreds of thousands more civilians, including women and children. The city was reduced to rubble and, if ever the term "decimated" can be accurately used for human loss, it probably can for the Battle of Stalingrad.

On a blisteringly hot, cloudless day, I did the Battle tour to try and understand what happened in those nine months and what it means to the city today.

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The battle was Germany's to win; it was instead won by Stalin's simple expedient, when all material resources had run out, of appealing to Soviet pride and love for the motherland. (That was the velvet glove; the iron fist was his Order No. 227, Ni shagu nazad ("Not a step back") -- retreat and you will be shot as deserters.) It was an emotional pitch -- one Hitler's more coercive directive couldn't match -- and the remembrance and tribute are equally emotional. Nowhere more so than at the hill of Mamaev Kurgan. More than 34,000 people died fighting for this patch of land no larger than half a dozen fields, and from the top it's easy to see why they would: It is the only elevation in the relentlessly flat and featureless countryside for miles around. Nothing below can move without being spotted from the top of the hill. By the end, the story goes, bodies were lying two or three deep; the carnage was so pervasive that bits of bone and teeth are still being found here. Weapons are more commonplace; even the World Cup stadium half a mile away unearthed unexploded bombs during its construction.

The centerpiece of Mamaev Kurgan is The Motherland Calls. Standing 85m high, to the tip of the sword, this statue is the rallying point for locals on May 9, the anniversary of the end of WW2. "This is where my family and I come every year," my guide Stepan says. Why, I ask him; what does it mean to a 35-year-old? "This is our past, our culture. This is our pride."

Stepan isn't faking it. He knows his war history, pointing out the plaque to Marshal Zhukov and to Vasily Zaitsev, the famous Sniper of Stalingrad (played by Jude Law in the Hollywood film) who killed 225 enemy soldiers. A few steps away is the Hall of War Glory; there's an eternal flame here, and the walls bear the names of 7,200 fallen soldiers -- men and women, not merely those in combat but those who worked day and night to ensure the troops were armed, clothed, fed, the wirelesses worked, the propaganda machine kept running. We enter to a change of guard; five soldiers in ceremonial dress are goose-stepping up the walkway. It's a slow, sombre movement, made more sober by the Gregorian-type chants coming over the PA system.

"My son, he cries when he sees this," Stepan tells me. There are two soldiers at the entrance, standing stock still; there's a senior who keeps an eye on the whole space. As we leave I see the senior remove the hat of one of the guards and wipe his forehead for him. That personal touch, for me, says a lot; it even evokes, in some way, the selfless and united spirit of the Red Army.

Other parts of the complex are similarly named and designed; a double line of poplars is intended to resemble marching soldiers and there are a couple of "pools of tears". There are friezes, very roughly hewn to resemble rubble, with patriotic slogs: "Everything for the front! Everything for victory!" The one that stands out is the statue of the mother holding her dead child. The mother's face, the pool of tears in which the statue is located, the flowers laid at the base, all tug very strongly at the heartstrings.

Children were not excluded from the brutality of the war -- they were part of the frontline as Stalin threw everything and the kitchen sink at the Nazis, and in turn they paid the price. There are tributes to them at various spots, including one, of six children dancing around a crocodile, just outside the Grudinin mill. The mill itself is one of the few buildings in the entire city that was left standing, though all that remains is a shell; there is a video on YouTube taken from a drone flying overhead and it really does resemble a skeleton.


Also see: World Cup stories: Jayaditya Gupta in Russia


The mill is also the site for the Panorama museum, an exceptionally curated and maintained collection of Battle of Stalingrad artefacts. There is far too much to recount here but one thing that the websites and the Wiki entries won't tell you is the reverence the Battle evokes at the museum (and pretty much everywhere). Marshal Zhukov, who led the Red Army here, is probably a bigger hero than the man whose name is part of the town and the battle. His full military dress is on display, bearing the four Hero of the Soviet Union medals -- the most by any soldier.

Across the street is Pavlov's House, though all that remains is a corner of brickwork that's been incorporated into the new structure. Here we met Lyudmilla, a passerby we stopped to ask for directions. She was able to reel off the entire history of Pavlov's house -- how Sgt Pavlov and his team of 50-odd soldiers defended the four-storey building for two months against the Nazis.

Our last stop was the GUM department store, which was the German HQ in the battle's last days and where Field Marshal von Paulus (recently promoted to that rank by Hitler to shame him into not surrendering) was found. His soldiers were starving, reduced to eating horse meat if they could find any; many were too frightened to surrender, fearing they would be shot, and continued fighting. Von Paulus had no such qualms; he knew the game was up and signed the surrender on February 3.

It's easy to see all this with a sense of detachment; it all happened 75 years ago and there's very little by way of ruins to evoke the drama. The city centre is as buzzy as any Western European town on a summer's evening, more so when the World Cup is in town. But as you walk around, whether on Mamaev Kurgan or on the main Lenin Avenue, you realise that almost every inch of space here is a graveyard. Someone was killed -- by a bomb, by shrapnel, by a sniper's bullet, by hunger -- at this very spot. The apartment block I'm staying in is new but it's in the heart of town and would have housed other families during the Battle. Who knows what happened to them?

As we leave the Panorama museum, Stepan turns to me. The Battle is very important to him and he wonders whether I've understood the significance. "If Hitler wins here, then next is India. Then you and I, maybe we don't meet today. Maybe history is different then. That is why Stalingrad is important."