Church rises as Soviet symbol of victory rots

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The Independent Online

The most famous symbol of the Red Army's victory over the Germans at Stalingrad is falling apart. Deep cracks have appeared in the 250ft-high figure of Mother Russia which towers, sword in hand, over the battlefield where almost half-a-million Soviet soldiers died.

The most famous symbol of the Red Army's victory over the Germans at Stalingrad is falling apart. Deep cracks have appeared in the 250ft-high figure of Mother Russia which towers, sword in hand, over the battlefield where almost half-a-million Soviet soldiers died.

The concrete statue, completed in 1967, stands on the hill of Mamayev Kurgan, which was a key point in the battle. On its flanks, the ageing turrets of T-34 tanks mark the line where the Red Army stopped the Germans capturing its last positions overlooking the Volga.

Mother Russia may not stand much longer. "Every year, water freezes in cracks in the concrete and makes them bigger," says Valentina Klyushina, deputy director of the memorial complex on Mamayev Kurgan. "We get zero money to repair it. Political leaders visiting the battlefield promise to help us, but help never comes."

The statue, designed as a symbol of strength, is one more sign that Russia is now too poor to maintain what it inherited from the Soviet Union. Over the summer Russians have already seen the Kursk nuclear submarine, the pride of the Russian fleet, blow up in the Barents Sea and the Ostankino television tower in Moscow, once the tallest building in the world, catch fire.

"It is the cracks in the shoulders of the statue that are dangerous," says Ivan Baryukov, an investigative journalist on Volgogradskaya Pravda, the local newspaper. "If they are not repaired soon it will collapse."

Ms Klyushina laments her inability to maintain Russia's most famous war memorial. She says there is too little money to pay staff - she herself makes the equivalent of £20 a month - and thieves steal copper pipe from the memorial complex, although theft has declined "because there is nothing left to steal". Such money as the officials in charge of war memorials have been able to raise has gone into repairing the "lake of tears", a pool in front of Mother Russia. Because of rotten pipes, water had been seeping into the hill around the statue, threatening to destabilise it.

In theory, Volgograd, as Stalingrad was renamed, should pay for the war memorials, but Yuri Chekhov, the mayor, says that he does not have the money. He points out that the city is expected to maintain no fewer than 509 public monuments.

"The city's department of culture, which is nominally in charge of the war memorials, is as poor as a church mouse," confirms Mr Baryukov.

Almost all of Stalingrad was destroyed in the war. A few Russian strongpoints, made out of distinctive dark red brick, are preserved. The rest of the city, which straggles for 60 miles along the right bank of the Volga, was rapidly rebuilt in the post-war era.

The government in Moscow has frequently promised that it will help to maintain the war memorials but the money has never arrived. Colonel Boris Usik, who is in charge of the panorama celebrating the battle, says the government has regularly allocated 40 million roubles for reconstruction, but "we haven't received a single kopek". Asked who he holds responsible for this, Col Usik says: "The Kremlin. Who else? Big amounts of money in Russia have always been squandered by high-ranking government officials."

But there is more to the failure of the Russian leaders to maintain the monuments to the battle of Stalingrad than lack of resources. It reflects also an ambivalence on the part of the leadership towards their own past. It was, after all, the victory of the Soviet Union, which no longer exists, and is difficult to present purely as a victory for Russian patriotism.

It is this differing approach to the Russian past which is at the heart of a furious row which has broken out over the building of a 100ft-high Russian Orthodox cathedral just below Mother Russia on Mamayev Kurgan. Construction workers, much to the distress of officials in charge of memorials, are now breaking ground for the "Cathedral of All Saints" just behind the huge Soviet-style statue of a grieving woman.

For Viktor Padalkin, a grizzled 86-year-old veteran of the war, it is the last straw. When we met he had just come from a meeting about the construction of the cathedral and was distressed. "Seventy-six nationalities fought on the Soviet side at Stalingrad and not many of them were believing Christians," he said "Maybe they should build a chapel, but why a whole cathedral?"

The reason is simple: the Russian Orthodox Church wants to associate itself with Russia's most famous victory. Aleksei II, its Patriarch, visited Volgograd in 1993 and said a cathedral should be built on the battlefield. His decision was endorsed by President Yeltsin. The cathedral should be finished in three years, in time for the 60th anniversary of the day the Germans surrendered.

The cathedral stirs deep passions in Volgograd. Svetlana Argastseva, who heads a museum of the battle, is anguished that it will differ in style from the Soviet-era memorials. "They are a unique monument to Soviet times, whatever you think of Stalin and the Communist Party," he said.

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