This is the article I wrote and posted at the Sima Qian Studio history forum in August, 2005, when I came back from Volgograd.
Last week the company where I work sent me to our office in Volgograd. During the first day I was busy with the office computer network, but on the second day I had 6 free hours at my disposal and I spent them walking and gazing around. Actually, I don't like the usual tourist attractions, and, even though Volgograd is the place of the famous Stalingrad battle, I planned to just walk and enjoy a warm summer day.
So, on Saturday, having finished with the cabling & wiring and all that dull work, I picked my backpack and went looking for a place to eat. The weather was fine and I didn't want to take a bus. At last, I found a good pizzeria and dropped in. The pizza was just the way I like it, with lots of pepper, and my next impulse was to get some beer. They had good Russian beer at the pizzeria, but I wanted to visit another remarkable place, the blues-rock bar 'White Horse'. We don't have such places in Samara and I just couldn't miss it. So, sitting in the 'White Horse' with a mug of beer, I tried to gather my wits and summarize my impressions about the city.
From the very start I was impressed with the architecture. Unlike the streets of Samara, Kazan, Saratov and other nearby cities, a typical street in the center of Volgograd is rather wide, about 70-100 meters, and lined with trees. Similar wide green streets I have seen, for example, in Togliatti and other relatively new cities. Volgograd, however, is different. First, the whole city is a preserve of the Stalin's imperial architecture. The number of columns and Parthenon's look-alike buildings is overwhelming. And second, as soon as you realize WHY this city looks like it was built on an empty place, the charm of these green streets obtains a tragic shadow. After the war (and don't even ask me which one -- when a Russian talks about 'The war', he means The War) there was not a single building in Stalingrad that was not damaged by bullets and bombs. The remaining separate walls were of no use and the city had to be rebuilt from scratch. So, when I walked these nice pavements, I couldn't stand the feeling that I actually walk above the ruined buildings and, most probably, the bones of the people who died here with weapons in their hands.
Although I didn't plan to visit the usual places of interest, at last I thought that I really have to see the Pavlov's house. If you've never heard about the house before, please, read here: Wikipedia:Pavlov's house. The house was reconstructed after the war and now it's just a commonplace 4-storeys high building, but it still retains some very special aura around it. Right across the street from the Pavlov's house there is a square where an old building of an ex-mill was left unreconstructed after the war. Now, it is a part of the Museum of the Stalingrad battle. This mill produces an amazing impression. That's the way it looks now: photos. If you walk around the building, you can see the difference between the eastern and the western facades of it -- the eastern side is just an old wall with empty square black holes, but the western side is so cankered with bullets that it's almost impossible to believe that defenders could survive there.
Well, since I happened to be near the Museum of the Stalingrad battle, I thought I could visit it. The museum is called 'the Panoramic Museum', because of the huge panorama of the battle which is displayed there. A very impressive picture, but only a picture. The more common museum-style exposition -- uniform, old newspapers, drawings made in 1943, soldiers' letters -- touched me much deeper. When you see a small sheet of paper with some words scratched on it and know that the author was killed soon after he wrote these words, you just can't tear your eyes off this paper and stop thinking about this man, his life, his family...
Besides the WWII display, the museum features a more modern exposition, devoted to the soldiers who died in Afghanistan and Chechnya. There may be different viewpoint on these wars, but there are two things I'd like to note. First, the 19-year old boys should not die. Never. Second, they didn't come there to kill and to destroy, they were there to help and to save. These boys are not to blamed for what happened next. So, they have deserved to be remembered for good.
The panorama in the museum shows the picture of the battle for Stalingrad as seen from the summit of the Mamaev Kurgan, a 102 meters high hill. Now, the hill is a huge memorial composition. I thought that after visiting the museum I could have a look at the stage of the battle from the hill and I took a trolley to the Mamaev Kurgan. Well, it's difficult to describe the scale of the composition. Have a look at the pictures of Mamaev Kurgan. The sculptures are very impressive and tragic. Unfortunately, it was not what I came there for. No matter how breath-taking this complex is, I lost the sensation of the link between the ages. I couldn't imagine a battle raging around. Anyway, it's probably a place which must be visited if you come to Volgograd.
I have to say here that this feeling of the link between the ages is very important for me. I search for it at every historical site I visit. Recall what you felt when touching an ancient stone in Rome and imagining a senator who touched it two thousand years ago. That's what I mean -- a dizzling feeling of similarity between you and the people who left the place a long time ago. I managed to find this link in Volgograd and what a grievous sensation it was...